Alec Nevala-Lee

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Bester of both worlds

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Note: To celebrate the World Science Fiction Convention this week in San Jose, I’m republishing a few of my favorite pieces on various aspects of the genre. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on August 11, 2017.

In 1963, the editor Robert P. Mills put together an anthology titled The Worlds of Science Fiction, for which fifteen writers—including Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Ray Bradbury—were invited to contribute one of their favorite stories. Mills also approached Alfred Bester, the author of the classic novels The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination, who declined to provide a selection, explaining: “I don’t like any of [my stories]. They’re all disappointments to me. This is why I rarely reread my old manuscripts; they make me sick. And when, occasionally, I come across a touch that pleases me, I’m convinced that I never wrote it—I believe that an editor added it.” When Mills asked if he could pick a story that at least gave him pleasure in the act of writing it, Bester responded:

No. A writer is extremely schizophrenic; he is both author and critic. As an author he may have moments of happiness while he’s creating, but as a critic he is indifferent to his happiness. It cannot influence his merciless appraisal of his work. But there’s an even more important reason. The joy you derive from creating a piece of work has no relationship to the intrinsic value of the work. It’s a truism on Broadway that when an actor particularly enjoys the performance he gives, it’s usually his worst. It’s also true that the story which gives the author the most pain is often his best.

Bester finally obliged with the essay “My Private World of Science Fiction,” which Mills printed as an epilogue. Its centerpiece is a collection of two dozen ideas that Bester plucked from his commonplace book, which he describes as “the heavy leather-bound journal that I’ve been keeping for twenty years.” These scraps and fragments, Bester explains, are his best works, and they inevitably disappoint him when they’re turned into stories. And the bits and pieces that he provides are often dazzling in their suggestiveness: “A circulating brain library in a Womrath’s of the future, where you can rent a brain for any purpose.” “A story about weather smugglers.” “There must be a place where you can go to remember all the things that never happened to you.” And my personal favorite:

The Lefthanded Killer: a tour de force about a murder which (we tell the reader immediately) was committed by a lefthanded killer. But we show, directly or indirectly, that every character is righthanded. The story starts with, “I am the murderer,” and then goes on to relate the mystery, never revealing who the narrator is…The final twist; killer-narrator turns out to be an unborn baby, the survivor of an original pair of twins. The lefthand member killed his righthand brother in the womb. The entire motivation for the strange events that follow is the desire to conceal the crime. The killer is a fantastic and brilliant monster who does not realize that the murder would have gone unnoticed.

Every writer has a collection of story fragments like this—mine takes up a page in a notebook of my own—but few ever publish theirs, and it’s fascinating to wonder at Bester’s motivations for making his unused ideas public. I can think of three possible reasons. The first, and perhaps the most plausible, is that he knew that many of these premises were more interesting in capsule form than when written out as full stories, and so, in acknowledgement of what I’ve called the Borges test, he simply delivered them that way. (He also notes that ideas are cheap: “The idea itself is relatively unimportant; it’s the writer who develops it that makes the big difference…It is only the amateur who worries about ‘his idea being stolen.'”) Another possibility is that he wanted to convey how stray thoughts in a journal like this can mingle and combine in surprising ways, which is one of the high points of any writer’s life:

That’s the wonder of the Commonplace Book; the curious way an incomprehensible note made in 1950 can combine with a vague entry made in 1960 to produce a story in 1970. In A Life in the Day of a Writer, perhaps the most brilliant portrait of an author in action ever painted, Tess Slesinger wrote: “He rediscovered the miracle of something on page twelve tying up with something on page seven which he had not understood when he wrote it…”

Bester concludes of his ideas: “They’ll cross-pollinate, something totally unforeseen will emerge, and then, alas, I’ll have to write the story and destroy it. This is why your best is always what you haven’t written yet.”

