The MAYA prophecy
In this month’s issue of The Atlantic, there’s an excerpt from the upcoming book Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction. Its author, Derek Thompson, argues that success in a wide range of fields results from what researchers have called “optimal newness”—a degree of innovation that is advanced enough to be striking, but also just familiar enough to be accessible. Thompson illustrates his point with numerous examples, from plot formulas in prestige dramas to chord progressions in popular music, and he notes that science and business are vulnerable to it as well:
In 2014, a team of researchers from Harvard University and Northeastern University wanted to know exactly what sorts of proposals were most likely to win funding from prestigious institutions such as the National Institutes of Health—safely familiar proposals, or extremely novel ones? They prepared about 150 research proposals and gave each one a novelty score…The most-novel proposals got the worst ratings. Exceedingly familiar proposals fared a bit better, but they still received low scores. “Everyone dislikes novelty,” Karim Lakhani, a co-author, explained to me, and “experts tend to be overcritical of proposals in their own domain.” The highest evaluation scores went to submissions that were deemed slightly new. There is an “optimal newness” for ideas, Lakhani said—advanced yet acceptable.
Thompson frames his argument with a consideration of the career of the industrial designer Raymond Loewy, who summed up the principle with the acronym MAYA: “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable.” And while this may seem like a tautology—an innovation is acceptable until it isn’t—it’s worth scrutinizing more closely. When we look at business or the arts, we find that they often reward the simulation of innovation, which pushes all the right buttons for novelty while remaining fundamentally conventional. The result can be an entire culture that regards itself as innovative while really only repeating an endless cycle of the same clichés. You can see this clearly in technology, of which Thompson writes:
In Silicon Valley, where venture capitalists also sift through a surfeit of proposals, many new ideas are promoted as a fresh spin on familiar successes. The home-rental company Airbnb was once called “eBay for homes.” The on-demand car-service companies Uber and Lyft were once considered “Airbnb for cars.” When Uber took off, new start-ups began branding themselves “Uber for [anything].”
And when every company is talking about “disruption,” it implies that very little is being disrupted at all—especially when the startups in question are inclined to hire people who look just like the founders.
Not surprisingly, I found myself applying this observation to the history of science fiction. When you look at Astounding in the golden age through the lens of “optimal newness,” you find that it fits the definition pretty well. John W. Campbell was famously conservative in many respects, and he was wary of directly engaging such subjects as sex and religion. In 1939, when he first read Robert A. Heinlein’s “If This Goes On—,” he loved it, but he also noted in a letter to a friend that it was “too hot to handle,” and that the references to religion had to be carefully edited. Decades later, he was still saying the same thing—the phrase “too hot to handle” recurs repeatedly in his correspondence. Campbell had a fixed idea of how much change his readers would tolerate. As he later wrote to his father: “[Astounding] is carefully expurgated to suit the most prudish—while I’m busy sawing away at the piling on which the whole crazy structure is resting.” And his caution is visible in other ways. When he took over Astounding, it was still basically a pulp magazine, and in order to retain his readership, he couldn’t depart too far from the original model. Instead, he tweaked it in small but significant ways. Instead of the usual hypermasculine heroes, he introduced a new kind of character—the “competent man” who solved all of his problems using logic and engineering. But he was still a white male. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Campbell that he could be anything else. And as late as 1967, he was still saying that he didn’t think his readers could accept a black protagonist.
And he had good reasons for believing this. One of the first things that everyone notices about the fans of this era—who were a small subset, but a highly visible one, of the readership as a whole—is that many of them were outsiders. They were poor, sickly, unathletic, and sexually inexperienced, and they craved stories that told them that they could become something more. Like Charles Atlas, whose ads were inescapable in the magazine’s pages, Campbell was selling a vision of transformation, which said that you, too, could become a superman if you worked hard enough at it. And he was telling the truth. The sense of otherness that many young science fiction fans experienced was a temporary one, inseparable from the hell of adolescence, and most of them grew up to become productive members of society. They were competent men in larval form. But the genre had less to say to fans who were set apart by qualities that couldn’t merely be outgrown, like race, gender, or sexuality. Like Silicon Valley, it was pitched to appeal to a particular kind of outcast, and this was reflected in the heroes that it celebrated. As long as the formula remained intact, you could do pretty much as you liked. But it also limited the kinds of stories that could be told, to the point where it created a self-fulfilling prophecy about the writers who were drawn to it. The planets were exotic, but the faces were familiar. It’s no secret that science fiction has always tended to take the approach of optimal newness, and that it innovated within acceptable boundaries. But acceptable to whom?