Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for February 20th, 2018

The cosmic engineers

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On May 18, 1966, the novelist C.P. Snow delivered a talk titled “The Status of Doctors” before the Royal Society of Medicine in London. Snow—who had studied physics and chemistry at the University of Leicester and Cambridge—spent much of his speech comparing the fields of engineering and medicine, noting that doctors enjoyed a more exalted social status than engineers, perhaps because their work was easier to understand: “Doctors have a higher place in the popular imagination and I think also in the more esoteric imagination. A novelist can bring a doctor into a novel without any trouble at all, people know who he is; but try bringing an engineer into a novel and it is terribly difficult—they have not got recognition symbols in the way the medical profession has.” He continued:

I do not think doctors suffer from the other great weakness of engineers, that is, their complete lack of verbalism. Engineers can often be extremely clever but they cannot spell and they cannot speak. The doctors I have known are extremely articulate. I suspect the descriptive processes they have to go through, both themselves and presumably with their patients, are extremely good verbal training, and I do not think it is an accident that the one thing the medical profession has done, apart from producing doctors, is to produce writers. I do not think it is an accident that there are almost no engineering writers, and very few from the scientific professions. On the other hand, the medical profession has produced some really good writers in the last hundred years.

Snow would presumably have been mortified by the idea of a magazine that published nothing but stories written by and for engineers, but by the time that he gave his talk, Astounding Science Fiction—which had changed its name several years earlier to Analog—had been in that business for decades. In practice, science fiction writers came from a wide range of professional backgrounds, but there was no doubt that John W. Campbell’s ideal author was a working engineer who wrote for his own pleasure on the side. In an editorial in the February 1941 issue, the editor delivered a pitch to them directly:

Most of Astounding’s authors are, in the professional sense, amateur authors, spare-time writers who earn their bread and butter in one field of work, and use their writing ability as a source of the jam supply…”Jam” in the above sense is useful. Briefly, it amounts to the equivalent of a couple of new suits, or a suit and overcoat, for a short story, a new radio with, say, FM tuning for a novelette, and a new car or so for a novel.

He also made no secret of what kind of professional he was hoping to find. By the end of the decade, a survey indicated that fully fifteen percent of the magazine’s readers were engineers themselves. As Damon Knight wrote in In Search of Wonder: “[Campbell] deliberately built up a readership among practicing scientists and technicians.” And he expected to source most of his writers directly from that existing audience.

But his reasons for looking for engineers were more complicated than they might seem. When Campbell took over Astounding in 1937, the submissions that he received tended to fall into one of two categories. Some were from professional pulp writers who wrote for multiple genres; others were written by younger fans who had grown up with science fiction, loved it, and desperately wanted to break into the magazine. Neither was the kind of writer whom Campbell secretly wanted. Working authors had to write quickly to make a living at a penny a word, and they were usually content to stick to the tricks and formulas that they knew best. They certainly weren’t interested in repeated revisions, which meant that they weren’t likely to be receptive to the notes that Campbell was planning to give. (Some writers, like Edmond Hamilton, bowed out entirely because they didn’t feel like changing.) The fans were even worse. They had only emerged as a force in their own right within the last few years, and you couldn’t tell them anything—they treated science fiction as their personal property, which made it hard to give them any feedback. What Campbell wanted was a legion of successful engineers who wrote science fiction because they liked it, didn’t take it so personally that they would push back against his suggestions, and had the time and leisure to rework a story to his specifications. These men were understandably hard to find, and few of the major writers of the golden age fit that profile completely. It wasn’t until after the war that the figure of the engineer who wrote science fiction as a hobby really began to emerge.

By 1967, a year after C.P. Snow delivered his talk, however, it was possible for Harlan Ellison to refer in the anthology Dangerous Visions to “John W. Campbell, Jr., who used to edit a magazine that ran science fiction, called Astounding, and who now edits a magazine that runs a lot of schematic drawings, called Analog.” And there’s little doubt that it was exactly the magazine that Campbell wanted. His control over it was even more complete than it had been in the thirties and forties, largely because of the type of writer he had selected for it, as Damon Knight pointed out: “He deliberately cultivated technically oriented writers with marginal writing skills…Campbell was building a new stable he knew he could keep.” And this side of his legacy persists even today. In Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, Janet Malcolm writes:

Soon after the Big Bang of Freud’s major discoveries…the historian of psychoanalysis notes a fork in the road. One path leads outward into the general culture, widening to become the grand boulevard of psychoanalytic influence…The other is the narrow, inward-turning path of psychoanalytic therapy: a hidden, almost secret byway travelled by few.

Replace “Freud” with “Campbell” and “psychoanalysis” with “science fiction,” and you have a decent picture of what happened with Analog. Science fiction took over the world, while Campbell’s old magazine continued to pursue his private vision, and its writers fit that profile now more than ever. It’s no longer possible to write short fiction for a living, which makes it very attractive for engineers who write on the side. I love Analog—it changed my life. But if you ever wonder why it looks so different from even the rest of the genre, it’s because it was engineered that way.

Quote of the Day

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On the afternoon of October 24th 1917, four days after my marriage, my wife surprised me by attempting automatic writing. What came in disjointed sentences, in almost illegible writing, was so exciting, sometimes so profound, that I persuaded her to give an hour or two day after day to the unknown writer, and after some half-dozen such hours offered to spend what remained of life explaining and piecing together those scattered sentences. “No,” was the answer, “we have come to give you metaphors for poetry.”

W.B. Yeats, A Vision

Written by nevalalee

February 20, 2018 at 7:30 am

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