Yet the real explanation, I suspect, lies in that line “I’ll have to write the story,” which gets at the heart of Bester’s remarkable career. In reality, Bester is all but unique among major science fiction writers in that he never seemed to “have to write” anything. He contributed short stories to Astounding for a few heady years before World War II, then disappeared for the next decade to do notable work in comic books, radio, and television. Even after he returned, there was a sense that science fiction only occupied part of his attention. He published a mainstream novel, wrote television scripts, and worked as a travel writer and senior editor for the magazine Holiday, and the fact that he had so many ideas that he never used seems to reflect the fact that he only turned to science fiction when he really felt like it. (Bester should have been an ideal writer for John W. Campbell, who, if he could have managed it, would have loved a circle of writers that consisted solely of professional men in other fields who wrote on the side—they were more likely to take his ideas and rewrite to order than either full-time pulp authors or hardcore science fiction fans. And the story of how Campbell alienated Bester over the course of a single meeting is one of the most striking anecdotes from the whole history of the genre.) Most professional writers couldn’t afford to allow their good ideas to go to waste, but Bester was willing to let them go, both because he had other sources of income and because he knew that there was plenty more where that came from. I still think of Heinlein as the genre’s indispensable writer, but Bester might be a better role model, if only because he seemed to understand, rightly, that there were realms to explore beyond the worlds of science fiction.

Written by nevalalee

August 17, 2018 at 9:00 am

Optimizing the future

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Note: To celebrate the World Science Fiction Convention this week in San Jose, I’m republishing a few of my favorite pieces on various aspects of the genre. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on August 10, 2017.

Last year, an online firestorm erupted over a ten-page memo written by James Damore, a twenty-eight-year-old software engineer at Google. Titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” it led to its author being fired a few days later, and the furor took a long time to die down. (Damore filed a class action lawsuit against the company, and his case became a cause célèbre in exactly the circles that you’d expect.) In his memo, Damore essentially argues that the acknowledged gender gap in management and engineering roles at tech firms isn’t due to bias, but to “the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women in part due to biological causes.” In women, these differences include “openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas,” “extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness,” “higher agreeableness,” and “neuroticism,” while men have a “higher drive for status” that leads them to take positions demanding “long, stressful hours that may not be worth it if you want a balanced and fulfilling life.” He summarizes:

I’m not saying that all men differ from women in the following ways or that these differences are “just.” I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership. Many of these differences are small and there’s significant overlap between men and women, so you can’t say anything about an individual given these population level distributions.

Damore quotes a decade-old research paper, which I suspect that he first encountered through the libertarian site Quillette, stating that as “society becomes more prosperous and more egalitarian, innate dispositional differences between men and women have more space to develop and the gap that exists between men and women in their personality becomes wider.” And he concludes: “We need to stop assuming that gender gaps imply sexism.”

When I first heard about the Damore case, it immediately rang a bell. Way back in 1968, a science fiction fan named Ron Stoloff attended the World Science Fiction Convention in Berkeley, where he was disturbed both by the lack of diversity and by the presence of at least one fan costumed as Lt. Uhura in blackface. He wrote up his thoughts in an essay titled “The Negro and Science Fiction,” which was published the following year in the fanzine The Vorpal Sword. (I haven’t been able to track down the full issue, but you can find the first page of his article here.) On May 1, 1969, the editor John W. Campbell wrote Stoloff a long letter objecting to the argument and to the way that he had been characterized. It’s a fascinating document that I wish I could quote in full, but the most revealing section comes after Campbell asks rhetorically: “Look guy—do some thinking about this. How many Negro authors are there in science fiction?” He then answers his own question:

Now consider what effect a biased, anti-Negro editor could have on that. Manuscripts come in by mail from all over the world…I haven’t the foggiest notion what most of the authors look like—and I never yet heard of an editor who demanded a photograph of an author before he’d print his work! Nor demanded a notarized document proving he was write.

If Negro authors are extremely few—it’s solely because extremely few Negroes both wish to, and can, write in open competition. There isn’t any possible field of endeavor where race, religion, and sex make less difference. If there aren’t any individuals of a particular group in the authors’ column—it’s because either they didn’t want to, or weren’t able to. It’s got to be unbiased by the very nature of the process of submission.

