Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘A.E. van Vogt

The Borges Test

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In his introduction to The Garden of Forking Paths, Jorge Luis Borges, who was arguably the greatest writer of speculative fiction of the twentieth century, offers a useful piece of advice:

It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books—setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that these books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them. That was Carlyle’s procedure in Sartor Resartus, Butler’s in The Fair Haven—though those works suffer under the imperfection that they themselves are books, and not a whit less tautological than the others. A more reasonable, more inept, and more lazy man, I have chosen to write notes on imaginary books. Those notes are “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” and “A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain.”

Later stories in the same vein include “Three Versions of Judas” and “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” one of my favorites, in which Borges writes: “In my spare evenings I have conceived this plot—which I will perhaps commit to paper but which already somehow justifies me.” It’s a considerate way of saving time for both the author and the reader, and it’s unfortunate that it’s become so associated with Borges that it’s hard for other writers to utilize it without turning it into an homage. And it only works for stories in which an idea, rather than characterization or style, constitutes the primary attraction.

It’s also no accident that Borges arrived at this method after years as a great reader of mystery fiction and, to a lesser extent, of science fiction and fantasy, which are the genres most vulnerable to the charge that they have nothing to offer but an idea. The most damning case against the hard science fiction epitomized by John W. Campbell’s Astounding is that many of these stories could be reduced to a paragraph of plot summary with minimal loss. Most fans, I think, can relate to the experience of being halfway through a story and impatiently skipping to the end, since the writing and characters don’t provide nearly enough incidental pleasure to justify wading through the rest. At its worst, you get the kind of scientific problem story published by Analog at its least inviting, with the reader forced to stare at names on the page and incomprehensible jargon for twenty minutes, only to be rewarded with the narrative equivalent of a word problem in a physics textbook. And this doesn’t extend to bad stories alone, but to some of the important works ever published in the genre. I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that almost all of Asimov’s robot stories could be condensed to a few sentences that lay out the situation and the solution without losing much of the experience. (A trickier example is Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which I suspect would work better as a five-page Borges story. The idea of an alternate World War II novel in which the characters are reading an alternate World War II novel about our own world, filled with plausible inaccuracies, is one that Borges would have loved. Ursula K. LeGuin famously referred to Dick as “our own homegrown Borges,” and it’s noteworthy that Dick, as an American novelist, just went ahead and wrote the whole book.)

You could say much the same of detective fiction of the locked-room variety, which exists entirely to deliver the twist, and which might work better as one of the one-minute mysteries that children consume in grade school. (“What made Encyclopedia Brown so sure? Turn to page 61 for the solution to ‘The Case of the Giant Mousetrap.’”) This frequent inability of the mystery to rise above its origins as a puzzle is part of the reason that they irritated the critic Edmund Wilson, who wrote in his famous essay “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?”:

I finally got to feel that I had to unpack large crates by swallowing the excelsior in order to find at the bottom a few bent and rusty nails…It is not difficult to create suspense by making people await a revelation, but it does demand a certain talent to come through with a criminal device which is ingenious or picturesque or amusing enough to make the reader feel that the waiting has been worth while…You cannot read such a book, you run through it to see the problem worked out.

Under such circumstances, it can be a courtesy for one reader to summarize the contents of such a story for another. Many of Borges’s best essays consist of little more than a condensed version of another book, from William Beckford’s Vathek to Farid ud-Din Attar’s The Conference of the Birds, as filtered through his unique sensibilities. And you see a similar impulse, at much lower level, when we go online to read the spoilers for a bad movie that we have no intention of ever seeing.

But when you’re a writer, particularly of mystery or science fiction, you need to constantly ask yourself why your story is better than its own summary. (If anything, this is especially true of science fiction mysteries, which is the category in which I tend to write.) One obvious answer is to make it as short as possible. There’s a grand tradition of short science fiction—one of the first anthologies I ever owned was One Hundred Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories, which I still love—and the platonic ideal is a story that takes no longer to read than it would to be orally told the premise. The other approach is to emphasize qualities that can’t be summarized, like character, style, atmosphere, and suspense. In science fiction, my favorite example is A.E. van Vogt, whose plots defy summarization, and who justifies his existence only by making readers feel as if they’ve lived through an experience that they can’t explain. On the mystery side, Edmund Wilson hints at this when he describes the Sherlock Holmes stories as “fairy tales,” and in his consideration of Raymond Chandler, he also gets at one of the risks:

It is not simply a question here of a puzzle which has been put together but of a malaise conveyed to the reader, the horror of a hidden conspiracy that is continually turning up in the most varied and unlikely forms…It was only when I got to the end that I felt my old crime-story depression descending upon me again—because here again, as is so often the case, the explanation of the mysteries, when it comes, is neither interesting nor plausible enough.

