Book Review: The Joy Makers, James Gunn (1961, magazine publication 1955)

(William Hofmann’s cover for the 1961 edition)

4.25/5 (collated rating: Good)

The three parts of James Gunn’s fix-up novel The Joy Makers (1961) were originally published in magazine form in 1955 as ‘Name Your Pleasure,’ ‘The Naked Sky’, and ‘The Unhappy Man.’  I have not read the originals so I’m unsure of how much was added or subtracted or completely re-conceptualized.  Largely a satire — Gunn pushes his point to the logical, and terrifying extreme — each part is a further chronological progression of a society whose chief aim is to make people happy.  It is hard not to read Part I as a satirical take on some aspects of Scientology,  a movement that was gaining force in the early 1950s.

Because each part is only linked thematically to the othersI’ll rate each individually.

Plot Summary/Analysis (*spoilers*)

Part I 4.75/5 (Very Good):  Part I was my favorite portion of the novel.  Joshua R. Hunt, President of Hunt Electronic Manufacturing Company, is an unhappy man.  He begins to notice that advertisements for Hedonics Inc., proclaiming to have discovered a “science of happiness” (12) have permeated his world — they appear in newspapers, all around town, are mentioned by everyone, and slowly, endorsed by everyone.  What is this mysterious cure for all human ailment?  Joshua finally succumbs to the allure and heads off for treatment. He sits in a mysterious chair — and his physical ailments are healed!  The agent charges him a minimal amount — and then, guarantees complete happiness if he agrees to psychological therapy. Not only will physical ailments be cured, but his psychological happiness guaranteed, and his life completely managed by the company.  The price, everything you own!

This portion is inundated with quotes about happiness from a vast variety of authors: Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens, Robert Lewis Stephenson, etc.  The message of Hedonics Inc. itself seems to sprout from such proclamations   In part III, Gunn does the reverse and selects quotes about how miserable life would be if one is continuously happy…  I generally dislike extensive use of quotes for it often creates a pseudo-intellectualism that comes off as showy or hollow.  But here not only does Gunn integrate them into the novel — for example, they appear on business cards — but in so doing pokes fun at “tag lines” and nebulous appeals to authority.

Part I ends on a thematic punchline: Is happiness a human right?  If so, what extremes would mankind go to ensure not only one’s own happiness but guarantee the same happiness for others?  What happens if Hedonics Inc.’s technological, therapeutic, and lifestyle formulating bundle is offered to all?  Remember, one hands over everything….  And we all want eternal happiness.

Part II: 4/5 (Good):  The year 2035 A.D. is virtually unrecognizable from the near future of Part I.  The implication is clear — Hedonic Inc.’s product was adopted by all.  Its practitioners, called Hedonists, are pillars of the community.  Queue: older men “treating” nubile women who are unhappy by “preparing” them for marriage, preventing people from committing suicide, requiring plastic surgery for the unhappy, and lobotomizing the untreatable who threaten to make others unhappy by their unhappiness etc.  The Hedonist himself  is “Doctor, teacher, psychiatrist, priest, philosopher, wardheeler, God-surrogate, father-image, lover-symbol…” (47).

The plot follows a Hedonist through his daily routine.  My favorite portion tracks the Hedonist’s lessons for certain age groups from young children to advanced students.

“The morning’s lessons were like a fairy tale turned upside down.

To the little ones, he said …”And so the world lived happily ever after.”

As he left the room, one little girl pressed against his leg and lifted up her shining face.  “I love you, Hedonist,” she whispered.

“I love you,” he said quietly and smoother her blond hair” (46).

Eventually the Hedonist discovers a government plot to get rid of his position.  The reason: a new technology means that controlling one’s own happiness (and having people help guarantee your happiness) is no longer necessary, virtual realities guarente a perfect state of happiness.  A series of silly and lengthy chase sequences unfold replete with clown faced enforcers, pleasure houses, and holographic purveyors of drugs, sex, and alcohol…

Part III: 4/5 (Good):  Not everyone is happy in such a world.  Humanity had previously established colonies on other planets in the solar system.  They too follow the Hedonic principles but more pragmatically due to the fact that colonizing other worlds is a hard, brutal life, where happiness cannot be guaranteed.  The plot follows D’glas, a colonist on Venus, and his attempt to uncover the reason why mysterious mechanical self-exploding Duplicate humans are infiltrating the planet.  His quest takes him to a drastically transformed Earth.  Clearly, the virtual reality model was adopted by all.  Although, an unusual further transformation of happiness facilitation has transpired.  No one is to be seen on the streets, everyone is locked in their own cells floating in amniotic fluids, tended by the Council building (a large computer) and its vast assortment of mechanical minions.  D’glas encounters a lone survivor (a young woman of course!).

The ending, evoking Philip K. Dick, is pitch perfect.

Final Thoughts

It’s fortuitous that the last sci-fi novel I read was Raymond Z. Gallun’s The Eden Cycle (1974).  Both examine the societal ramifications of drastic technologies/societies that facilitate human happiness.   But not only was James Gunn’s work written first, he is without doubt the better writer.  His prose is more visceral, precise, and stylistically more adventurous (Gunn utilizes advertisements and extensive quotations from other works to great effect).  However, because Gallun is more interested in character development I found that my emotional response to his work was greater.

Gunn’s world building is delightful, the satire eviscerating,  the message disturbing in its implications…  He does resort to many 50s stereotypes of the era, especially relating to female characters who are only too willing to hurl themselves into our male heroes’ arms at any given moment.

And the covers, Ellis’ and Hofmann’s are among my favorites.

Highly Recommended.

(I’ll definitely be on the lookout for Gunn’s other novels).

(Dean Ellis’ (?) cover for the 1971 edition)

(Michael Booth’s cover for the 1984 edition)

(Jim Burns’ cover for the 1976 edition)

For more book reviews consult the INDEX.

8 thoughts on “Book Review: The Joy Makers, James Gunn (1961, magazine publication 1955)

  1. amazing use of a De Chirico painting for the Dean Ellis cover… as De Chirico repainted his earlier metaphysical paintings (from the early 1920’s) in the later years of his life… the re-painting is certainly not out of step.

    • I noticed that as well. I love the contrast — the “new” construct/abomination on the “old” landscape…. I’m pretty sure it’s Ellis — only by comparing the style with a few of his other illustrations. But I don’t know…

    • I just picked this up today at my local used sci-fi Mecca, and agonized over whether to choose the Ellis or the Hoffman cover. I ultimately went with the Hoffman, since it seemed more period appropriate.

      I’ve been immersed in the 50’s lately – I keep telling myself I’ll finish every book in my collection from the 50’s, and then move on to later classics, but I keep reading your reviews and buying more 50’s stuff.

  2. I’m always interested in the portrayal happiness and mood control in science fiction. All these imagined futures with machines or pills, or in their absence misery or emotional flatness. Maybe it has something to do with the perceived essence of science, in a desire for understanding and a push to make things “better.”

    • Pick up a copy…. As I pointed out, it is hard to not read The Joy Makers as a critique of scientology…. Which makes it all the more satirical (because the fix all is essentially a ultra precise diagnose all your problems chair — haha)

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