Future Media Short Story Review: John D. MacDonald’s “Spectator Sport” (1950)

Today I’ve reviewed the sixteenth story in my series on the science fictional media landscape of the future. John D. MacDonald tortures a time-traveler with an immersive TV experience!

Thank you “Friend of the Site” John Boston for suggesting I track this one down for my media series. “Friend of the Site” Antyphayes also brought up the story in a discussion way back in 2018

Previously: Theodore Sturgeon’s “And Now the News…” in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Anthony Boucher (December 1956). You can read it online here.

Up Next: John Brunner’s “Fair” in New Worlds Science Fiction, ed. John Carnell (March 1956) (as Keith Woodcutt). You can read it online here.

3.5/5 (Good)

John D. MacDonald’s “Spectator Sport” first appeared in the February 1950 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories, ed. Sam Merwin, Jr. You can read it online here. Note: this is a very short story and my review will contain unavoidable spoilers.

John D. MacDonald (1916-1986), best known for his massive Travis McGee series (1964-1985) and the twice-adapted psychological thriller The Executioners (1957), wrote three SF novels and was a regular in SF magazines in the 40s and 50s (with a handful appearing later). SF Encyclopedia claims erroneously that none of his later “ebullient pessimism” is present in his early SF. “Spectator Sport” embodies “ebullient pessimism” by creating a future where everyone is excited about slipping into delusion.

The Premise

Dr. Rufus Maddon, a time-traveler, successfully hurls himself four-hundred years into the future. Instead of a technologically advanced wonderland straight from the most purple of pulps, Maddon arrives in a world slightly different from his own but “so dismally normal” (82). Increasingly bewildered, Maddon observes a “general air of disrepair” with boarded up shops, broken pavement, and only “slightly advanced” cars (the future said cars would fly!) covered with dents and dirt (82). The same statues Maddon remembers haven’t been replaced and molder alone in overgrown parks, metal benches crumble into dust, and the inhabitants barely give him a glance and speak in a language virtually unchanged from his own time. He concludes that “in four hundred years nothing at all had been accomplished” (82). But soon he notices unusual “low-strung white-panel delivery trucks” with gilt lettering reading “WORLD SENSEWAYS” fill the streets (82)…

A Plugged in World

Roger K. Handriss dreams of being plugged in. He counts down the days until he can retire and receive an expensive permanent virtual reality hookup: he ruminates “so much better than the Temp stuff you could get on the home sets. The verve ends was what did it, of course” (83). He’s the regional director of World Senseways, a company that creates the virtual reality devices and monitors the legions of plugged in who reside, with programmed feeding schedules, in the underground train station tubes. And soon he gets word that Rufus Maddon, wandering the streets in a dissolution state of mind, has been picked up by a white van providing lobotomies for the discontent. But when Maddon’s story is proved correct, he’s already been lobotomized. But Handriss has an idea to give him what everyone wants.

Final Thoughts

“Spectator Sport” is told with an unnerving blend of levitas and offhanded brutality. The professionalism by which the workmen detach Maddon’s main motor nerves, flay his palms and soles of his feet, dab on the “sticky nerve graft” and slice off his eyelids, is told with the same emotion as a step-by-step description of installing internet (84).

MacDonald overtly places his story in an intellectual genealogy descended from the feelies of Aldous’ Brave New World (1932). In an explanation of the failures of the past, Handriss explains “Aldous Huxley had already given them their due their clue with his literary invention of the Feelies. But they ignored him” (83). Written in the earliest stages of the boom in personal television, MacDonald’s imagines future media as an avenue to maintain the status quo. The future is a devastated landscape of cultural, social, and political stasis. The dreams World Senseways provide mobilize the masses to work so their last years can be spent re-enacting blissful pulp dreams. Rather than frame the future as a pulp landscape, MacDonald brilliantly positions pulp narratives–cowboys on the range and murder investigations in the noir night–as the ultimate future delusion.


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20 thoughts on “Future Media Short Story Review: John D. MacDonald’s “Spectator Sport” (1950)

  1. The 50 Short Science Fiction Tales cover brings back some great memories. I picked it up from the school library discard shelf 40ish years ago. Time for a re-read!

  2. It’s a fable of now. Except for the details and some of the window dressing, MacDonald is speaking of early 21st century global capitalism. Or at least that part of it that assuages its alienation in the technological virtual realities on offer. I would call this anticipatory and critical in the best sense of the terms. When the situationists later–1962–spoke of their theory being in people like fish are in water I think of this story, among others. The image of a traveller from the 20th century lobotomised in the future and left to rot amidst the pleasure of a virtual reality is profoundly rich in meaning for us. It is contemptuous and illuminating in equal measure. And when it is derivative, it is conscious of the debt, as you make clear. In the situationist vernacular is a playful détournement of the dystopian sources of its tale even though it also wonderfully cites its reference. In a way it even sort of answers my question about science fiction in the future, albeit in a somewhat negative register, when it implies that if there is any science fiction left in this future it would be almost entirely virtual—just as it seems to be becoming in the present.

    I love this story.

    • And while I remember. “… After a Few Words …” (1962) by Seaton McKettrig, aka Randall Garrett, is a nice gag story in a similar spirit to the MacDonald, though not as good.

        • There are better things to read by Randall Garrett. For instance, “The Hunting Lodge” (1954) or the Lord Darcy stories. What I like about “… After a Few Words …” is the gag that lies at the heart of this fairly short story. But like most gags, it only works once. But once is all you need!

            • I know that you’re not a great fan of the gag story, but in this case the gag is so on topic that I feel that you would nonetheless get something from it.
              ‘Hunting Lodge’, on the other hand, is a well written and compelling SF thriller/chase story that doesn’t fit any of your current themes. Still worth a read though.

