Alec Nevala-Lee

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The invisible library

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Over the last week, three significant events occurred in the timeline of my book Astounding. The page proofs—the typeset text to which the author can still make minor changes and corrections—were due back at my publisher on Wednesday. Yesterday, I received a boxful of uncorrected advance copies, which look great. And I got paid. This last point might not seem worth mentioning, but it’s an aspect of the process that doesn’t get the attention that it deserves. An advance payment for a book, which is often the only money that a writer ever sees, is usually delivered in three installments. (The breakdown depends on the terms of the contract, but it’s roughly divided into thirds, although the first chunk is generally a little larger than the others, and the middle one tends to be the smallest.) One piece is paid on signing; another on acceptance of the manuscript; and the last on publication. In practice, the payments can get held up for one reason or another, and in my case, nearly two and a half years passed between the first installment and the second. That’s a long time to stretch it out. And it points to one of the challenges of the publishing industry, which is that it’s survivable only by writers who have either an alternative source of income or a robust support structure. This naturally limits the kinds of voices and the range of subjects that it can accommodate. I don’t think that I could have written this book in under three years if I had been working a regular job, and the fact that I managed to pull it off at all was thanks to luck, good timing, and a very patient spouse.

But it also provided me with fresh insight into one of my great unanswered questions about this project, which was why no one had ever done it before. A biography of John W. Campbell seemed like such an obvious and necessary book that I was amazed to realize that it didn’t exist, and it was that moment of realization that inspired this whole enterprise. If anything like it had been attempted in the past, even in an obscure academic publication, I don’t think I would have tackled it in the first place. One explanation for its absence is that the best time for such a book would have been in the late seventies, when such writers as Isaac Asimov and Frederik Pohl were publishing their memoirs, and by the time various obstacles had been sorted out, its moment had come and gone. And it’s also true that Campbell’s life presents particular challenges that might dissuade potential biographers. It would have been a tough project for anyone, and one of my advantages may have been that I underestimated the difficulties that it would present. But the simple fact, as I’ve come to appreciate, is that the odds are against any book seeing the light of day. This one hinged on a combination of factors so unlikely that I have trouble believing it myself, and if just one of those pieces had failed to fall into place, it never would have happened. Maybe someone else would have tried again a decade from now, but I’m not sure. If it seems inevitable to me now, that’s another reason to reflect on the many books that have yet to be written. (Even within the field of science fiction, there are staggering omissions. There’s no biography or study of Leigh Brackett, for instance, and I strongly encourage someone else to pitch it before I do.) This book exists, which is a miracle in itself. But for every book that sees print, there’s an invisible library of unwritten—and equally worthy—books behind it.

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May 18, 2018 at 8:33 am

The stuff of thought

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On December 4, 1972, the ocean liner SS Statendam sailed from New York to Florida, where its passengers would witness the launch of Apollo 17, the final manned mission to the moon. The guests on the cruise included Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Frederik Pohl, Theodore Sturgeon, Norman Mailer, Katherine Anne Porter, and the newscaster Hugh Downs. It’s quite a story, and I’ve written about it elsewhere at length. What I’d like to highlight today, though, is what was happening a few miles away on shore, as Tom Wolfe recounts in the introduction to the paperback edition of The Right Stuff:

This book grew out of some ordinary curiosity. What is it, I wondered, that makes a man willing to sit up on top of an enormous Roman candle, such as a Redstone, Atlas, Titan, or Saturn rocket, and wait for someone to light the fuse? I decided on the simplest approach possible. I would ask a few astronauts and find out. So I asked a few in December of 1972 when they gathered at Cape Canaveral to watch the last mission to the moon, Apollo 17. I discovered quickly enough that none of them, no matter how talkative otherwise, was about to answer the question or even linger for more than a few seconds on the subject at the heart of it, which is to say, courage.

Wolfe’s “ordinary curiosity” led him to tackle a project that would consume him for the better part of a decade, driven by his discovery of “a rich and fabulous terrain that, in a literary sense, had remained as dark as the far side of the moon for more than half a century: military flying and the modern American officer corps.”

