Astounding Stories #16: “Witches Must Burn”
Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here.
If you’re a science fiction fan, it’s tempting to relate the current presidential election to the stories that you’ve read in the past, as if the extreme scenarios that earlier writers have envisioned can help us make sense of our predicament. When Donald Trump came up at a panel I attended this weekend, which included such writers as Larry Niven, Joe Haldeman, Greg Bear, and Gregory Benford, one of the participants—I think it was David Brin—compared him to Heinlein’s imaginary demagogue Nehemiah Scudder. (“Blood at the polls and blood in the streets, but Scudder won the election,” Heinlein once wrote. “The next election was never held.”) But an even better reference point is the novelette “Witches Must Burn” by James E. Gunn, which appeared in Astounding in 1956. It opens with a mob burning a university to the ground, forcing the protagonist, a psychologist named John Wilson, to flee for his life. Watching a news broadcast, he sees that Harvard is in flames. Outlined against the fire is the leader of the movement, an obvious McCarthy surrogate named Senator Bartlett, who has roused “lowbrows” into a revolt against “eggheads.” Bartlett says grimly:
They are not to blame who have taken justice into their own hands…They are to blame who have driven the people to this desperate end. And they are paying the price for placing themselves above the people and above the welfare of humanity.
When we think of the contempt for “experts” and “elites” that underlies such phenomena as the rise of Trump and the Brexit disaster, it isn’t hard to draw a parallel. Gunn, in fact, was inspired by the flight of intellectuals from Germany and Italy before World War II, and he later remembered: “The story I contemplated imagined a revolution from which…science would be restored to its original position as a respected member of the tribe with a special talent for making miracles.” Most of the story runs more or less along those lines, with Wilson trying to get in touch with an underground that can get him safely out of the country. But then it takes an unexpected turn. Toward the end, Wilson comes face to face with the leader of the resistance, a man named Pike, who asks him whether he really wants to run away to Brazil. When Wilson says that he doesn’t have a choice, Pike replies: “The human problems must be lived with. You’re a fool, John Wilson, and worse—you’re a fool who knows he is right, who is sure that he has the Answers if They will only listen.” Pike continues:
You think that because you’re a little brainier than the Lowbrows your convictions are superior; it isn’t true. Because you can manipulate a few people…you think that you know people. Nuts, Dr. Wilson! Senator Bartlett knows more about people than you will ever know. He accepts them for what they are, and he manipulates them by the millions. By any standard, you are a failure.
And a little later, Pike adds: “Nature has a way of scrapping failures. The eggheads are being scrapped now so that the components can be used for more valuable organisms.”
This is a dramatic departure from the tone of the story so far, and in fact, this entire section emerged from Gunn’s discussions with John W. Campbell, who forced him to rewrite the story’s conclusion. (Or as Gunn drily notes: “In his characteristic contrarian way, Campbell took the opposite position—that people had a right to be upset at the scientists…I was convinced—or, if not convinced, persuaded, since it was Campbell who would authorize payment.”) You can hear a lot of Campbell here:
You blame the Lowbrow because he wants security more than the truth…But nobody wants security more than you do. You want the world to admit how right you are, no matter what the truth is—because then you won’t have to change your beliefs. The Lowbrow seeks his security in human convictions and faiths and strong attachments; you seek your security in the assurance of Absolute Law. Both are static; both are equally deadly.
Too long [the universities] served as fortresses of isolation, walling in the learned man, the eggheads of yesterday and today, insulating them from humanity and its problems. What you were doing was so much more important than the problems of the little man who kept tugging at your sleeve, trying to get your attention. Finally he had to try something else. He gave you exactly the kind of trouble he had: insecurity and the fear of sudden death. Maybe, his instincts said, he could learn something from your efforts to solve the problem.
“He was wrong,” Pike concludes. “Your only solution was to run.” And Pike ultimately convinces Wilson to give himself up to the lowbrows, so that he has no choice but to come to terms with the social forces that he tried to dismiss or ignore:
Force yourself to admit their viewpoint into your understanding. Discover, as a psychologist, what your patient really is and how to cure him, rather than demanding that the patient be some hypothetical patient you can cure. Try to understand why the witch-burner and the witch are children of the same confusion, fathered by the same inner necessity. Learn to sympathize with the emotional need for scapegoats in an era of bewilderment when old gods are toppling and old ways of life are falling.
When I spoke to Gunn about the story, he said that it took him years to understand why Campbell made him change the ending, and it seems that he never entirely agreed with the decision. (It’s also impossible to separate it from Campbell’s instinctive distrust of the scientific establishment, which he thought was just as resistant to change as anyone else.) But it’s a message that is worth remembering for other reasons. The eggheads are victims, but they’re also failures, because they were unable to understand the concerns of the people who were susceptible to Bartlett precisely because they were vulnerable and neglected. And if we can’t heed that warning, then we have no one else to blame if nature decides to scrap us, too.