If you can’t do either of the above, then the idea probably isn’t ready yet. That’s the Borges test. And if you decide that it would work better as a short story by Borges, you can console yourself with the fact that it’s far from alone.

Written by nevalalee

June 21, 2017 at 9:10 am

The dianetics epidemic

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Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health

In his bestselling book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell devotes several pages to a discussion of the breakout success of the novel Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. After its initial release in 1996, it sold reasonably well in hardcover, receiving “a smattering of reviews,” but it became an explosive phenomenon in paperback, thanks primarily to what Gladwell calls “the critical role that groups play in social epidemics.” He writes:

The first bestseller list on which Ya-Ya Sisterhood appeared was the Northern California Independent Bookseller’s list. Northern California…was where seven hundred and eight hundred people first began showing up at [Rebecca Wells’s] readings. It was where the Ya-Ya epidemic began. Why? Because…the San Francisco area is home to one of the country’s strongest book club cultures, and from the beginning Ya-Ya was what publishers refer to as a “book club book.” It was the kind of emotionally sophisticated, character-driven, multilayered novel that invites reflection and discussion, and book groups were flocking to it. The groups of women who were coming to Wells’s readings were members of reading groups, and they were buying extra copies not just for family and friends but for other members of the group. And because Ya-Ya was being talked about and read in groups, the book itself became that much stickier. It’s easier to remember and appreciate something, after all, if you discuss it for two hours with your best friends. It becomes a social experience, an object of conversation. Ya-Ya’s roots in book group culture tipped it into a larger word-of-mouth epidemic.

You could say much the same thing about a very different book that became popular in California nearly five decades earlier. Scientology has exhibited an unexpected degree of staying power among a relatively small number of followers, but Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, the work that that made L. Ron Hubbard famous, was a textbook case of a viral phenomenon. Just three months elapsed between the book’s publication on May 9, 1950 and Hubbard’s climactic rally at the Shrine Auditorium on August 10, and its greatest impact on the wider culture occurred over a period of less than a year. And its dramatic spread and decline had all the hallmarks of virality. In the definitive Hubbard biography Bare-Faced Messiah, Russell Miller writes:

For the first few days after publication of Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, it appeared as if the publisher’s caution about the book’s prospects had been entirely justified. Early indications were that it had aroused little interest; certainly it was ignored by most reviewers. But suddenly, towards the end of May, the line on the sales graph at the New York offices of Hermitage House took a steep upturn.

By midsummer, it was selling a thousand copies a day, and by late fall, over seven hundred dianetics clubs had been established across the country. As Miller writes: “Dianetics became, virtually overnight, a national ‘craze’ somewhat akin to the canasta marathons and pyramid clubs that had briefly flourished in the hysteria of postwar America.”

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

The result was a quintessential social epidemic, and I’m a little surprised that Gladwell, who is so hungry for case studies, has never mentioned it. The book itself was “sticky,” with its promise of a new science of mental health that could be used by anyone and that got results every time. Like Ya-Ya, it took root in an existing group—in this case, the science fiction community, which was the natural audience for its debut in the pages of Astounding. Just as the ideal book club selection is one that inspires conversations, dianetics was a shared experience: in order to be audited, you needed to involve at least one other person. Auditing, as the therapy was originally presented, seemed so easy that anyone could try it, and many saw it as a kind of parlor game. (In his biography of Robert A. Heinlein, William H. Patterson shrewdly compares it to the “Freuding parties” that became popular in Greenwich Village in the twenties.) Even if you didn’t want to be audited yourself, dianetics became such a topic of discussion among fans that summer that you had to read the book to be a part of it. It also benefited from the presence of what Gladwell calls mavens, connectors, and salesmen. John W. Campbell was the ultimate maven, an information broker who, as one of Gladwell’s sources puts it, “wants to solve other people’s problems, generally by solving his own.” The connectors included prominent members of the fan community, notably A.E. van Vogt, who ended up running the Los Angeles foundation, and Forrest Ackerman, Hubbard’s agent and “the number one fan.” And the salesman was Hubbard himself, who threw himself into the book’s promotion on the West Coast. As Campbell wrote admiringly to Heinlein: “When Ron wants to, he can put on a personality that would be a confidence man’s delight—persuasive, gentle, intimately friendly. The perfect bedside manner, actually.”