And my mind sometimes turns to the contrast between Wolfe, trying to get the astronauts to open up about their experiences, and the writers aboard the Statendam. You had Mailer, of course, who had written his own book on the moon, and the result was often extraordinary. It was more about Mailer himself than anything else, though, and during the cruise, he seemed more interested in laying out his theory of the thanatosphere, an invisible region around the moon populated by the spirits of the dead. Then you had such science fiction writers as Heinlein and Asimov, who would occasionally cross paths with real astronauts, but whose fiction was shaped by assumptions about the competent man that had been formed decades earlier. Wolfe decided to go to the source, but even he kept the pulps at the back of his mind. In his introduction, speaking of the trend in military fiction after World War I, he observes:

The only proper protagonist for a tale of war was an enlisted man, and he was to be presented not as a hero but as Everyman, as much a victim of war as any civilian. Any officer above the rank of second lieutenant was to be presented as a martinet or a fool, if not an outright villain, no matter whom he fought for. The old-fashioned tale of prowess and heroism was relegated to second- and third-rate forms of literature, ghostwritten autobiographies, and stories in pulp magazines on the order of Argosy and Bluebook.

Wolfe adds: “Even as late as the 1930s the favorite war stories in the pulps concerned World War I pilots.” And it was to pursue “the drama and psychology” of this mysterious courage in the real world that he wrote The Right Stuff.

The result is a lasting work of literary journalism, as well as one of the most entertaining books ever written, and we owe it to the combination of Wolfe’s instinctive nose for a story and his obsessiveness in following it diligently for years. Last year, in a review of John McPhee’s new collection of essays, Malcolm Harris said dryly: “I would recommend Draft No. 4 to writers and anyone interested in writing, but no one should use it as a professional guide uncritically or they’re liable to starve.” You could say much the same about Wolfe, who looks a lot like the kind of journalist we aren’t likely to see again, in part because the market has changed, but also because this kind of luck can be hard for anyone to sustain over the course of a career. Wolfe hit the jackpot on multiple occasions, but he also spent years on books that nobody read—Back to Blood, his last novel, cost its publisher a hundred dollars for every copy that it sold. (Toward the end, he could even seem out of his depth. It probably isn’t a coincidence that I never read I Am Charlotte Simmons, a novel about “Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Duke, and a few other places all rolled into one” that was published a few years after I graduated from college. Wolfe’s insights into undergraduate life, delivered with his customary breathlessness, didn’t seem useful for understanding an experience that I had just undergone, and I’ve never forgotten the critic who suggested that the novel should have been titled I Am Easily Impressed.)

But that’s also the kind of risk required to produce major work. Wolfe’s movement from nonfiction to novels still feels like a loss, and I think that it deprived us of two or three big books of the kind that he could write better than anyone else. (It’s too bad that he never wrote anything about science fiction, which is a subject that could only be grasped by the kind of writer who could produce both The Right Stuff and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.) Yet it isn’t always the monumental achievements that matter. In fact, when I think of what Wolfe has meant to me, it’s his offhand critical comments that have stuck in my head. The short introduction that he wrote to a collection of James M. Cain’s novels, in which he justifiably praised Cain’s “momentum,” has probably had a greater influence on my own style—or at least my aspirations for it—than any other single piece of criticism. His description of Umberto Eco as “a very good example of a writer who leads dozens of young writers into a literary cul-de-sac” is one that I’ll always remember, mostly because he might have been speaking of me. In college, I saw him give a reading once, shortly before the release of the collection Hooking Up. I was struck by his famous white suit, of course, but what I’ll never forget is the moment, just before he began to read, when he reached into his inside pocket and produced a pair of reading glasses—also spotlessly white. It was a perfect punchline, with the touch of the practiced showman, and it endeared Wolfe to me at times when I grew tired of his style and opinions. His voice and his ambition inspired many imitators, but at his best, it was the small stuff that set him apart.

Bringing the news

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“I think there is a tremendous future for a sort of novel that will be called the journalistic novel or perhaps documentary novel, novels of intense social realism based upon the same painstaking reporting that goes into the New Journalism,” the journalist Tom Wolfe wrote in Esquire in 1973. This statement is justifiably famous, and if you think that Wolfe, who passed away yesterday, was making a declaration of intent, you’d be right. In the very next sentence, however, which is quoted much less often, Wolfe added a line that I find tremendously revealing: “I see no reason why novelists who look down on Arthur Hailey’s work couldn’t do the same sort of reporting and research he does—and write it better, if they’re able.” It might seem strange for Wolfe to invoke the author of Hotel and Airport, but two years later, in a long interview with the writer and critic Joe David Bellamy, he doubled down. After Bellamy mentioned Émile Zola as a model for the kind of novel that Wolfe was advocating, the two men had the following exchange:

Wolfe: The fact that [Zola] was bringing you news was a very important thing.

Bellamy: Do you think that’s enough? Isn’t that Arthur Hailey really?

