The Joy Makers by James Gunn science fiction book reviewsThe Joy Makers by James Gunn

The Joy Makers by James Gunn science fiction book reviewsShortly before being taken over by Random House in 1988, Crown Publishers had a wonderful thing going with its Classics of Modern Science Fiction series; a nicely curated group of books in cute little hardcover volumes that the imprint released during the mid-‘80s. Previously, I had enjoyed (and, in some cases, written about here) such terrific titles in this series as Charles L. Harness’ The Paradox Men (1953), Murray Leinster’s The Forgotten Planet (1954), Eric Frank Russell’s Men, Martians and Machines (1955) and, most recently, Chad Oliver’s Shadows in the Sun (1954) and The Shores of Another Sea (1971). And now, I would like to share some thoughts on another entry in this impressive group; namely, James Gunn’s The Joy Makers.

The Joy Makers was the Kansas City-born author’s third full-length book, and is what is now known as a “fix-up novel”; in this case, it had its provenance as a novelette and two novellas that had been released in three different magazines in 1955. These stories were then cobbled together to make for one fairly seamless novel, originally released as a 35-cent Bantam Books paperback in 1961, with an expressionistic cover by William Hofmann. The book would be given a hardcover treatment by the British publisher Gollancz two years later, would be reincarnated as another Bantam paperback in ’71, was reissued in paperback by the British publisher Panther in ’76, and then appear in Germany, in ’78, as an Ullstein paperback bearing the altered title Wachter des Glucks (Guardian of Happiness). The same year that Crown came out with its own copy of the book, 1984, the publisher Francisco Alves released a Portuguese language edition (I have unfortunately been unable to determine if this company hails from Portugal or Brazil) carrying the title Os Vendedores de Felicidade (The Happiness Sellers). I believe that ReAnimus Press has come out with its own edition as recently as 2020, so the bottom line is that this classic science fiction tale should pose no serious problem for prospective readers to acquire today. And that is indeed a happy state of affairs, because my recent perusal of The Joy Makers has revealed the book to be an intelligent, challenging and highly entertaining piece of science fiction that will surely impress most readers. As for the author himself, Gunn was 38 at the time of the novel’s release, and had been a professional writer ever since his first sale to Thrilling Wonder Stories magazine in 1949. The creator of over 100 short stories and dozens of books, the author/editor/anthologist would ultimately be named a sci-fi Grand Master in 2007, when he was 84. Gunn, happily enough, lived to the ripe old age of 97 before passing away in 2020.

As to this third novel of his, it is broken up into three sections, as might be expected. In the first section (which originally appeared as the novelette “The Unhappy Man” in the February ’55 issue of the 35-cent Fantastic Universe magazine) we witness the rise of Hedonics, Inc. through the eyes of a wary and disbelieving potential customer: businessman Joshua P. Hunt. Hedonics, Inc., startlingly enough, is promising nothing less than complete happiness to its customers. Its revolutionary diagnostic chairs not only analyze a customer’s health problems automatically, but are capable of curing them on the spot! And its psychological therapies are guaranteed to make any person as happy as he or she wishes. All this, for the low low price of … everything the customer possesses. After all, what does a person need money for, when all his or her needs – food, housing, clothes – will be taken care of by the company? Hunt, of course, is naturally dubious about this sales pitch, and when his wife signs up for the full treatment, he finds that half of his life savings now belong to the company! The businessman thus vows to bring the new start-up corporation down … unsuccessfully, as might be expected.

The Joy Makers by James Gunn science fiction book reviewsThe book’s second section (which originally appeared as the novella “Name Your Pleasure” in the Winter ’55 issue of the 25-cent Thrilling Wonder Stories, with a beautifully faithful cover by the great Ed Emshwiller) jumps ahead a half century or so, to the year 2035, when hedonism is now very much the law of the land, having been made so by a Constitutional amendment in 2004. We view this period through the eyes of a 53-year-old character referred to almost exclusively by his title, the Hedonist; a man who acts as a combination psychiatrist/life coach/sex trainer/mentor to hundreds of young people in his care. Hedonics has become very much a science, and the Hedonist is an expert at teaching his wards the concepts of substituting, devaluing, projecting and suppressing to achieve optimal happiness. Unfortunately, the heads of the Hedonics Council have decided that the key to guaranteeing mankind’s happiness rather lies in both drugs and a form of alternate reality (the so-called “realies”), and target the Hedonist for elimination. Thus, our hero must take it on the run, assisted by one of his young wards, 19-year-old Beth, who, despite their age difference, is very much in love with him.

And in the novel’s third section (which originally appeared as the novella “The Naked Sky” in the Fall ’55 issue of the 25-cent Startling Stories magazine, with another nicely faithful cover by Emsh) the action jumps ahead to the year 2150 or so. On Venus, which is undergoing the decades-long process of terraforming, a number of mechanical men have been detected that have substituted themselves for the genuine articles. The Hedonic leaders there decide to send young D’glas M’Gregor to Earth to ask for assistance with this suspected alien invasion; Earth, with which the Venusian colonists have had no contact for over half a century. But once arrived on the home world, D’glas discovers that all the humans there have seemingly vanished, although many “mechs” are to be seen. D’glas befriends a young woman, Susan, who has been living in hiding, on her own, for many years, and eventually learns that the old Hedonics, Inc. is now basically an all-encompassing computerized brain, and that all the humans … but no, I’ll leave it to you to discover that appalling truth for yourself…

