Monday, January 25, 2016

Early Reviews

The first book review John D MacDonald ever received was for his third novel, Wine of the Dreamers. Tellingly, the title was a hardcover release and -- even more tellingly -- it was a science fiction story. For while having a novel published in hardcover definitely increased the odds that it would be reviewed in one of the thousands of periodicals published in the mid-Twentieth Century, having as its content speculative fiction almost guaranteed its review, at least in the magazines that specialized in such content. For no other group of fiction readers was as passionate and as comprehensive as the science fiction community of the last century.

Unlike most other pulp or digest magazines, many science fiction periodicals contained regular non-fiction features that were standard fare in the slicks: editorials, a letter column, and a book review section. Wine of the Dreamers was reviewed in no less than four sf magazines, as was JDM’s second such effort, Ballroom of the Skies. The fact that these two books were both hardcovers (MacDonald’s first and second hardcover novels) also got them reviews in several major newspapers and magazines, such as the New York Times and Herald-Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle and Saturday Review. (I’m speaking here of reviews contemporaneous with the initial publication, not ones for later editions.) MacDonald wouldn’t get a review of a non-science fiction novel until Dead Low Tide, his eighth book.

I thought it would be fun to look at the reviews of these two novels, to see what critics thought of the author back in the beginning, and to adduce MacDonald’s standing in the science fiction community of the time. The reviews are generally favorable it is is clear that JDM was thought of as “one of them,” a member of the sf culture, and one in good standing. I’ve also included two reviews of his third and last science fiction effort, The Girl, The Gold Watch & Everything, even though it appeared long after MacDonald had left the (extra terrestrial) building.

In 1964 MacDonald wrote “I don't believe I’ve ever received a considered, thoughtful review of anything I’ve written. I’ve had a few compliments, like being called a master story-teller, but considered reviews -- never.” These reviews (with the exception of Judith Merril’s piece on the third book) don’t belie that judgement, but they appeared with assessments of works by authors such as Ray Bradbury, Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein and were no less respectful or serious than the considerations given these science fiction luminaries.

Galaxy: December 1951, reviewed by Groff Conklin

WINE OF THE DREAMERS, by John D. MacDonald. Greenberg: Publisher, New York, 1951.
219 pages, $2.75

A GOOD example of the "we're property" type of science fiction which assumes that an extraterrestrial, extrahuman race is able to make us do more or less what it wants.

In this well-written novel, many of the accidents, crimes of violence, and unexplained tragedies of the world, and in particular the failure of every attempt at launching a spaceship, are due to the machinations of a group of individuals numbering fewer than a thousand, called the

These Watchers, who inhabit a planet several star systems away, are able to enter the bodies of Earthians at will and make these bodies do anything they choose to. This is accomplished by super-hypnotism machines. The irony of the situation revolves around the fact that the Watchers are sublimely convinced that we are mere dreams created for their pleasure, and have no actual reality.

The story is woven around the final discovery by the Watchers that we are "real," and by us that
most of our Earth’s miseries are caused by these utterly remote aliens, who turn out to be descendants from our own ancestors of at least tens of thousands of years ago.

That the plot and the concepts are not simon-pure originals, both being reminiscent, of Eric Frank Russell's famous "we're property" novels, is unimportant. The skill and the imagination
with which the tale is developed are genuinely satisfying.

Amazing Stories: January 1952, reviewed by Sam Merwin

WINE OF THE DREAMERS, by John D. MacDonald, Greenberg: Publisher, New York ($2.75).

The finest science-fiction effort to date by one of the country's ablest all-around young writers, this is a fascinating story in which a pair of far-distant worlds (and two others) become inextricably interinvolved.

The Dreamers are at the dead-end of a former interstellar civilization, live in a single building which they have come to consider the entire cosmos and pass their adult lives for the most part lying on comfortable pallets and, with the aid of devices left them by their more energetic forebears, living strange visions of life on three highly-varied planets they consider entirely imaginary.

One of the three is Earth in the very near future and, since the Dreamers can actually possess whomever they choose to and have them do the most dreadful things, their existence is far from the harmless idyll they hold it to be. Ultimately it is discovered the Dreamers, unaware of the harm they do, are actually responsible for much of the insanity, crime and suicide that plague our world today.

