Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Men Who Saw Tomorrow, Part 2

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In the early forties, William Anthony Parker White—who used the pen name “Anthony Boucher”—was a successful mystery novelist, a noted Sherlockian, and a member in good standing of the Mañana Literary Society of Los Angeles. On May 12, 1941, he submitted an article to John W. Campbell that he hoped their mutual friend, Robert A. Heinlein, had been “kind enough to mention.” In his cover letter, Boucher wrote:

This is an attempt to interpret Nostradamus in the light of present events and to go even further and take a chance on the immediate future…It is (so far as I know) the only completely honest contemporary interpretation of the prophecies. The film shorts and the popularizers have cheated right and left—misquoted, mistranslated, cut, transposed, amalgamated, and what have you. It’s startling enough without cheating, and a damned sight more impressive.

By “film shorts,” Boucher was presumably referring to such newsreels as “More About Nostradamus,” produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which loosely applied the French seer’s prophecies to the ongoing war in Europe. Boucher, not unreasonably, thought that he could do better. He proposed that the article run under his real name, but Campbell evidently saw his background in mystery fiction as a selling point, and on the cover of the issue in which the piece ran, the editor made the connection clear: “Nostradamus the Prophet…named names and places—and has been proven incredibly accurate. What specific prophecies did he make concerning our time? A famous author of detective stories does a little analyzing of the clues Nostradamus left.”

The result was “On a Limb,” a witty article that appeared in the October 1941 issue of the magazine that was then known as Unknown Worlds. Like Campbell, Boucher evokes “time travel” as one possible explanation for Nostradamus’s alleged gifts, and he has an interesting response to the objection of why no one has been able to take advantage of these prophecies to change events before they happen:

The essence of true prophecy is that it must be disbelieved or misinterpreted. If it can be circumvented, it will be false. Cassandra, whom Apollo blessed with prophecy and cursed with an incredulous public, is the perfect archetype of the prophet. Nostradamus realized this. He had first written his prophecies, we gather, clearly and in sequence. Then, foreseeing the impossible contradiction of this procedure, he cast them into cryptic quatrains, in the damnedest French you ever read, and shuffled them out of all time order. As a result, they can usually be interpreted only after the event. Attempts at reading the future result in such catastrophes as Bouys’s confident proof to Napoleon that Nostradamus promised him victory forever, including a satisfactory invasion of England.

And in an editor’s note in the June 1942 issue, Campbell drew a clever comparison: “It was customary, then, to publish a scientific discovery in code, in anagram, in horribly confused allegory, or by depositing a sealed description of the discovery with some trusted friend. That way, while the “publication” didn’t do anybody any good, the discoverer was able, later on when it became general knowledge, or was discovered by someone else, to give the key to his code, anagram, or what have you, and prove that the had been the first discoverer.”

The obvious consequence of such obscurity, as Boucher notes, is that Nostradamus is all but useless when it comes to forecasting events in advance. As a result, the second half of the article, which consists of specific prophecies about what the war will bring, takes the author out on “a long and shaky limb.” (“File this copy of Unknown Worlds away carefully,” Boucher writes dryly. “It may make good reading in another year or two.”) And in retrospect, the results are about as accurate as you might expect. Boucher’s most specific prophecy, based on the line “Because of war, the king will abandon his realm,” was that George VI would flee to Canada after the fall of his prime minister, which is about as wrong as it gets. And Boucher’s claim that one phrase—“la matiere du pont”—refers to armaments produced by the DuPont company seems to have been too much even for Campbell, who wrote in a closing note:

The foregoing article on the prophecies of Nostradamus is thoroughly incredible. Nostradamus’ prophecies were thoroughly incredible—in the degree of their accuracy. Somehow it seems easier to believe that a man might successfully predict the movements and broad sweeps of the histories of nations than that one, two, or four centuries before it happens, the individual directly involved can be named…That seems, somehow, beyond the realm of prophecy. That Nostradamus could name…a particular corporation, specifying one of the products of that corporation, seems even more improbable…Anagrams and puns do exist in Nostradamus; to read from his quatrains the names and exact circumstances seems much as though the interpreter were finding in them things the author had not put there.

But what really caught my eye is the italicized section above. At precisely the same time that Campbell was editing Boucher’s article, he was discussing psychohistory with Isaac Asimov, who was about to write in the original story “Foundation”: “A great psychologist such as [Hari] Seldon could unravel human emotions and human reactions sufficiently to be able to predict broadly the historical sweep of the future.” And I strongly suspect that Campbell’s treatment of prediction in Unknown affected its much more famous incarnation in Astounding. As I’ve noted before, in “Foundation,” psychohistory is presented less as a specific method than as a claim about results. We aren’t told the first thing about how it works, and not even the characters seem especially clear on the concept. (As one says blandly to another: “Seldon was the greatest psychologist of our time…It seems reasonable to assume that he used his science to determine the probable course of the history of the immediate future.” And that’s all we get, apart from the flat assertion that Seldon “could easily have worked out the historical trends of the future by simple psychological technique.”) Since the claim had to stand on its own, it had to be plausible in itself—which means that it could only apply to “the broad sweep” of events, and it couldn’t be too specific. As Campbell understood about Nostradamus, a system that was able to generate names and dates seemed to fall outside the realm of credible science. And Nostradamus certainly wasn’t useful in the way that psychohistory was supposed to be. In the June 1942 issue, Boucher granted that most of his earlier prophecies had been wrong, or remained unfulfilled, and he reminded readers of a point that he had made earlier:

Prophecy is of no practical value. Its interest lies solely in its appeal to intellectual curiosity and in its possible use as evidence of some extrasensory power latent in mankind. Interpreting prophecies concerning the past is a task for an abstract scholar. Attempting to apply prophecies to the future is nothing but a game.

But the game wasn’t quite over yet. Tomorrow, I’ll be talking about two more players who appeared at slightly different stages. One was L. Sprague de Camp. The other was Orson Welles.

Written by nevalalee

November 1, 2018 at 9:29 am

One Response

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  1. Nice novel book story very interesting i am glad to read

    nicholasonline13

    November 1, 2018 at 9:42 am


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