Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for March 2018

The fitness indicator

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To be reliable, fitness indicators must be difficult for low-fitness individuals to produce. Applied to human art, this suggests that beauty equals difficulty and high cost. We find attractive those things that could have been produced only by people with attractive, high-fitness qualities such as health, energy, endurance, hand-eye coordination, fine motor control, intelligence, creativity, access to rare materials, the ability to learn difficult skills, and lots of free time…The beauty of a work of art reveals the artist’s virtuosity. This is a very old-fashioned view of aesthetics, but that does not make it wrong. Throughout most of human history, the perceived beauty of an object has depended very much on its cost. That cost could be measured in time, energy, skill, or money…

Our sense of beauty was shaped by evolution to embody an awareness of what is difficult as opposed to easy, rare as opposed to common, costly as opposed to cheap, skillful as opposed to talentless, and fit as opposed to unfit…From an evolutionary point of view, the fundamental challenge facing artists is to demonstrate their fitness by making something that lower-fitness competitors could not make, thus proving themselves more socially and sexually attractive. This challenge arises not only in the visual arts, but also in music, storytelling, humor, and many other behaviors…Beauty conveys truth, but not the way we thought. Aesthetic significance does not deliver truth about the human condition in general: it delivers truth about the condition of a particular human, the artist.

Geoffrey Miller, The Mating Mind

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March 31, 2018 at 7:30 am

The Long Good Friday

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Every week, my five-year-old daughter brings home a handout from the children’s class at our local church, which we’ve attended now for several years. I’m agnostic, but my wife and I like the community there, and I make a point of finding out what they’ve been telling Beatrix. Usually, we just talk about it for a minute and then move on, but earlier this month, she showed me a worksheet with the five pictures that I’ve reproduced above, which were scrambled up at random. The instructions said: “The Bible story puzzle pieces are all mixed up! Use your stickers to put them in the correct order.” And if they had simply told the story of, say, Noah’s Ark, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it. Instead, they presented a series of episodes from the death and resurrection of Jesus—the crucifixion, the sealed tomb, Mary Magdalene in mourning, the appearance of the risen Jesus to Mary, and his meal with his disciples. And it occurred to me that if you weren’t familiar with the source material and were asked to put these scenes back together, you’d probably end up with something very different. Reconstructing the sequence wouldn’t take any special knowledge or narrative sophistication. It would be more like a rudimentary logic problem. In the absence of any other information, a reasonable person would presumably come up with an order much like the one that I’ve reproduced below, which goes from the encounters with Mary and the disciples through crucifixion, mourning, and burial. The final image is one of the tomb. It’s pretty depressing, like a Chris Ware comic, but that’s clearly the last picture. How could it be anything else?

This may not seem like much of an insight, but it stuck in my head, and it took me a while to figure out why. The account presented in the canonical gospels hinges on taking the natural sequence of events and then forcibly rearranging them. You might say that Christians, by one definition, are those people who are given these five pictures as a kind of psychological test—but instead of placing them in the “correct” order, they put them in a totally illogical sequence and insist that this is how it was. (It probably isn’t a coincidence that this occurred to me after I saw the passion narrative depicted in what was essentially a comic strip, or what Will Eisner liked to call “sequential art.” When the panels are out of order, you notice it at once.) It’s a narrative inversion, as much as a religious or philosophical one, and you could push it even further and say that this reversal of expectations is analogous to what little we know about what Jesus actually taught. He told us to love our enemies; that the poor are blessed because of their poverty, not in spite of it; that the first will be last and the last will be first; and that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, or the leaven that a woman hid in fifty pounds of flour. Many of the miracle stories play on similar violations of an expected sequence. People who are on the verge of death generally don’t just get better, and the dead don’t come back to life. And if experience is any indication, many of us evidently find it easier to believe in the raising of Lazarus than in the idea that we’re supposed to sell all of our possessions and give the money to the poor.

But I’m also haunted by the sequence that simply ends with the tomb. Many scholars of the historical Jesus have struggled with it, as well as with the possibility that even this version amounts to wishful thinking. In Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, John Dominic Crossan arrives at an unforgiving conclusion:

What we often forget about crucifixion is the carrion crow and scavenger dog who respectively croak above and growl below the dead or dying body…What actually and historically happened to the body of Jesus can best be judged from watching how later Christian accounts slowly but steadily increased the reverential dignity of their burial accounts…In either case, his body left on the cross or in a shallow grave barely covered with dirt and stones, the dogs were waiting. And his followers, who had fled, would know that, too. Watch, then, how the horror of that brutal truth is sublimated through hope and imagination into its opposite.

Crossan is speaking here of the story of Joseph of Arimathea, who conveniently appears at just the right time to provide a proper burial. But you could easily extend the process of revision to the resurrection itself, which denies the most difficult truth imaginable—that the life of Jesus concluded in unbelievable pain, despair, and death, and that this was the only ending to his ministry that he ever knew.

This is unbearably painful to contemplate, and it might actually be psychologically easier just to rearrange the pieces, in defiance of everything that we think we know about how the world works. But part of me also wants to come to terms with the other version. In the book The Acts of Jesus, the Jesus Seminar is very clear on this point: “The resurrection was not an event that happened on the first Easter Sunday; it was not an event that could have been recorded by a video camera.” But it adds: “Since the earlier strata of the New Testament contain no appearance stories, it does not seem necessary for Christian faith to believe the literal veracity of any of the later narratives.” Many Christians would be unlikely to agree with this. But it’s still worth asking what it would mean to have faith in that message even if the gospels ended there. As Crossan says: “It is a terrible trivialization to imagine that all of Jesus’ followers lost their faith on Good Friday and had it restored by apparitions on Easter Sunday. It is another trivialization to presume that even those who lost their nerve, fled, and hid also lost their faith, love, and hope.” It seems clear that there were early Christians who thought that this story ended with the tomb, and they still believed—which might be the most remarkable fact of all. And I agree with Crossan when he writes:

What happened historically is that those who believed in Jesus before his execution continued to do so afterward. Easter is not about the start of a new faith but about the continuation of an old one. That is the only miracle and the only mystery, and it is more than enough of both.

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March 30, 2018 at 9:22 am

Quote of the Day

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If you walk along the street you will encounter a number of scientific problems. Of these, about eighty percent are insoluble, while nineteen and a half percent are trivial. There is then perhaps half a percent where skill, persistence, courage, creativity and originality can make a difference. It is always the task of the academic to swim in that half a percent, asking the questions through which some progress can be made.

Hermann Bondi, “The Making of a Scientist”

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March 30, 2018 at 7:30 am

The dreamlife of engineers

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In 1985, the physicist Freeman J. Dyson delivered a lecture at the semiconductor company Analog Devices in Norwood, Massachusetts, which later became a chapter in his book Infinite in All Directions. He opened the talk, which he called “Engineers’ Dreams,” with these words:

There are two ways to predict the progress of technology. One way is economic forecasting, the other way is science fiction. Economic forecasting makes predictions by extrapolating curves of growth from the past into the future. Science fiction makes a wild guess and leaves the judgment of its plausibility to the reader…For the future beyond ten years ahead, science fiction is a more useful guide than forecasting. But science fiction does not pretend to predict. It tells us only what might happen, not what will happen. It deals in possibilities, not in probabilities. And the most important developments of the future are usually missed both by the forecasters and by the fiction writers. Economic forecasting misses the real future because it has too short a range; fiction misses the future because it has too little imagination.

