A few weeks ago, in my review of A Plague of Pythons by Frederick Pohl, I mentioned that the basic plot idea of people using machines to exercise telepathic control of others at a distance had already been used by John D MacDonald. This author is best known for his very enjoyable private eye thrillers featuring Travis McGee (a series of twenty novels written over twenty years), but before this he did write a couple of works of SF: Wine of the Dreamers (reprinted as Planet of the Dreamers) and Ballroom of the Skies, as well as a comic fantasy, The Girl, the Gold Watch and Everything.
Wine of the Dreamers, published in 1951 some fourteen years before Pohl's novel, begins on a near-future Earth in which exploration of the Solar System is underway and plans are being made in the USA for the first interstellar spaceship. This is designed to avoid the limitations of light speed, involving some pseudo-scientific explanations that sound rather more original and impressive than the now clichéd warp drives and wormholes. The controversial project is however knocked back by an act of sabotage by a trusted engineer, just one of a whole series of inexplicable actions by normally rational people who seem to go temporarily insane and claim to have been possessed. Project Director Bard Lane, aided by the project's psychologist Sharan Inly, tries to understand what is happening while fending off the military who want to control the project and politicians who want to scrap it.
Meanwhile, in a strange world that appears to consist entirely of rooms and corridors, the Watchers live their restricted lives, spending much of each day in coffin-like dreaming machines, which they believe have been designed for their entertainment. Here they can dream of visiting other worlds, strange places where people exist on the surface of planets and experience lives very different from that of the Watchers. To add to their entertainment, the Watchers can take over the bodies of any of those people at will and make them do as they wish. A few of the more senior Watchers remember that they have one particular duty while dreaming – to destroy any attempts to develop technology advanced enough to construct space ships – but all of them believe that the worlds they watch are entirely imaginary.
Raul Kinson is one of the Watchers, a misfit who constantly questions and challenges their lives and who comes to believe that the worlds they visit really exist. The drama plays out in two parallel plot threads, alternating between Earth and the Watchers.
To be honest I wasn't expecting much from this story since it was written at a time when most SF was simplistic stuff of no great merit and, at 170 pages (coincidentally the same as Pohl's work), there was little space available for plot or character development. However, I was pleasantly surprised. The story is well told, the characterisation much better than usual for the period and, even though I remembered the basic outline of the plot, I was still gripped from start to finish. It is a different kind of story from Pohl's, without any of the intriguing moral ambiguity, but is still a welcome reminder of what a great spinner of yarns John D MacDonald was, whatever genre he was writing in.