Joy Makers, The by Gunn, James, 1955
One of my favorite questions to ask fellow genre readers is who their favorite unknown or unrecognized authors are. Lots of people have pretty good answers to this question. One of mine is James Gunn, and honestly, I cannot figure out why he is an unknown in this field after publishing in it for nearly fifty years. Gunn wrote one of my top three SF novels, The Listeners as a follow up to this book, which was his first. Actually, saying that he wrote them as novels is slightly incorrect. Both of them are fix-ups, being put together from short stories that were serially published in the magazine format first. Gunn has gone on today to edit a series of genre anthologies that go back virtually to the dawn of history, to write some of the more important scholarly texts, and perhaps most importantly, to found the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas at Lawrence. That center serves not only as the big scholarly nexus in this country for SF, but funds and gives the Campbell Awards and the Sturgeon Award yearly. It is also the alma mater of some distinguished American genre authors, including (I think) Larry Niven and others.
In my opinion one of Gunn's greatest tricks is being able to depict a future society that lives under some changed circumstance. You may think that I am talking about world building, but that is only part of it. What I mean is that Gun has a great ability to latch onto some big idea and take it to a natural resolution. For that reason I have always seen great similarities between Gunn and other authors like Asimov and Sturgeon, who also seemed interested in taking a bright idea to the end of some factual setting, just to see what would happen. In Asimov's case my opinion is that this turned into a liability. He never could get past his ideas to properly focus on all the other important literary ideas of a work, like setting, plot and character. With Gunn, its a completely different story. Nothing in this book is obviously lacking, and more importantly, absolutely nothing is dated. Gunn created a future society with all the gizmos and tools that reads like it could have been written this year, with mechs, AI, holography, cyberpunk inspiring (not "inspired," mind you) inputs, supermen-like abilities, and much more, but he also put in some pretty memorable characters and settings too.
This book is in the end a look at the damage that can be done by mankind's search not for pleasure, but happiness, when taken to an extreme. To a more limited degree it is also about the harm that can come from making AI the caretakers of man. In the first story a startup company has begun to market a way to give true happiness. They have devised medical technology that can heal any ailment in moments, and psychological tools that promise to make you completely happy. For $100 only they will fix you up and send you out the door, or, you can enter into a contract for lifetime services. The cost for that: Everything you own and will make for the rest of your life. The service worked so well that the company not only came to dominate the entire economy, but they got an amendment to the US Constitution making their science, collectively called hedonics, the law of the land. Hedonics initially embraced a balanced and Epicurean approach to pleasure and happiness, which shunned the realization of immediate wants which if granted without forethought mightlead to future pain and misery. Happiness was always viewed, of course, as a valid pursuit, but by the end of the first story it had become an absolute right. The story then became a dystopic tale where the government changed its standards and realized the true control that could be bought by granting immediate wants no matter what the consequences. This approach quickly became completely unworkable, but rather than return to an enlightened form or pursuit of happiness the government began legislating thought crimes which resulted in the incarceration of virtually everyone in liquid filled cocoons where the delivery of happiness was immediate. Gunn compares this society in torpor to a colony government on Venus to draw some pretty interesting conclusion about the social utility of unhappiness.
When I was trying to put together this review, I ran up against a wall. I could not decide what to say about the book. I loved it, despite a few flaws, but I found the thing to be so incredibly complex that I could not decide where to start. So I did what I usually do in those situations. Well, almost. My usual starting point when I get stuck is a book called The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Unfortunately, that one was written by Gunn himself, so I thought I should go elsewhere. Next on my list was Clute and Nichol's The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. They said of the book, "its a fixup that describes in Gunn's dark, ponderous and cumulatively impressive manner a society whose members are controlled by a synthetic form of release that corroded their sense of reality." As much as I love that particular resource, I think that misses the point, and is rather simplistic. That work was an attempt to capture snapshots of the entire genre, so terseness is its major feature, but they usually get closer to the point than they did here. This book actually is an excellent dystopian piece that depicts the a trade of control for something we all value very very highly: Happiness. Gunn insists that not only are unhappiness and suffering necessary evils that push people forward, but that if suffering and happiness fall out of a precarious balance then serious societal damage can occur. Of course, Gunn examines these principles in the extreme, which I think is one of the graces of the genre, so this story is an allegory, But the drama and all the other important literary elements are there as well, and its a true joy to read. The first story is likely the tightest and of the highest quality (and the shortest by far), but the remaining two are also excellently plotted and executed. I particularly appreciated the clever names in the first story, such as Mr. Hunt, who was looking for happiness, Mr Steward, his attorney, Mr. Wright, the Hedonics representative, Miss Gamble, the secretary who married on a whim, and Mr. Kidd, the pirate-like union representative.
If you liked The Space Merchants, then you should like this book. Not only were they published around the same time (I believe that The Space Merchants was first by a year), but there are some thematic and backdrop similarities that are too numerous to go without mention. For example, both stories involved a company that evolved into the government after mastering the delivery of an inchoate product, a main character who is set up for failure by his co-workers and who has a girlfriend in a resistance underground, a mission to Venus that saves the underground from destruction, feeding of an overcrowded planet by algae and synthetics, and to a more limited degree, pollution. But like Dune and Norstrilia, the similarities end at the backdrops, and the core stories here are much different. If you took my recommendation and got The Listeners, and you liked it, get this one and give it a try too. Four out of five stars.
Copyright © 2007, Gregory Tidwell