Wolfe: That’s right, it is. The best thing is to have both—to have both someone who will bring you bigger and more exciting chunks of the outside world plus a unique sensibility, or rather a unique way of looking at the world.

I’m surprised that this comparison hasn’t received greater attention, because it gets at something essential about Wolfe’s mixed legacy as a novelist. As an author, Wolfe hovered around the edges of my reading and writing life for decades. In high school, I read The Right Stuff and loved it—it’s hard for me to imagine an easier book to love. After I graduated from college, I landed a job at a financial firm in New York, and the first novel that I checked out from the library that week was The Bonfire of the Vanities. A few years later, I read A Man in Full, and not long ago, when I was thinking seriously about writing a nonfiction book about The Whole Earth Catalog, I read Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. In each case, I was looking for something more than simple entertainment. I was looking for information, or, in Wolfe’s words, for “news.” It was a cultural position for which Wolfe had consciously prepared himself, as he declared in his famous essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast.” Speaking of the big social novels that had supposedly failed to emerge from the sixties, Wolfe wrote:

That task, as I see it, inevitably involves reporting, which I regard as the most valuable and least understood resource available to any writer with exalted ambitions, whether the medium is print, film, tape, or the stage. Young writers are constantly told, “Write about what you know.” There is nothing wrong with that rule as a starting point, but it seems to get quickly magnified into an unspoken maxim: The only valid experience is personal experience.

As counterexamples, Wolfe cited Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Balzac, Zola, and Lewis as writers who “assumed that the novelist had to go beyond his personal experience and head out into society as a reporter.” But he didn’t mention Arthur Hailey.

Yet when I think back to Wolfe’s novels, I’m left with the uncomfortable sense that when you strip away his unique voice, you’re left with something closer to Hailey or Irving Wallace—with their armfuls of facts, stock characters, and winking nods to real people and events—than to Dickens. That voice was often remarkable, of course, and to speak of removing it, as if it weren’t bound up in the trapezius muscles of the work itself, is inherently ludicrous. But it was also enough to prevent many readers from noticing Wolfe’s very real limits as an imaginative writer. When A Man in Full was greeted by dismissive comments from Norman Mailer, John Irving, and John Updike, who accurately described it as “entertainment,” Wolfe published a response, “My Three Stooges,” in which he boasted about the novel’s glowing reviews and sales figures and humbly opined that the ensuing backlash was like “nothing else…in all the annals of American literature.” He wrote of his critics:

They were shaken. It was as simple as that. A Man in Full was an example—an alarmingly visible one—of a possible, indeed, the likely new direction in late-twentieth and early-twenty-first-century literature: the intensely realistic novel, based upon reporting, that plunges wholeheartedly into the social reality of America today, right now—a revolution in content rather than form—that was about to sweep the arts in America, a revolution that would soon make many prestigious artists, such as our three old novelists, appear effete and irrelevant.

This is grand gossip, even if the entire controversy was swept away a year later by the reception of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, another vast social novel with an accompanying declaration of intent. But it also overlooks the fact that Wolfe’s novels are notably less valuable as reportage than even Updike’s Couples, say, or any of the last three Rabbit books, in which the author diligently left a record of his time, in the form of thousands of closely observed details from the America of the sixties, seventies, and eighties.

And the real irony is that Updike had quietly set himself to the exact task what Wolfe had attempted with much greater fanfare, as Adam Begley notes in his recent biography:

What did [Updike] know about his hero’s new job [in Rabbit is Rich]? What did he know about the business of running a Toyota dealership? As he did for The Coup, he rolled up his sleeves and hit the books. And he also enlisted outside help, hiring a researcher to untangle the arcane protocols of automobile finance and the corporate structure of a dealership—how salesmen are compensated, how many support staff work in the back office, what the salaries are for the various employees, what paperwork is involved in importing foreign cars, and so on. Updike visited showrooms in the Boston area, hunting for tips from salesmen and collecting brochures. He aimed for, and achieved, a level of detail so convincing that the publisher felt obliged to append to a legal boilerplate on the copyright page a specific disclaimer: “No actual Toyota agency in southeastern Pennsylvania is known to the author or in any way depicted herein.”

