Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Worlds of If

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As I prepare for my upcoming presentation this weekend at the Grappling With the Futures conference, I’ve been thinking a lot about the evolution of psychohistory, the fictional science that figures prominently in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. When it comes to describing how psychohistory is actually supposed to work in practice, however, the original stories aren’t much help. At first, the definition of the field might seem clear enough. If you initially encountered the trilogy in book form, it’s right there in the text, in an entry from the Encyclopedia Galactica:

Psychohistory: …Gal Dornick, using nonmathematical concepts, has defined psychohistory to be that branch of mathematics which deals with the reactions of human conglomerates to fixed social and economic stimuli…Implicit in all these definitions is the assumption that the human conglomerate being dealt with is sufficiently large for valid statistical treatment.

This seems fairly straightforward. But it wasn’t added to the series until the hardcover edition published by Gnome Press in 1951, for which Asimov wrote a new opening chapter called “The Psychohistorians.” When the novelette “Foundation” originally appeared in the May 1942 issue of Astounding, the word “psychohistory” was used only once. We’re informed that Hari Seldon is “the greatest psychologist of all time,” and that he has the ability “to unravel human emotions sufficiently to be able to predict broadly the historical sweep of the future” using “simple psychological technique.” But we aren’t told how—just what. Psychohistory isn’t a method here, but a claim about results.

It’s also possible that Asimov himself had only a vague idea about it. As I’ve noted elsewhere, psychohistory seems to have been largely the brainchild of John W. Campbell, who was more interested in what it could do than in how it would work. The year before, in the nonfiction article “The Science of Whithering,” L. Sprague de Camp had written in the magazine:

If there were such a science, what would it be like? It would have a body of observable facts, and would overlap with history, anthropology, sociology, economics, vital statistics, and perhaps one or two other sciences. Students of the science should be able to observe uniformities among these facts, deduce laws from these uniformities, and from the laws make predictions that are later borne out by observation.

And the method didn’t even need to be scientific. At the time, Campbell was also editing the fantasy magazine Unknown, and on May 6, 1942, he told one of his most valued contributors, Anthony Boucher, that he was considering a standalone issue devoted to prophecy: “The philosophy of prophecy, the record, through the past, of the various classes of prophecy, and the problems of the prophet.” He continued:

Second, there would be the main section consisting of prophecy. This would be devoted to several different types of prophecy concerning the present world situation and, specifically, the war. Who’ll win (and if the prophets have the sense God gave little green apples, the answer to that one’s going to be easy for them to figure out) and, more important, how, by what route, by licking who first, and when. When will Japan be knocked out? When will Italy fold? When’s Hitler going down to defeat?

This last statement is remarkably revealing. What Campbell wanted were predictions, specifically ones related to the war. As Hitler rewrote the map of Europe, the anxiety to knew what would come next—which is one to which I think we can all relate these days—became overwhelming, and the source didn’t matter, as long as it was “borne out by observation.” At this moment of global crisis, Campbell was willing to seek answers from astrology, numerology, and the prophecies of Nostradamus. (The prophecy issue, notably, never appeared, thanks largely to what Campbell characterized as an inability to find “competent fanatics”: “Nobody with any reputation or ability in the fields I wanted was willing to name names and date dates.” The italics are mine.) Psychohistory was simply a way to express these impulses in language that would feel at home in a science fiction magazine. Even Asimov, who never seems to have been altogether comfortable with Campbell’s ideas, was driven by much the same motivation. Decades later, he had a revealing exchange about the origins of the Foundation series in an interview with James Gunn:

Asimov: Mind you, this was also a time when I’d been living through the Hitler era in the 1930s, where no matter what anyone did, Hitler kept winning victories, and the only way that I could possibly find life bearable at the time was to convince myself that no matter what he did, he was doomed to defeat in the end. That he couldn’t win.
Gunn: Psychohistory is against it.
Asimov: That’s right…I suppose that was my literary response to my own feelings, which have no basis, I suppose, except that it made me feel better.