In all epidemics, geography plays a crucial role, and in the case of dianetics, it had profound consequences on individual careers. One of Campbell’s priorities was to sell the therapy to his top writers, much as the Church of Scientology later reached out to movie stars, and the single greatest predictor of how an author would respond was his proximity to the centers of fan culture. Two of the most important converts were van Vogt, who was in Los Angeles, and Theodore Sturgeon, who lived in New York, where he was audited by Campbell himself. Isaac Asimov, by contrast, had moved from Manhattan to Boston just the year before, and Heinlein, fascinatingly, had left Hollywood, where he had been working on the film Destination Moon, in February of 1950. Heinlein was intrigued by dianetics, but because he was in Colorado Springs with his wife Ginny, who refused to have anything to do with it, he was unable to find an auditing partner. And it’s worth wondering what might have ensued if he had remained in Southern California for another six months. (Such accidents of place and time can have significant aftereffects. Van Vogt had moved from the Ottawa area to Los Angeles in 1944, and his involvement with dianetics took him out of writing for the better part of a decade, at the very moment when science fiction was breaking into the culture as a whole. His absence during this critical period, which made celebrities out of Heinlein and Asimov, feels like a big part of the reason why van Vogt has mostly disappeared from the popular consciousness. And it might never have happened if he had stayed in Canada.) The following year, dianetics as a movement fizzled out, due largely to Hubbard’s own behavior—although he might also have sensed that it wouldn’t last. But it soon mutated into another form. And before long, Hubbard would begin to spread a few divine secrets of his own.

The year of magical thinking

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Elon Musk at Trump Tower

Maybe if I’m part of that mob, I can help steer it in wise directions.

—Homer Simpson, “Whacking Day”

Yesterday, Tesla founder Elon Musk defended his decision to remain on President Trump’s economic advisory council, stating on Twitter: “My goals are to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy and to help make humanity a multi-planet civilization.” A few weeks earlier, Peter Thiel, another member of the PayPal mafia and one of Trump’s most prominent defenders, said obscurely to the New York Times: “Even if there are aspects of Trump that are retro and that seem to be going back to the past, I think a lot of people want to go back to a past that was futuristic—The Jetsons, Star Trek. They’re dated but futuristic.” Musk and Thiel both tend to speak using the language of science fiction, in part because it’s the idiom that they know best. Musk includes Asimov’s Foundation series among his favorite books, and he’s a recipient of the Heinlein Prize for accomplishments in commercial space activities. Thiel is a major voice in the transhumanist movement, and he’s underwritten so much research into seasteading that I’m indebted to him for practically all the technical background of my novella “The Proving Ground.” As Thiel said to The New Yorker several years ago, in words that have a somewhat different ring today:

One way you can describe the collapse of the idea of the future is the collapse of science fiction. Now it’s either about technology that doesn’t work or about technology that’s used in bad ways. The anthology of the top twenty-five sci-fi stories in 1970 was, like, “Me and my friend the robot went for a walk on the moon,” and in 2008 it was, like, “The galaxy is run by a fundamentalist Islamic confederacy, and there are people who are hunting planets and killing them for fun.”

Despite their shared origins at PayPal, Musk and Thiel aren’t exactly equivalent here: Musk has been open about his misgivings toward Trump’s policy on refugees, while Thiel, who seems to have little choice but to double down, had a spokesperson issue the bland statement: “Peter doesn’t support a religious test, and the administration has not imposed one.” Yet it’s still striking to see two of our most visible futurists staking their legacies on a relationship with Trump, even if they’re coming at it from different angles. As far as Musk is concerned, I don’t agree with his reasoning, but I understand it. His decision to serve in an advisory capacity to Trump seems to come down to his relative weighting of two factors, which aren’t mutually exclusive, but are at least inversely proportional. The first is the possibility that his presence will allow him to give advice that will affect policy decisions to some incremental but nontrivial extent. It’s better, this argument runs, to provide a reasonable voice than to allow Trump to be surrounded by nothing but manipulative Wormtongues. The second possibility is that his involvement with the administration will somehow legitimize or enable its policies, and that this risk far exceeds his slight chance of influencing the outcome. It’s a judgment call, and you can assign whatever values you like to those two scenarios. Musk has clearly thought long and hard about it. But I’ll just say that if it turns out that there’s even the tiniest chance that an occasional meeting with Musk—who will be sharing the table with eighteen others—could possibly outweigh the constant presence of Steve Bannon, a Republican congressional majority, and millions of angry constituents in any meaningful way, I’ll eat my copy of the Foundation trilogy.

