Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Beyond the golden age

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On August 13, 2015, I sat down to write an email to my agent. I was going through a challenging period in my career—I had just finished a difficult suspense novel that ended up never being sold—and I wasn’t exactly sure what would come next. As I weighed my options, I found myself thinking about turning to nonfiction, which was a prospect that I had occasionally contemplated. One possible subject had caught my attention, and that morning, for the first time ever, I put it into words. I wrote:

I’ve been thinking about a book on John W. Campbell, Jr., the pulp author and editor who ran Astounding Science Fiction, later known as Analog, for more than three decades. Campbell’s fingerprints are on everything from I, Robot to Dune to Star Trek—Isaac Asimov called him “the most powerful force in science fiction ever”—and his influence on global culture is incalculable. Late in his life, he became increasingly erratic and conservative, embraced a range of crackpot theories, and played an important role in the early history of dianetics and Scientology. There’s a tremendous amount of fascinating material available in his published letters, in his editorials, in his own fiction—he wrote the original story that became the basis for The Thing—and in the reminiscences of nearly every major science fiction writer from the first half of this century. Yet there’s never been a proper biography of Campbell or consideration of his legacy. And I’m starting to think that I might just be the guy to write it.

And I concluded: “It’s a big topic, but if properly handled, I think it shows real promise. I’d love to discuss further today, if possible.”

That was the beginning of the long road that led to Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, which is finally being released today. But there were times when I feared that it would never get past the daydream stage. Based on the ensuing email exchange, it sounds like my agent and I spoke about it over the phone that afternoon, and while I don’t recall much about our discussion, I remember that he was encouraging, although he sounded a few cautionary notes. Writing a big mainstream biography would mean a considerable shift in my career trajectory—up until that point, I had only published novels, short fiction, and essays—and it would take a lot of convincing to persuade a publisher that I was ready to take on this kind of project. At first, all of my energy was devoted to putting together a convincing proposal, which took about four months of work, during which I did much of the preliminary research and went through several rounds of feedback and rewrites. It wound up being about seventy pages long, and it was focused entirely on Campbell. We went out to a handful of publishers toward the end of the following January, and we got indications of interest from two editors. One was Julia Cheiffetz at Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, who suggested that we “reframe” the book to bring in a few other famous writers, since Campbell wasn’t as well known in the mainstream. (She pointed specifically to Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña by David Hajdu as one possible model.) I responded that I could expand the book to include Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard, and the notion was agreeable enough that I was able to announce the project on this blog on February 26, 2016.

Obviously, a lot has happened since then, both in my life and in everyone else’s. I couldn’t be happier with how the book turned out, but what strikes me the most now about the whole process is one line from that original email: “I’m starting to think that I might just be the guy to write it.” Looking back, I can’t for the life of me recall what inspired me to write that sentence, which in retrospect seems full of unwarranted confidence. About halfway through this book, I realized that there was a good reason why no biography of Campbell had ever been written. It’s just an incredibly complicated project, and working on it for nearly three years to the exclusion of everything else was barely enough to do it justice. When I look at the result, I’m very proud, but I also feel that it could easily have been much longer. (In fact, the first draft was twice as long as what ended up in print, and it wasn’t because I was padding it.) I didn’t have all the critical tools or the background that I needed when I started, and much of my recent life has been devoted to turning myself into the kind of person that it seemed to require. What I had in mind, basically, was a book that looked a certain way. It was sort of like Hajdu’s book, but also like a prestige literary biography along the lines of Adam Begley’s Updike, which is the kind of thing that I personally enjoy reading. This imposed certain expectations when it came to tone, size, and scholarship, and my ultimate goal was to end up something that wouldn’t look out of place on the same shelf—apart, perhaps, from the exploding space station on the cover. Along the way, I did the best impersonation that I could of the kind of person who could write such a book, and toward the end, I like to think that I more or less grew into the role. At every turn, I tried to ask myself: “What would a real biographer do?” And while I’m clearly the last person in the world who can be objective about this, I feel that the finished product reflects those standards.