It was a longing that expressed itself equally well as psychohistory or prophecy, and it was about to assume its most convincing form. Not surprisingly, the science fiction magazines of the period often published stories that presented alternative outcomes for the war, including some that ended with victory for the Axis. Anthony Boucher justified this in a letter to Campbell that was published in Astounding in June 1943:

We are not, thank God, prophets. We don’t write what we feel sure is going to happen, but what, under certain circumstances, might happen…Now we aren’t expecting an Axis victory, any more than we are expecting worldwide tidal waves or planetary collisions or the invasion of little green men from Alpha Centauri. These disasters are all, with varying probabilities, present in one or more of the possible Worlds-of-If. And the more we write about ingenious ruses by which the Axis secures victory…the less apt those ruses are to succeed, and the more certain we can be that my sons and your daughter will inherit, in deepest truth, the best of all Possible Worlds.

Science fiction, in other words, was a way of generating models of potential outcomes and working through their implications. The real psychohistorians were the science fiction writers and fans, and psychohistory was a veiled way for the genre to talk about itself and its claims for foreseeing the future. Campbell might have been content to leave it there—but he was unable to leave well enough alone. In 1950, the year before the Foundation series appeared in hardcover, another author wrote: “The social organisms which we call states and nations behave and react in every respect as though they were individual organisms…The social organism behaves in a manner which can be graphed on the tone scale.” It was L. Ron Hubbard, who called the concept “political dianetics.” And he and Campbell were about to start a foundation of their own.

Quote of the Day

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The birth of a creature of human fantasy, a birth which is a step across the threshold between nothing and eternity, can also happen suddenly, occasioned by some necessity. An imagined drama needs a character who does or says a certain necessary thing; accordingly this character is born and is precisely what he had to be…It is no trick. The birth is real. The new character is alive not because she was alive already but because she is now happily born as is required by the fact of her being a character—she is obliged to be as she is.

Luigi Pirandello, in the preface to Six Characters in Search of an Author

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April 24, 2018 at 7:30 am

Into the West

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A few months ago, I was on the phone with a trusted adviser to discuss some revisions to Astounding. We were focusing on the prologue, which I had recently rewritten from scratch to make it more accessible to readers who weren’t already fans of science fiction. Among other things, I’d been asked to come up with ways in which the impact of my book’s four subjects was visible in modern pop culture, and after throwing some ideas back and forth, my adviser asked me plaintively: “Couldn’t you just say that without John W. Campbell, we wouldn’t have Game of Thrones?” I was tempted to give in, but I ultimately didn’t—it just felt like too much of a stretch. (Which isn’t to say that the influence isn’t there. When a commenter on his blog asked whether his work had been inspired by the mythographer Joseph Campbell, George R.R. Martin replied: “The Campbell that influenced me was John W., not Joseph.” And that offhand comment was enough of a selling point that I put it in the very first sentence of my book proposal.) Still, I understood the need to frame the story in ways that would resonate with a mainstream readership, and I thought hard about what other reference points I could honestly provide. Star Trek was an easy one, along with such recent movies as Interstellar and The Martian, but the uncomfortable reality is that much of what we call science fiction in film and television has more to do with Star Wars. But I wanted to squeeze in one last example, and I finally settled on this line about Campbell: “For more than three decades, an unparalleled series of visions of the future passed through his tiny office in New York, where he inaugurated the main sequence of science fiction that runs through works from 2001 to Westworld.”