Donald Trump and Peter Thiel

Musk’s belief that his presence on the advisory council might have an impact on a president who has zero incentive to appeal to anyone but his own supporters is a form of magical thinking. In a way, though, I’m not surprised, and it’s possible that everything I admire in Musk is inseparable from the delusion that underlies this decision. Whatever you might think of them personally, Musk and Thiel are undoubtedly imaginative. In his New Yorker profile, Thiel blamed many of this country’s problems on “a failure of imagination,” and his nostalgia for vintage science fiction is rooted in a longing for the grand gestures that it embodied: the flying car, the seastead, the space colony. Achieving such goals requires not only vision, but a kind of childlike stubbornness that chases a vanishingly small chance of success in the face of all evidence to the contrary. What makes Musk and Thiel so fascinating is their shared determination to take a fortune built on something as prosaic as an online payments system and to turn it into a spaceship. So far, Musk has been much more successful at translating his dreams into reality, and Thiel’s greatest triumph to date has been the destruction of Gawker Media. But they’ve both seen their gambles pay off to an extent that might mislead them about their ability to make it happen again. It’s this sort of indispensable naïveté that underlies Musk’s faith in his ability to nudge Trump in the right direction, and, on a more sinister level, Thiel’s eagerness to convince us to sign up for a grand experiment with high volatility in both directions—even if most of us don’t have the option of fleeing to New Zealand if it all goes up in flames.

This willingness to submit involuntary test subjects to a hazardous cultural project isn’t unique to science fiction fans. It’s the same attitude that led Norman Mailer, when asked about his support of the killer Jack Henry Abbott, to state: “I’m willing to gamble with a portion of society to save this man’s talent. I am saying that culture is worth a little risk.” (And it’s worth remembering that the man whom Abbott stabbed to death, Richard Adan, was the son of Cuban immigrants.) But when Thiel advised us before the election not to take Trump “literally,” it felt like a symptom of the suspension of disbelief that both science fiction writers and startup founders have to cultivate:

I think a lot of the voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously but not literally. And so when they hear things like the Muslim comment or the wall comment or things like that, the question is not “Are you going to build a wall like the Great Wall of China?” or, you know, “How exactly are you going to enforce these tests?” What they hear is “We’re going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy.”

We’ll see how that works out. But in the meantime, the analogy to L. Ron Hubbard is a useful one. Plenty of science fiction writers, including John W. Campbell, A.E. van Vogt, and Theodore Sturgeon, were persuaded by dianetics, in part because it struck them as a risky idea with an unlimited upside. Yet whatever psychological benefits dianetics provided—and it probably wasn’t any less effective than many forms of talk therapy—were far outweighed by the damage that Hubbard and his followers inflicted. It might help to mentally replace the name “Trump” with “Hubbard” whenever an ethical choice needs to be made. What would it mean to take Hubbard “seriously, but not literally?” And if Hubbard asked you to join his board of advisors, would it seem likely that you could have a positive influence, even if it meant adding your name to the advisory council of the Church of Scientology? Or would it make more sense to invest the same energy into helping those whose lives the church was destroying?

From Xenu to Xanadu

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L. Ron Hubbard

I do know that I could form a political platform, for instance, which would encompass the support of the unemployed, the industrialist and the clerk and day laborer all at one and the same time. And enthusiastic support it would be.