This is nothing if not reportage, six years before The Bonfire of the Vanities, and not because Updike wanted, in Wolfe’s words, “to cram the world into that novel, all of it,” but in order to tell a story about a specific, utterly ordinary human being. Automobile finance wasn’t as sexy or exotic as Wall Street, which may be why Wolfe failed to acknowledge this. (In Rabbit Redux, instead of writing about the astronauts, Updike wrote about people who seem to barely even notice the moon landing.) Wolfe’s achievements as a journalist are permanent and unquestionable. But we still need the kind of news that the novel can bring, now more than ever, and Wolfe never quite figured out how to do it—even though his gifts were undeniable. Tomorrow, I’ll be taking a closer look at his considerable strengths.

The bedtime story

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Earlier this morning, I finally got my hands on the companion book to James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction, which is airing this month on AMC. Naturally, I immediately looked for references to the four main subjects of Astounding, and the passage that caught my eye first was an exchange between Cameron and Steven Spielberg:

Spielberg: The working title of E.T. was Watch the Skies. Which is sort of the last line from The Thing. I just remember looking at the sky because of the influence of my father, and saying, only good should come from that. If it ain’t an ICBM coming from the Soviet Union, only good should come from beyond our gravitational hold…He was a visionary about that, yet he read all the Analog. Those paperbacks? And Amazing Stories, the paperbacks of that. I used to read that along with him. Sometimes, he’d read those books to me, those little tabloids to me at night.

Cameron: Asimov, Heinlein, all those guys were all published in those pulp magazines.

Spielberg: They were all published in those magazines, and a lot of them were optimists. They weren’t always calculating our doom. They were finding ways to open up our imagination and get us to dream and get us to discover and get us to contribute to the greater good.

The discussion quickly moves on to other subjects, but not before hinting at the solution to a mystery that I’ve been trying to figure out for years, which is why the influence of Astounding and its authors can be so hard to discern in the work of someone like Spielberg. In part, it’s a matter of timing. Spielberg was born in 1946, which means that he would have been thirteen when John W. Campbell announced that that his magazine was changing its title to Analog. As a result, at a point at which he should have been primed to devour science fiction, Spielberg doesn’t seem to have found its current incarnation all that interesting, for which you can hardly blame him. Instead, his emotional associations with the pulps were evidently passed down through his father, Arnold Spielberg, an electrical engineer who worked for General Electric and RCA. The elder Spielberg, remarkably, is still active at the age of 101, and just two months ago, he said in an interview with GE Reports:

I was also influenced by science fiction. There were twins in our neighborhood who read one of the first sci-fi magazines, called Astounding Stories of Science and Fact. They gave me one copy, and when I brought it home, I was hooked. The magazine is now called Analog Science Fiction and Fact, and I still get it.

And while I don’t think that there’s any way of verifying it, if Arnold Spielberg—the father of Steven Spielberg—isn’t the oldest living subscriber to Analog, he must be close.

This sheds light on his son’s career, although perhaps not in the way that you might think. Spielberg is such a massively important figure that his very existence realigns the history of the genre, and when he speaks of his influences, we need to be wary of the shadow cast by his inescapable personality. But there’s no denying the power—and truth—of the image of Arnold Spielberg reading from the pulps aloud to his son. It feels like an image from one of Spielberg’s own movies, which has been shaped from the beginning by the tradition of oral storytelling. (It’s worth noting, though, that the father might recall things differently than the son. In his biography of the director, Joseph McBride quotes Arnold Spielberg: “I’ve been reading science fiction since I was seven years old, all the way back to the earliest Amazing Stories. Amazing, Astounding, Analog—I still subscribe. I still read ’em. My kids used to complain, ‘Dad’s in the bathroom with a science-fiction magazine. We can’t get in.'”) For Spielberg, the stories seem inextricably linked with the memory of being taken outside by his father to look at the stars:

My father was the one that introduced me to the cosmos. He’s the one who built—from a big cardboard roll that you roll rugs on—a two-inch reflecting telescope with an Edmund Scientific kit that he had sent away for. [He] put this telescope together, and then I saw the moons of Jupiter. It was the first thing he pointed out to me. I saw the rings of Saturn around Saturn. I’m six, seven years old when this all happened.

Spielberg concludes: “Those were the stories, and just looking up at the sky, that got me to realize, if I ever get a chance to make a science fiction movie, I want those guys to come in peace.”

But it also testifies to the ways in which a strong personality will take exactly what it needs from its source material. Elsewhere in the interview, there’s another intriguing reference:

Spielberg: I always go for the heart first. Of course, sometimes I go for the heart so much I get a little bit accused of sentimentality, which I’m fine [with] because…sometimes I need to push it a little further to reach a little deeper into a society that is a little less sentimental than they were when I was a young filmmaker.

