Saturday, December 20, 2014

Ballroom of the Skies: A Review

Copyrighted in 1952, John D. MacDonald's Ballroom of the Skies is a post-apocalyptic novel set in a mid-1980s world semi-recovered from World War 3.  In this world, the United States is a third-rate power, with Pak-India, Brazil, Northern Chinas, and Iran being the new, feuding great powers.  This novel is often packaged with two non-related novels in Time and Tomorrow.

John D. MacDonald (1916-1986) is best known for his Travis McGee series private detective series.  published seventy novels and more than five hundred short stories in his lifetime.  Early in his career, he published three science fiction novels.  This novel being the only one with a post-apocalyptic flavor.
As noted at the top, this world of the 1980s has different super powers.  The novel starts with an idealistic Dake Lorin, a former newspaper man, now diplomat, working as part of a secret peace conference that will bring about a negotiated world peace.  When his boss, has a very strange in personality, and torpedoes the whole deal, he becomes suspicious that something odd is going on and begins his own investigation.
The novel is an odd alien invasion type story.  It has a little in common with the "aliens among us" type themes so popular that younger audiences might remember from television shows such as the X-files, but actually go back some way.  The UFO/alien invasion phenomena in film and fiction has been noted as being something of a shadow theme to nuclear apocalypse: similar to the way the zombie apocalypse can stand in for more "real" forms of societal collapse.
The novel has some odd twists and turns.  Various forms of advanced psionic (mental) disciplines are used by the aliens, and fairly early on, we learn that the aliens are not exactly trying to conquer the earth, but to keep it unstable.  The aliens make an effort to recruit our would be whistle blower, and the story proceeds from there.
Did I enjoy it?  It is obviously very dated.  The author has much more modern sensibilities on race, and environmentalism so he is not too jarring in those respects. But a lot of relevant points, the United States plundering its resources, Malthusian style issues with overpopulation, or the cyclical nature of war, turn into meaningless chatter against the background of alien designs. It is interesting to note, that this is another case of a deeply cynical apocalyptic view coming very early after the war.
It is no worse than many self published e-books of today, but is a unevenly written, and confusing at times. So I will give it a qualified negative recommendation.  It has some interest as a nostalgia piece, and has some entertainment value, but you can get these same light stories so readily in a more modern dystopian format, that I don't see why you would go out of your way to hunt this one up.
 We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high.  Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting.  Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation.  Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.
Realism?  Is there any?  It is both too fanciful, and too dated of science fiction to easily see ourselves in Dake Lorin's situation.  The off planet excursion and psionics brings us into magical territory.  It is a 1.
Readability?  It is a short novel at 147 pages: but a confusing one.  There is a reasonable amount of not unentertaining philosophizing.  That the author in 1952 is preaching against the evils of television is amusing.  With the confusing nature of the story, I am going to call it a 3.

The novel is commonly found in this collection grouped with two of the author's other short science fiction novels.


PioneerPreppy said...

I find the older apocalypse novels from the 50's hit or miss. If they get into technology too much of course it really distracts from the story for me since in most cases we have come further than most of them thought we would or not as far as some thought.

I just find it annoying. Can't really fault the author for it though.

russell1200 said...

Pioneer: What a lot of people don't realize is how much of it there is. I was hoping for better here because the author became pretty famous in a different genre. But the sci fi post-nuke stories are always featuring such oddities as telekinetic mutations and what not.