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: TBD

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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9 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…

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