Monday, July 11, 2016

"Labor Supply"

John D MacDonald’s relatively brief interest in writing science fiction began and ended in the earliest years of his career. If we focus on the stories that appeared in the science fiction pulps and digests of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s we can spot his entry point in February of 1948 (“Cosmetics”) followed by nine more stories that year. The following two years saw the publication of 30 science fiction tales before tailing off in 1951 (seven) and 1952 (two). By 1953 he could manage only one story, his last in the digests, before ending the relationship altogether. And although he continued to write science fiction sporadically throughout the balance of his career, he never returned to the magazines that concentrated on this form of fiction.

Ironically, his last story, “Labor Supply,” was his first to appear in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, a relatively new title that had published its first issue in 1949. The brainchild of editors J Francis McComas and Anthony Boucher, F&SF (as it is typically referred to) sought to raise the bar on the literary quality of science fiction. As Brian Stableford put it in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1979), “It’s editors abandoned the standards of pulp fiction and asked for sf and fantasy that was well-written and stylish, up to the literary standards of the slick magazines which had shaped American short-story writing between the wars.” Toward this end they abandoned story art and double columns, and concentrated on the short story as opposed to the novellas and serialized novels that were the standard fare of the pulps. Some truly great science fiction and fantasy appeared on the pages of F&SF over the years, including early versions of Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, Daniel Keyes Flowers for Algernon, and Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, published in the magazine as “Starship Soldier”. The issue where “Labor Supply” was published (May 1953) included two short story classics: Boucher’s “Snelbug” (a reprint) and Ward Moore’s “Lot,” which, along with its sequel “Lot’s Daughter” served as the uncredited inspiration for the 1962 cult film Panic in the Year Zero.

Another trait of the magazine was its frequent use of “light and humorous material,” and one can certainly classify “Labor Supply” as one of those types of stories. More fantasy than science fiction, its subject matter includes dreams, psychology, telepathy and, quite possibly, life in another dimension, written in a breezy and  informal style the author employed frequently when he was being only half-serious.

"Labor Supply" opens in the psychiatric offices of a Dr. Vrees, who is seeing a pair of patients with an unusual problem. Robert Smith and Ruth Jones are engaged to be married. Both are specimens of good health: Robert is six-foot-four, "muscled like a stereotype picture of a Viking," well off financially with above average intelligence. His fiancee Ruth is equally robust, beautiful and "built on the same heroic scale... at least six feet tall, and proud of it, moving like a ship under a full head of sail." They are here because, every night, they have been dreaming the same dream. But not just any dream.

"There doesn't seem to be any pattern to them, exactly" [explains Ruth.] "And they aren't all really alike, Just the place is alike every time, So very hot, you know. And have you ever looked in one of those mirrors where you can duplicate yourself, so you see a whole line, and they're all you?... That's the way it is. There are just hundreds and thousands of me, and of Robert too. And working so terribly hard. All naked and toiling. And crying, sometimes. There are corridors, and you have to walk down them all bent over. But the new corridors are better. You can stand up in those. We're making them.[We use tools] like gold pencils with two little clocks on one side. They cut the stone and the stone is all blue. Really blue. Cobalt, I guess. And the stones have to be put in baskets. Those baskets hang in the air and when you load them up they sink almost to the floor. When you pull the first one, all the others follow it like... animals. And we have to dump them down a dark place. You never hear them hit bottom."

When pressed about the people who are forcing all these Roberts and Ruths to labor endlessly, she explains matter-of-factually "They're... gnomes. You know. Little gnarly men with squatty legs and lumpy red faces and hats that come to peaks and they wear soft green... They make a funny sound... Sort of whoop, whoop."

Dr. Vrees, who has a long-standing predilection for tall women and is half-smitten by Ruth, suggests a possible sexual connotation, positing that the couple's "sublimation" of their normal instincts toward each other (refraining from sex, in 1950's-talk) might be causing the dual dreams. After stating bluntly that she and Robert are not "sublimating anything," she explains what happens when the workday is done in the dreamland.

