Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

A pair of deadlines

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Illustration by Paul Orban for "Deadline" by Cleve Cartmill

In late 1943, the science fiction writer Cleve Cartmill pitched a story to the editor John W. Campbell about the design and construction of an atomic bomb. (This was long before Hiroshima, of course, or even Trinity, and the Manhattan Project was still one of the most highly guarded secrets of the war.) Campbell jumped at the prospect, and in their ensuing correspondence, he outlined how such a weapon could work, based solely on information in the public domain. The result, “Deadline,” appeared the following year in the March issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Cartmill himself called the story a “stinker,” and much of its science was wrong, but it also got a lot right, and it was often unsettlingly specific. According to Edward Teller, the future father of the hydrogen bomb and a longtime fan of the magazine, the story provoked “astonishment” at Los Alamos, and it immediately raised the possibility of a leak. The War Department deployed an investigator from the Counterintelligence Corps to look into Campbell and Cartmill, and although the report ultimately concluded that there was no security breach, it characterized Campbell as an “egotist.” Much later, Campbell would say that he was relieved that the man who interviewed him failed to notice the map on his wall with pins marking the addresses of his subscribers—including a suspicious clustering around a post office box in New Mexico. And even if this last detail is apocryphal, it isn’t an exaggeration to call it one of the most famous episodes in Campbell’s career. It’s one of those legends that science fiction never tires of telling about itself.

But as I’ve looked into this incident while doing research for my upcoming book, I’ve found that most of the assumptions about it are either false or highly inaccurate. “Deadline” didn’t come out of nowhere: atomic power had been a frequent theme in Astounding almost from the day it was founded, and topics like isotope separation and the nuclear chain reaction had been discussed in stories and Campbell’s own editorials for years. “Deadline” might have been a “stinker,” but its very clumsiness—with thinly disguised surrogates for the Allies and Axis called the “Seilla” and “Sixa”—was a deliberate hint to get readers to dismiss it as a narrative and to look between the lines. It’s sometimes cited as an example of science fiction’s ability to predict the future, but really, it’s closer to the opposite: Campbell knew exactly what was in the air, and he cobbled the science together from the available sources to match what he guessed was already happening. (It isn’t hard to believe that he had a decent hunch of what was taking place at Los Alamos: Asimov, who was working with Heinlein at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, later wrote that he had known the bomb was in the works since the early forties.) And far from being surprised by the investigation, Campbell actively courted it. Just two years earlier, in an editorial titled “Too Good at Guessing,” he had said that Astounding would avoid publishing stories set in the near future for the duration of the war, in order to avoid accidentally giving away potential lines of military research. His abrupt reversal indicates that the story was a deliberate provocation, “a probe,” in Gregory Benford’s words. And unpacking Campbell’s motivations is a central part of the story I’ll be telling.

Illustration by Paul Orban for "Deadline"

Even as I contemplate these issues, though, I’m also keenly aware of another deadline: December 4, 2017. That’s when the complete draft of my book will be due. (I just confirmed this last week, after operating for the last couple of months without a fixed delivery date in mind.) It leaves me with exactly twenty months, which might seem like more than enough: it’s more time than it took me to finish my last two novels combined, and as I write this, it feels like a long way from now. But it isn’t—at least not when I consider the amount of work I have ahead of me. The controversy surrounding “Deadline,” for instance, is one of the most richly documented chapters of Campbell’s life, but the more I look at it, the harder it is to pin down the facts and to properly interpret what they mean. This goes double for aspects of his career that haven’t been thoroughly covered before. When you add in the fact that I’m also dealing with Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard, all three of whom grow even more enigmatic the closer you look at them, twenty months starts to seem like a tight schedule indeed. Which is pretty much how it should be. This is the kind of subject in which the amount of research and thought involved is infinitely expansible: there’s always another story to read, another thread to follow, or another theme to explore, and much of my energy will be devoted to prioritizing and triaging the possible angles. It’s going to be a real challenge, and although I don’t doubt that I can pull it off, the sheer volume of material that needs to be covered and organized into a coherent shape leaves me wishing that I had a spare decade or two.

Yet twenty months—which really means more like two years, when you account for the time I spent preparing the initial proposal—seems about right. It’s long enough to do it justice, but not so long that I can afford to get complacent. I’ve always worked best under deadlines, voluntary or otherwise, both because they give me a reason to stick to the task and because they enforce an intensity of thought that can only be helpful. I have a decent sense of the ground that this book needs to cover, and the devil will lie in assembling the details and placing them within a meaningful framework. Without a looming delivery date, there’s a very real temptation to continue gathering information forever: I could spend the next two years just leafing through old issues of Astounding and Analog. With the clock ticking, though, at some point, I’ll have no choice but to stop reading and start writing, and I’ve already had to get the ball rolling on the endless acts of housekeeping that take up half of any nonfiction project. (I’ve just gotten my hands on a huge trove of Campbell’s unpublished letters from the San Diego State University Library, with hopes of obtaining more soon, and just reading through all of it will take a couple of months.) Still, it’s all tremendously exciting, and whenever I feel daunted by its scope and complexity, I remind myself of how lucky I am to have this chance in the first place. And if all goes well, by the end of next year, I’ll look back at this post and marvel that we’ve all traveled so far into the future.

Written by nevalalee

April 8, 2016 at 9:43 am

4 Responses

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  1. I can’t wait to read it! I’ve no doubt you will manage the research and writing deadline just fine. I became far more productive once I began working full time and became a single mom of three. Novel #3 and counting…Inspiring post, Alec!


    April 8, 2016 at 9:59 am

  2. I’m really looking forward to this book! I inherited my love for Analog (and Astounding before it) from my dad, who had a lifetime subscription. I grew up reading them cover to cover, including Brass Tacks and all, and I am eager to learn more about the story behind the stories.

    Also – My birthday is on December 4, so you have a very auspicious deadline there! :-)

    Celia Reaves

    April 8, 2016 at 12:13 pm

  3. Thanks, Samantha! You’re an inspiration, too.


    April 24, 2016 at 9:10 pm

  4. @Celia Reaves: Auspicious indeed! You’re exactly the kind of reader I’m hoping to reach.


    April 24, 2016 at 9:11 pm

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