Monday, October 19, 2015

"School for the Stars"

In September 1964 John D MacDonald wrote an article for The Writer titled “How to Live With a Hero,” where he recounted his long-fought and grudging agreement with his agent and publisher to create a series hero. It’s a fascinating account of the whys, hows and wherefores of MacDonald’s reluctance, gradual acceptance and difficulties in inventing a form and a character he could “live with” over many different titles. This was, of course, Travis McGee, and I think most of us will agree that we can live with him just fine.  But nowhere in the article does MacDonald mention that McGee was not his first attempt at a series character. He had done it before, not once, not twice, but three times before giving up on each attempt.

It began all the way back at the end of the first year JDM was published, in the December 1946 issue of Doc Savage. At the behest of that pulp magazine’s editor, Babette Rosmond, he created Benton Meredith Walters, a war vet who quits his dull bank job and takes on an improbable career as a cold war spy. Walters’ physical appearance and background are interesting for what they would presage: six-foot-two, 200 pounds, can handle himself in a fight, played football in college and one year in the pros… But after the second installment of this series MacDonald quit, writing Rosemond, "Honest to God -- I'm never going to start another series. They are limiting and I hate them."

Four years later the author created Park Falkner for Detective Tales. A fabulously wealthy playboy and resident of his own island off the coast of west Florida, Falkner relieves his constant boredom by digging into the pasts of people he believes have done some great wrong and are hiding it, then devises a clever and complicated ruse to smoke them out. But like Benton Walters, Falkner appeared in only two stories before disappearing forever.

Falkner was MacDonald’s third series character. Between him and Walters, there was a second attempt, one that was unknown to me and, as far as I can tell, has never been written about before.

Back in January of 2010 I wrote a piece on a MacDonald science fiction short story titled “Dance of the New World,” which originally appeared in the September 1948 issue of John Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction. “Dance” takes place in a future where the men and women of Earth are beginning to explore areas of space outside of the solar system. Venus has been colonized and its ant-like people forced into slavery working the vast plantations of corporate herb farms. Shane Brent, an investigator and recruiter for the Central Assignment section of Space Control, has been sent here to try and convince a reluctant pilot to sign up for the agency's next exploratory mission to an Earthlike planet four light years away. Shane is eventually successful in convincing the pilot to join the mission and they celebrate the decision by heading out to a nightclub where a particular female dancer performs, one the pilot hopes will agree to accompany him on the long flight through space as his wife. Shane is instantly smitten by Caren Ames, and [SPOILER ALERT] when the pilot collapses into a drunken stupor, it is he who is successful in getting her to join up, travelling together as husband and wife.

Five years after posting my piece on “Dance of the New World” Trap of Solid Gold reader Eric Gimlin submitted a comment to the essay which contained what was, to me, a major revelation. Eric, who has an expertise in science fiction of the period far superior to mine, and who has aided me greatly filling in some of the gaps in my JDM collection, wrote the following:

I'm re-reading all of JDM's Science Fiction in order right now. One thing you don't mention: This story is the debut of one of MacDonald's rare early attempts at a serial character. Shane Brent pops back up in the very next issue of Astounding in "School for the Stars", which is set about a month after this one and continues the preparation for Project Flight 81. Taken together they feel like the first two parts of a much longer story about Flight 81 that never got any further.

The reason I didn’t mention the subsequent story in the article was because I didn’t own a copy of the October 1948 issue of Astounding Science Fiction and had never read “School for the Stars.” Heck, I didn’t even own a copy of the issue where “Dance of a New World,” appeared, but wrote from the version that eventually appeared in MacDonald’s 1978 science fiction anthology Other Times, Other Worlds. “School for the Stars” didn’t make the cut for that collection, so I had to wait until I was able to purchase a copy of the original magazine before making its acquaintance.

(Before discussing the early portions of the plot of “School for the Stars,” please note that since it is a followup to “Dance of a New World,” I will, by necessity, be revealing the outcome of that earlier story. If you try to avoid SPOILERS, you can skip to the end of this essay before reading it. And while Other Times, Other Worlds is one of the very few JDM books that has not yet made its way to eBook form, used copies of the original paperback are cheap and easy to find.)