    • Thank you for mentioning it way back in 2018! (and for being around the site for so long)

      While I don’t think I enjoyed it as much for you, its genius does lie in the utilization of the standard early SF trope of the time traveler — but a time traveler who, rather than ogling to technological might of the future, as you say, is immediately “lobotomized […] and left to rot amidst the pleasure of a virtual reality.” And I think the best part of the story, that speaks to your point about his depiction of the capitalist wasteland of the future, is that those around him envy his position as he has the best virtual reality product. Ah yes, “oops, you’re lobotomized but here’s the best product our society can offer that’ll make it all better. And even Handriss muses that he’ll be next him some day…

  3. Since I’m late to the party, I won’t add much about this specific story as it’s been quite thoroughly discussed above. I’ll just say that I also found it quite suitably chilling and disturbing.
    And I would add that most of John MacDonald’s SF short stories and novellas published in various pulp magazines in the 1940 and early 1950s (including those written under the pseudonyms Peter Reed and John Wade Farrell) are well worth reading.

      • Sorry, had to reply via e-mail, as for some reason WordPress would simply not let me log in and post a comment today… Anyway, I had to go back and look over some notes I took a few years ago to beable to provide a useful response to your query (a little reading project ofmine about four summers back involved tracking down and reading as much ofMacDonald’s SF prose that I could find). First up, there’s two novellas (called ‘novels’ in the pulpmagazines that first published them) in particular that I found quite good:

        “Shadow in the Sand” (Thrilling Wonder Stories, October1950) – about a malevolent alien race from another dimension that’s sendingagents to Earth to set the stage for eventual conquest.

        “Hand from the Void” (Super Science Stories, January 1951) –again involves alien powers, who here manipulate political events on Earth. Aninteresting theme here – which comes up in a number of MacDonald’s otherstories – is the pessimistic view that human minds are still stuck in thePleistocene even as our technology advances at a breathtaking pace.

        Some of the more memorable short stories for me:

        “The Mechanical Answer” (Astounding Science Fiction, May1948) – a very early AI story that I found a bit ahead of its time.

        “A Child is Crying” (Thrilling Wonder Stories, December1948) – featuring a super-intelligent, telepathic child who can mathematicallypredict the future. Really bleak, but it sticks with you. “Flaw” (Startling Stories, January 1949) – a really somber and pessimisticstory about space travel narrated by an astronaut’s widow. The science is a bitdated if I recall correctly, but it still has a very sobering message about thepossibility of space travel, or the potentialities of what humans canaccomplish outside of our home planet.

        “Vanguard of the Lost” (Fantastic Adventures, May 1950) – akind of humorous story about alien visitation that is more about poking fun atSF and SF fandom.

        “Susceptibility” (Galaxy Science Fiction, January 1951) –another light-hearted one about a bureaucrat from Earth’s colonial administrationvisiting an out-of-the-way Earth colony in which everyone decided to live arustic life and eschew the conveniences of modern technology. I found it a bitreminiscent of Eric Frank Russel’s novel And Then There Were None (which waspublished in that same year).

        I could go on – there’s over 40 of these that I’d read backthen and like I indicated, there’s hardly any that I would consider not worthreading. In fact, I found his shorter prose mostly better than the two SFnovels he published in the early 1950s (Wine of the Dreamers and Ballroom ofthe Skies).

        By the way, I’m assuming you’re familiar with the InternetArchive, where all of the magazines mentioned above can be found. I’d suggestgoing to the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (https://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/index.cgi)and doing a name search for “John D. MacDonald” – you’ll get a complete listingof his SF prose, including the works published under several pseudonyms.

        • Re-Internet Archive — absolutely. I find the resource indispensable. I even provided a link in this review!

          Of the bunch, “Flaw” (Startling Stories, January 1949) sounds the most like something that would appeal to me. And maybe fit my recently defunct series searching for “SF short stories that are critical in some capacity of space agencies, astronauts, and the culture which produced them.” The last story I featured: https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2022/01/26/short-fiction-review-walter-m-miller-jr-s-the-hoofer-1955/

          • Here’s a few more by MacDonald that might fit that theme:

            “Delusion Drive” (under pseudonym Peter Reed; Super Science Stories, April 1949) astronauts in FTL space travel, the story revolves around seasoned vets messing with a newbie

            “The First One” (Startling Stories, January 1950) about an astronaut who’s supposed to fake the first flight to the moon and back “Journey for Seven” (Thrilling Wonder Stories, April 1950) ‘novelet’ that touches on space travel, as main characters become astronauts after becoming invulnerable “Escape to Fear” (under pseudonym Peter Reed; Super Science Stories, July 1950) involves space flight/astronauts trying to figure out how to elude a hostile alien spacecraft “Final Mission” (Planet Stories, November 1950) focuses on grizzled veteran astronauts/space travelers who can’t adjust to life on Earth, so they’re sent back on one last mission; the structure is interesting, because it’s told in the form of snippets from news reports, club minutes and even a play about the situation. (I found this one thematically similar – albeit far shorter – to Stanislaw Lem’s Return from the Stars).

            • That collection is fine, although it includes a story from the 1960s, “The Annex” which is non-genre or, at best, psychological horror (also the weakest in the book in my opinion).
              However, I think the best way to read MacDonald’s SF prose is to track down the original pulps in which they appeared at the Internet Archive – as Mr. Boaz has been doing.

          • Apologies for the formatting on these last few messages (i.e., words stuck together and run-on sentences); like I said, WordPress won’t let me log in, but when I e-mail the replies this is the result…

            • No need to apologize. I’m sorry that WordPress isn’t working as designed.

              I’ve already posted my review of “Flaw.” I really enjoyed it — and it fit my series perfectly.

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