Ballroom of the Skies by John D. MacDonald
Fawcett Gold Medal, 1968
Originally published in 1952
Price I paid: $1.25
Have you ever stopped to wonder why the world is eternally war-torn? Why men of good will, seeking only peace, are driven relentlessly to further disaster?
In Ballroom of the Skies, John D. MacDonald suggests a strange and monstrous explanation. He pictures an intricate and totally convincing future society, where India rules the globe, and everyone chases the mighty rupee. The First Atomic War has just ended, and already the Second is clearly building.
People shrug. War is man’s nature, they think. And that’s what Dake Lorin thought until he became aware of the aliens living among us—and discovered their sinister purpose.
So I knew that John D. MacDonald had written at least one science fiction novel. In full honesty, I thought that he’d written exactly one science fiction novel, namely The Girl, the Gold Watch, and Everything, which I thought was pretty good. It wasn’t until finding out about this one that I learned that he’d written three science fiction novels.
So I had to check it out. This is a very early MacDonald work, written a solid decade before The Deep Blue Good-by kicked off the Travis McGee books.
(That old-timey way of spelling goodbye gives me the creeps. I just don’t like it. It feels incomplete. It’s the uncanny valley of words.)
One of the first things that occurred to me when I saw this book was that the cover seemed awfully familiar. I thought maybe it was just the eye. I have lots of books with eyes on the cover. Still, it bugged me, and it took me a while to figure it out. I basically just typed the words “cover” and “eye” into my own searchbar and scanned the many, many results until I found it. But there it is! I’ll repost them, side by side:
They’re the same art, mirrored! I knew this was a thing that would happen back in the day, and maybe it still does, but this is the first time I’ve seen it myself. Looking at these two eyes together is starting to freak me out.
I’m not sure how I feel about this book. I’ve probably mentioned that I love the author, but I don’t think this one was quite up to his regular quality. Yeah, it’s an early one, and yeah, it’s a genre that was never his main thing, so I get it. Based on those merits, the book was pretty decent. It still had some stuff I’m not thrilled with, though.
It was less sexually problematic than a Travis McGee novel. I can definitely say that much.
Our hero is Dake Lorin, a guy with a weird name. He’s very tall, so we know that he’s the protagonist. He’s a journalist. Lately he’s been working with a fella named Darwin Branson, a respected politician, on a goal to promote world peace.
Suddenly, at the very last second, Darwin’s idealism slips and he begins making very out-of-character concessions and demands to the peace process, things that will ruin the entire scheme outright. Lorin is confused. His hero is not being himself.
We, on the other hand, have some small idea of what’s going on, because the first thing that happens in the book is that some unknown entities kill Branson and replace him with a double or something. What we don’t know is why, or how, so we’re kind of in the same boat as Lorin.
The rest of the book consists, mainly, of us and Lorin figuring out what’s going on. There are investigations and long expositions that fill us in on the world of the 1970s, a world that has gone topsy-turvy!
This is because there was a nuclear exchange not too long ago, and it left America in shambles. The United States is a shadow of its former power and glory. The economy is wrecked and most people are living in poverty. Oh wait, that’s reality!
Seriously, the chief difference between this book’s 1975 and our 2018 is that the book has reasons for life to be so crappy. Learning about those reasons is the whole point of the book.
The book also posits a world where, after the decline of the United States and its allies, the new world powers are India, Brazil, and Iran. They’re all opposed to each other and have their own circles of influence, as you’d expect, The United States is roughly allied with India, but it’s not an especially friendly relationship.
Lorin goes on the run after Branson dies (again). He tries to spread the truth about what happened but is mentally attacked by some unknown agent while he’s trying to write. MacDonald does a good job of making the hallucinations pretty vivid and disturbing. For instance, the keys on his typewriter turn into human faces (specifically the face of his girlfriend) and when he tries to ignore that and type anyway, he can feel them smashing and crushing under his fingertips. Pretty brutal.
He eventually meets Miguel Larner. Larner is a big deal in the criminal underworld, so Dake doesn’t trust him at first. He never really learns to trust him, I guess, but that’s for other reasons. Miguel and his protege, Karen, start to teach Dake a little about what’s going on in the world. At first all they teach him is that there are certain people who have special powers. This is the first of the book’s sharp turns.
So some people have psychic powers. We learn this almost as soon as we meet Karen. There’s stuff about psychic shields and the ability to make people hallucinate (at least that’s answered!) and even the ability to outright take over a person’s body and make them do things. One can also futz around with memory and emotions and that kind of thing. It’s all very strong magic, and it’s utterly terrifying to me.
I get really creeped out by books where people have powers like this. Mainly what does it is when the characters don’t think very hard about exactly what they’re doing and why it’s incredibly unethical, amoral, and abhorrent. We all have our things that we think too much about, and for me it’s stuff like identity. What makes a person who they are? I’m not one to believe in souls. Basically, the best thing I can identify as the defining point of a person is conscious will and continuity of memory. Once you start messing around with those things, I feel like it’s getting really close to murdering someone.