L. Ron Hubbard, in a letter to his wife Polly, October 1938

Yesterday, my article “Xenu’s Paradox: The Fiction of L. Ron Hubbard and the Making of Scientology” was published on Longreads. I’d been working on this piece, off and on, for the better part of a year, almost from the moment I knew that I was going to be writing the book Astounding. As part of my research, I had to read just about everything Hubbard ever wrote in the genres of science fiction and fantasy, and I ended up working my way through well over a million words of his prose. The essay that emerged from this process was inspired by a simple question. Hubbard clearly didn’t much care for science fiction, and he wrote it primarily for the money. Yet when the time came to invent a founding myth for Scientology, he turned to the conventions of space opera, which had previously played a minimal role in his work. Both his critics and his followers have looked hard at his published stories to find hints of the ideas to come, and there are a few that seem to point toward later developments. (One that frequently gets mentioned is “One Was Stubborn,” in which a fake religious messiah convinces people to believe in the nonexistence of matter so that he can rule the universe. There’s circumstantial evidence, however, that the premise came mostly from John W. Campbell, and that Hubbard wrote it up on the train ride home from New York to Puget Sound.) Still, it’s a tiny fraction of the whole. And such stories by other writers as “The Double Minds” by Campbell, “Lost Legacy” by Robert A. Heinlein, and The World of Null-A by A.E. van Vogt make for more compelling precursors to dianetics than anything Hubbard ever wrote.

The solution to the mystery, as I discuss at length in the article, is that Hubbard tailored his teachings to the small circle of followers he had available after his blowup with Campbell, many of whom were science fiction fans who owed their first exposure to his ideas to magazines like Astounding. And this was only the most dramatic and decisive instance of a pattern that is visible throughout his life. Hubbard is often called a fabulist who compulsively embellished own accomplishments and turned himself into something more than he really was. But it would be even more accurate to say that Hubbard transformed himself into whatever he thought the people around him wanted him to be. When he was hanging out with members of the Explorers Club, he became a barnstormer, world traveler, and intrepid explorer of the Caribbean and Alaska. Around his fellow authors, he presented himself as the most productive pulp writer of all time, inflating his already impressive word count to a ridiculous extent. During the war, he spun stories about his exploits in battle, claiming to have been repeatedly sunk and wounded, and even a former naval officer as intelligent and experienced as Heinlein evidently took him at his word. Hubbard simply became whatever seemed necessary at the time—as long as he was the most impressive man in the room. It wasn’t until he found himself surrounded by science fiction fans, whom he had mostly avoided until then, that he assumed the form that he would take for the rest of his career. He had never been interested in past lives, but many of his followers were, and the memories that they were “recovering” in their auditing sessions were often colored by the imagery of the stories they had read. And Hubbard responded by coming up with the grandest, most unbelievable space opera saga of them all.

Donald Trump

This leaves us with a few important takeaways. The first is that Hubbard, in the early days, was basically harmless. He had invented a colorful background for himself, but he wasn’t alone: Lester del Rey, among others, seems to have engaged in the same kind of self-mythologizing. His first marriage wasn’t a happy one, and he was always something of a blowhard, determined to outshine everyone he met. Yet he also genuinely impressed John and Doña Campbell, Heinlein, Asimov, and many other perceptive men and women. It wasn’t until after the unexpected success of dianetics that he grew convinced of his own infallibility, casting off such inconvenient collaborators as Campbell and Joseph Winter as obstacles to his power. Even after he went off to Wichita with his remaining disciples, he might have become little more than a harmless crank. As he began to feel persecuted by the government and professional organizations, however, his mood curdled into something poisonous, and it happened at a time in which he had undisputed authority over the people around him. It wasn’t a huge kingdom, but because of its isolation—particularly when he was at sea—he was able to exercise a terrifying amount of control over his closest followers. Hubbard didn’t even enjoy it. He had wealth, fame, and the adulation of a handful of true believers, but he grew increasingly paranoid and miserable. At the time of his death, his wrath was restricted to his critics and to anyone within arm’s reach, but he created a culture of oppression that his successor cheerfully extended against current and former members in faraway places, until no one inside or outside the Church of Scientology was safe.

I wrote the first draft of this essay in May of last year, but it’s hard to read it now without thinking of Donald Trump. Like Hubbard, Trump spent much of his life as an annoying but harmless windbag: a relentless self-promoter who constantly inflated his own achievements. As with Hubbard, everything that he did had to be the biggest and best, and until recently, he was too conscious of the value of his own brand to risk alienating too many people at once. After a lifetime of random grabs for attention, however, he latched onto a cause—the birther movement—that was more powerful than anything he had encountered before, and, like Hubbard, he began to focus on the small number of passionate followers he had attracted. His presidential campaign seems to have been conceived as yet another form of brand extension, culminating in the establishment of a Trump Television network. He shaped his message in response to the crowds who came to his rallies, and before long, he was caught in the same kind of cycle: a man who had once believed in nothing but himself gradually came to believe his own words. (Hubbard and Trump have both been described as con men, but the former spent countless hours auditing himself, and Trump no longer seems conscious of his own lies.) Both fell upward into positions of power that exceeded their wildest expectations, and it’s frightening to consider what might come next, when we consider how Hubbard was transformed. During his lifetime, Hubbard had a small handful of active followers; the Church of Scientology has perhaps 30,000, although, like Trump, they’re prone to exaggerate such numbers; Trump has millions. It’s especially telling that both Hubbard and Trump loved Citizen Kane. I love it, too. But both men ended up in their own personal Xanadu. And as I’ve noted before, the only problem with that movie is that our affection for Orson Welles distracts us from the fact that Kane ultimately went crazy.