Dyson took the title of the talk from a book by the science writer and rocket scientist Willy Ley, of which he said wistfully: “The dreams which are recorded in his book are mostly projects of civil engineering, enormous dams, tunnels, bridges, artificial lakes and artificial islands. The interesting thing about them is that they are today totally dead. Nobody would want to build them today even if we could afford it. They are too grandiose, too inflexible, too slow…History passed these dreams by. We do not any longer find it reasonable to think of flooding half of the forests of Zaire in order to provide water for irrigating the deserts of Chad.”

Engineers’ Dreams was one of Dyson’s favorite books, and it pops up elsewhere in his writings. (Notably, it figures prominently in his essay “The Search for Extraterrestrial Technology,” in which he lays out the logic behind the ultimate engineering project—the Dyson Sphere.) As an example of how even a genius can fail to foresee how the history of technology will unfold, he told a story about the mathematician John von Neumann, whom he fondly described as perhaps “the cleverest man in the world.” Speaking of a talk that von Neumman delivered in the early fifties, Dyson said:

Meteorology was the big thing on his horizon…He said, as soon as we have some large computers working, the problems of meteorology will be solved. All processes that are stable we shall predict. All processes that are unstable we shall control. He imagined that we needed only to identify the points in space and time at which unstable processes originated, and then a few airplanes carrying smoke generators could fly to those points and introduce the appropriate small disturbances to make the unstable processes flip into the desired directions. A central committee of computer experts and meteorologists would tell the airplanes where to go in order to make sure that no rain would fall on the Fourth of July picnic. This was John von Neumann’s dream.

“Why was Von Neumann’s dream such a total failure?” Dyson asked. “The dream was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of fluid motions…A chaotic motion is generally neither predictable nor controllable…Von Neumann’s mistake was to imagine that every unstable motion could be nudged into a stable motion by small pushes and pulls applied at the right places. The same mistake is still frequently made by economists and social planners, not to mention Marxist historians.”

Von Neumann’s other mistake, Dyson added, was to think of computers in the future as expensive and rare, rather than cheap and widely available, and to underestimate how technology tends to move away from “big and sluggish” applications. Thirty years later, however, we seem to be talking more urgently about such grandiose projects than ever, at least when it comes to the problem of climate change. Whatever their real merits, such measures as fertilizing the oceans with iron, releasing sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, converting carbon dioxide on a large scale into limestone, or building a solar farm the size of Nigeria would undoubtedly be massive acts of engineering. As Elizabeth Kolbert recently wrote in The New Yorker:

Everyone I spoke with, including the most fervent advocates for carbon removal, stressed the huge challenges of the work, some of them technological, others political and economic. Done on a scale significant enough to make a difference, direct air capture of the sort pursued by Carbon Engineering, in British Columbia, would require an enormous infrastructure, as well as huge supplies of power.

Kolbert quotes the physicist Klaus Lackner, the founder of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions, who wondered why “nobody’s doing these really crazy, big things anymore.” But we’re certainly discussing them today. And one of the most prominent advocates of such measures is Dyson himself, who wrote in the late seventies—before it was fashionable—that atmospheric carbon levels could be controlled by planting a trillion trees. (He later proposed the genetic engineering of special “carbon-eating trees,” of which he conceded: “I suppose it sounds like science fiction.”)

On some level, it’s ridiculous that we’re even contemplating such projects, as David Keith, the founder of the firm Carbon Engineering, observed to Kolbert: “You might say it’s against my self-interest to say it, but I think that, in the near term, talking about carbon removal is silly. Because it almost certainly is cheaper to cut emissions now than to do large-scale carbon removal.” But when it comes to “chaotic motions” of the kind that frustrated von Neumann, politics is worse than the weather, and we’re rapidly reaching a point—if we aren’t there already—when planting billions of carbon-eating trees seems more feasible than changing the minds of a few million voters, or even one hundred elected officials. As Kolbert writes:

One of the peculiarities of climate discussions is that the strongest argument for any given strategy is usually based on the hopelessness of the alternatives: this approach must work, because clearly the others aren’t going to…As a technology of last resort, carbon removal is, almost by its nature, paradoxical. It has become vital without necessarily being viable. It may be impossible to manage and it may also be impossible to manage without.

In his talk, Dyson noted that the “qualitative changes” that emerge from the actions of individuals are what make the future so hard to predict: “Qualitative changes are produced by human cleverness, the invention of pocket calculators destroying the market for slide rules, or by human stupidity, the mistakes of a few people at Three Mile Island destroying the market for nuclear power stations.” From an engineer’s point of view, any solution that depends on the rational persuasion of politicians or entire societies is necessarily vulnerable to failure, so it might be better to avoid the problem entirely. I don’t want to believe this, but we may not have a choice. As Dyson concluded three decades ago: “Neither cleverness nor stupidity is predictable.”

Quote of the Day

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I’ll use dirty tricks [in coding] for two reasons. One is if it’s really going to give me a performance improvement and my application is one that the performance improvement is going to be appreciated. Or sometimes I’ll say, “This is tricky; I couldn’t resist being tricky today because it’s so cute.” So just for pure pleasure. In any case, I document it; I don’t just put it in there.

Donald Knuth, to Peter Seibel in Coders at Work

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March 29, 2018 at 7:30 am

The axioms of behavior

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Earlier this week, Keith Raniere, the founder of an organization known as Nxivm, was arrested in Mexico, to which he had fled last year in the wake of a devastating investigation published in the New York Times. The article described a shady operation that combined aspects of a business seminar, a pyramid scheme, and a sex cult, with public workshops shading into a “secret sisterhood” that required its members to provide nude photographs or other compromising materials and be branded with Raniere’s initials. (In an email obtained by the Times, Raniere reassured one of his followers: “[It was] not originally intended as my initials but they rearranged it slightly for tribute.”) According to the report, about sixteen thousand people have taken the group’s courses, which are marketed as leading to “greater self-fulfillment by eliminating psychological and emotional barriers,” and some went even further. As the journalist Barry Meier wrote:

Most participants take some workshops, like the group’s “Executive Success Programs,” and resume their lives. But other people have become drawn more deeply into Nxivm, giving up careers, friends and families to become followers of its leader, Keith Raniere, who is known within the group as “Vanguard”…Former members have depicted [Raniere] as a man who manipulated his adherents, had sex with them and urged women to follow near-starvation diets to achieve the type of physique he found appealing.

And it gets even stranger. In 2003, Raniere sued the Cult Education Institute for posting passages from his training materials online. In his deposition for the suit, which was dismissed just last year, Raniere stated:

I discovered I had an exceptional aptitude for mathematics and computers when I was twelve. It was at the age of twelve I read The Second Foundation [sic] by Isaac Asimov and was inspired by the concepts on optimal human communication to start to develop the theory and practice of Rational Inquiry. This practice involves analyzing and optimizing how the mind handles data. It involves mathematical set theory applied in a computer programmatic fashion to processes such as memory and emotion. It also involves a projective methodology that can be used for optimal communication and decision making.