Cameron: You pushed it in the same way that John W. Campbell pushed science fiction [forward] from the hard-tech nerdy guys who had to put PhD after their name to write science fiction. It was all just about the equations and the math and the physics [and evolved to become much more] human stories [about] the human heart.

I see what Cameron is trying to say here, but if you’ve read enough of the magazine that turned into Analog, this isn’t exactly the impression that it leaves. It’s true that Campbell put a greater emphasis than most of his predecessors on characterization, at least in theory, but the number of stories that were about “the human heart” can be counted on two hands, and none were exactly Spielbergian—although they might seem that way when filtered through the memory of his father’s voice. And toward the end, the nerds took over again. In Dangerous Visions, which was published in 1967, Harlan Ellison wrote of “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.” It was the latter version of the magazine that Spielberg would have seen as a boy—which may be why, when the time came, he made a television show called Amazing Stories.

The long now

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In early 1965, Tom Wolfe noticed a book on the shelves of Ken Kesey’s house in La Honda, California, which had become a gathering place for the young, mostly affluent hippies whom the journalist had dubbed “the Beautiful People.” In Kesey’s living room, “a curious little library” was growing, as Wolfe recounts in typically hyperbolic fashion in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test:

Books of science fiction and other mysterious things, and you could pick up almost any of these books and find strange vibrations. The whole thing here is so much like…this book on Kesey’s shelf, Robert Heinlein’s novel, Stranger in a Strange Land. It is bewildering. It is as if Heinlein and the Pranksters were bound together by some inexplicable acausal connecting bond. This is a novel about a Martian who comes to earth, a true Superhero, in fact…raised by infinitely superior beings, the Martians. Beings on other plants are always infinitely superior in science fiction novels. Anyway, around him gathers a mystic brotherhood, based on a mysterious ceremony known as water-sharing. They live in—La Honda! At Kesey’s! Their place is called the Nest. Their life transcends all the usual earthly games of status, sex, and money. No one who once shares water and partakes of life in the Nest ever cares about such banal competitions again. There is a pot of money inside the front door, provided by the Superhero…Everything is totally out front in the Nest—no secrets, no guilt, no jealousies, no putting anyone down for anything.

He closes with a string of quotations from the character Jubal Harshaw, who had affinities to Wolfe himself, including the skeptical but grudgingly admiring line: “Ain’t nobody here but [just] us gods.”

One member of Kesey’s circle who undoubtedly read the novel was Stewart Brand, my hero, who pops up in Wolfe’s book as an “Indian freak” and later founded The Whole Earth Catalog, which became famous for a similar declaration of intent: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” (As I retype it now, it’s that one italicized word that strikes me the most, as if Brand were preemptively replying to Wolfe and his other detractors.) Much later, in the celebrated essay “We Owe it All to the Hippies,” Brand writes:

We all read Robert Heinlein’s epic Stranger in a Strange Land as well as his libertarian screed-novel, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Hippies and nerds alike reveled in Heinlein’s contempt for centralized authority. To this day, computer scientists and technicians are almost universally science-fiction fans. And ever since the 1950s, for reasons that are unclear to me, science fiction has been almost universally libertarian in outlook.

Heinlein and his circle don’t figure prominently in the Catalog, in which the work of fiction that receives the most attention is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. But Brand later recommended the Foundation trilogy as part of the Manual for Civilization collection at the Long Now Foundation, which may have been a subtle hint to its true intentions. In the Foundation series, after all, the writing of the Encyclopedia Galactica is an elaborate mislead, a pretext to build an organization that will ultimately be turned to other ends.  An even better excuse might be the construction and maintenance of an enormous clock designed to last for ten thousand years—an idea that is obviously too farfetched for fiction. In an interview, Brand’s friend Kevin Kelly protested too much: “We’re not trying to be Hari Seldon from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation.” Yeah, right.

Brand himself was only tangentially inspired by science fiction, and his primarily exposure to it was evidently through the remarkable people with whom he surrounded himself. In his book The Media Lab, which was published in 1988, Brand asks the roboticist Marvin Minsky why he’s so interested in science fiction writers, and he quotes from the answer at length:

Well, I think of them as thinkers. They try to figure out the consequences and implications of things in as thoughtful a way as possible. A couple of hundred years from now, maybe Isaac Asimov and Fred Pohl will be considered the important philosophers of the twentieth century, and the professional philosophers will almost all be forgotten, because they’re just shallow and wrong, and their ideas aren’t very powerful. Whenever Pohl or Asimov writes something, I regard it as extremely urgent to read it right away. They might have a new idea. Asimov has been working for forty years on this problem: if you can make an intelligent machine, what kind of relations will it have with people? How do you negotiate when their thinking is so different? The science fiction writers think about what it means to think.