Anyway, it’s out in the world now, and not surprisingly, I’ve been wondering endlessly about how it will be received—although it isn’t all that I have on my mind. This is still a terrible time, and there are moments when I can barely work up enough enthusiasm to care deeply about anything but what I see in the headlines. (When my publisher decided to push the release date back from August to October, part of me found it hard to believe that people would have the bandwidth to read about anything except the midterms, and I don’t think I was entirely wrong.) But I’m going to close this post with a direct appeal, and I promise that it’s the only time that I’ll ever say something like this, at least for this particular book. If you’ve enjoyed this blog or my writing in general, I’d encourage you to consider buying a copy of Astounding. I was lucky to have the chance to work on almost nothing else for the last three years, and I’d very much like to do it again. Whether or not that happens will hinge in large part on how well this book does. The more I think about Astounding, in fact, the more I feel that that it couldn’t have happened in any other way. It needed all the time and commitment that I was able to give it, and it also benefited from being released through a commercial publishing house, which subjected it to important pressures that obliged it to be more focused than it might have been if I had gone through an academic imprint. And it’s the better for it. Very few critical works on science fiction have been produced under such circumstances, but I also suspect, deep down, that this is how a book like this ought to be written. At least it’s the only way that I’ll ever be able to write one. If I’m ever going to do it again, enough people have to agree with me to the extent of paying for a copy. That’s only sales pitch that I have—except to say that if you’ve read this far, you’ll probably enjoy this book. And I’m grateful beyond words that I had the chance to do it even once.

Written by nevalalee

October 23, 2018 at 8:12 am

Quote of the Day

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Our tomorrow is the child of our today. Through thought and deed, we exert a great deal of influence over this child, even though we can’t control it absolutely. Best to think about it, though. Best to try to shape it into something good. Best to do that for any child.

Octavia Butler, in Essence

Written by nevalalee

October 23, 2018 at 7:30 am

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The Thing from Another Manuscript

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On March 2, 1966, Howard Applegate, the administrator of manuscripts at Syracuse University, wrote to the editor John W. Campbell to ask if he’d be interested in donating his papers to their archives. Two weeks later, Campbell replied:

Sorry…but the Harvard Library got all the old manuscripts I had about eight years ago! Since I stopped writing stories when I became editor of Astounding/Analog, I haven’t produced any manuscripts since 1938…So…sorry, but any scholarly would-be biographers are going to have a tough time finding any useful documentation on me! I just didn’t keep the records!

Fortunately for me, this turned out to be far from the case, and I was only able to read these words in the first place because of diligent fans and archivists—notably the late Perry Chapdelaine—who had done what they could to preserve Campbell’s correspondence. When I came across his exchange with Applegate, in fact, I was busy working through thousands of pages of the editor’s surviving letters, which provided the indispensable foundation for my book Astounding. But the reference to Harvard surprised me. At that point, I had been working on this project for close to a year, and I had never heard the slightest whisper about a collection of his manuscripts in Cambridge. (I subsequently realized that Campbell had referred to it in passing to Robert A. Heinlein in a letter dated October 7, 1955, but I didn’t notice this until much later.)

When I looked into it further, nothing came up in a casual search online, but I finally found an entry for it buried deep in the catalog for Houghton Library. (I’ve never seen it mentioned anywhere else, not even in scholarly works on science fiction, which implies that the papers were sent to Harvard and then promptly forgotten.) The description was intriguing, but I had plenty to do in the meantime, and I didn’t have a chance to follow up on it until last September, when I sent a request for more information through the library’s query system. About a week later, I heard back from a very helpful librarian, who had taken the time to examine the carton and send me a list of the labels on the folders inside. There were about fifty in all, and while most bore the titles of stories or articles that I recognized—“Out of Night,” “The Elder Gods,” The Moon is Hell—there were quite a few that were unfamiliar to me. I was particularly interested in the folder labeled “Frozen Hell,” which I knew from Campbell’s correspondence had been the original title of “Who Goes There?”, the classic novella that was adapted three times for the movies as The Thing. At that point, I knew that I had to check it out, if only because I didn’t want to get scooped by anybody else, and although I wasn’t able to travel to Cambridge in person, I managed to hire a research assistant to go to the library and scan the pages on my behalf. She did a brilliant job, and after a few rounds of visits, I had copies of everything that I needed. As I had hoped, there was a lot of great stuff in that box, including previously unpublished works by Campbell and the only known story credited to his remarkable wife Doña, which I hope to discuss here in depth one day. But the very first file that I opened was the one called “Frozen Hell.”