Raniere didn’t mention any specific quotations from Asimov, but they were presumably along the lines of the following, which actually appears in Foundation and Empire, spoken by none other than the Mule:

Intuition or insight or hunch-tendency, whatever you wish to call it, can be treated as an emotion. At least, I can treat it so…The human mind works at low efficiency. Twenty percent is the figure usually given. When, momentarily, there is a flash of greater power it is termed a hunch, or insight, or intuition. I found early that I could induce a continual use of high brain-efficiency. It is a killing process for the person affected, but it is useful.

At this point, one might be tempted to draw parallels to other cults, such as Aum Shinrikyo, that are also said to have taken inspiration from Asimov’s work. In this case, however, the connection to the Foundation series seems tangential at best. A lot of us read science fiction at the golden age of twelve, and while we might be intrigued by psychohistory or mental engineering, few of us take it in the direction that Raniere evidently did. (As one character observes in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum: “People don’t get the idea of going back to burn Troy just because they read Homer.”) In fact, Raniere comes off a lot more like L. Ron Hubbard, at least in the version of himself that he presents in public. In the deposition, he provided an exaggerated account of his accomplishments that will strike those who know Hubbard as familiar:

In 1988, I was accepted into the Mega Society. The requirements to be accepted into the Mega Society were to have a demonstrated IQ of 176…In 1989, I was accepted into the Guinness Book of World Records under the category “Highest IQ.” I also left my position as a Computer Programmer/Analyst and resumed business consulting with the intention to raise money to start the “Life Learning Institute.” At this point in time I became fascinated with how human motivation affected behavior. I started to refine my projective mathematical theory of the human mind to include a motivational behavior equation.

And when Raniere speaks of developing “a set of consistent axioms of how human behavior interfaced with the world,” it’s just a variation on an idea that has been recycled within the genre for decades.

Yet it’s also worth asking why the notion of a “mathematical psychology” appeals to these manipulative personalities, and why many of them have repackaged these ideas so successfully for their followers. You could argue that Raniere—or even Charles Manson—represents the psychotic fringe of an impulse toward transformation that has long been central to science fiction, culminating in the figure of the superman. (It’s probably just a coincidence, but I can’t help noting that two individuals who have been prominently linked with the group, the actresses Kristin Kreuk and Allison Mack, both appeared on Smallville.) And many cults hold out a promise of change for which the genre provides a convenient vocabulary. As Raniere said in his deposition:

In mathematics, all things are proven based on axioms and a step by step systematic construction. Computers work the same way. To program a computer one must first understand the axioms of the computer language, and then the step by step systematic construction of the problem-solution methodology. Finally, one must construct the problem-solution methodology in a step by step fashion using the axioms of the language. I discovered the human mind works the same way and I formalized the process.

This sounds a lot like Hubbard, particularly in the early days of dianetics, in which the influence of cybernetics was particularly strong. But it also represents a limited understanding of what the human mind can be, and it isn’t surprising that it attracts people who see others as objects to be altered, programmed, and controlled. The question of whether such figures as Hubbard or Raniere really buy into their own teachings resists any definitive answer, but one point seems clear enough. Even if they don’t believe it, they obviously wish that it were true.

Quote of the Day

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[Preschool teacher] Maureen Ingram…said her students often tell different stories about a given piece of art depending on the day, perhaps because they weren’t sure what they intended to draw when they started the picture. “We as adults will often say, ‘I’m going to draw a horse,’ and we set out…and get frustrated when we can’t do it,” Ingram said. “They seem to take a much more sane approach, where they just draw, and then they realize, ‘It is a horse.’”

Isabel Fattal, in The Atlantic

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March 28, 2018 at 7:30 am

Astounding Stories #21: Black Man’s Burden

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Note: With less than half a year to go until the publication of Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’m returning, after a long hiatus, to the series in which I highlight works of science fiction that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

“This never gets old,” T’Challa says in Black Panther, just before we see the nation of Wakanda in its full glory for the first time. It’s perhaps the most moving moment in this often overwhelmingly emotional film, and it speaks to how much of its power hinges on the idea of Wakanda itself. Most fictional countries in the movies—a disproportionate number of which seem to be located in Africa, South America, or the Middle East—are narrative evasions, but not here. As Ishaan Tharoor wrote recently in the Washington Post:

Wakanda, like many places in Africa, is home to a great wealth of natural resources. But unlike most places in Africa, it was able to avoid European colonization. Shielded by the powers of vibranium, the element mined beneath its surface that enabled the country to develop the world’s most advanced technology, Wakanda resisted invaders while its rulers constructed a beautiful space-age kingdom.

Or as the writer Evan Narcisse observed elsewhere to the Post: “Wakanda represents this unbroken chain of achievement of black excellence that never got interrupted by colonialism.” It’s imaginary, yes, but that’s part of the point. In his review, Anthony Lane of The New Yorker delivered a gentle rebuke: “I wonder what weight of political responsibility can, or should, be laid upon anything that is accompanied by buttered popcorn. Vibranium is no more real than the philosopher’s stone…Are 3-D spectacles any more reliable than rose-tinted ones, when we seek to imagine an ideal society?” But the gap between dreams and reality is precisely how the best science fiction—and Black Panther, along with so much else, is a kickass science fiction movie—compels us to see the world with new eyes.

The fiction published by the editor John W. Campbell rarely tackled issues of race directly, and the closest that it ever came was probably a series that began with Black Man’s Burden, the first installment of which ran in the December 1961 issue of Analog. It revolves around a coalition of African-American academics working undercover to effect social and political change in North Africa, with the ultimate goal of uniting the region in the scientific and cultural values of the West. The protagonist is a sociologist named Homer Crawford, who explains:

The distrust of the European and the white man as a whole was prevalent, especially here in Africa. However, and particularly in Africa, the citizens of the new countries were almost unbelievably uneducated, untrained, incapable of engineering their own destiny…We of the Reunited Nations teams are here because we are Africans racially but not nationally, we have no affiliations with clan, tribe, or African nation. We are free to work for Africa’s progress without prejudice. Our job is to remove obstacles wherever we find them. To break up log jams. To eliminate prejudices against the steps that must be taken if Africa is to run down the path of progress, rather than to crawl.

All of this is explained to the reader at great length. There’s some effective action, but much of the story consists of the characters talking, and if these young black intellectuals all end up sounding a lot like John W. Campbell, that shouldn’t be surprising—the author, Mack Reynolds, later said that the story and its sequels “were written at a suggestion of John Campbell’s and whole chunks of them were based on his ideas.” Many sections are taken verbatim from the editor’s letters and editorials, ranging from his musings on judo, mob psychology, and the virtues of the quarterstaff to blanket statements that border on the unforgivable: “You know, with possibly a few exceptions, you can’t enslave a man if he doesn’t want to be a slave…The majority of Jefferson’s slaves wanted to be slaves.”

