Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

A Hawk From a Handsaw, Part 3

with 10 comments

Hermann Göring with falcon

Over the last few days, I’ve been doing my best Robert Anton Wilson impression, and, like him, I’ve been seeing hawks everywhere. Science fiction is full of them. Skylark of Space, which is arguably the story that kicked off the whole business in the first place, was written by E.E. Smith and his friend Lee Hawkins Garby, who is one of those women who seem to have largely fallen out of the history of the genre. Then there’s Hawk Carse, the main character of a series of stories, written for Astounding by editors Harry Bates and Desmond W. Hall, that have become synonymous with bad space opera. And you’ve got John W. Campbell himself, who was described as having “hawklike” features by the fan historian Sam Moskowitz, and who once said of his own appearance: “I haven’t got eyes like a hawk, but the nose might serve.” (Campbell also compared his looks to those of The Shadow and, notably, Hermann Göring, an enthusiastic falconer who loved hawks.) It’s all a diverting game, but it gets at a meaningful point. When Wilson’s wife objected to his obsession with the 23 enigma, pointing out that he was just noticing that one number and ignoring everything else, Wilson could only reply: “Of course.” But continued to believe in it as an “intuitive signal” that would guide him in useful directions, as well as an illustration of the credo that guided his entire career:

Our models of “reality” are very small and tidy, the universe of experience is huge and untidy, and no model can ever include all the huge untidiness perceived by uncensored consciousness.

We’re living at a time in which the events of the morning can be spun into two contradictory narratives by early afternoon, so it doesn’t seem all that original to observe that you can draw whatever conclusion you like from a sufficiently rich and random corpus of facts. On some level, all too many mental models come down to looking for hawks, noting their appearances, and publishing a paper about the result. And when you’re talking about something like the history of science fiction, which is an exceptionally messy body of data, it’s easy to find the patterns that you want. You could write an overview of the genre that draws a line from A.E. van Vogt to Alfred Bester to Philip K. Dick that would be just as persuasive and consistent as one that ignores them entirely. The same is true of individuals like Campbell and Heinlein, who, like all of us, contained multitudes. It can be hard to reconcile the Campbell who took part in parapsychological experiments at Duke and was editorializing in the thirties about the existence of telepathy in Unknown with the founder of whatever we want to call Campbellian science fiction, just as it can be difficult to make sense of the contradictory aspects of Heinlein’s personality, which is something I haven’t quite managed to do yet. As Borges writes:

Let us greatly simplify, and imagine that a life consists of 13,000 facts. One of the hypothetical biographies would record the series 11, 22, 33…; another, the series 9, 13, 17, 21…; another, the series 3, 12, 21, 30, 39…A history of a man’s dreams is not inconceivable; another, of the organs of his body; another, of the mistakes he made; another, of all the moments when he thought about the Pyramids; another, of his dealings with the night and the dawn.

It’s impossible to keep all those facts in mind at once, so we make up stories about people that allow us to extrapolate the rest, in a kind of lossy compression. The story of Arthur C. Clarke’s encounter with Uri Geller is striking mostly because it doesn’t fit our image of Clarke as the paradigmatic hard science fiction writer, but of course, he was much more than that.

The Falcon Killer

I’ve been focusing on places where science fiction intersects with the mystical because there’s a perfectly valid history to be written about it, and it’s a thread that tends to be overlooked. But perhaps the most instructive paranormal encounter of all happened to none other than Isaac Asimov. In July 1966, Asimov and his family were spending two weeks at a summer house in Concord, Massachusetts. One evening, his daughter ran into the house shouting: “Daddy, Daddy, a flying saucer! Come look!” Here’s how he describes what happened next:

I rushed out of the house to see…It was a cloudless twilight. The sun had set and the sky was a uniform slate gray, still too light for any stars to be visible; and there, hanging in the sky, like an oversize moon, was a perfect featureless metallic circle of something like aluminum.

I was thunderstruck, and dashed back into the house for my glasses, moaning, “Oh no, this can’t happen to me. This can’t happen to me.” I couldn’t bear the thought that I would have to report something that really looked as though it might conceivably be an extraterrestrial starship.

When Asimov went back outside, the object was still there. It slowly began to turn, becoming gradually more elliptical, until the black markings on its side came into view—and it turned out to be the Goodyear blimp. Asimov writes: “I was incredibly relieved!” Years later, his daughter told the New York Times: “He nearly had a heart attack. He thought he saw his career going down the drain.”

It’s a funny story in itself, but let’s compare it to what Geller writes about Clarke: “Clarke was not there just to scoff. He had wanted things to happen. He just wanted to be completely convinced that everything was legitimate.” The italics are mine. Asimov, alone of all the writers I’ve mentioned, never had any interest in the paranormal, and he remained a consistent skeptic throughout his life. As a result, unlike the others, he was very rarely wrong. But I have a hunch that it’s also part of the reason why he sometimes seems like the most limited of all major science fiction writers—undeniably great within a narrow range—while simultaneously the most important to the culture as a whole. Asimov became the most famous writer the genre has ever seen because you could basically trust him: it was his nonfiction, not his fiction, that endeared him to the public, and his status as a explainer depended on maintaining an appearance of unruffled rationality. It allowed him to assume a very different role than Campbell, who manifestly couldn’t be trusted on numerous issues, or even Heinlein, who convinced a lot of people to believe him while alienating countless others. But just as W.B. Yeats drew on his occult beliefs as a sort of battery to drive his poetry, Campbell and Heinlein were able to go places where Asimov politely declined to follow, simply because he had so much invested in not being wrong. Asimov was always able to tell the difference between a hawk and a handsaw, no matter which way the wind was blowing, and in some ways, he’s the best model for most of us to emulate. But it’s hard to write science fiction, or to live in it, without seeing patterns that may or may not be there.

