The Joy Machine

A Star Trek novel? Has this blog sunk that low?

Actually, no, not that I have anything against Star Trek novels though this is only the second one I’ve read.

When I was young, before I ever saw Star Trek on tv, I read James Blish’s Star Trek books.

However, this book has James Gunn on the cover, so that’s why I’m covering it – sort of.

Low Res Scan: The Joy Machine, James Gunn based on a story by Theodore Sturgeon, 1996.51UY69511UL._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_

As Gunn notes in his afterword, this novel provides a symmetry to the start of his professional relationship with Sturgeon. Galaxy editor H. L. Gold hired Sturgeon to re-write Gunn’s “Breaking Point” for publication. Approached by some ex-students of his who had got their hands on an unproduced Star Trek script by Sturgeon, Gunn was hired to lengthen it into a novel. Furthering the symmetry, “Breaking Point” actually started out as a play.

Sturgeon, of course, wrote the classic Star Trek episodes “Amok Time” and “Shore Leave”.

As Gift from the Stars exists in a feedback loop with Carl Sagan, this novel exists in a feedback between Gunn and Sturgeon. Sturgeon took up the ideas of Gunn’s They Joy Makers, and Gunn added some further thoughts of his own on the pursuit of happiness.

I’m not going to pass judgement on the story, summarize the plot, or comment on its qualities as a Trek tale though I will add that one LibraryThing review noted that the characters don’t sound exactly like we would expect, and I agree.

The Enterprise is dispatched to the Federation planet Timshel. Like the alien planet of Sturgeon’s “Shore Leave”, it’s kind of a resort, but it was built by human settlers along utopian lines. When it breaks off contact with the Federation and Federation agents dispatched to investigate don’t report back, Kirk and company investigate.

The titular Joy Machine is an artificial intelligence tasked with human kindness. As these things do, it has gotten out of hand. It promises and delivers human happiness by setting the planets citizens to performing all sorts of tasks, mostly manual labor, and, if they perform well, they get a “payday”.

Payday is simply a wireheading session of pure pleasure pumped into the human brain via a bracelet. The analogy between that and a drug high is made explicit. People, including the machine’s builder, leave their families and jobs, to pursue paydays.

Like Hedonics in Gunn’s The Joy Makers, the Joy Machine’s logic dictates the benefits of happiness be extended to other places – in this case the Federation when it tries to gain control of the Enterprise’s computers.

And, naturally, there are a few malcontents who won’t get with the program, who resent losing their loves and family members to the joys of payday.

The Joy Machine won’t actually go so far as killing its enemies, but it will, in the parlance of modern political manipulators, “nudge” them in the desired direction. In the book’s most memorable scene, it melts a glacier to get rid of a rebel base near it.

And, as in The Joy Makers, there are signs that civilization is breaking down from lack of maintenance. That prefigures a scene on one of the silent worlds in Gunn’s Transformation.

To Gunn, happiness is best sought and not found and is based not on emotions but accomplishments and knowledge

In a closing philosophical dialogue with the Joy Machine, Kirk (who else?) draws an analogy between Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

“The first man and woman chose knowledge over happiness,” Kirk continued. “Of course, the story is told from the viewpoint of the omnipotent being, but what kind of story would it have been if the man and woman had been satisfied with eternal life and eternal bliss? The human choice is knowledge. That is always the human choice, and that’s what the story of the first man and woman means.”

“Knowledge is often misery”, the Joy Machine said.

“Happiness is seductive, but it is ephemeral. Knowledge is eternal. Give your people free will. Provide only the guidelines that an omnipotent being can offer without making its people mere puppets.”

As a story, the novel is less than satisfying, but, if you’re interested in Gunn further exploring the philosophy of happiness, this book is worth a look.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

One thought on “The Joy Machine

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.