Along with Asimov and Pohl, Brand notes, the other writers whom Minsky studied closely included Arthur C. Clarke, Heinlein, Gregory Benford, James P. Hogan, John W. Campbell, and H.G. Wells. “If Minsky had his way,” Brand writes, “there would always be a visiting science fiction writer in resident at the Media Lab.” In practice, that’s more or less how it worked out—Campbell was a frequent visitor, as was Asimov, who said that Minsky was one of the handful of people, along with Carl Sagan, whom he acknowledged as being more intelligent than he was.

To be honest, I doubt that Asimov and Pohl will ever be remembered as “the important philosophers of the twentieth century,” although if they might have a better shot if you replace “philosophers” with “futurologists.” It seems a reasonably safe bet that the Three Laws of Robotics, which Campbell casually tossed out in his office for Asimov to develop, will be remembered longer than the vast majority of the work being produced by the philosophy departments of that era. But even for Kesey, Brand, and all the rest, the relationship was less about influence than about simple proximity. When Wolfe speaks of “an acausal connecting bond” between Heinlein and the Merry Pranksters, he’s consciously echoing the subtitle of Carl Jung’s Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle, which may be the best way to think about it. During moments of peak cultural intensity, ideas are simultaneously developed by different communities in ways that may only occasionally intersect. (On April 6, 1962, for instance, Asimov wrote to Campbell to recommend that he investigate the video game Spacewar, which had been developed just two months earlier at MIT. Campbell spent the next decade trying to get an article on it for Analog, which Albert W. Kuhfeld finally wrote up for the July 1971 issue. A year later, Brand wrote a piece about it for Rolling Stone.) And Brand himself was keenly aware of the costs of such separation. In The Media Lab, he writes:

Somewhere in my education I was misled to believe that science fiction and science fact must be kept rigorously separate. In practice they are so blurred together they are practically one intellectual activity, although the results are published differently, one kind of journal for careful scientific reporting, another kind for wicked speculation.

In 1960, Campbell tried to tear down those barriers in a single audacious move, when he changed the title of his magazine from Astounding to Analog Science Fact & Fiction. For most of his career, Brand has been doing the same thing, only far more quietly. But I have a hunch that his approach may be the one that succeeds.

The Magic People

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As I wrap up work on Astounding, I’m more aware than ever of the book that I didn’t write, and all the great stories that I was forced to leave out of the finished version for reasons of time or space. One figure whom I wasn’t able to mention was John Cooke, an occultist whose fascinating life brought him into contact with many of the players about whom I’ve written here in the past. Cooke, who was born into an affluent family in Hawaii in 1920, developed an interest at an early age in tarot cards and the Ouija board. His first wife, Millen Cooke, wrote for such magazines as Weird Tales, Amazing Stories, and Other Worlds Science Stories, and along with many other authors and fans in the early fifties, she was fascinated by dianetics, to the extent that she impulsively flew from California to New York to visit the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation. (This was evidently in 1951, when the foundation relocated from New Jersey to a new headquarters on 55 East 82nd Street in Manhattan to head off potential legal trouble, as early collaborator Don Rogers reveals in the letters that were recently posted on Tony Ortega’s blog.) Cooke was annoyed by her abrupt departure, but after driving across the country, he became equally involved. In the book Acid Dreams, the authors Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain claim that Cooke became “the first ‘clear’ in America,” which seems unlikely—although it speaks to the intensity of his connection to Hubbard’s ideas, as well as the way in which dianetics tended to take root in existing communities where science fiction and the occult intersected.

After his divorce from Millen, Cooke married a woman named Mary Oser, whom he met through their mutual interest in dianetics. In One Nation, Under Gods, Peter Manseau writes of the couple, who settled in England:

While in London, they were known to wear flowing African robes they had acquired throughout their travels, and passed the days often in the company of L. Ron Hubbard himself. During their meetings, they discussed John’s magical abilities and memories of past life experiences, and Hubbard’s “science of the mind” began to take on a cosmic dimension.

