Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Astounding Stories #18: “Noise Level”

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Noise Level

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

On March 31, 1952, the science fiction editor John W. Campbell wrote a long letter to his friend Robert A. Heinlein. It began: “I’ve got an idea that may appeal to you as a starting point for a yarn. If so—I’d love it. If not—lemme know, and I’ll try it on someone else.” Campbell went on to describe the plot in great detail, from its initial premise to its concluding twist, which was unusual in itself: he often pitched ideas to writers, but he was generally happiest when the author came back to him with something he wasn’t expecting. In this case, however, he clearly wanted a story written to order. Here’s how it started:

The top scientists of the country are called into closed, secret session. One of the top men of the National Research Council gets up and explains. Joseph Quincy Doakes, a twenty-eight-year-old physicist, came to the Council and claimed he had an antigravity device. His technical knowledge was definitely of the highest order, but he was an insufferable egotist. He refused to tell anything about it until they’d seen it work. He gave a demonstration, a personal flying device. It worked.

The scientists are shown filmed footage of the test at an airfield, with the inventor flying miraculously toward the sky—until something goes wrong. There’s a malfunction, the inventor crashes from five hundred feet, and he’s killed at once, with the antigravity device itself reduced to a smoking ruin.

As soon as the presentation is over, the scientists are informed that their assignment is to reproduce Doakes’s discovery, whatever the hell it was. Unfortunately, Doakes was so paranoid about his ideas being stolen that he left no record of his work: no notes, no diagrams, no trace of the underlying theory. All that remains is a nearly indecipherable audio recording of a brief explanation that he gave on the airfield that day, only a few words of which are audible. The scientists are each given a copy of the tape, along with unlimited resources and funding, and ordered to get cracking: “We need that device.” Eventually, after much feverish work, they manage to reconstruct a working antigravity machine using these meager clues, in defiance of all known laws of physics. And here’s the kicker, as Campbell told it to Heinlein:

The whole thing [is] one hundred percent fake. The purpose being this: a situation has been established wherein the top physicists of the nation have had firmly, solely planted on them these two propositions: an antigravity device can be made [and] we have to make it…With twenty brilliant minds, stored with vast quantities of data related to the problem, running wide open and under pressure to glean the necessary facts—with a whispering, noise-loaded voice in their ears, the voice of a dead man who did it—the half-heard, and nine-tenths guessed concepts he speaks—the tremendous straining concentration to find that hidden answer—

And you know, Bob, that same basic mechanism should work for a lot of other things!

In other words, it was a hoax designed to make the scientists to devote their best efforts to solving a problem that they otherwise would have dismissed out of hand. (As Norton Juster puts it so movingly in The Phantom Tollbooth: “So many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.”)

Noise Level

Heinlein ultimately passed on the idea, and Campbell eventually gave it to Raymond F. Jones, who wrote it up as a novelette that was published under the title “Noise Level” in the December 1952 issue of Astounding. It’s a wonderful story in its own right, and Jones adds a lot of nice touches that aren’t there in Campbell’s original pitch. For example, the scientists are taken to what they’re told was the home of the device’s late inventor, whose name in the finished version is Dunning. The house has a beautiful tinkerer’s lab, a machine shop, and a strange pair of libraries: one filled with physics and engineering titles, the other with books about astrology, the occult, and Eastern mysticism. As one of the scientists says disbelievingly: “It isn’t possible…that Dunning owned and understood both of these libraries.” Later, when asked why they included “the stuff on Babylonian mysticism, astrology, and the rest of that crud,” an organizer of the hoax explains:

The whole project was set up to be as noisy as possible…We didn’t know how to produce antigravity, so we gave you a picture of a man who did, and made it as noisy as possible to loosen up your own noise filters on the subject. I offered you a dose of omniscient noise on the subject of antigravity, and the one inescapable conclusion that it had been done.

By “omniscient noise,” he’s referring to the idea, discussed earlier on, that pure noise—a completely random sequences of pulses—contains all possible messages and information, and that our ability to understand it depends on the mental filters that we’ve set up. Give a team of geniuses a source of raw noise and loosen up their filters, the story argues, and they can figure out just about anything, as long as they’re convinced that it’s possible.

And while “Noise Level” doesn’t bear Campbell’s name, it’s still one of the most personal statements he ever allowed into print. (It’s especially revealing that he originally approached Heinlein with the premise. Heinlein had written up a few of Campbell’s ideas before, in stories like “Sixth Column,” “Solution Unsatisfactory,” and “Universe,” but he hadn’t done so for over a decade. The fact that Campbell tried pitching the idea to his single best writer, even though it was highly unlikely that Heinlein would take it, tells us how important it was to him.) One of the first problems that occurs to anyone who studies Campbell is how the same man who was almost singlehandedly responsible for the rise of hard science fiction could also endorse such concepts as dianetics, psionics, the Hieronymus Machine, and the Dean Drive. You could say that Campbell genuinely believed that these phenomena existed; that he wanted to be responsible for popularizing a major discovery that would rival atomic power and space travel; that he saw them as a way to maintain science fiction’s status as a frontier literature; or that he wanted to challenge scientific orthodoxy by feeding it some of the most outrageous concepts imaginable. To some extent, all of these interpretations are accurate. But I’d like to think that Campbell revealed his true motivations in “Noise Level,” and that he spent his last two decades at the magazine deliberately trying to make his ongoing experiment with his readers as noisy as possible. Like the two libraries in Dunning’s house, Astounding ran hard science fiction side by side with pieces on psychic powers and dowsing, and many readers couldn’t understand how Campbell could believe in both. Maybe he did—but he also wanted to give his readers the chaotic raw material that they needed to expand their way of thinking. Whether or not he succeeded is another question entirely. But he thought it would take them to the stars.

Written by nevalalee

September 28, 2016 at 9:33 am

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