We’re obviously a long way from Wakanda here—but although Black Man’s Burden might seem easy to hate, oddly enough, it isn’t. Mack Reynolds, who had lived in North Africa, was a talented writer, and the serial as a whole is intelligent, restrained, consistently interesting, and mindful of the problems with its own premise. To encourage the locals to reject tribalism in favor of modern science, medicine, and education, for instance, the team attributes many of its ideas to a fictional savior figure, El Hassan, on the theory that such societies “need a hero,” and by the end, Homer Crawford has reluctantly assumed the role himself. (There are shades not just of T.E. Lawrence but of Paul Atreides, whose story would appear in the magazine just two years later.) But he has few illusions about the nature of his work. As one of his colleagues puts it in the sequel:

Monarchies are of the past, and El Hassan is the voice of the future, something new. We won’t admit he’s just a latter-day tyrant, an opportunist seizing power because it’s there crying to be seized. Actually, El Hassan is in the tradition of Genghis Khan, Temerlane, or, more recently, Napoleon. But he’s a modern version, and we’re not going to hang the old labels on him.

Crawford mordantly responds: “As a young sociologist, I never expected to wind up a literal tyrant.” And Reynolds doesn’t pretend to offer easy solutions. The sequel, Border, Breed, Nor Birth, closes with a bleak denial of happy endings, while the concluding story, “Black Sheep Astray,” ends with Crawford, overthrown after a long rule as El Hassan, returning to start a new revolution among the younger generation, at the likely cost of his life. The leads are drawn with considerable care—even if Reynolds has a bad habit of saying that they look “surprisingly like” Joe Louis or Lena Horne—and their mere presence in Analog is striking enough that one prominent scholar has used it to question Samuel R. Delany’s claim that Campbell rejected one of his stories because “his readership would be able to relate to a black main character.”

Yet this overlooks the fact that an ambitious, messy, uncategorizable novel like Delany’s Nova is worlds apart from a serial that was commissioned and written to Campbell’s specifications. And its conceptual and literary limitations turn out to be closely related. Black Man’s Burden is constructed with diligence and real craft, but this doesn’t make its basic premise any more tenable. It interrogates many of its assumptions, but it doesn’t really question the notion of a covert operation to shape another country’s politics through propaganda, guerrilla action, and the assimilation of undercover agents into the local population. This isn’t science fiction. It’s what intelligence agencies on both sides were doing throughout the Cold War. (If anything, the whisper campaign for El Hassan seems primitive by contemporary standards. These days, the plan would include data analysis, viral messaging in support of favored policies or candidates, and the systematic weaponization of social media on the part of foreign nationals. What would be wrong with that?) By the story’s own logic, the project has to be run by black activists because the locals are suspicious of white outsiders, but there’s no suggestion that their underlying goals are any different—and if the same story would be unthinkable with a white protagonist, it implies that it has problems here that can’t be addressed with a change of race. It’s also characteristically evasive when it comes to how psychohistory actually works. Reading it again, I found myself thinking of what William Easterly writes in The White Man’s Burden:

A Planner thinks he already knows the answers; he thinks of poverty as a technical engineering problem that his answers will solve. A Searcher admits he doesn’t know the answers in advance…A Planner believes outsiders know enough to impose solutions. A Searcher believes only insiders have enough knowledge to find solutions, and that most solutions must be homegrown.

Planners still exist in foreign aid—but they can also edit magazines. Campbell was one of them. Black Man’s Burden was his idea of how to deal with race in Analog, even as he failed to make any effort to look for black writers who knew about the subject firsthand. And it worked about as well here as it did anywhere else.

Quote of the Day

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There are scores of people who could have written each chapter of my book better than I. My consolation is that few could have written all the chapters.

Matt Ridley, The Red Queen

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March 27, 2018 at 7:30 am

The fall of the foundation

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Note: Spoilers follow for the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov.

At the World Science Fiction Convention two years ago in Kansas City, I attended a panel where an audience member asked a question about Donald Trump. There were audible groans from the room, but one of the panelists—I think it was David Brin—drew a parallel between Trump and Nehemiah Scudder, the religious demagogue who casts an ominous shadow across Heinlein’s Future History. It was a clever comparison, but as time goes on, I’ve come to realize that there’s an even better surrogate from the golden age of science fiction. I’ve seen it mentioned here and there online, but the most thorough treatment is by Chris Taylor of Mashable, who writes of the psychohistorians of Asimov’s Foundation series:

They hope to preserve all the knowledge of civilization after the collapse of the Empire, as predicted by foresighted futurist Hari Seldon. We see them overcome various “Seldon crises,” gaining more and more star systems—until the Empire collapses halfway through the second book, Foundation and Empire, ahead of schedule. At this point in the story, the Foundation seems as secure as Obama-era technocracy did. It’s the end of history, basically—and though a group of underground democrats grumble about its rigid political system, the rational, enlightened, science-friendly Foundation has clearly triumphed over the forces of darkness and anarchy…Then out of nowhere comes the Mule, a terrifying warlord who conquers the entire Foundation in the space of a year. Seldon’s…prediction turns out to be badly wrong—as useless, say, as pre-election polling in November 2016. He didn’t see the Mule coming…[The Mule] turns out to have developed a one-in-a-trillion genetic mutation that gives him a strange power: the ability to implant the emotion of his choice in others. So the Mule instills his followers with ecstatic, fanatical loyalty, and sticks his opponents with despair and “a miserable sense of defeat.”

Taylor’s excellent article, which is worth reading in its entirety, highlights passages from Asimov’s stories—much of which the Mule spends in disguise as a clown—that have taken on an uncanny resonance. Here, for instance, we see Han Pritcher, a decorated military hero who once opposed the Mule, only to be converted by him after a failed assassination attempt:

Pritcher caught a mental breath and tried to think back. How had he been before the Mule had Converted him from the diehard democrat that he had been? It was hard to remember. He could not place himself mentally. He could not break the lining wires that bound him emotionally to the Mule…There had been no sensation the first time. There had been no pain, no mental jar—not even a feeling of discontinuity. He had always loved the Mule. If there had ever been a time long before—as long before as five short years—when he had thought he hadn’t loved him, that he had hated him—that was just a horrid illusion. The thought of that illusion embarrassed him.

And a little while later, when the First Speaker of the Second Foundation addresses the Mule directly at last:

Emotional contact such as you and I possess is not a very new development…but the faculty of direct emotional contact tended to atrophy with the development of speech a million years back…[But] you were born with it…We calculated the extent to which a megalomania would take control of you and we thought we were prepared…The added psychic distortion due to your inferiority complex passed us by. We allowed only for megalomania—not for an intensely psychopathic paranoia as well.