In “Dance of the New World,” field representative Shane Brent, while recruiting on Venus, made several reports via closed circuit telescreen to his superior at Central Assignment, a man by the name of Frank Allison, and we meet him in person in the early paragraphs of “School for the Stars”. We are back on Earth, on the campus of Central Assignment, which consists of  "three blond stone buildings scattered with random care among the soft folds of the Hill Country seventy miles northwest of San Antonio, and fifteen miles east of VME Triangle Port 8.” Allison, who started out as a recruiter for CA, is now the executive in charge of the Requirements Section of Colonization Projects. As such, he is the person responsible for deciding who goes on the flights and who stays home. He is a small man with a florid face and a headful of gray hair, a testimony to the many years he has spent with Space Control. He is going through paperwork on the personnel for Flight 81, which is set to take off for its destination in sixty-two days. Hiram Lee, the pilot Shane was sent to Venus to recruit will man the helm, a man by the name of Walker Howe is the Commanding Officer, and Shane, accompanied by his bride of two weeks, will fill the position of Executive Officer.

Allison has been working tirelessly on Flight 81 for many months and it is getting to him. With all of the positions now filled he agrees with his secretary that he take a week off before beginning the work on Flight 82, and at her behest heads back to his apartment for some rest. He is walking along the dusty streets of the compound toward his one-bedroom apartment (also on the campus) when he stops suddenly in front of another residential building. His "face oddly slack, his mouth open slightly," he turns and enters, no longer conscious of what he is doing, "the last shred of volition disappearing as he walked down the hall." He enters a room, sits in a chair facing a blank wall and hears a "soft masculine voice" instructing him to "give technical details of Flight 81."

In a flat dead tone Allison said: "Project Flight 81 from VME Triangle Port 8 to Planet L. Target planet is .9663 Earth weight, mean temperature approximately 1.14 times that of Earth. Circle's a sun rated Class G on Harvard Spectral in a 521 Earth day orbit. Hoffman Identification proves an oxygen atmosphere and probably plant life of a low order. Distance 4.91 light years."

After being instructed to give the technical details of the flight and the specific flight plan, the voice pauses for a moment before stating: "Here are your instructions--" Then Allison is back on the street in front of the unit.

He wavered and touched his hand to his forehead, looked uncertainly at the setting sun. Just dizzy for a moment or two, he thought. I really must be bushed. That sun seems to have gone down pretty fast. Warily he walked to his own unit, up to his room, yawned as he undressed, and, in a few minutes he was sound asleep.

The scene shifts to the quarters of happy newlyweds Shane Brent and Caren Ames, now Caren Brent. Their meeting and courtship on Venus has taken all of a single night. After saving her from a drunken patron at the club where she was dancing and, managing to get her to come to his table for a drink, the initially icy Caren began to open up to Shane (especially after the drunken Hiram Lee was taken away). She reveals to Shane her reasons for living and performing on a distant planet: at nineteen she married "a very rich and very weak young man," and after two years "life became impossible." After divorcing, the vindictive ex-husband managed to get her fired from every dancing job she was able to get. Since the man had a weak heart and was restricted from space travel, Caren left Earth and found employment where the man could no longer reach her. As their conversation turns to deeper things, they take a walk through the darkened city and come to realize that “it just had to be.”

In their apartment Caren is studying for the flight ahead and having difficulty retaining it all. Their exchanges are of the typical JDM mock-seriousness he uses when a man and a woman are comfortable in each other’s company.

She turned around suddenly, her face full of mock woe. "I hate you, Shane."

"And I hate you too, darling. Why the sudden rush of affection?"

She hit the book with her small fist. "The trouble is to get what's in here," she said, "into here." She tapped her forehead with her knuckles. "I trained to be a dancer, honey -- not a colonist. Can't Central Science think of some better way to do this than by studying?"

He grinned at he. "You haven't got much to learn. A little botany and nutrition so that you can cook for me. A little medicine so that you can take care of me and yourself and the dozen or so kids we'll have. A few handicraft items. Weaving and stuff like that."

She looked at the ceiling. "Why, oh why, did I let myself be talked into marriage?"

He laughed. "I thought you talked me into it."

When they serious up Caren offhandedly mentions that she saw her ex-husband on the compound. He is working in the Education Branch of CA and knew all about Flight 81 and that both Shane and Caren were to be onboard. She says she told him to keep away from her but the information arouses Shane’s jealousy.

