The Joy Makers

Decades ago I was an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy, but marriage and whatnot cut into my reading time, and whenever I did try something new in the genre, it seemed ponderous and overblown. I find myself returning to the crisper stories of the 1950s and 1960s, and not just works I’ve read before.  A recent laundry room find was the amazing 1960 collection A Decade of Fantasy and Science Fiction, consisting of 25 great short stories (including one by Ogden Nash), from the 1950s. Review coming eventually. Meanwhile, Joy, friends.

The Joy Makersis a 1961 science fiction novel by James Gunn. I can’t remember when I first read it, but each re-reading makes me appreciate it more. It has three sections, each a short story originally published in the mid-1950s. In the first one, a contemporary business man has it all, but is not happy. On top of the hassles of work and family, a new business in town is trying to sell him happiness. He’s convinced it is a scam, and sets out to expose them. But what if it’s not a scam? Along the way there are numerous examples of people realizing happiness is as simple as being honest about what you want to do. There are also dark hints about what happens when people’s aims are in conflict, and whether or not people have a right to be unhappy.

The second story takes place in the future. The government is the Hedonics council, and everyone is happy. The Hedonist, one of many, can remember a time when people thought the greatest accomplishment of Hedonics was getting it to rain on a regular schedule, but so much more has been achieved. The Hedonist likes his work, caring for the people of his ward, which includes sexually instructing young women to prepare them to be good wives. Not surprisingly, there does not appear to be any equivalent training for men to be good husbands.

Science fiction, like all literature, cannot allow people to be happy, so of course there is trouble in paradise. Not everyone is happy in this happy society, and the Hedonist has enemies. The council supports the growing use of drugs to ensure the deserving are happy, while the Hedonist feels drugs are the wrong approach, and everyone deserves happiness. On the run through facilities offering every pleasure, the Hedonist is helped – actually, led – by a young woman he had been tutoring. Points for a strong female character, points off for having her devoted to her teacher.

The third story has stronger links to the second. It is a hundred years later. The Venus colony is thriving, thanks to hard work and the adoption of practical hedonics. Drugs and mantras won’t bring happiness when there is food to be grown, but making everyone happy remains a social goal. Unfortunately, the colony is under attack, from androids infiltrating the population.  (This problem that also crops up in the later Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, made into the film Blade Runner).

The colony has heard nothing from Earth for decades, but uses its limited resources to send a person there, for help, or to warn them. But everyone on Earth is too happy to care about anything. The explorer meets a young woman, orphaned and alone for ten years, who is happy to see him and fills in some blanks. The discussion with a computer over the true meaning of happiness is slightly dated, though less than one might expect, but the concerns of relying too much on virtual reality are still valid.

The moral lessons here are not unusual: Letting computers run society is risky, there can be too much of good thing, hard work is virtuous, and so on. But they are told in an entertaining manner. The female characters are not as strong as they could be, which reflects some lack of vision, but at least they rescue more than they are rescued. There is also support for a strong government that works to ensure the happiness of the population, a refreshing change from the current trend of neo-liberalism. Throughout the book there are quotes on the nature of happiness.

James Gunn has written almost thirty books. The Joy Makers is one of his earliest, and the only other I have read is The Immortals, a structurally and thematically similar work (good health instead of happiness). Some day I must read more of his work, or at least his revised and expanded version of The Immortals.  Reading these books, and sharing them, brings me joy.