From there, they moved to Morocco, where they served, in Manseu’s account, as “missionaries of Hubbard’s increasingly supernatural notions.” What happened next is a matter of dispute. According to an article by Mark Walker, who hopes to write a biography of Cooke in collaboration with the occultist’s son Chamba:

L. Ron Hubbard reportedly tracked down Cooke in Tangier. Hubbard made a trip to London in 1952 to set up a dianetics center, and it may have been on this trip that he met with Cooke. The meeting was not propitious and in the space of a single afternoon, Cooke grew disillusioned with Hubbard and his teachings. According to Michael Bowen, Hubbard came to Cooke with a tale of woe at how the dianetics business had failed, and Cooke advised him to relaunch it as a religion. This was precisely what Hubbard did after moving to Phoenix, Arizona in March 1952.

The notion that Cooke advised Hubbard to convert Scientology into a religion is undoubtedly apocryphal—John W. Campbell, among others, also took credit for the idea, which was really the product of a complex confluence of factors. And there are competing accounts of Cooke’s “disillusionment.” In Tangier, after the alleged meeting with Hubbard took place, Cooke developed a case of polio that cost him the use of his legs, which he claimed was the result of a magical attack. Manseau writes:

When news of the diagnosis—paralytic poliomyelitis—reached London, L. Ron Hubbard likely supposed that an engram must have been the true cause of Cooke’s affliction…The Cookes hoped the top Scientologist himself would materialize in Tangier to tend to his friend, but Hubbard instead dispatched one of his highest-ranking auditors to see what “the process” could do for one of its earliest adherents.

The auditor was an Australian named Jim Skelton, who, according to Chamba Cooke, “was able to push the polio paralysis back down John’s trunk from his heart, but was unable to make it go any further. Skelton told Hubbard that the method Hubbard taught him was not fully effective; Hubbard countered that Skelton was not performing the method correctly. This contributed to Skelton splitting from Hubbard.” Manseau states that this incident was the real reason that Cooke fell out with Hubbard, although he continued to practice certain aspects of dianetics on his own.

So far, this story resembles many other anecdotes from this period, with unusual personalities—like A.E. van Vogt—being drawn into Hubbard’s circle and then becoming disillusioned or worse. Yet it’s the sequel that intrigues me the most. While in Morocco, the Cookes met Brion Gysin, who was running a restaurant in Tangier. In the biography Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted, John Geiger writes of their first meeting:

[John and Mary Cooke] were early adherents of the science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard…Cooke had shaved his head and wore a closely cropped beard. His first words to Gysin were “Guess where we came from and guess who we are?” Gysin could not possibly have guessed. The couple had traveled from Algeria, and claimed they were directed to him by their Ouija board. “They just came flooding in giving me the impression that they were really Magic People, and they had all of these things at their fingertips…most particularly money.”

Through Gysin, they met William S. Burroughs, whom the Cookes introduced to Scientology. In Rub Out the Words, a collection of the author’s correspondence, there are several fascinating letters between Burroughs and Cooke, including one in which the latter writes: “It would seem that Hubbard is putting down his third-rate science fiction as the one and only cosmos.” (This is the same letter that reveals that Burroughs was familiar with the OT III material, complete with a reference to “galactic federations and Zmus [sic].”) After Cooke returned to America, he became involved with such countercultural icons as Bowen and Timothy Leary, who referred to him as “the great crippled wizard.” Cooke was one of those indispensable connectors who pass ideas between communities of outsiders, and it may have been through him that aspects of dianetics entered the counterculture—another important story that has yet to be told. As Cooke allegedly once said to Burroughs: “I hope I am there to help [Hubbard] over the hump, even though he failed me when I needed him.”

The ghost story

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Back in March, I published a post here about the unpleasant personal life of Saul Bellow, whose most recent biographer, Zachary Leader, has amply documented the novelist’s physical violence toward his second wife Sondra Tschacbasov. After Bellow discovered the affair between Tschacbasov and his good friend Jack Ludwig, however, he contemplated something even worse, as James Atlas relates in his earlier biography: “At the Quadrangle Club in Chicago a few days later, Bellow talked wildly of getting a gun.” And I was reminded of this passage while reading an even more horrifying account in D.T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, about the writer’s obsession with the poet and memoirist Mary Karr:

Wallace’s literary rebirth [in the proposal for Infinite Jest] did not coincide with any calming of his convention that he had to be with Karr. Indeed, the opposite. In fact, one day in February, he thought briefly of committing murder for her. He called an ex-con he knew through his recovery program and tried to buy a gun. He had decided he would wait no longer for Karr to leave her husband; he planned to shoot him instead when he came into Cambridge to pick up the family dog. The ex-con called Larson, the head of [the addiction treatment center] Granada House, who told Karr. Wallace himself never showed up for the handover and thus ended what he would later call in a letter of apology “one of the scariest days in my life.” He wrote Larson in explanation, “I now know what obsession can make people capable of”—then added in longhand after—“at least of wanting to do.” To Karr at the time he insisted that the whole episode was an invention of the ex-con and she believed him.