When I sat down to read these pages, I was mostly just hoping to get some insight into the writing of “Who Goes There?”, which has been rightly ranked as the greatest science fiction suspense story of all time. But what I found there was so remarkable that I still can’t quite believe it myself. “Who Goes There?” is famously about an Antarctic research expedition that stumbles across a hideous extraterrestrial buried in the ice, and as it originally appeared in Astounding Science Fiction in 1938, the novella opens with the alien’s body already back at the base, with everything that happened beforehand—the magnetic anomaly that led the team to the site, the uncovering of the spaceship, and its accidental destruction—recounted in dialogue. In the draft of “Frozen Hell” that was preserved in Campbell’s papers, it’s narrated in detail from the beginning, with a huge forty-five page opening section, never before published, about the discovery of the spacecraft itself. (Apart from a few plot points and character names, the rest tracks the established version fairly closely, although there are some interesting surprises and variations.) We know that Campbell discussed the story with the editors F. Orlin Tremaine and Frank Blackwell, and at some point, they evidently decided that most of this material should be cut or integrated elsewhere. Judging from the other manuscripts that I found at Harvard, Campbell often cut the beginnings from his stories, which reflected the advice that he later gave to other writers, including Isaac Asimov, that you should enter the story as late as possible. But when you restore this material, which is written on the same high level as the rest, you end up with something fascinating—a story that shifts abruptly from straight adventure into horror. This is the kind of structure that I love, and there’s something very modern about the way in which it switches genres halfway through.

The result amounted to an entirely different version, and a completely worthwhile one, of one of the most famous science fiction stories ever written, which had been waiting there at Harvard all this time. As far as I can tell, no one else ever knew that it existed, and the more I thought about its potential, the more excited I became. I began by reaching out to Campbell’s daughter Leslyn, whom I had gotten to know through working on his biography, and she referred me in turn to John Gregory Betancourt, the writer and editor who manages the estate. John agreed that it was worth publishing, and he ultimately decided to release it through his own imprint, Wildside Press, in a special edition funded through a campaign on Kickstarter. The result went live last week, with a goal of raising $1,000, and it quickly blew past everyone’s expectations. As I type this, its pledges have exceeded $27,000, and it shows no sign of stopping. (Andrew Liptak of The Verge had a nice writeup about the project, which seems to have helped, and word of mouth is still spreading.) At the moment, the package will include an introduction by Robert Silverberg, original fiction by Betancourt and G.D. Falksen, and cover and interior illustrations by Bob Eggleton, with more features to follow as it reaches its stretch goals. I’ll be contributing a preface in which I’ll talk more about the manuscript, Campbell’s writing process, and some of the variant openings that were also preserved in his papers. Publication is scheduled for early next year, and I’m hoping to have more updates soon—although I’m already thrilled beyond measure by the response so far. Astounding comes out tomorrow, and I’m obviously curious about what its reception will be. There are some big developments just around the corner. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Frozen Hell ends up being the best thing to come out of this entire project.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

October 22, 2018 at 7:30 am

Becoming the parrot

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A poem must be a debacle of the intellect. It cannot be anything but…Poetry is the opposite of literature. It rules over idols of every kind and over realistic illusions; it happily sustains the ambiguity between the language of “truth” and the language of “creation.” Poetry is a pipe. Lyricism is the development of a protest. How proud a thing it is to write, without knowing what language, words, comparisons, changes of ideas, of tone are; neither to conceive the structure of the work’s duration, nor the conditions of its ends; no why, no how! To turn green, blue, white from being the parrot…We are always, even in prose, led and willing to write what we have not sought and what perhaps does not even seek what we sought. Perfection is laziness.