And if you’re wondering whether these parallels might have occurred to anyone within the Republican Party itself—well, it’s possible. Here’s what one prominent conservative wrote two decades ago in a book titled To Renew America, which seems now like a slightly less catchy version of Trump’s favorite slogan:

While Toynbee was impressing me with the history of civilizations, Isaac Asimov was shaping my view of the future in equally profound ways…For a high school student who loved history, Asimov’s most exhilarating invention was the “psychohistorian” Hari Seldon. The term does not refer to Freudian analysis but to a kind of probabilistic forecasting of the future of whole civilizations. The premise was that, while you cannot predict individual behavior, you can develop a pretty accurate sense of mass behavior. Pollsters and advertisers now make a good living off the same theory.

The author was Newt Gingrich, whose love of science fiction has been amply documented elsewhere—he wrote science fiction novels, participated in Jerry Pournelle’s think tank on the Strategic Defense Initiative, gave a controversial speech at the Nebula Awards, and mused during his last presidential campaign about placing a permanent base on the moon. And he really likes the Foundation series. As Ray Smock, the former historian of the House of Representatives, wrote in a fascinating article on the subject: “The greatest influence on Newt Gingrich, the conservative Republican, was the liberal atheist Isaac Asimov…Newt saw not just entertainment but a master plan using the Foundation trilogy as his political handbook, a guide to how one man creates a new force for civilized life.”

Gingrich, like the economist Paul Krugman, wanted to be Hari Seldon, and at first, he pursued his goals in the manner of any aspiring psychohistorian. (As Smock writes with a straight face: “While Hari Seldon created the Foundation to carry out his work, Newt used a variety of foundations and organizations to foster his work.”) So how did he become such a vocal defender of our generation’s equivalent of the Mule? Helpfully, Gingrich published an entire book on the subject, Understanding Trump, which includes a passage that sheds some light on the problem, mostly by speaking of Trump as if he were a super empath:

[Donald Trump] has a sixth sense about connecting with the American people. For instance, Trump routinely spoke to crowds of ten to twenty thousand people, but if you watched his gestures and body language, you saw that he was connecting with audience members one by one…Trump’s familiarity and comfortableness with working-class Americans also enables him to intuit what people care about and what they are looking for…In addition to giving strength and resolve to his supporters, I am sure the rallies were critical to maintaining Trump’s spirit as well. He was able to stay in tune with, and be guided by, the will of the people.

And if you want to understand the fundamental strangeness of what remains of the Republican Party, it helps to see it as an organization of men who thought fondly that they were a foundation of Hari Seldons, but who turned out to be embarrassingly eager to throw in their lot with the Mule, contenting themselves with “wins” on specific issues even as their party was irrevocably transformed. Trump, like the Mule, seems to have only gradually understood the extent of his power: “Slowly, I learned that I could reach into those minds and turn the pointer to the spot I wished, that I could nail it there forever.” Now he clearly knows what he can do. And he fooled many of us for a long time into thinking that he was a clown.

Quote of the Day

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There is no such thing as a merely given, or simply available, starting point: beginnings have to be made for each project in such a way as to enable what follows from them.

Edward W. Said, Orientalism

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March 26, 2018 at 7:30 am

Dreaming in numbers

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Ancient scribes learned not merely to read and write, but also to use catalogues, dictionaries, calendars, forms and tables. They studied and internalized techniques of cataloguing, retrieving and processing information very different from those used by the brain. In the brain, all data is freely associated. When I go with my spouse to sign on a mortgage for our new home, I am reminded of the first place we lived together, which reminds me of our honeymoon in New Orleans, which reminds me of alligators, which remind me of dragons, which remind me of The Ring of the Nibelungen, and suddenly, before I know it, there I am humming the Siegfried leitmotif to a puzzled bank clerk. In bureaucracy, things must be kept apart. There is one drawer for home mortgages, another for marriage certificates, a third for tax registers, and a fourth for lawsuits. Otherwise, how can you find anything? Things that belong in more than one drawer, like Wagnerian music dramas (do I file them under “music,” “theater,” or perhaps invent a new category altogether?), are a terrible headache. So one is forever adding, deleting and rearranging drawers.

In order to function, the people who operate such a system of drawers must be reprogrammed to stop thinking as humans and to start thinking as clerks and accountants. As everyone from ancient times till today knows, clerks and accountants think in a non-human fashion. They think like filing cabinets. This is not their fault. If they don’t think that way their drawers will all get mixed up and they won’t be able to provide the services their government, company or organization requires. The most important impact of script on human history is precisely this: it has gradually changed the way humans think and view the world…Writing was born as the maidservant of human consciousness, but is increasingly becoming its master. Our computers have trouble understanding how Homo sapiens talks, feels and dreams. So we are teaching Homo sapiens to talk, feel and dream in the language of numbers.

Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

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March 25, 2018 at 7:30 am

“Get the money!”

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“Let me give you a word of advice, young man,” [Henny Youngman] said. “Nem di gelt…Get the money. What we do—writing jokes and telling jokes—looks easy, especially when we do it well. It isn’t. It’s hard and the people who hire us make a lot of money off what we do. So always make sure you get paid. Don’t be afraid to get the money. Ask for it up front and ask for as much as you can get. Club owners…TV producers…they’re all crooks, trying to get out of paying us for what we do. Nem di gelt.”

I thanked him, and promised I would remember to nem di gelt, and he went on for his second show.

A few months later, someone told me a story about Henny Youngman which I believe is true. It was about what Henny would do when he was home in New York and found himself unbooked on a Saturday night. He would take his fiddle and go to some hotel that had banquet rooms. He’d consult the daily directory in the lobby and find a party—usually a bar mitzvah reception—and he would go up to the room and ask to speak to whoever was paying for the affair. “I’m Henny Youngman,” he would tell that person. “I was playing a date in another banquet room here and one of the waiters suggested you might want to have me do my act for your gathering here.” He would negotiate whatever price he could get—$200, $500, preferably in cash—and he would do his act for them.

That was Henny Youngman. I have no idea where is today but I’ll bet he’s telling jokes. And I’ll bet he got paid in advance.

Mark Evanier, in The Comic Buyer’s Guide

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March 24, 2018 at 7:30 am

The Martian Way

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In these divided times, the one position that seems to consistently transcend party lines is that we should really get our act together and go to Mars. This is particularly true if you happen to be president. Toward the end of his first term, George W. Bush called for a return to the moon, which would serve as a way station for “human missions to Mars and to worlds beyond,” and then he pretty much never brought it up again. Shortly before the last presidential election, when he probably should have been focusing on other matters, Obama wrote in an opinion piece that the “clear goal vital to the next chapter of America’s story in space” would be a manned mission to Mars. As for Trump, his views are more or less what you’d expect. Earlier this month, in a speech at Miramar Air Station in San Diego, he expressed enthusiasm for space, in his own inimitable way: “Very soon we’re going to Mars. You wouldn’t be going to Mars if my opponent won, that I can tell you. You wouldn’t even be thinking about it.” In the same speech, Trump also voiced his support for the idea of, well, starship troopers:

My new national strategy for space recognizes that space is a war-fighting domain, just like the land, air, and sea. We may even have a “Space Force”—develop another one. Space Force. We have the Air Force; we’ll have the Space Force. You know, I was saying it the other day because we’re doing a tremendous amount of work in space. I said, “Maybe we need a new force, we’ll call it the Space Force.” And I was not really serious, and then I said what a great idea, maybe we’ll have to do that. That could happen. That could be the big breaking story.