This is even stronger in other books, like The Universe Against Her, when the protagonist casually manipulates the memories of others, and in one case has no qualms at all about changing someone’s personality outright because it’s convenient. In Ballroom of the Skies it’s at least a matter of survival, but this kind of thing is still done with a kind of flippancy that leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth.
What Dake doesn’t have explained to him is why any of this is happening. We get an awful lot of exposition, and more to come, but the big reveal of the purpose of this whole setup has to wait until about five pages from the end of this 174-page book.
Miguel and Karen find that Dake is capable of withstanding the kind of training that gave them their powers, so with nary a faretheewell they teleport him to some place called “Training T” where he gets, well, trained. Dake learns how to mentally communicate, how to put up his mental shields, how to project hallucinations, and so forth. Again, he never learns why. I feel like I’d’ve started asking more questions before this point. To be fair, Dake is never quite down with what’s going on. He’s pretty sure that whatever bad things are happening on Earth are, if not because of, then aided by people like Miguel and Karen. He says to himself multiple times that he’s only learning these skills so that he can turn them against the real foes.
And that’s what happens. Dake finishes up with his training and goes back to Earth, where he immediately goes on the run. He avoids capture for a while, eventually making his way to the desert in New Mexico or something. Before he gets there, though, he meets a young lady named Mary. He hangs around with Mary for a good while, and the reasoning kinda sorta doesn’t make any sense.
Basically, he hangs around with Mary because he wants to hang around with somebody who believes that he can do the things he can now do? Like, she’s a sanity anchor? I can’t explain it any better than that, I’m afraid. Lots of the end of this book just didn’t make a lot of sense to me.
Mary finally reveals that she’s actually an Agent of Whatever the whole time and that Dake has passed some kind of big test. She expositions him for the rest of the book until they get married because they fell in love.
So here’s the big reveal. Here’s why we have wars and murders and drug abuse and poverty and pollution and all those kinds of things even though we ought to know better. Are you ready? This is a little complicated.
The rest of the galaxy is in pretty good shape. Everybody’s chill. There aren’t any wars and there’s a whole bunch of peace and prosperity. There’s a problem, though. Some aliens who are also computers have perfected math to the point where they can read the future. Maybe it’s just psychohistory but John D. doesn’t call it that. Their prediction is that the races of the galaxy will eventually fall because they won’t have good leadership. Leadership, they say, comes from conflict. There is no conflict anymore.
So somebody had an idea. They made Earth as a training ground. It’s a planet that is perpetually plagued by conflict so that it can produce a crop of galactic leadership every so often. It’s the job of people like Miguel and Mary and Karen to find people who can join up with that leadership and go out into the greater galaxy to lead people.
Earth is a trial by hardship, but it must be manipulated so that things don’t get too nice.
Okay, that’s not what I was expecting this whole time! I was expecting that maybe they ate our souls or something and they were extra crunchy after nuclear wars. It turns out that maybe the continual suffering of the human race is…productive?
I think you can imagine why this bothers me a little bit, and why I think that this premise makes for some pretty good science fiction. My gut impulse is that this is a bad thing. People are suffering and dying because our world is being manipulated by outside forces for their own benefit. That’s bad. But the result is that billions, trillions, maybe quadrillions of other people get to live in relative peace and harmony under the people who have survived this planet. That’s good?
I think having to muddle through that kind of ethical quandary is what makes science fiction such a good medium for expressing ideas.
On the flip side of all this, I have to say that stories about how humanity’s flaws are all due to some other, outside, entity leave a bad taste in my mouth. At best they’re just fanciful, at worst they’re an attempt to find a reason for why people are so terrible to each other. I don’t think there needs to be any kind of outside reason. People can accuse science fiction of being escapist, and I guess that can be true sometimes, because stories where it turns out that humans are pretty decent and Hitler was an alien or whatever are just that kind of escapism that doesn’t do anybody any good. Sure, maybe it’s nice to think about, but in the end, its a diversion from the hard and real fact that human beings are pretty terrible. We have no one to blame but ourselves. No excuses. The entire human race needs to take one big long look in the mirror and see the scars that it has inflicted on itself in the name of all the worst aspects of our entire species.
But we also need to see the good. It’s there too. There are a lot of fine and noble and wonderful things about humanity, and the thing keeping us from using those qualities for our benefit isn’t some alien race that wants us to be cattle. It’s just ourselves. We fail to recognize the best in ourselves. Moreover, when somebody stands up to show us what we could all be, they’re all too often cut down in their prime.
I’m not sure what I’m trying to prove by spinning off on this digression, other than that I honestly think humanity could be something truly great if it would just stop being so terrible. I guess that’s not a terribly controversial opinion, and others have expressed it more gracefully than I could ever hope to do. Still, I also guess it just bears saying once in a while.