The Slan solution

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Slan by A.E. van Vogt

Science fiction has never been as good at predicting the future as it might like to believe, but it came as close as it ever did in the story “Solution Unsatisfactory,” which Robert A. Heinlein wrote based on an idea from the editor John W. Campbell. It appeared in the May 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, which represented the peak of Heinlein’s career in the pulps: it also included his novella “Universe,” which was similarly derived from a premise by Campbell, and the complete chart of his Future History, an act of unprecedented generosity by the magazine to an individual writer. But “Solution Unsatisfactory,” which he wrote under the pen name Anson MacDonald, is the most impressive work of all. It describes the invention of a superweapon, based on radioactive dust, that is used to end World War II, but which quickly results in a destructive arms race. The “solution” is the creation of the Peace Patrol, a nongovernmental organization that maintains monopoly power over the weapon and monitors other countries to prevent it from being developed elsewhere. As the title implies, this isn’t much of an answer—it means that the Peace Patrol effectively holds the rest of the world hostage—but Heinlein and Campbell weren’t able to come up with a better one. We’re faced with either the constant threat of destruction from what we’d now call “non-state actors,” or an intrusive and unaccountable police state that controls the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction while drastically limiting most other freedoms.

“Solution Unsatisfactory” is usually remembered as a prediction of the Cold War, but it reads more today like an anticipation of nuclear terrorism. In the note at the end of the story, Campbell lays out the dilemma:

The irresistible weapon has been discovered. It can be duplicated easily by small groups, so that only the most rigorous and minute policing—intruding on every individual’s private life—can prevent it escaping control to be turned on all men…The world must be defended against every little knot of crackpots with a mission—and the horrible weapon.

Campbell concludes: “Can any solution not invoking the aid of the Arisian super-beings protect mankind against the irresistible weapon?” This last sentence may require a word of explanation. The Arisians, who made their first appearance in E.E. Smith’s Lensman series, are a race of advanced aliens who have been secretly manipulating mankind throughout all of human history. They’re infinitely intelligent, powerful, and benevolent, and they would, in fact, represent a pretty good solution to the problem that the story presents. So would a different kind of superbeing, which made its debut the previous year in A.E. van Vogt’s landmark serial Slan. The Slan are mutated, superintelligent humans who have developed the power of telepathy. (When the story begins, they’re a persecuted minority, and many science fiction readers—who felt oppressed and ostracized because of their own intelligence—identified with their situation, leading to the popular slogan: “Fans are slans.”) As a reader named Billiam Kingston-Stoy promptly pointed out in a letter to the magazine, having seen only a plot summary of the Heinlein story: “Any slan, or reasonable facsimile thereof, could give you an accurate solution of the problem.” Campbell responded: “The question on ‘Solution Unsatisfactory’ is to answer the problem without supermen.”

"Solution Unsatisfactory" by Robert A. Heinlein

Needless to say, introducing a species of nonhuman superbeings to resolve an existential threat is a form of cheating—and one to which science fiction, like the superhero genre, has always been particularly susceptible. But what isn’t as well known is that Campbell originally had a similar solution in mind when he first pitched the idea to Heinlein. As he wrote in a letter dated December 15, 1940:

I’d rather lean to the nice, ironic possibility, in the ending, of having one of the characters of the story—[a] rather minor background character, but a persistent one, make a concluding observation to his wife. Seems he’s been watching with great interest, that he and she and their fifteen children know that what happens now isn’t particularly important, since they and their new race, the superhumans, are taking over in a generation or two anyway. They’re the result of one of the mutations caused by all the dusting.

In response, Heinlein wrote:

I did not use the superman mutant idea—too reminiscent of Slan and too much like a rabbit out of a hat. Besides I have a strong hunch that big jumps in mutation are always down…and never up. I don’t know enough about genetics to prove it, but it seems wildly improbable to me that brand-new powers, abilities, senses, etc. can appear without a long, slow evolutionary background.