The week after Trump gave this speech, I happened to come across a passage in The Scientific Estate by the political scientist Don K. Price, which was first published in 1965. After lamenting the lack of participation in public policy by scientists in democratic nations, Price writes: “Science fiction…is a form of literature unwisely neglected by students of politics. On something like the theory that if I could write a nation’s songs I would be glad to let someone else write its laws, I am inclined to think that it is the space cadets of the comic strip—and their fictional counterparts back to Jules Verne or even Daedalus—who have fired our enthusiasm for the race with the Russians to the moon.” He’s probably right. But then he goes on to make a striking assertion:

That enthusiasm is certainly shared on both sides of the Iron Curtain. But with a difference, and a difference that may be more important to the future of our political system than the amount of money that we spend on space exploration. The difference is that the Soviet space cadet, in sharp contrast to his opposite number in Western science fiction, seems to be very conscious not only that he is in a race for prestige or power with another country, but that he has discovered the key to the use of the scientific method in human affairs. This is the materialist dialectic, which is supposed not merely to let the communist system make the best use of science in technical matters, but to give the scientific intellect a generally dominant role in the society of the future.

My knowledge of Soviet science fiction is regrettably close to zero, so I can’t speak to this argument directly. But I can venture a few observations within my own limited circle of expertise. The idea that the protagonist of science fiction “has discovered the key to the use of scientific method in human affairs” sounds a lot like John W. Campbell, who wanted nothing more than to turn sociology and psychology into provinces of engineering, which would allow scientists to have “a generally dominant role” in the enlightened age to come. Dianetics was conceived as a social movement as well as a therapeutic one, with Campbell and L. Ron Hubbard both openly envisioning a world that would be run by “clears.” A decade earlier, the Foundation series had taken the idea of a science of history and politics to its ultimate conclusion. (Comparisons have often been made between psychohistory and dialectical materialism, to the point where Asimov later felt obliged to state: “I have never read anything by Marx. I have never read anything written about Marxian economics or philosophy.” He was protesting too much—in his late teens, he described himself as a communist, at least to his friends in the Futurians. But any resemblance between the two theories was due less to any direct influence than to their shared dream of a comprehensive science of civilization.) When Price published his book, it may well have been true, as he writes, that “as Isaac Asimov has noted, most contemporary science fiction in America is not utopian, but anti-utopian.” But this was partially a reaction to the optimistic mood of the Campbell years, and the individuals who actually worked on the space program consisted in large part of scientists and engineers who came of age during the golden age of Astounding, just as the next generation would be shaped by the Heinlein juveniles.

It seems perfectly plausible, in short, that science fiction “fired our enthusiasm” for the space race, which both America and Russia came to be see as an expression of national power. The extent to which science fiction inspired us to go to the moon in the first place is up for debate—Campbell certainly believed that it did, and I’d argue that we’re only talking about going to Mars, which otherwise doesn’t seems like an urgent priority, because science fiction got there first. And it’s fair to say that we place an emphasis on manned spaceflight primarily because of the stories that it allows us to tell to ourselves. As I’ve argued before, science fiction set stories in space because it made an exciting backdrop for adventure stories, and it was only after the genre started to take itself seriously as a predictive literature that it began to seem like part of our collective destiny. Even now, its appeal is primarily emotional, not scientific, and if Mars appears so prominently in the rhetoric of our presidents, it’s because its usefulness as a narrative symbol goes beyond politics. (Trump’s proposed budget, significantly, eliminated numerous scientific programs at NASA, including the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope and many earth science missions, while sparing the Space Launch System rocket and Orion crew capsule. The spending bill recently passed by Congress, by contrast, maintains or increases the current levels of funding.) Presidents tell stories to themselves and to the rest of us, and you can learn a lot from how they appropriate the images that their predecessors have used. For Trump, who otherwise displays minimal interest or understanding of science, a mission to Mars fulfills the same role as a border wall or a military parade. It’s a symbol of power, or a plot point in a story in which America plays the role of the competent man. When we hear it from Trump, this seems obvious. But maybe it was never anything else.

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March 23, 2018 at 10:19 am

Quote of the Day

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March 23, 2018 at 7:30 am

The believer

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Note: Spoilers follow for “My Struggle IV,” the eleventh season finale of The X-Files

There are times when I think that The X-Files was the most important thing that ever happened to me. I’m not saying that it carries much weight compared to getting married or having a kid, but as far as pop culture is concerned, if you wanted to go back in time and remove just one piece to cause the maximal change in my life, you couldn’t do any better than this. If I had never seen The Red Shoes or read Jorge Luis Borges or even listened to the Pet Shop Boys, I’d be immeasurably poorer for it, but my overall biography would be more or less unchanged. The X-Files, by contrast, was a determining factor in how I spent my time for years. I wrote fanfic throughout high school and college. My first published short story, “Inversus,” was basically a straight casefile with the names changed, and only a timely rejection of my second effort from Analog editor Stanley Schmidt kept me from trying to turn it into a series. Of all the stories that I’ve published since, at least half fall comfortably into that formula. My three novels don’t have any paranormal elements, but they represented a conscious attempt to recover some of the magic of two government agents unraveling a conspiracy, and even Astounding is a project that never would have occurred to me if I hadn’t spent most of my life writing science fiction in one form or another. Which is all to say that if you managed to distract me so that I didn’t watch “Squeeze” on September 24, 1993—or even “Humbug” a year and a half later—most of this goes away, or at least gets transformed into a form so different that I wouldn’t be able to recognize it.

Yet it’s also a little embarrassing for me to admit this, not just because The X-Files wasn’t always a good show, even in its prime, but also because I don’t remember much about it. It had the longest run of any science fiction series in the history of television, with two hundred and eighteen episodes and two feature films. That’s a staggering amount of content, and it means that there’s more to know about Mulder and Scully, in theory, than about the main characters of any comparable franchise. In practice, that isn’t how it worked out. There are maybe two dozen episodes of the series that I plan on watching again, along with about fifty more that I remember fairly well. The rest consist of a single image, a vague impression, a logline, or more often nothing at all. Most of the mytharc, in particular, has disappeared entirely from my memory. And one of the problems with last night’s season finale—which probably marks the end to the entire series—is that it assumes that its viewers care about elements that the show flagged as important, but never really meant anything to the audience. I don’t recall much about William, or Mulder’s family drama, and I barely even remember Agent Reyes. These are clearly all things that should matter to the characters, and there’s no question that that loss of their child was the major event in Mulder and Scully’s lives. But it isn’t real to me, which is why I spent most of the episode asking myself why it had to be about this at all. (In any case, there’s already a perfect finale to the show, and it’s called “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat.”)