Campbell’s argument is fundamentally the same as Damore’s. It states that the lack of black writers in the pages of Analog, like the underrepresentation of women in engineering roles at Google, isn’t due to bias, but because “either they didn’t want to, or weren’t able to.” (Campbell, like Damore, makes a point of insisting elsewhere that he’s speaking of the statistical description of the group as a whole, not of individuals, which strikes him as a meaningful distinction.) Earlier in the letter, however, Campbell inadvertently suggests another explanation for why “Negro authors are extremely few,” and it doesn’t have anything to do with ability:

Think about it a bit, and you’ll realize why there is so little mention of blacks in science fiction; we see no reason to go saying “Lookee lookee lookee! We’re using blacks in our stories! See the Black Man! See him in a spaceship!”

It is my strongly held opinion that any Black should be thrown out of any story, spaceship, or any other place—unless he’s a black man. That he’s got no business there just because he’s black, but every right there if he’s a man. (And the masculine embraces the feminine; Lt. Uhura is portrayed as no clinging vine, and not given to the whimper, whinny, and whine type behavior. She earned her place by competence—not by having a black skin.)

As I’ve noted elsewhere, there are two implications here. The first is that all protagonists should be white males by default, while the second is that black heroes have to “earn” their presence in the magazine, which, given the hundreds of cardboard “competent men” that Campbell featured over the years, is laughable in itself.

It never seems to have occurred to Campbell that the dearth of minority writers in the genre might have been caused by a lack of characters who looked like them, as well as by similar issues in the fandom, and he never believed that he had the ability or the obligation to address the situation as an editor. (Elsewhere in the same letter, he writes: “What I am against—and what has been misinterpreted by a number of people—is the idea that any member of any group has any right to preferential treatment because he is a member.”) Left to itself, the scarcity of minority voices and characters was a self-perpetuating cycle that made it easy to argue that interest and ability were to blame. The hard part about encouraging diversity in science fiction, or anywhere else, is that it doesn’t happen by accident. It requires systematic, conscious effort, and the payoff might not be visible for years. That’s as hard and apparently unrewarding for a magazine that worries mostly about managing its inventory from one month to the next as it is for a technology company focused on yearly or quarterly returns. If Campbell had really wanted to see more black writers in Analog in the late sixties, he should have put more black characters in the magazine in the early forties. You could excuse this by saying that he had different objectives, and that it’s unfair to judge him in retrospect, but it’s equally true that it was a choice that he could have made, but didn’t. And science fiction was the poorer for it. In his memo, Damore writes:

Philosophically, I don’t think we should do arbitrary social engineering of tech just to make it appealing to equal portions of both men and women. For each of these changes, we need principled reasons for why it helps Google; that is, we should be optimizing for Google—with Google’s diversity being a component of that.

Replace “tech” with “science fiction,” “men and women” with “black and white writers,” and “Google” with “Analog,” and you have a fairly accurate representation of Campbell’s position. He clearly saw his job as the optimization of science fiction. A diverse roster of writers, which would have resulted in far more interesting “analog simulations” of reality of the kind that he loved, would have gone a long way toward improving it. He didn’t make the effort, and the entire genre suffered as a result. Google, to its credit, seems to understand that diversity also offers competitive advantages when you aren’t just writing about the future, but inventing it. And anything else would be suboptimal.

Written by nevalalee

August 16, 2018 at 9:00 am

The science fiction sieve

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Note: To celebrate the World Science Fiction Convention this week in San Jose, I’m republishing a few of my favorite pieces on various aspects of the genre. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on June 28, 2017.