Campbell evidently agreed, and it’s instructive to see how he immediately turned Heinlein’s objection into a condition of the story itself. The lack of a satisfying resolution was no longer a bug, but a feature. (Campbell explained in a later letter: “The story is weak, because the solution is palpably synthetic and unsatisfactory—and that very fact can be made, by proper blurbing, the greatest strength of the story.” That’s good editing!) But the most fascinating development came later. Within a few years, the scenario sketched out by the story had become all too plausible, and Campbell wasn’t optimistic about mankind’s chances. As he wrote in the magazine in April 1946:

When small, use-anything atomic devices can be made, they can be made in secret…When they can be made in secret, some sincere, noble soul, a martyr to his own desire to save the world as quickly as possible in the way he knows is best, is going to commit suicide with some such gadget, and remove Washington…from the Earth…It’s up to psychology to develop means of finding such unstable people…Psychology must advance faster than nuclear physics.

The italics are mine. Before long, Campbell would try to put a new psychology into practice—with the help of L. Ron Hubbard. It was called dianetics, and its goal was to provide its subjects with enhanced intelligence, memory, sensory awareness, and even morality. The improved human beings that resulted would be the only ones capable of providing the world with the security that it desperately needed. Hubbard called this idealized person a “clear.” But you could also say that Campbell’s solution to the unsolvable problem was to turn fans into slans.

Written by nevalalee

December 12, 2016 at 9:49 am

Fear of a female planet

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The Legion of Time

In his memoir In Memory Yet Green, Isaac Asimov describes some of the earliest stories that he wrote with an eye to publication, when he was just eighteen years old, and concludes:

There were no girls in [these stories]…But then, women were very much an unknown quantity for me…In 1938, when I was writing my first stories, I had yet to have a formal date with a girl. In short, the circumstances of my life were such that it never occurred to me to put a feminine character in my stories…I eventually had dates, and I eventually learned about women, but the early imprinting had its effect. To this very day, the romantic element in my stories tends to be minor and the sexual element virtually nil.

When you dig a little deeper, however, you find that the absence of women wasn’t just an accidental quality of the young Asimov’s work, but a conscious decision. Or at least that’s how he chose to spin it. In a letter that was published in the September 1938 issue of Astounding—or just as he was making his first serious efforts as a writer—Asimov wrote: “When we want science fiction, we don’t want swooning dames…Come on, men, make yourself heard in favor of less love mixed with our science!” A year later, after his letters had inspired a debate among fans, Asimov doubled down, writing: “The great philosophers and the great religious leaders of the world—the ones who taught truth and virtue, kindliness and justice—were all, all men.”

To be fair, Asimov was only nineteen, and later in his life, he probably would have been embarrassed by the sentiments expressed in those letters. (They feel a lot like a defense mechanism to justify his own shyness with women, both in fiction and in real life.) But the trouble that science fiction has always had with its female characters is so fundamental that you could almost point to it as a defining quality of the genre. The case of Robert A. Heinlein is even more problematic than Asimov’s, in large part because he was a better writer. In an essay published in the memorial volume Requiem, the writer Spider Robinson disputes the accusation that Heinlein was “a male chauvinist,” listing a few dozen female characters who seem to disprove the allegation. “Virtually every one of them,” Robinson concludes, “is a world-class expert in at least one demanding and competitive field.” And there’s no question that Heinlein’s fiction is full of tough, smart, attractive women. The trouble is that they possess these qualities mostly because it’s what the protagonist—invariably male—likes to see in a prospective mate. These strong, intelligent, liberated women become the prize that the hero gets for surviving, and they’re often openly eager to have his babies. They aren’t allowed to drive the story or have an inner life of their own, and even the toughest of them meekly submits to the hero as soon as he takes charge. The only really convincing adult woman in all of Heinlein is Cynthia Randall in “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag,” and I don’t think it’s an accident that she feels so much like a portrait of his wife Leslyn in the years before their marriage fell apart.