But the eleventh season as a whole exceeded my expectations to an extent that I’m grateful that it exists. Apart from “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster,” the tenth season was uniformly painful to watch—it left me feeling humiliated that I’d invested so much of my life into this series, and nobody, aside from Gillian Anderson and Darin Morgan, seemed to have any idea what they were doing. This past season had one great episode (“Forehead Sweat”) and one that came close (“Rm9sbG93ZXJz”), and apart from the opener and closer, which were disasters, the rest ranged from merely watchable to pretty good. Duchovny looked healthier and more relaxed, there were some nice sentimental moments between the two leads that elevated even routine installments, and there was even an attempt to stir some fresh voices into the mix. The fact that the show seems to be ending now is regrettable, but maybe it’s the best possible outcome. And I can even live with the finale, which offers up a winning bingo card of Chris Carter’s worst impulses. It separates Mulder and Scully for most of its runtime; it scrambles the chronology for no apparent reason; it dwells on pointless action and violence; it drops every plot thread that it raises; it spoils a nice fakeout by repeating it just a few minutes later; and its idea of a happy ending is having Scully announce that she’s pregnant again. (“It’s all she’s good for,” my wife remarked dryly.) But it at least it was bad in all the usual ways, without going out of its way to invent new ones, as much of last season did. And as Scully once said about Robert Patrick Modell, I won’t let it take up another minute of my time.

But The X-Files is a lot like life itself—which is only to say that my relationship to it maps onto everything else that matters. If the golden age of science fiction is twelve, as the fan Peter Graham allegedly said, then the show came along at just the right time to change me forever. If I had been born a few years earlier or later, or if I had been watching a different network, it might have been something else. As it turned out, I got sucked into a show that lasted for the quarter of a century that happened to coincide with most of my teens, twenties, and thirties. If I don’t remember a lot of it, well, I can’t recall much about college or the first two years of being a father, either. I just have bits and pieces, which are enough to make up my memories. Dana Scully is my favorite character on television, but my picture of her is assembled from the handful of episodes that understood what made her special, rather than the countless others that abused or misused her to an extent that we’re only just starting to acknowledge. I view her from only one angle, as I do with most of the people in my life, and I see what I want to believe. Like Darin Morgan, I’ve come to identify more with Mulder as I’ve gotten older, not as an action hero, but as the guy who started his career in a basement and ended it nowhere in particular. But you also have to imagine Mulder, like Sisyphus, as happy. I can’t sum up The X-Files in one sentence, but these days, I see it as a show about how to relate with intelligence and grace to a world that remains unknowable, indifferent, and too complicated to change. Maybe it starts with finding someone you love. The finale wasn’t about this, of course. But it never really had to be.

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March 22, 2018 at 9:01 am

Quote of the Day

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March 22, 2018 at 7:30 am

The Road to Foundation

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As I’ve recounted here before, on August 1, 1941, Isaac Asimov was riding the subway to John W. Campbell’s office in New York when the history of science fiction changed forever. In his memoir In Memory Yet Green, Asimov, who was twenty-one at the time, recalls the moment at which he first conceived of what became the Foundation series:

On the way down I racked my brain for a story idea. Failing, I tried a device I sometimes used. I opened a book at random and then tried free association, beginning with whatever I saw. The book I had with me was a collection of the Gilbert and Sullivan plays. I opened it to Iolanthe—to the picture of the Fairy Queen throwing herself at the feet of Private Willis, the sentry. Thinking of sentries, I thought of soldiers, of military empires, of the Roman Empire—of the Galactic Empire—aha!

For reasons that I’ll discuss below, I’m reasonably sure that the illustration that Asimov describes is the one reproduced above, which was drawn by the lyricist W.S. Gilbert himself. And what strikes me the most about this anecdote now is the fact that Asimov looked at this particular picture, ignored the Fairy Queen entirely, and turned it into a series in which no women of any consequence would appear for years. To make a slightly facetious comparison, if I were a therapist giving Asimov the Thematic Apperception Test, in which the subject is asked to look at a picture and make up a story about it, this is the point at which I would sit up slightly in my chair.

Recently, it occurred to me to try to figure out which book Asimov was carrying on the train that day, if only because it’s interesting to dig into what a writer might have been reading at a given moment. The great model here is John Livingston Lowes’s The Road to Xanadu, which obsessively connects the imagery of “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to the travel narratives that Samuel Coleridge was studying at the time. Asimov, it’s worth noting, was skeptical of Lowes’s approach:

I tried reading the book in my youth, but gave up. It could only interest another Coleridge scholar. Besides, I saw no point to it. Granted that the phrases already existed scattered through a dozen books, they existed for everybody. It was only Coleridge who thought of putting them together, with the necessary modifications, to form one of the great poems of the English language. Coleridge might not have been a hundred percent original but he was original enough to make the poem a work of genius.

But this kind of search can be diverting in itself, and it didn’t take me long to conclude that Asimov’s book was likely to have been Plays and Poems of W.S. Gilbert, which was published by Random House in 1932. As far as I can tell, it’s one of only two books available at the time that included both the lyrics to Iolanthe and the illustrations by Gilbert, and it would have been easy to find. (The other is a book titled Authentic Libretti of the Gilbert and Sullivan Operas, which was published a few years later to coincide with a tour by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, and it doesn’t look like something that Asimov would have brought on the subway.)

The edition, as it happens, is available online for free, and it can be amusing to left through it while keeping the young Asimov in mind. This isn’t literary criticism, exactly, but a kind of scholarly reverie, and it’s valuable primarily for the chain of associations that it evokes. The book opens with a lengthy introduction by Deems Taylor, a music critic and occasional member of the Algonquin Round Table, and I’d like to think that Asimov would have seen aspects of himself in it. For example, here’s Taylor on Gilbert’s early years as a writer:

For a time, his writings, although voluminous, attracted no attention whatsoever. He tried everything—reporting, dramatic criticism, editorials, weekly news letters to provincial papers, political polemics, essays—all the forms of quotidian literature that flow from the pen of any young person who vaguely “wants to write” (a sentence that, appropriately, has no object). The results were financially negligible. Nor did he have the meagre satisfaction of knowing that there were those who were watching him, believing in him. Nobody was watching a young journalistic hack who was no different from scores of his fellows except that he combined a gift for saying cutting things with a complete inability to refrain from saying them.

This sounds a lot like Asimov in the days when he was trying to break into Astounding, and as I thought more about Gilbert and Sullivan themselves, who brought out the best in each other, I saw them for the first time as shadows of Asimov and Campbell in the thirties, of whose partnership the former once wrote: “Campbell and I, in those first three years of my writing career—the crucial and formative ones—were a symbiotic organism.”

But the section that intrigues me the most comes near the end of the introduction. Speaking fondly of the characters of HMS Pinafore, The Mikado and all the rest, Taylor writes:

As this gay, silly, endearing crew skip upon the stage, the sum of all that they say is always the same thing; and it is a romantic thing: That the light of pure reason casts grotesque shadows; that a world in which there is nothing but the letter of the law, and the logical conclusion, and the inevitable deduction, and the axiomatic fact, and the rational course of conduct, is, in the last account, a ridiculous one. Looking at their world, in which there is everything but the truth that lies beyond logic, we perceive that it is, in more ways than one, an impossible world.

