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…
Up Next: TBD
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.
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.
“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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