In a remarkably lucid essay published last year in Nautilus, the mathematician Noson S. Yanofsky elegantly defines the self-imposed limitations of science. Yanofsky points out that scientists deliberately take a subset of phenomena—characterized mostly by how amenable it is to their chosen methods—for their field of study, while leaving the rest to the social sciences or humanities. (As Paul Valéry put it: “Science means simply the aggregate of all the recipes that are always successful. All the rest is literature.”) He visualizes science as a kind of sieve, which lets in some subjects while excluding others:

The reason why we see the structure we do is that scientists act like a sieve and focus only on those phenomena that have structure and are predictable. They do not take into account all phenomena; rather, they select those phenomena they can deal with…Scientists have classified the general textures and heights of different types of clouds, but, in general, are not at all interested in the exact shape of a cloud. Although the shape is a physical phenomenon, scientists don’t even attempt to study it. Science does not study all physical phenomena. Rather, science studies predictable physical phenomena. It is almost a tautology: science predicts predictable phenomena.

Yanofsky groups these criteria under the general heading “symmetry,” and he concludes: “The physicist must be a sieve and study those phenomena that possess symmetry and allow those that do not possess symmetry to slip through her fingers.” I won’t get into the rest of his argument, which draws an ingenious analogy from mathematics, except to say that it’s worth reading in its entirety. But I think his thesis is sound, and it ties into many issues that I’ve discussed here before, particularly about the uncomfortable status of the social sciences.

If you’re trying to catch this process in action, though, the trouble is that the boundaries of science aren’t determined by a general vote, or even by the work of isolated geniuses, but emerge gradually and invisibly from the contributions of countless individuals. But if I were a historian of science, I’d take a close look at the development of science fiction, in which an analogous evolution occurred in plain sight over a relatively short period of time. You can see it clearly in the career of the editor John W. Campbell, who remained skeptical of the social sciences, but whose signal contribution to the genre may have been to put them at its center. And the “sieve” that he ended up using is revealing in itself. A significant turning point was the arrival on his desk of Robert A. Heinlein’s landmark novella “If This Goes On—,” of which Campbell wrote in 1939:

Robert Heinlein, in his “If This Goes On—,” presents a civilization in which mob psychology and propaganda have become sciences. They aren’t, yet…Psychology isn’t a science, so long as a trained psychologist does—and must—say “there’s no telling how an individual man will react to a given stimulus.” Properly developed, psychology could determine that.

As an editor, Campbell began to impose psychological and sociological elements onto stories where they didn’t always fit, much as he would gratuitously insert references to uranium-235 during World War II. He irritated Isaac Asimov, for instance, by asking him to add a section to the story “Homo Sol” about “certain distinctions between the emotional reactions of Africans and Asians as compared with those of Americans and Europeans.” Asimov saw this as an early sign of Campbell’s racial views, and perhaps it was, but it pointed just as convincingly to his interest in mass psychology.

And readers took notice at a surprisingly early stage. In the November 1940 issue of Astounding, a fan named Lynn Bridges presciently wrote:

The Astounding Science Fiction of the past year has brought forth a new type of story, best described, perhaps, as “sociological” science fiction. The spaceships…are still present, but more emphasis has been placed on the one item which will have more to do with shaping the future than anything else, that strange race of bipeds known as man…Both Asimov [in “Homo Sol”] and Heinlein [in “If This Goes On—”] treat psychology as an exact science, usable in formulas, certain in results. I feel called upon to protest. Its very nature prevents psychology from achieving the exactness of mathematics…The moment men stop varying and the psychologist can say definitely that all men are alike psychologically, progress stops and the world becomes a very boring Utopia.

Campbell responded: “Psychology could improve a lot, though, without becoming dangerously oppressive!” Just two months later, in a letter in the January 1941 issue, Asimov referred to the prospect of “mathematical psychology”: “If we can understand Einstein and Hitler down to the mathematical whys and wherefores, we might try to boost along a few Einsteins and cut down on a few Hitlers, and progress might really get going.” Campbell replied much as before: “Psychology isn’t an exact science—but it can be.” Implicit in the whole discussion was the question of whether psychology could be tackled using the same hard-headed engineering approach that had worked for the genre before. And as I’ve written elsewhere, the evolution of Campbellian science fiction is largely one of writers who were so good at lecturing us about engineering that we barely even noticed when they moved on to sociology.