Happily, among them is a born rebel, named Raul, who is born with a nasty, suspicious turn of mind and decides there is more to the universe than the Dreamers have any idea of. His sister, Leesa, is rebellious, but in a different way. She doesn't want her love-life in dreams and doesn't care who gets hurt as long as her frustrations stay with her.

Between the two of them and some of their elders they manage to make a fine hash of things for Bard Lane, in charge of construction for what should be Man's first successful space ship, and Sharan Inly, the comely psychiatrist who loves him. Ultimately the Dreamers even manage to sabotage the ship and get Bard locked up in a quilted booby-hatch.

From then on it's every man for himself, with the reader coming out well ahead, thanks to the clarity of Mr. MacDonald's concept and the crisp, continued excitement induced by his fine writing. One of the better jobs of the year.

Astounding Science Fiction: April 1952, reviewed by P Schuyler Miller

WINE OF THE DREAMERS, by John D MacDonald. Greenberg: Publisher, New York. 1951. 219 pp. $2.75

Here is another science-fiction novel which, like several of the publisher's previous books of science fiction and fantasy, has not previously been serialized -- and it's good.

Here on Earth a group of scientists headed by Bard Lane and watched over by beautiful psychiatrist Sharon Inly are trying to build the first ship powered by an interstellar drive. Obstacle after obstacle is put in their way, and it begins to appear that they are somehow "possessed" by hostile hypnosis when the reader learns that the possessing minds are those of a dwindling race of Watchers, stars away across the Galaxy, who believe that the minds they invade telepathically are those of dream creatures of their own invention, and who take childishly -- or senilely -- cruel delight in smashing these dream-creations when they wake.

How Bard and Sharon learn the truth, and how two of the Dreamers, atavistic Raul Kinson and his sister Leesa, uncover the history of their own bleak planet and their three "dream" worlds and fight against the law of their kind to bring reality out of dreams, is the story, It is well and smoothly told, with likable characters a bit beyond the cardboard stage.

Science Fiction Adventures: November 1952, reviewed by Damon Knight

WINE OF THE DREAMERS, by John D. MacDonald. Greenberg, 219 pages, $2.75

Psychiatry returns full circle to the devil theory in this tightly-knit science-adventure novel, first published in Startling Stories two years ago. Pointing to the incessant newspaper reports of persons afflicted with sudden homicidal insanity (see the first three pages of your local tabloid), MacDonald suggests a fantastic but almost water-tight explanation: Degenerate descendants of the extra-solar race which colonized this planet 10,000 years ago, using hypnotic thought-projectors originally designed for benevolent surveillance, invade our minds, force us to cruel or absurd acts for their own pleasure.

Also, obeying a law whose purpose is long forgotten, they sabotage our every attempt to achieve space-travel. This is the peg on which MacDonald hangs a plot which is routine but workmanlike, and occasional passages of mood-writing or social comment that are a little more.

Like all stories that postulate an extra-solar origin for humanity, this one neglects such thorny acts as homo sap's resemblance to Neanderthal, Piltdown Man, the anthropoid apes and other vertebrates not likely to have been carried along on a colonist's vessel. This is the only major flaw in the argument, (though a minor one,- the number of the "Watchers" - 800 - is inadequate to account for all the damage they are supposed to do), and the careful, substantial detail-work is more than good enough to offset it.

MacDonald, a writer with an unusual combination of traits -  industry and talent - has been selling heavily to the slick magazines and other highpay markets of late; this novel is probably one of the last science-fiction stories we'll see from him for some time.

Galaxy: June 1953, reviewed by Groff Conklin

BALLROOM OF THE SKIES, by John D MacDonald. Greenberg, New York. 1952. 206 pp. $2.75

It looks as if it has been decided that the next war will eliminate most if not all of the U.S.A., Russia and Europe.

As noted below, Sprague de Camp [in The Continent Makers] makes Brazil the center of his new era. [H. Beam] Piper, in his novelette in [the anthology] The Petrified Planet ["Uller Uprising"](above), believes that South America, Africa and Australia will be the scenes of future greatness. In John MacDonald's new one, India is the "new colossus," the rich and arrogant "U.S.A. of tomorrow," with the original U.S.A. nothing but a rundown tourist trap.

Pessimism or prophecy? Who knows?

Ballroom is an exciting and effective alien invasion novel, a bit reminiscent of Eric Russell's Sinister Barrier. The problem: why is Earth always warring? Why do the "good people" never take control? The answer, when it comes, is both silly and defeatist; but in the process of getting there, MacDonald unreels an enthralling tale, full of parapsychological gadgetry and wonderful supermen from another galaxy in our midst, etc.