As the book is being set in type, I’m still comfortable with this sentence as it stands, although there are a few obvious qualifications that ought to be made. Westworld, of course, is based on a movie written and directed by Michael Crichton, whose position in the history of the genre is a curious one. As I’ve written elsewhere, Crichton was an unusually enterprising author of paperback thrillers who found himself with an unexpected blockbuster in the form of The Andromeda Strain. It was his sixth novel, and his first in hardcover, and it seems to have benefited enormously from the input of editor Robert Gottlieb, who wrote in his memoir Avid Reader:

The Andromeda Strain was a terrific concept, but it was a mess—sloppily plotted, underwritten, and worst of all, with no characterization whatsoever. [Crichton’s] scientists were beyond generic—they lacked all human specificity; the only thing that distinguished some of them from the others was that some died and some didn’t. I realized right away that with his quick mind, swift embrace of editorial input, and extraordinary work habits he could patch the plot, sharpen the suspense, clarify the science—in fact, do everything necessary except create convincing human beings. (He never did manage to; eventually I concluded that he couldn’t write about people because they just didn’t interest him.) It occurred to me that instead of trying to help him strengthen the human element, we could make a virtue of necessity by stripping it away entirely; by turning The Andromeda Strain from a documentary novel into a fictionalized documentary. Michael was all for it—I think he felt relieved.

The result, to put it mildly, did quite well, and Crichton quickly put its lessons to work. But it’s revealing that the flaws that Gottlieb cites—indifferent plotting, flat writing, and a lack of real characterization—are also typical of even some of the best works of science fiction that came out of Campbell’s circle. Crichton’s great achievement was to focus relentlessly on everything else, especially readability, and it’s fair to say that he did a better job of it than most of the writers who came up through Astounding and Analog. He was left with the reputation of a carpetbagger, and his works may have been too square and fixated on technology to ever be truly fashionable. Yet a lot of it can be traced back to his name on the cover. In his story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” Jorge Luis Borges speaks of enriching “the slow and rudimentary act of reading by means of a new technique—the technique of deliberate anachronism and fallacious attribution.” In this case, it’s pretty useful. I have a hunch that if The Terminal Man, Congo, and Sphere had been attributed on their first release to Robert A. Heinlein, they would be regarded as minor classics. They’re certainly better than many of the books that Heinlein was actually writing around the same time. And if I’m being honest, I should probably confess that I’d rather read Jurassic Park again than any of Asimov’s novels. (As part of my research for this book, I dutifully made my way through Asimov’s novelization of Fantastic Voyage, which came out just three years before The Andromeda Strain, and his fumbling of that very Crichtonesque premise only reminded me of how good at this sort of thing Crichton really was.) If Crichton had been born thirty years earlier, John W. Campbell would have embraced him like a lost son, and he might well have written a better movie than Destination Moon.

At its best, the television version of Westworld represents an attempt to reconcile Crichton’s gifts for striking premises and suspense with the more introspective mode of the genre to which he secretly belongs. (It’s no accident that Jonathan Nolan had been developing it in parallel with Foundation.) This balance hasn’t always been easy to manage, and last night’s premiere suggests that it can only become more difficult going forward. Westworld has always seemed defined by the pattern of forces that were acting on it—its source material, its speculative and philosophical ambitions, and the pressure of being a flagship drama on HBO. It also has to deal now with the legacy of its own first season, which set a precedent for playing with time, as well as the scrutiny of viewers who figured it out prematurely. The stakes here are established early on, with Bernard awakening on a beach in a sequence that seems like a nod to the best film by Nolan’s brother, and this time around, the parallel timelines are put front and center. Yet the strain occasionally shows. The series is still finding itself, with characters, like Dolores, who seem to be thinking through their story arcs out loud. It’s overly insistent on its violence and nudity, but it’s also cerebral and detached, with little possibility of real emotional pain that the third season of Twin Peaks was able to inflict. I don’t know if the center will hold. Yet’s also possible that these challenges were there from the beginning, as the series tried to reconcile Crichton’s tricks with the tradition of science fiction that it clearly honors. I still believe that this show is in the main line of the genre’s development. Its efforts to weave together its disparate influences strike me as worthwhile and important. And I hope that it finds its way home.