It’s hard for me to read this now without reflecting that Asimov was just moments away, as he rode the train to Campbell’s office, from conceiving nothing less than “a world in which there is nothing but the letter of the law, and the logical conclusion, and the inevitable deduction, and the axiomatic fact, and the rational course of conduct,” which would end up dominating much of the rest of his life. And while I’m no expert on Gilbert and Sullivan, viewing the Foundation series through that lens seems like a promising approach. Asimov, as I’ve noted elsewhere, never seems to have been particularly interested in psychohistory, which was mostly Campbell’s invention, and he was more conscious of its limitations than many of its fans are. (In The End of Eternity, Asimov describes a similar group of scientists as a collection of “psychopaths.”) And what Taylor writes of these operettas applies just as well to many of the stories that they inspired: “The sky has cleared, the problems solve themselves, and everything has suddenly turned out all right. Every fundamental axiom of human motive and conduct has been outraged, and we are delighted.”

Quote of the Day

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I started looking in the trash cans of science for such [fractal] phenomena, because I suspected that what I was observing was not an exception but perhaps very widespread. I attended lectures and looked in unfashionable periodicals, most of them of little or no yield, but once in a while finding some interesting things. In a way it was a naturalist’s approach, not a theoretician’s approach. But my gamble paid off.

Benoit Mandelbrot, quoted by James Gleick in Chaos

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March 21, 2018 at 7:30 am

Astounding Stories #20: “Unwillingly to School”

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Note: With less than half a year to go until the publication of Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’m returning, after a long hiatus, to the series in which I highlight works of science fiction that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

In its broad outlines, “Unwillingly to School” looks pretty much like the kind of novella that you’d expect to find in the January 1958 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, with a premise straight out of a Heinlein juvenile. Its narrator is a stubborn teenager working on a small family farm in a mining colony around the star Excenus. Through a series of unlikely developments, the protagonist goes reluctantly to college on earth, displays a few surprising talents, and ends up studying Cultural Engineering, which is the science of intervening discreetly in the development of immature civilizations—all of which is very Campbellian. The difference is that the main character is a nineteen-year-old girl named Lysistrata “Lizzie” Lee, and she speaks in the first person with the kind of distinct, funny voice that rarely made it into the magazine. For instance, here’s a description of visitors to the farm: “Peoples’ wives from Town come out to board some times, Dad lets them because he thinks they will Mother me. Well mostly I manage to steer them off and no hard feelings, it is my home after all they got to be reasonable about it if they want to stay.” And a little later, when Lizzie still thinks that the plan to send her off to college is part of a convoluted trick to get her out of a jam:

We are to go shopping buying some clothes for me to wear on Earth, it seems to me this is carrying realism too far but I do not want any more time in the hotel with nothing to do…M’Clare is all the time trying to get me to talk, he says for instance Have I ever thought about going to College? I say Sure, I count my blessings now and then.

It’s a tightly imagined, utterly engaging story, and John W. Campbell loved it. In his acceptance letter to the author, Pauline Ashwell, who had originally submitted the story under the pseudonym “Paul Ash,” the editor wrote enthusiastically:

I’m taking “Unwillingly to School”; it’s completely delightful and completely unique. On this one, I really feel you should use your own feminine name; only a woman could have achieved that precise presentation of a girl’s enthusiastic, bubbling-with-life, confused, yet strongly directed thinking…I hope you’ll be able to make the London Science Fiction Convention this September; I’ll be there, and I’d enjoy meeting you.

And in the announcement of the contents of the upcoming issue, Campbell described the novella in terms that would have struck longtime readers as unusually glowing:

The lead novelette will be “Unwillingly to School,” by Pauline Ashwell. She is genuinely, no-kidding, a new author, not an old one in a new disguise. There has never been a science-fiction story like this before; I am hopefully praying, however, that Miss Ashwell can repeat and extend the adventures of Lizzie Lee, who must be read to be believed. Lizzie is a teenage girl that I am extremely glad I never met, and delighted to have read about; she’s a menace, and in the course of “Unwillingly to School” she breaks every rule of English grammar, punctuation, and composition I ever heard about, and I think invents a few in order to rebel against them, too. Lizzie is this year’s Christmas present to the readers, from Astounding Science Fiction.

In the end, the response from readers was underwhelming. “Unwillingly to School” ranked third in the monthly Analytical Laboratory poll, behind “All the King’s Horses” by Robert Silverberg and Randall Garrett, a story that was much more typical of what Campbell was publishing in the late fifties. (Both Ashwell and her story did receive Hugo nominations the following year, which wouldn’t be the last time that the tastes of the readers diverged from those of the major awards.) Almost two years later, there was a sequel, “The Lost Kafoozalum,” a likable story that gave up much of Lizzie’s voice—it was basically a Competent Man story with a female lead, which shouldn’t understate how unusual this was. It also ranked third. And on March 25, 1962, Campbell felt obliged to write to Robert A. Heinlein in his rejection of the story that became Podkayne of Mars:

The last yarn we ran which had a teenage girl as the central character was “Unwillingly To School”; it was written by an expert on teenage girls (she had been one; she taught at a girl’s school; she was a biologist-anthropologist—and she could write and had a magnificent sense of humor). It didn’t go over so hot—our readers appear to be less than enthusiastic about the peculiarities of teenage girl’s thinking. That seems to be a reasonable attitude; teenage girls don’t like teenage girls’ thinking either—including their own. They’re inherently frustrated, squeezed thereby into an inferiority complex type of apparent self-satisfaction, are immensely erratic, and utterly undependable.

It’s a shame, because Lizzie was, frankly, a more interesting character than Poddy, and while Ashwell later wrote two more installments in the series in the eighties, which I haven’t read, it would have been nice to see more of her in the sixties.

And the episode gets at something important about Campbell. As an editor, he never had much of an interest in diversifying his writers or characters, at least when it came to race, but he would have been happy to have had more women. His readers, who were overwhelmingly male, weren’t particularly interested, and when such efforts as “Unwillingly to School” failed to make an impression, he dropped it. On some level, this reflects the role that he claimed to see for himself, writing decades earlier: “A magazine is not an autocracy, as readers tend to believe, ruled arbitrarily by an editor’s opinions. It is a democracy by readers’ votes, the editor serving as election board official. The authors are the candidates, their style and stories the platform.” And there’s no question that he listened seriously to feedback from his readers as a whole. On another level, though, it only tells us which battles he was willing to fight. Campbell was more than glad to take on issues that he thought were important, like psionics, and persistently force them onto his audience in the absence of any conceivable demand. He could have chosen to invest the same energy into issues of representation, which could only have elevated the quality of the fiction that he was publishing, but when the readers pushed back, he didn’t press it. That’s more revealing than anything else, and it represents a real loss. Campbell published important work by such authors as Leigh Brackett, Catherine L. Moore, Judith Merril, and Anne McCaffrey, but the magazine mostly lacked straightforward stories like “The Lost Kafoozalum,” in which women appeared without comment as the heroes of the stock gadget and engineering stories that filled the pages of Astounding and Analog. As a result, the migration of women into hard science fiction never really took place, at least not under Campbell’s watch. He wanted it to happen. But not quite badly enough.

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