Worthwhile, despite the unsatisfactory ending.

Astounding Science Fiction: October 1953, reviewed by Groff Conlkin

BALLROOM OF THE SKIES, by John D MacDonald. Greenberg, New York. 1952. 206 pp. $2.75

Again, we're owned. Again, a superman is found to use his un-understood dark talents for humanity. But this time it's a little better done than it has been of late.

By 1967 the United States has been reduced to second-rate status by World War III. Dake Lorin is idealistically trying to work for an international balance which will save his Country from total submersion, and the world from another war. The man who is his ideal seems to betray everything for which they have been working. He tries to reveal the sellout -- finds himself referred to a crime-baron -- is involved with a beautiful girl of remarkable mental powers -- and finds himself a student in a strange school among the stars.

Since the secret of this school of worlds, the importance of certain Earthmen to galactic civilization, and the philosophy behind the plot and counterplot on Earth are the theme of the book, they cannot be revealed here. Enough to say that the motives involved are at least as controversial as the ending of [Jack] Williamson's Humanoids. Maybe there'll be discussion over them.

Startling Stories: January 1954, reviewed by Damon Knight

BALLROOM OF THE SKIES, by John D MacDonald. Greenberg, New York. 1952. 206 pp. $2.75

It is our sad, but civic, duty to report that Ballroom of the Skies is a potboiler which impressed us as being unworthy of the talented typewriter which turned out Wine of the Dreamers and "Shadow on the Sand." Mr. MacDonald seems to have caught a slight case of obfuscation, circa van Vogt and attempted the same stunt of having his story gallop off in all directions.

The result is confusion, as it always is. Moreover, the attempt to create menace and an eerie "other world" atmosphere by style alone is forced and unconvincing.

We are resisting manfully the temptation to say something nice about the book merely because we have, under normal circumstances, so high an opinion of Mr. MacDonald's capabilities. It is our conviction that this is a book which should never have been written or published. It is pretentious and empty.

The theme is the now familiar "we are owned by superior beings" who live among us and guide our destinies and fight over us with other inimical superior beings -- all unknown to us. The hero is a crusading newspaper man, the girl is an alien disguised as a chippy for the purpose of -- who knows?

Buy it if you must. If you're a MacDonald fan you might even like it!

Analog: September 1963, reviewed by P Schuyler Miller

The Girl, The Gold Watch & Everything by John D MacDonald. Gold Medal Books, N.Y. No. S-1259. 1962. 207 pp. 35¢.

This yarn starts like one of the author's highly professional mystery-action books, with the "ninny" hero -- the term is his own, and frequently justified -- stumbling along amid the ministrations of assorted people who are convinced that he has inherited the secret of his late uncle's success. Then he finds that he does indeed have that secret, and how to use it, and the action takes on a touch of Thorne Smith.

The secret is a kind of time-machine disguised as a gold watch. Rather, it is a device like Wells' "new accelerator," that plunges its holder into a red-lit limbo in which he can live an hour's time while the unaffected world passes fractions of a second. He likewise acquires the Girl, an uninhibited hillbilly nightclub singer named Bonny Lee Beaumont who meets him in bed and thereafter proves useful in other ways, not the least that of livening the action by her antics after borrowing the watch on a Miami beach.

There are other girls in passing: a sort of westernized Dragon Lady who leads the opposition and is at one point likened to a pack of Gabors, her TV-actress niece, and an underrated office drudge who has a couple of opportunities to be rated before the skulduggery is over.

The author's smooth hand with a word makes it all quite plausible and a lot of fun.

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction: November 1965, reviewed by Judith Merril

See my previous posting: Judith Merril on JDM.


  1. A great subject for discussion and one that I found interesting. I collect SF pulps and digests and I'm always reading the reviews but like JDM mentions, these are very short and not that detailed or thoughtful. Reading this article will probably result in me rereading WINE OF THE DREAMERS in STARTLING STORIES.

    1. Thanks Walker. You know, even though I own that issue of STARTLING STORIES, I've never read the original novella. Probably about time...

  2. Great to see these early reviews when JDM was just coming into his own. All the reviews were very good except for STARTLING STORIES. I look forward to reading BALLROOM and WINE - one of these days!