Maybe it’s reading tech news — which I don’t find all that comforting — or some kind of genetic imperative to become a cranky, contrary old guy, but I’ve been thinking about James Gunn’s The Joy Makers and VR.
I don’t think humanity is going to handle it well. Ryan Landry’s “This Is What Decline Will Look Like on Virtual Reality” came up with even more reasons for pessimism.
Raw Feed (1992): The Joy Makers, James Gunn, 1961.
This is the third novel of Gunn’s I’ve read (the other two were The Burning and The Immortals) and with it I realized Gunn’s works (at least the ones I’ve read) are concerned with the ultimate concerns, goals, and problems of the human condition. Like the other two above novels (or, at least, some of The Burning according to the copyright page), The Joy Makers was written in the fifties and is a fixup. I suspect (without checking the exact dates) that the stories making up most of these novels were written around the same time for they deal with similar themes, specifically humanity’s quest for certain goals and conditions. In The Burning, it was the quest for social and cultural stability in a world continually transformed by science. In The Immortals it was the quest for health and immortality.
The Joy Makers is about the ultimate quest: the quest for happiness. As Gunn points out, entertainment and art evolved to achieve happiness through illusion; technology evolved to free man from the time-consuming task of staying alive culminating in automation to free man from labor; medicine evolved to free the body from pain, philosophy, religion, psychology to free the mind from pain. Happiness is the goal all man’s efforts are directed towards. Gunn’s science of Hedonics delivers it (As Hedonist Wright says “happiness is everything money can buy.”).
The first story is strongly reminiscent of Jack Williamson’s “With Folded Hands” in its arrival in a town of a mysterious, powerful, technological organization. (Gunn is well aware of Williamson’s work and even wrote a novel with him.) Instead of Williamson’s humanoids, it’s Hedonics Inc. Like the humanoids, it darkly hints at making unhappiness illegal and coercing man into bliss. Joe Haldeman’s (a fan of at least Gunn’s The Listeners) Buying Time may have been influenced by the first story. Like his immortality sellers in that novel, Hedonics Inc charges a man his entire worth for happiness.
While Gunn’s The Immortals had health as its prime concern, that is only a small part of Hedonics work. In the second story, the Hedonic dream sours. This story shows the science, philosophy, and workings of Hedonics. The philosophy is two pronged: reduced desire (substituting one desire for another, devaluing the desire, projecting the desire on someone else, suppressing the desire) and increased satisfaction (modifying the external world or substituting one good for another). There are also the paths to imaginary gratification. The Hedonist hero of this action-filled second part of the novel is a master at applying his techniques. Unfortunately, he discovers his colleagues are not so ethical or unselfishness. They, under the weight of providing happiness for more and more people, have abandoned the road to rational happiness. They can’t modify the world so they give the masses under their centralized, technocratic control the pleasures of imaginary gratification: drugs and induced hallucinations. They regard happiness as a reward they dispense to the obedient, not a right. Eventually, the Hedonist goes to Venus – colony world of the discontented, home of men unhappy to accomplish, a world too poor to have the elaborate Hedonics of Earth (here the world must be modified, things built, to survive – imaginary gratification, reduced desire, substitution are not options). Here Gunn makes the link between accomplishment and unhappiness that is the central theme of the third part.
Under the Hedonist Morgan’s influence (protagonist of the second story in the novel) Venus has developed Hedonics but of a more pragmatic sort though it is still is unlawful for a man to be unhappy. The plot involves the Hedonic Council of Earth sending mechanical duplicates of colonists to seduce them into accepting the happiness imposed on Earth. This and the romance on Earth between D’glas and Susan are sidelights to the real philosophical discussions. (It’s also implausible that Venus never contacted any other planetary colonies by radio.) D’glas finds an Earth populated by bloated bodies in artificial wombs, living a pre-natal existence of simple desires. Even the head Hedonicists have retreated to the womb and left a computer in charge. This computer tries to coerce Susan and D’glas into wombs by pleasant illusions, terror, and seduction. (He succeeds with Susan. The computer can only act coercively when it diagnoses unhappiness.) The computer is defeated though and the philosophical meaning of the novel is pounded memorably home: “The ultimate happiness is death.” Only there is every whim satisfied . Not just in physical but the social and spiritual death of the womb.
I think Gunn’s point is two-fold. First, anything, even the pursuit and attainment of happiness, is dangerous in the extreme. D’glas’ Venus is hedonic, but there it is a philosophy, not a technocratic application of tyranny. (Morgan’s book is called “The Rise and Fall of Applied Hedonics”). Here, then, is another utopian ideal gone very (but not murderously – at least physically) wrong. Second, is the obvious point that dissatisfaction and discontent are vital to the human condition, integral to man’s improvement and spiritual survival.