But this short plot synopsis barely scratches the surface at giving a thorough description of the manifold wonders to be found in this book, and critic Edmund Crispen, writing in The Times Literary Supplement back in 1963, was so right in saying “No brief summary can give anything like an adequate idea of the wide-ranging thoroughness with which this whole topic is treated.” Like Alfred Bester’s two greatest novels, The Demolished Man (1952) and The Stars My Destination (1956), Webb’s book here is written with remarkable panache, evincing great color, imagination and detail on every single page. It is the kind of book – bristling with intelligence, movement and gusto, and completely unpredictable from one page to the next – that I would have thought to be a natural for inclusion in Scottish critic David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels volume, but no (although Pringle does call it “capably written sf” in his Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction). Gunn’s book is well depicted in what The Science Fiction Encyclopedia calls his “dark, sometimes ponderous, generally impressive manner,” and it aspires to the level of thinking man’s sci-fi not only in its themes and subject matter, but also by the inclusion of quotes on the subject of happiness from some of the greatest minds in history. Thus, each of the novel’s 28 chapters is prefaced by a suitable quote, some from familiar men such as H. G. Wells, Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, Robert Frost and Immanuel Kant, and some not so familiar, such as Robert Green Ingersoll, Epictetus, George Du Maurier, Thomas Hood and Francis Hutchison. Wonderful quotes all … and if Sheryl Crow’s 1996 song with the line “If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad, If it makes you happy, then why the hell are you so sad” had been released before 1961, it probably would’ve been included, too. It sure would have fit right in!

The Joy Makers by James Gunn science fiction book reviewsSeriously, though, it is surprising that The Joy Makers does not seem to enjoy a greater renown today, what with its fast-moving and action-packed story line, abundant detail, and fascinating nuggets for the reader’s later cogitation. Among the many things to consider: Does love indeed make a person happy or, because the more you have, the more you stand to lose, miserable? Is the only good “the sentient pleasure of the moment,” as the radical Council members insist, or must happiness come from within, rather than foisted from without? Is the hedonic solution imposed by the godlike computer the answer to man’s problems, or the death of civilization? As D’glas tells Susan, “…it would have been constant hell to have heaven always available for the asking.” And Gunn’s book comes loaded with any number of scenes that almost border on the psychedelic, like Bester’s. Among them: The transit that the Hedonist makes in the Council’s anteroom, a testing zone filled with hologramlike snakes, a blue-colored desert, darkness, and tumbling buildings; the Three Worlds fun house that the Hedonist visits, with its 3-D welcoming satyr; the adrenaline-inducing subway/roller coaster trip that D’glas takes in the abandoned city, during which projected, winged women, harpies, a three-headed dog, tiny demons, and a cronelike witch make for one helluva ride; and the multiple scenarios concocted by that computer for D’glas’ befuddlement, including a jungle hunt with a succession of vicious panthers. The book does not shortchange the reader when it comes to action sequences, either, the two standouts, perhaps, being the Hedonist’s ascent escape on the side of the Council Building using his attachable “geckopads,” and D’glas blasting his way through an abandoned hotel and dealing with a variety of robotlike service mechs. And Gunn’s novel contains any number of wonderful futuristic touches, such as the time-lapse grenades that can make a person completely unaware though still conscious; those geckopads; the diagnostic chair; the ability to schedule weather events; the hedometer (for measuring an individual’s exact happiness index); the mile-wide radioactive crater in the city that the Hedonist resides in and that D’glas later visits, indicative of some sort of earlier world war, I take it; the vending machines that sell mescaline and neo-heroin; and the insectlike, mechanical street cleaners. As I mentioned, ceaseless invention on every single page.

For the rest of it, The Joy Makers features two very plucky female characters – Beth and Susan – who are every bit as cool and resourceful as the men they are coupled with. And those Hedonists, to be clear, almost come off as being graced with superpowers, their training having given them the skills to perfectly control their bodies both physically and mentally … although it must be conceded that D’glas’ skills at confounding computers take a decided backseat to those of Captain Kirk! Overall, the three linked stories that comprise this novel flow seamlessly together, referencing one another wonderfully and giving us a nice overview of hedonics over a 150-year period. And Gunn’s book ends on a note that questions the very nature of reality itself; one that Philip K. Dick  probably smiled upon with great approbation…

I actually have very few complaints to lodge against Gunn’s very impressive piece of work here. To start my quibbles, though, there are a few errors as regards dates. February 23, 2035 will not be a Thursday, as stated, but rather a Friday. (I know, I know … who cares, right?) And how could the Hedonist, in 2035, be berated by his superiors for not reading a memo that was written in … 2054? Oopsie! The book dates itself in one spot, too, when it mentions that Monsanto was responsible for the synthetic fruit juice that the Hedonist is seen drinking with breakfast. But Monsanto, as we now know, ceased being a corporate entity in 2018! To end this nitpicking, it would have been nice if we could have seen how hedonism managed to take over the rest of the world, other than the U.S. What were the residents in other countries doing in 2150, while the Americans were … never mind. But again, these are merely quibbles. I for one now look forward to reading many other works by James Gunn (perhaps his second novel, 1955’s Star Bridge, written in collaboration with one of my favorite authors, Grand Master Jack Williamson) … as well as the one other novel in Crown’s Classics of Modern Science Fiction series that I haven’t yet experienced, namely Ward Moore’s Greener Than You Think (1947). As for The Joy Makers, despite its somewhat downbeat ending, I was left very happy with it … and as we all know, you really can’t put a high enough price on genuine happiness…

Published in 1961. Josh, an Earthman returning from a rugged colony on Venus, finds the pursuit of happiness and pleasure has become the domineering philosophy on Earth. Is it all good, or an enslaved society that needs to be freed?


  • Sandy Ferber

    SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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