But what interests me now is the form it took in Astounding, which looks a lot like the sieve that Yanofsky describes. Campbell may have hoped that psychology would learn how to predict “how an individual man will react to a given stimulus,” but he seems to have sensed that this wouldn’t be credible or interesting in fiction. Instead, he turned to two subsets of psychology that were more suited to the narrative tools at his disposal. One was the treatment of simplified forms of human personality—say, for instance, in a robot. The other was the treatment of large masses of individuals. Crucially, neither was necessarily more possible than predicting the behavior of individuals, but they had the advantage that they could be more plausibly treated in fiction. Campbell’s preferred instrument at the time was Asimov, who was reliable, willing to take instruction, and geographically close enough to talk over ideas in person. As a result, Asimov’s most famous stories can be read as a series of experiments to see how the social sciences could be legitimately explored by the genre. The Three Laws of Robotics, which Campbell was the first to explicitly formulate, are really a simplified model of human behavior: Campbell later wrote that they were essentially “the basic desires of a small child, with the exception that the motivation of desire for love has been properly omitted.” At the other end of the spectrum, psychohistory looks for laws that can be applied on a mass scale, and it’s central not only to the Foundation series but even to “Nightfall,” with its theme of the cyclical rise and fall of civilizations. In science, you could draw a parallel to artificial intelligence and macroeconomics, which represent two extremes at which qualities of symmetry and predicability seem to enter the realm of psychology. In between, there’s a vast terrain of human experience that Campbell was never quite able to tackle, and that impulse ended up being channeled into dianetics. But much as science can be defined as everything that makes it through the sieve of symmetry, Campbell had a sieve of his own, and the result was the science fiction of the golden age.

Written by nevalalee

August 15, 2018 at 9:00 am

An explosion in the mind

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We are warned that to write a poem in the pattern, say, of a Shakespearean sonnet is to force words into a chain gang against their will. A true poem (so goes the theory) has to be written in organic form, discovering its individual nature as it goes along. Such a discovery, we are told, can’t ever be made by the writer of a sonnet. Such dogmas rest upon a couple of unexamined assumptions. One is the assumption that a sonnet is nothing but a hollow box to be stuffed full of verbiage. Another is the assumption that a sonnet can’t possibly begin unknown to itself, that it can’t possibly discover its proper organic form while (and only while) its poet is writing it. But many a poet has discovered that he didn’t plan to write a sonnet when he started out. To his surprise, he finds the thing turning out in fourteen lines, as it naturally hankers to be. Oh, no doubt the poet has read a bale of other people’s sonnets in his time, and once he gets writing along and finds the first eight lines gravitating into an octave, he can’t help remembering them. Is that bad? But a good sonnet, far from being a vacuum to be filled, dutifully and mechanically and joylessly, is (if it is worth anything) a sonnet-sized explosion in the mind.

X.J. Kennedy, “Fenced-In Fields”

Written by nevalalee

August 12, 2018 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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As for measure and other technical apparatus [of poetry], that’s just common sense: if you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will go to bed with you. There’s nothing metaphysical about it.

Frank O’Hara, “Personism: A Manifesto”

Written by nevalalee

August 6, 2018 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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Each poem demands that I treat it differently from the rest, come to terms with it, seek out its own best beginning and ending. And yet, I would be kidding myself if I believed that nothing continuous existed in the transactions between myself and my poems. I suppose this is what we mean by craft, those transactions that become so continuous we not only associate ourselves with them, but allow them to represent the means by which we make art.

Mark Strand, “Notes on the Craft of Poetry”

Written by nevalalee

August 1, 2018 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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The poet…is born, it appears, with a stronger-than-usual need for verbal adequacy, and so he is always mustering and reviewing his vocabulary, and forearming himself with terms he may need in the future. I recall the excitement of a poet friend when he discovered in a mushroom guide the word “duff,” which signifies “decaying vegetable matter on the forest floor.” He was right to be excited, I think. Duff is a short, precise word which somehow sounds like what it means, and it is a word that poets must often have groped after in vain.

Richard Wilbur, “Poetry and Happiness”

Written by nevalalee

July 31, 2018 at 7:30 am

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