The myth of the competent man
If there’s a single figure who haunts the golden age of science fiction, it’s that of the competent man. The author Michael Moorcock, who was no fan of John W. Campbell, once wrote that Astounding Science Fiction became “full of crewcut wisecracking, cigar-chewing, competent guys” whom, he concluded, were ultimately “like Campbell’s image of himself.” And while I don’t entirely agree with that assessment, it gets close enough at the truth to sting. There’s always been an undeniable cult of competence in science fiction, usually centered on a heroic engineer—almost invariably a man—who can fix a spaceship or rig up a superweapon at the drop of a hat. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: genre fiction loves protagonists who are good at their jobs. But it can run into real trouble when it starts to treat all problems, including social and ethical ones, as subsets of engineering. It’s easy, maybe a little too easy, to see this impulse as a product of the Great Depression and World War II, which created a market for inspiring narratives about the triumph of ingenuity and hard work, or even a reaction to modernist or absurdist literary fiction, which tended to emphasize mankind’s helplessness. Astounding was there to provide an alternative myth that its readers wanted to see. And there’s a sense in which many of the conventions of science fiction emerged to provide a stage on which a particular fable about the competent man could be played out again and again, until it began to look like a prediction of the future.
To understand how this kind of story works, we can start with the novel Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp, which was originally published as a serial in Astounding’s sister fantasy magazine Unknown. It’s about a scholar from the present day, Martin Padway, who is flung back in time to the Roman Empire in the era of Justinian and Belisarius. He quickly uses his knowledge of modern science to distill brandy, introduce Arabic numbers and modern bookkeeping, and invent the first printing press, both to save his own skin and to prevent the coming of the Dark Ages. Padway is lucky enough to speak passable Latin, but he doesn’t know everything: he has trouble remembering the formula for gunpowder, for instance, which so many other time travelers seem to have memorized. But the story still serves as a form of wish-fulfillment. Padway overcomes the politics and military might of an entire civilization with little more than smarts, ingenuity, and a touch of luck, and we’re conscious of de Camp gently skewing the odds in his favor all the while. (It’s interesting to note that Belisarius, who plays a minor role in the story, is a figure who crops up repeatedly in classic science fiction: he inspired the character of Bel Riose in Asimov’s Foundation series, and he’s mentioned in Hubbard’s The End is Not Yet. This is partially because all these writers seem to have read Robert Graves’s bestselling novel of the same name, but also because he embodies a certain kind of competent man whom we see all the time in Hubbard’s work: the lone noble soldier in an army of fools.)
This is a formula to which the science fiction and fantasy of the golden age repeatedly returns, and it doesn’t always require time travel. Most of the novels that Hubbard published in Unknown—including The Ultimate Adventure, Slaves of Sleep, The Case of the Friendly Corpse, Typewriter in the Sky, and probably a few more I’ve forgotten—have the same underlying plot: they’re about an ordinary guy, often comically weak or hassled by his family, who is translated by magic into a world straight out of Scheherazade. (Hubbard’s fascination with The Arabian Nights, incidentally, is an aspect of his career that deserves to be explored in depth. In his introduction to Slaves of Sleep, he recommends the translation by Richard Francis Burton, who was essentially the competent man brought to life, and with whom Hubbard seems to have personally identified.) The hero is initially panicked and overwhelmed by the situation, but he quickly adapts himself, and in most cases, he ends up ruling the kingdom. And the story wouldn’t be nearly as effective if the lead character didn’t come from our world. Without a connection to reality, however contrived, it would seem like just another fairy tale. What Hubbard does instead is create a world in which a modern man, complete with a business suit and tie, can live up to his full potential. If the hero succeeds beyond his wildest dreams, it’s largely because the rules have been rigged by the author, and we’re more likely to accept this in the context of a fantasy than in a realistic story.
But the key realization here is that this is true of much of science fiction as well, which offers up an idealized world designed to allow a certain kind of competent man to shine. Campbell’s writers were rarely interested in seriously exploring how human behavior would change between now and the far future: George O. Smith’s stories, for instance, read now like Mad Men set in orbit around Venus, and not just because everyone is smoking. But that’s part of the point. The heroes of these stories are emphatically men from the writer’s own time, only a little braver and more competent, and they’re plunged into situations, often in deep space, that draw upon the skill set of a perfect engineer. In real life, scientists and engineers are subject to forces outside their control, and World War II, in particular, would expose how complicated that relationship could be. But in a spaceship, far from home, the engineer could be king, and most of his problems could be resolved by technical solutions that he alone was qualified to invent, without the intrusion of external complications. This isn’t true of all stories from that era, and the conflict between science and politics is one that Astounding would continue to explore. But if so many of these plots come down to the wits of an engineer with a radio or a spanner in one hand, it’s because the writer has deliberately put him in a situation that only he can fix—or, more accurately, has grown the rest of the world around him for the sake of that one moment. It may look like the future. But it’s often just another fairy tale. And it’s still with us today.