Quote of the Day

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In saying that we do not know the meaning of existence, we have probably found the open channel—if we will allow only that, as we progress, we leave open opportunities for alternatives, that we do not become enthusiastic for the fact, the knowledge, the absolute truth, but remain always uncertain—[that we] “hazard it.” The English, who have developed their government in this direction, call it “muddling through,” and although a rather silly, stupid sounding thing, it is the most scientific way of progressing. To decide upon the answer is not scientific. In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar—ajar only.

Richard Feynman, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

Written by nevalalee

April 23, 2018 at 7:30 am

The velvet and gold braid

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The thing I like about magic is that it’s connected with circus, and with a kind of corny velvet-and-gold-braid sort of world that’s gone and that fascinates me and that I like. That’s really it. It’s not the skillful wonder-worker part of it but the ambience, the atmosphere of a magic show that delights me. I never saw anything in the theatre that entranced me so much as magic—and not the wonder of it: it’s the kind of slightly seedy, slightly carnival side of it. I’m a terrible pushover for all forms of small-time show business anyway. Small theaters, small circuses, magic, and all that. It isn’t the facility—that’s not a conscious part of it to me…But magic to me is a very special kind of thing. It’s just what Robert-Houdin, who was the greatest magician of all time, defined a magician as being: “A great actor playing the part of a magician.”

Orson Welles, to Peter Bogdanovich in This Is Orson Welles

Written by nevalalee

April 22, 2018 at 7:30 am

A choreographer’s checklist

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Having had a chance in five decades to make many choreographic mistakes, and having observed other people make them, too, I have compiled a short list of checks for the composer, something like a pocket set of rules for truing up a work in progress. It is all too easy to become absorbed in one part of the complex act of composition, and, while the attention is fixed on that, allow fatal errors to creep in elsewhere. A final checking up on balances is a wise—indeed, an essential—procedure. These, then, are some reminders which have been learned by painful experience and which should help the choreographer to avoid some of the commonest mistakes:

Symmetry is lifeless
Two-dimensional design is lifeless
The eye is faster than the ear
Movement looks slower and weaker on the stage
All dances are too long
A good ending is forty percent of the dance
Monotony is fatal; look for contrasts
Don’t be a slave to, or a mutilator of, the music
Listen to qualified advice; don’t be arrogant
Don’t intellectualize; motivate movement
Don’t leave the ending to the end

Doris Humphrey, The Art of Making Dances

Written by nevalalee

April 21, 2018 at 7:30 am

Checks and balances

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About a third of the way through my upcoming book, while discussing the May 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, I include the sentence: “The issue also featured Heinlein’s “Universe,” which was based on Campbell’s premise about a lost generation starship.” My copy editor amended this to “a lost-generation starship,” to which I replied: “This isn’t a ‘lost-generation’ starship, but a generation starship that happens to be lost.” And the exchange gave me a pretty good idea for a story that I’ll probably never write. (I don’t really have a plot for it yet, but it would be about Hemingway and Fitzgerald on a trip to Alpha Centauri, and it would be called The Double Sun Also Rises.) But it also reminded me of one of the benefits of a copy edit, which is its unparalleled combination of intense scrutiny and total detachment. I sent drafts of the manuscript to some of the world’s greatest nitpickers, who saved me from horrendous mistakes, and the result wouldn’t be nearly as good without their advice. But there’s also something to be said for engaging the services of a diligent reader who doesn’t have any connection to the subject. I deliberately sought out feedback from a few people who weren’t science fiction fans, just to make sure that it remained accessible to a wider audience. And the ultimate example is the copy editor, who is retained to provide an impartial consideration of every semicolon without any preconceived notions outside the text. It’s what Heinlein might have had in mind when he invented the Fair Witness, who said when asked about the color of a nearby house: “It’s white on this side.”