André Breton and Paul Éluard, “Notes on Poetry”

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October 21, 2018 at 7:30 am

The mathematical order

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One of the highest delights of the human mind is to perceive the order of nature and to measure its own participation in the scheme of things; the work of art seems to us to be a labor of putting into order, a masterpiece of human order…A work of art should induce a sensation of a mathematical order, and the means of inducing this mathematical order should be sought among universal means…Man and organized beings are products of natural selection. In every evolution on earth, the organs of beings are more and more adapted and purified, and the entire forward march of evolution is a function of purification. The human body seems to be the highest product of natural selection. When examining these selected forms, one finds a tendency toward certain identical aspects, corresponding to constant functions, functions which are of maximum efficiency, maximum strength, maximum capacity, etc., that is, maximum economy. Economy is the law of natural selection…

In all ages and with all people, man has created for his use objects of prime necessity which responded to his imperative needs; these objects were associated with his organism and helped complete it. In all ages, for example, man has created containers: vases, glasses, bottles, plates, which were built to suit the needs of maximum capacity, maximum strength, maximum economy of materials, maximum economy of effort. In all ages, man has created objects of transport: boats, cars; objects of defense: arms; objects of pleasure: musical instruments, etc., all of which have always obeyed the law of selection: economy…It is by the phenomenon of mechanical selection that the forms are established which can almost be called permanent, all interrelated, associated with human scale, containing curves of a mathematical order, curves of the greatest capacity, curves of the greatest strength, curves of the greatest elasticity, etc. These curves obey the laws which govern matter. They lead us quite naturally to satisfactions of a mathematical order.

Le Corbusier and Amédée Ozenfant, “Purism”

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October 20, 2018 at 7:30 am

Wounded Knee and the Achilles heel

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On February 27, 1973, two hundred Native American activists occupied the town of Wounded Knee in South Dakota. They were protesting against the unpopular tribal president of the Oglala Lakota Sioux, along with the federal government’s failure to negotiate treaties, and the ensuing standoff—which resulted in two deaths, a serious casualty, and a disappearance—lasted for over seventy days. It also galvanized many of those who watched it unfold, including the author Paul Chaat Smith, who writes in his excellent book Everything You Know About Indians is Wrong:

Lots occurred over the next two and a half months, including a curious incident in which some of the hungry, blockaded Indians attempted to slaughter a cow. Reporters and photographers gathered to watch. Nothing happened. None of the Indians—some urban activists, some from Sioux reservations—actually knew how to butcher cattle. Fortunately, a few of the journalists did know, and they took over, ensuring dinner for the starving rebels. That was a much discussed event during and after Wounded Knee. The most common reading of this was that basically we were fakes. Indians clueless about butchering livestock were not really Indians.

Smith dryly notes that the protesters “lost points” with observers after this episode, which overshadowed many of the more significant aspects of the occupation, and he concludes: “I myself know nothing about butchering cattle, and would hope that doesn’t invalidate my remarks about the global news media and human rights.”

I got to thinking about this passage in the aftermath of Elizabeth Warren’s very bad week. More specifically, I was reminded of it by a column by the Washington Post opinion writer Dana Milbank, who focuses on Warren’s submissions to the cookbook Pow Wow Chow: A Collection of Recipes from Families of the Five Civilized Tribes, which was edited by her cousin three decades ago. One of the recipes that Warren contributed was “Crab with Tomato Mayonnaise Dressing,” which leads Milbank to crack: “A traditional Cherokee dish with mayonnaise, a nineteenth-century condiment imported by settlers? A crab dish from landlocked Oklahoma? This can mean only one thing: canned crab. Warren is unfit to lead.” He’s speaking with tongue partially in cheek—a point that probably won’t be caught by thousands of people who are just browsing the headlines—but when I read these words, I thought immediately of these lines from Smith’s book:

It presents the unavoidable question: Are Indian people allowed to change? Are we allowed to invent completely new ways of being Indian that have no connection to previous ways we have lived? Authenticity for Indians is a brutal measuring device that says we are only Indian as long as we are authentic. Part of the measurement is about percentage of Indian blood. The more, the better. Fluency in one’s Indian language is always a high card. Spiritual practices, living in one’s ancestral homeland, attending powwows, all are necessary to ace the authenticity test. Yet many of us believe taking the authenticity tests is like drinking the colonizer’s Kool-Aid—a practice designed to strengthen our commitment to our own internally warped minds. In this way, we become our own prison guards.

And while there may be other issues with Warren’s recipe, it’s revealing that we often act as if the Cherokee Nation somehow ceased to evolve—or cook for itself—after the introduction of mayonnaise.

This may seem like a tiny point, but it’s also an early warning of a monstrous cultural reckoning lurking just around the corner, at at time when we might have thought that we had exhausted every possible way to feel miserable and divided. If Warren runs for president, which I hope she does, we’re going to be plunged into what Smith aptly describes as a “snake pit” that terrifies most public figures. As Smith writes in a paragraph that I never tire of quoting:

Generally speaking, smart white people realize early on, probably even as children, that the whole Indian thing is an exhausting, dangerous, and complicated snake pit of lies. And…the really smart ones somehow intuit that these lies are mysteriously and profoundly linked to the basic construction of the reality of daily life, now and into the foreseeable future. And without it ever quite being a conscious thought, these intelligent white people come to understand that there is no percentage, none, in considering the Indian question, and so the acceptable result is to, at least subconsciously, acknowledge that everything they are likely to learn about Indians in school, from books and movies and television programs, from dialogue with Indians, from Indian art and stories, from museum exhibits about Indians, is probably going to be crap, so they should be avoided.

This leads him to an unforgettable conclusion: “Generally speaking, white people who are interested in Indians are not very bright.” But that’s only because most of the others are prudent enough to stay well away—and even Warren, who is undeniably smart, doesn’t seem to have realized that this was a fight that she couldn’t possibly win.

One white person who seems unquestionably interested in Indians, in his own way, is Donald Trump. True to form, he may not be very bright, but he also displays what Newt Gingrich calls a “sixth sense,” in this case for finding a formidable opponent’s Achilles heel and hammering at it relentlessly. Elizabeth Warren is one of the most interesting people to consider a presidential run in a long time, but Trump may have already hamstrung her candidacy by zeroing in on what might look like a trivial vulnerability. And the really important point here is that if Warren’s claims about her Native American heritage turn out to be her downfall, it’s because the rest of us have never come to terms with our guilt. The whole subject is so unsettling that we’ve collectively just agreed not to talk about it, and Warren made the unforgivable mistake, a long time ago, of folding it into her biography. If she’s being punished for it now, it’s because it precipitates something that was invisibly there all along, and this may only be the beginning. Along the way, we’re going to run up against a lot of unexamined assumptions, like Milbank’s amusement at that canned crab. (As Smith reminds us: “Indians are okay, as long as they meet non-Indian expectations about Indian religious and political beliefs. And what it really comes down to is that Indians are okay as long as we don’t change too much. Yes, we can fly planes and listen to hip-hop, but we must do these things in moderation and always in a true Indian way.” And mayonnaise is definitely out.) Depending on your point of view, this issue is either irrelevant or the most important problem imaginable, and like so much else these days, it may take a moronic quip from Trump—call it the Access Hollywood principle—to catalyze a debate that more reasonable minds have postponed. In his discussion of Wounded Knee, Smith concludes: “Yes, the news media always want the most dramatic story. But I would argue there is an overlay with Indian stories that makes it especially difficult.” And we might be about to find out how difficult it really is.

Written by nevalalee

October 19, 2018 at 8:44 am

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