"... they herd us into a sleeping place. There's a feeding place, where we eat something wet and gray, and then there's a sleeping place. And in the sleeping place all those thousands of Roberts and the thousands of me, we all..." She covered her eyes, sat with her head bowed.

Dr. Vrees goes through a litany of possible explanations, all rooted in the popular psychiatric fads of the day, even postulating a possible "channel" between her and Robert's minds. When Ruth tells him that in the most recent dreams all of the other Ruths are pregnant, he pounces on this fact as latent jealousy Robert might have had in childhood toward his many siblings and promises that a few months of psychoanalysis should fix things.

But nothing does work, and it is months later when Dr. Vrees, while chatting with a physicist at his club, hears another possible explanation that is more incredible than even mind channeling…

“Labor Supply” is an enjoyable story with a neat ending that is far from predictable. It reads like a lot of other semi-serious JDM pieces: think of “Hole in None,” “But Not to Dream” and most of his early This Week stories. A fitting way to walk off the science fiction stage.

The Anthony Boucher-John D MacDonald connection, of course, didn’t begin with “Labor Supply.” Boucher’s science fiction career began in 1941 with the publication of “Snulbug” in the science fiction pulp Universe and a year later he landed a gig with the San Francisco Chronicle writing reviews of science fiction novels. As such he certainly knew of MacDonald and likely had read most of his science fiction output in the pulps and digests. In fact, one of the earliest book reviews MacDonald ever received in a major newspaper was written by Boucher, writing under his pseudonym H.H. Holmes in the New York Herald Tribune, a mainly favorable one for Wine of the Dreamers in 1951. (The name “Anthony Boucher” was itself a pseudonym: his real name was William Anthony Parker White.) Boucher was also a huge fan of mystery fiction and a writer of the same. His early novels, predating “Snulbug,” are all mysteries and by the time “Labor Supply” hit the newsstands he was reviewing mystery novels in a weekly column in the Sunday New York Times. His first review of a JDM mystery was for Dead Low Tide, and thereafter he rarely missed including any JDM paperback original in “Criminals at Large.” He had a huge impact in spreading the word on MacDonald’s work and it’s a safe assertion to make that he was JDM’s biggest and most influential literary cheerleader in the 1950’s.

“Labor Supply” has been reprinted only once, in MacDonald’s own science fiction anthology Other Times, Other Worlds. That collection is out of print and is not available (yet) as an eBook. Thankfully, used copies of the paperback original are easy to find.


  1. One correction -- Boucher's "Snulbug" appeared in the magazine UNKNOWN WORLDS (UNIVERSE was a later, minor, unrelated magazine, and Boucher never published there).

    But his first professional sale was actually to WEIRD TALES, where "Ye Goode Olde Ghoste Storie" appeared (under his own name) in the January 1927 issue, when Boucher was only fifteen. It's never been collected or anthologized to my knowledge, and from repute it's terrible. He didn't publish anything else until the early 1940s. / Denny Lien

    1. Thank you Denny, for the correction and the elucidation. I had no idea Boucher’s writing career went back that far.

  2. And, fwiw,, UNKNOWN WORLDS was a fantasy-fiction magazine, rather than an sf title. (UNIVERSE ran for only a brief time but published some notable fiction, including Theodore Sturgeon's "A World Well Lost" in its first issue, the first story in the sf magazines, apparently, to sympathetically portray homosexual characters, even if they were aliens.) UKNOWN FANTASY FICTION, as it was initially titled, also had a short run (3.5 years), a victim in part of WW2 paper rationing, though John W. Campbell did get Street and Smith publish a one-shot after the war, FROM UNKNOWN WORLDS, to see if the market was ready for an UNKNOWN revival. Sadly, the fantasy-fiction reading audience was not as aware they were a fantasy fiction audience as was the sf audience was of themselves, and fantasy fiction magazines have never done as well at least up through the 1970s, and the slow realization among the broader reading public that fantasy was a recognizable thing,

  3. ...rather than a rare and happy accident. And by that time, very few looked to magazines for fiction.