But copy editors are human beings, not machines, and they occasionally get their moment in the spotlight. Recently, their primary platform has been The New Yorker, which has been quietly highlighting the work of its copy editors and fact checkers over the last few years. We can trace this tendency back to Between You & Me, a memoir by Mary Norris that drew overdue attention to the craft of copy editing. In “Holy Writ,” a delightful excerpt in the magazine, Norris writes of the supposed objectivity and rigor of her profession: “The popular image of the copy editor is of someone who favors rigid consistency. I don’t usually think of myself that way. But, when pressed, I do find I have strong views about commas.” And she says of their famous detachment:

There is a fancy word for “going beyond your province”: “ultracrepidate.” So much of copy editing is about not going beyond your province. Anti-ultracrepidationism. Writers might think we’re applying rules and sticking it to their prose in order to make it fit some standard, but just as often we’re backing off, making exceptions, or at least trying to find a balance between doing too much and doing too little. A lot of the decisions you have to make as a copy editor are subjective. For instance, an issue that comes up all the time, whether to use “that” or “which,” depends on what the writer means. It’s interpretive, not mechanical—though the answer often boils down to an implicit understanding of commas.

In order to be truly objective, in other words, you have to be a little subjective. Which equally true of writing as a whole.

You could say much the same of the fact checker, who resembles the copy editor’s equally obsessive cousin. As a rule, books aren’t fact-checked, which is a point that we only seem to remember when the system breaks down. (Astounding was given a legal read, but I was mostly on my own when it came to everything else, and I’m grateful that some of the most potentially contentious material—about L. Ron Hubbard’s writing career—drew on an earlier article that was brilliantly checked by Matthew Giles of Longreads.) As John McPhee recently wrote of the profession:

Any error is everlasting. As Sara [Lippincott] told the journalism students, once an error gets into print it “will live on and on in libraries carefully catalogued, scrupulously indexed…silicon-chipped, deceiving researcher after researcher down through the ages, all of whom will make new errors on the strength of the original errors, and so on and on into an exponential explosion of errata.” With drawn sword, the fact-checker stands at the near end of this bridge. It is, in part, why the job exists and why, in Sara’s words, a publication will believe in “turning a pack of professional skeptics loose on its own galley proofs.”

McPhee continues: “Book publishers prefer to regard fact-checking as the responsibility of authors, which, contractually, comes down to a simple matter of who doesn’t pay for what. If material that has appeared in a fact-checked magazine reappears in a book, the author is not the only beneficiary of the checker’s work. The book publisher has won a free ticket to factual respectability.” And its absence from the publishing process feels like an odd evolutionary vestige of the book industry that ought to be fixed.

As a result of such tributes, the copy editors and fact checkers of The New Yorker have become cultural icons in themselves, and when an error does make it through, it can be mildly shocking. (Last month, the original version of a review by Adam Gopnik casually stated that Andrew Lloyd Webber was the composer of Chess, and although I knew perfectly well that this was wrong, I had to look it up to make sure that I hadn’t strayed over into a parallel universe.) And their emergence at this particular moment may not be an accident. The first installment of “Holy Writ” appeared on February 23, 2015, just a few months before Donald Trump announced that he was running for president, plunging us all into world in which good grammar and factual accuracy can seem less like matters of common decency than obstacles to be obliterated. Even though the timing was a coincidence, it’s tempting to read our growing appreciation for these unsung heroes as a statement about the importance of the truth itself. As Alyssa Rosenberg writes in the Washington Post:

It’s not surprising that one of the persistent jokes from the Trump era is the suggestion that we’re living in a bad piece of fiction…Pretending we’re all minor characters in a work of fiction can be a way of distancing ourselves from the seeming horror of our time or emphasizing our own feelings of powerlessness, and pointing to “the writers” often helps us deny any responsibility we may have for Trump, whether as voters or as journalists who covered the election. But whatever else we’re doing when we joke about Trump and the swirl of chaos around him as fiction, we’re expressing a wish that this moment will resolve in a narratively and morally comprehensible fashion.

Perhaps we’re also hoping that reality itself will have a fact checker after all, and that the result will make a difference. We don’t know if it will yet. But I’m hopeful that we’ll survive the exponential explosion of errata.

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