Even at a glance, there are significant differences between these incidents. Bellow had treated Tschacbasov unforgivably, but his threat to buy a gun was part of an outburst of rage at a betrayal by his wife and close friend, and there’s no evidence that he ever tried to act on it—the only visible outcome was an episode in Herzog. Wallace, by contrast, not only contemplated murdering a man whose wife he wanted for himself, but he took serious steps to carry it out, and when Karr heard about it, he lied to her. By any measure, it’s the more frightening story. Yet they do have one striking point in common, which is the fact that they don’t seem to have inspired much in the way of comment or discussion. I only know about the Wallace episode because of a statement by Karr from earlier this week, in which she expressed her support for the women speaking out against Junot Díaz and noted that the violence that she experienced from Wallace was described as “alleged” by D.T. Max and The New Yorker. In his biography, Max writes without comment: “One night Wallace tried to push Karr from a moving car. Soon afterward, he got so mad at her that he threw her coffee table at her.” When shown these lines by a sympathetic reader on Twitter, Karr responded that Wallace also kicked her, climbed up the side of her house, and followed her five-year-old son home from school, and that she had to change her phone number twice to avoid him. Max, she said, “ignored” much of it, even though she showed him letters in Wallace’s handwriting confessing to his behavior. (In his original article in The New Yorker, Max merely writes: “One day, according to Karr, [Wallace] broke her coffee table.” And it wasn’t until years later that he revealed that Wallace had “broken” the table by throwing it at her.)

There’s obviously a lot to discuss here, but for reasons of my own, I’d like to approach it from the perspective of a biographer. I’ve just finished writing a biography about four men who were terrible husbands, in their own ways, to one or more wives, and I’m also keenly aware of how what seems like an omission can be the result of unseen pressures operating elsewhere in—or outside—the book. Yet Max has done himself no favors. In an interview with The Atlantic that has been widely shared, he speaks of Wallace’s actions with an aesthetic detachment that comes off now as slightly chilling:

One thing his letters make you feel is that he thought the word was God, and words were always worth putting down. Even in a letter to the head of his halfway house—where he apologizes for contemplating buying a gun to kill the writer Mary Karr’s husband—the craftsmanship of that letter is quite remarkable. You read it like a David Foster Wallace essay…I didn’t know that David had that [violence] in him. I was surprised, in general, with the intensity of violence in his personality. It was something I knew about him when I wrote the New Yorker piece, but it grew on me. It made me think harder about David and creativity and anger. But on the other end of the spectrum, he was also this open, emotional guy, who was able to cry, who intensely loved his dogs. He was all those things. That, in part, is why he’s a really fascinating guy and an honor to write about.

Max tops it off by quoting a “joke” from a note by Wallace: “Infinite Jest was just a means to Mary Karr’s end.” He helpfully adds: “A sexual pun.”

It’s no wonder that Karr is so furious, but if anything, I’m more impressed by her restraint. Karr is absurdly overqualified to talk about problems of biography, and there are times when you can feel her holding herself back. In her recent book The Art of Memoir, she writes in a chapter titled “The Truth Contract Twixt Writer and Reader”:

Forget how inventing stuff breaks a contract with the reader, it fences the memoirist off from the deeper truths that only surface in draft five or ten or twenty. Yes, you can misinterpret—happens all the time. “The truth ambushes you,” Geoffrey Wolff once said…But unless you’re looking at actual lived experience, the more profound meanings will remain forever shrouded. You’ll never unearth the more complex truths, the ones that counter that convenient first take on the past. A memoirist forging false tales to support his more comfortable notions—or to pump himself up for the audience—never learns who he is. He’s missing the personal liberation that comes from the examined life.

Replace “memoirist” with “biographer,” and you’re left with a sense of what was lost when Max concluded that Wallace’s violence only made him “a really fascinating guy and an honor to write about.” I won’t understate the difficulty of coming to terms with the worst aspects of one’s subject, and even Karr herself writes: “I still try to err on the side of generosity toward any character.” But it feels very much like a reluctance to deal honestly with facts that didn’t fit into the received notions of Wallace’s “complexity.” It can be hard to confront those ghosts. But not every ghost story has to be a love story.

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