The next day Shane meets with Allison and is told that Walker Howe, Flight 81’s commanding officer, is being replaced by another man. No explanation is given and Allison is uncommonly abrupt with his friend and subordinate...

Frank Allison gets zapped
Although it takes several pages to be established, Shane Brent is definitely the protagonist of this story, so one has to wonder: was MacDonald writing these stories with the intention of establishing a singular series character, or, as Eric surmised in his comment, was this the second installment in a longer, closed-ended story that MacDonald intended to carry forward onto Planet L? I think the later is more likely, although it is uncertain just how far the author was prepared to carry this saga. Just as he clearly established the character of the ex-husband (in absentia) in “Dance of a New World” before having him appear him in the second story, so too in “School for the Stars” does he seem to prepare a bit of background for the couple’s time on Planet L  And of course there was  the four-plus years living aboard Flight 81 where he could have come up with some interesting business to carry the story forward.

But he didn’t, and the reason is anybody’s guess. He probably just got bored with the characters and couldn’t come up with anything new that interested him. And he probably knew what every reader of “School for the Stars” knew: it just isn’t a very good story. Even excepting the obvious and clichéd mind-control scene summarized above, the ending and motivations by the bad guy are something straight out of Operator #5. It’s not MacDonald’s finest moment, and he probably knew it, and if he didn’t then Campbell surely did. Maybe it was Campbell who pulled the plug on the Shane Brent “series”. After having four stories published in the magazine since February of that year, MacDonald didn’t appear again in Astounding until August of the following year with the excellent novella “Trojan Horse Laugh.”

The MacDonald family was living in Clinton, New York when “School for the Stars” was written, and they were in the process of packing up some belongings to head for Mexico following the death of Dorothy’s mother. A year and a half earlier they had made their first trip south, leaving Utica to spend the winter in Texas. Initially headed for Santa Fe, New Mexico, they only made it as far as the hill country of Texas, seventy miles northwest of San Antonio, where they spent a very happy winter. Exactly where MacDonald would later place the campus of Central Assignment in “School for the Stars.” (You can read MacDonald’s account of that season in my post JDM in Texas.)

“School for the Stars” has not been reprinted or anthologized, as far as I am able to determine. It was also the only JDM story published in Astounding that was not reprinted in the magazine’s British edition.


  1. I continue to be amazed at the hidden details of JDM's life that find and write about!

  2. To be fair to the story, I think it works better if you consider it as part two of an ongoing story, rather than all on its own. As you say, it's not very good all on its own.

    I'm going to engage in some wild speculation here, this is all guesses based on fairly limited information. I find it rather odd that JDM had 4 stories in ASTOUNDING in rapid succession early in his SF writing period, then only one stray story a year later. I suspect there was some falling out with either Street & Smith in general, or John Campbell in particular.

    One thing of note is "School for the Stars" appeared the month after "Dance of a New World". Given publishing schedules, School had to have been sold before Dance was published. I think it's not impossible that Campbell saw some potential in Dance and suggested a follow-up, instead of JDM deciding to go for it on his own. My guess- and this is a pure guess- is that either JDM decided not to continue, or (slightly more likely) Campbell bounced a third story and this lead to JDM not doing any more work for Astounding. "Trojan Horse Laugh" would, under this theory, be a leftover story from Doc Savage when that magazine went under around that time. It would have fit in just fine in the back of that magazine, very much in the same vein as "Or the World Will Die"

    I repeat: This is just guesswork based on what little we know.

    On a tangent: don't be so hard on Operator #5, it's my favorite of the Hero Pulps. I honestly believe the Purple Invasion storyline is one of the pulps greatest moments. Although, to be fair, it's one of those works you find in old magazines or comics where "great" comes with a qualifier... it's very much actually great, but it doesn't necessarily stop at "good" on the way there.

    1. That's fascinating conjecture, Eric. If it's true I'm sure there is some kind of evidence of it in the JDM Collection. Still, based on MacDonald's other attempts at early series heroes, he did have a history of giving up on them.

      It wasn't my intention to be hard on Operator #5, only that the ending of "School for the Stars" seems like it came from a different pulp magazine.