Ballroom of the Skies
John D. MacDonald
Nelson Doubleday 1979 (1951),
Practically a short story. Unfortunately, near the end they give an actual date: 1979. Oops.
WWIII happened in the early 1970s, leaving the US as a second-rate power allied to Pak-India. PI is opposed by a coalition including Irania and North China and WW IV is looming on the horizon. One man, Darwin Branson, has been working to prevent war but on the eve of a critical meeting he is killed and reprogrammed [or replaced by a simulacrum] by a mysterious couple. The new Branson is openly arrogant and cynical, and war is not to be averted.
Dake Lorin, a newsman who had been working with Branson, realises Branson is blowing the negotiations. He comes to the conclusion that something has changed Branson. He sets out to write an expose, despite the high likelihood that he will be arrested by the authoritarian US gov’t for the article. He is mind-fiddled by the couple. He slowly becomes more and more aware he is being toyed with. Eventually, after his girlfriend is driven insane, he is more or less kidnapped and trained in the psychic arts off-world. The couple are working for a galactic level organisation, it seems.
There are various scenes of Earthmen giving orders to galactics.
Lorin is returned to Earth, to learn that while he was gone, an operative has arranged for his trial, conviction and apparent escape from a labour camp. His old life is dead. He escapes the galactics and takes off with a young woman he meets, trying to find someone who can believe him without going nuts. The young woman turns out to be a galactic he met earlier. The reason of galactic fiddling in terrestrial affairs is explained: all worlds eventually produce humanoid species. The galactic civilization is consistently run by members of new, barbaric and energetic races as the old races loose the drive to run things. Rather than rely on the whims of fate to throw up new races in uncontrolled ways, Earth, by virtue of being an especially harsh world, is now the training ground of new rulers and managers, the cost being the recurring cycles of violence and cultural collapse the terrestrials suffer through. Lorin eventually signs up with the Galactics, knowing the cost to his fellow humans.
Um. This is amazingly minor MacDonald. I am not sure the plot actually made sense. You could do a lot with the central idea, but he doesn’t. Lorin is a lot less disturbed by the thought that ETs are fiddling with our history than I would be in his place.
MacDonald was a pretty pessimistic fellow. I notice both of the futuristic SF stories in Time and Tomorrow involve other-worldly beings manipulating our history so that in a sense our collective misery is someone else’s fault. In Wine of the Dreamers it is because two decadent beings are playing. In Ballroom of the Skies at least the suffering serves a greater purpose, if not an entirely human one.
I would have asked what the galactics had done for Earth that humans should toil eternally on their behalf. I guess since a few Earther run things, it isn’t in their interests by the time they can change the regime to institute reforms.
Eh. Not to my taste. By Green Ripper , MacDonald seemed to expect a massive worldwide economic collapse. I imagine if he’d continued writing SF, it’d have been pretty bleak by then, much more than his early SF was.
Not recommended but much of his mainstream material is.