10 Responses

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  1. If you ever want to talk through or write through those Heinlein contradictions, I would be happy to participate. He does contain multitudes. Contact me via WordPress or at academicschair@heinleinsocitey.org. I’m looking forward to your book.

    marieguthrie

    February 17, 2017 at 12:23 pm

  2. An excellent trilogy of posts. You take on Asimov vs Heinlein is particularly interesting. I have been a big fan of both, although my respect for Asimov has outlived my love of Heinlein. I fell in love with Heinlein in my early teens, when adventure and escapism were what I needed. I was slightly older when I read Foundation and found something that made me think much more. I read them both in parallel for a while, along with every other SF book I could get my hands on, but after Stranger in a Strange Land I never found another Heinlein that I was totally happy with, and I wouldn’t go back to them. Asimov I can read again and again.

    Martin

    February 17, 2017 at 4:29 pm

  3. @marieguthrie: Thanks, Marie! I absolutely intend to reach out to you once this book is in a form that can be shared, ideally by early August.

    nevalalee

    February 19, 2017 at 8:12 am

  4. @Martin: I’m still trying to sort through my thoughts on their relative importance. Heinlein, I think, has the more impressive body of work, but it’s great mostly for its range as a whole, rather than for any individual stories or novels. And you could make a pretty good case that Asimov, in his slow but steady way, actually passed him in terms of quality by the early seventies.

    nevalalee

    February 19, 2017 at 8:18 am

  5. As so often in these types of discussions you can end up trying to compare two things that on the surface seem similar but actually don’t compare very easily. “Comparisons are odious” I cant remember who said that, but its often true.

    Martin

    February 19, 2017 at 2:07 pm

  6. Fascinating posts, thanks very much. FWIW Asimov’s scepticism is something that I always found attractive. In both Campbell and Heinlein the lack of scepticism meant they did not doubt themselves enough, and that led to excesses of various kinds. Doubt is at the centre of science, and in the end Asimov was a scientist and those other two were not. Clarke was always a kind of mystic –something like ‘The Star’ or ‘The Nine Billion Names of God’ (and of course 2001) show that. Yes he wanted us to go into space and all that ‘hard sf’ stuff, but he also wanted there to be more than that to existence. Something like ‘The City and the Stars’ or whatever it was called, yes it’s all officially explained by technology, but it’s really about the revelation of ancient secrets, not the technology at all. When Clarke said , “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’ I think maybe that came to him because he wanted there to be magic in the world, one way or another.

    Asimov and quality: Key thing is to ignore his long tail. Heinlein: Facile*. Hubbard: Never read any and don’t intend to.

    * adjective
    adjective: facile

    1. (especially of a theory or argument) appearing neat and comprehensive only by ignoring the true complexities of an issue

    Darren

    February 19, 2017 at 4:31 pm

  7. @Darren: I like the image of Asimov’s long tail—mind if I steal it?

    The comparison between Asimov and Heinlein is endlessly interesting. If you were to compare Asimov’s three best stories—say, “The Mule,” “The Last Question,” and The Gods Themselves—with your choice of the three best by Heinlein, you might easily come away with the impression that Asimov was the better writer. It wasn’t until I read a bunch of Heinlein and pieced together the larger picture from those fragments that I began to get a sense of his real achievement.

    I think that Hubbard’s Final Blackout is still worth reading, if only as an indication of what might have been. It’s a stronger story than anything Asimov had published up to that point, and arguably as good as the best of Heinlein from that period, too.

    And after all is said and done, of all the science fiction writers I’ve read, I still feel the closest to Robert Anton Wilson. Which I’d like to believe leaves me in a better position to think and write objectively about the others.

    nevalalee

    February 19, 2017 at 5:11 pm

  8. @Martin: As I just mentioned in a reply to another comment, it wasn’t until I started to compare Asimov and Heinlein that I began to really get a handle on either of them.

    nevalalee

    February 19, 2017 at 5:14 pm

  9. Please do steal it. I confess, I like Asimov the man (well, the version he projected through his books, anyway), probably because of all his autobiographical notes etc in his books; he is so very congenial it is hard to be objective. I respect Heinlein’s ability and skill, but I don’t feel like I’d enjoy a chat with him. How’s that for non-objective?

    Darren

    February 19, 2017 at 5:48 pm

  10. @Darren: As a biographer, I’d feel obliged to meet all of them, but I expect that I’d definitely enjoy some encounters more than others.

    nevalalee

    February 25, 2017 at 7:39 am


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