"The Door into Summer" by Robert A. Heinlein

I’m being hard on Heinlein precisely because he was the best writer the genre ever produced, which makes his failure here all the harder to forgive. If we judge science fiction’s treatment of women by the extent to which they’re allowed to affect the stories in which they appear, then none of the central figures in Astounding pass even that rudimentary test. On the whole, in fact, science fiction has done better when its women are openly allowed to be sinister. Belle in The Door into Summer, my favorite Heinlein novel, isn’t exactly a positive role model, but as a femme fatale—much of the first half of the book reads oddly like James M. Cain—she’s twice as interesting as the usual pneumatic secretary with a genius IQ whom Heinlein submits for our approval. As far as other writers go, A.E. van Vogt, whose background was in confession stories, is surprisingly good with women, especially when they’re a little menacing. And then there’s Jack Williamson, who was so much better at female villains than at heroines that it became a running joke among his friends. (You can see this most clearly in his masterpiece, “The Legion of Time,” which amounts to a Betty and Veronica story told on a cosmic scale.) In a letter to John W. Campbell, Heinlein writes:

At a recent gathering of the Mañana Literary Society, [Cleve] Cartmill and [Anthony Boucher]…were trying to determine why Jack’s sinister female characters were so solid and convincing and his heroine-like females so cardboard. Someone suggested that it was because Jack was really afraid of women. Jack considered this and said that he thought it might be true. “I may have a subconscious conviction,” avers Jack, “that vaginas are equipped with teeth.”

It’s tempting to blame much of this on the historical circumstances in which pulp science fiction emerged: Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing came out of a community of electronic hobbyists that consisted mostly of young white men, and the fan groups that emerged followed suit. As you see in even a cursory glance at the letters columns from that period, girls were regarded with active suspicion. (Asimov sarcastically observes that there must be “at least twenty” female science fiction fans.) It certainly wasn’t an environment in which most women felt welcome, and it became a cycle that fed on itself, with writers unable to see the contrary examples that were right in front of their faces. Ray Bradbury was mentored by the likes of Catherine Moore and Leslyn Heinlein, but in The Martian Chronicles, he blows much of his goodwill whenever he has to talk about women. There’s the punchline in “The Silent Towns,” for example, in which the last man on Mars goes in search of the last woman, only to be dismayed to find that she’s dumpy and unattractive. And there’s the unforgivable line about the early days of settlement of Mars: “Everyone knew who the first women would be.” It’s a massive blind spot that reminds me of the androids in Westworld, who can’t see anything that conflicts with their programming. Given the times in which they lived, you could argue that it’s unreasonable to wish that these writers had done better. But these were the men we trusted to tell us about the future. If they can’t be held to the highest possible standard, then who can?

To be or not to be

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The Structural Differential

If you’re familiar with the science fiction of the golden age, you’ve probably come across the name of Alfred Korzybski, the Polish philosopher whose ideas, known as general semantics, enjoyed a brief but intense vogue with writers and fans in the late thirties and early forties. Korzybski’s work provided the backdrop for A.E. van Vogt’s The World of Null-A and its sequels; Robert A. Heinlein mentions him by name in “Coventry” and “Gulf”; and he pops up in such stories as “The Helping Hand” by Poul Anderson and “Day of the Moron” by H. Beam Piper. He was also an important influence on L. Ron Hubbard and John W. Campbell, although both of them would have denied this. (Campbell liked to say that he was never able to get through Korzybski’s most famous book, Science and Sanity, and it’s fair to say that Hubbard never did, either.) And it isn’t hard to see why the science fiction community found him so intriguing. General semantics was pitched as a kind of mental training program that would enhance the brain’s performance, allowing practitioners to think more clearly and move past the mental blocks that prevent us from accurately perceiving the world around us. Yet Korzybski remains relatively unknown today. Part of this is because Science and Sanity itself is such a daunting work: it’s long, repetitive, sometimes obscure, and often deeply weird. But there’s also a lot there that remains valuable to creative thinkers, if you’re willing to unearth it, and with certain qualifications, it’s still worth seeking out.

We can start with Korzybski’s most famous pronouncement, which a lot of people, including me, have quoted without fully understanding it: “The map is not the territory.” What he’s really talking about is language, which is the mental map that we use to orient ourselves as we make our way through the world. The trouble, he believes, is that the map we’ve inherited offers a flawed picture of reality. Language was developed when mankind was still in its infancy, and the inaccurate ideas that early humans had about the world are preserved in the way that we talk about it. We confuse words with their underlying objects; we take objects in isolation, when in fact they have meaning only in their relationships with others and in their place within an overall structure; we think in categories, when we’re invariably dealing with unique individuals; and we depend on preconceived ideas, rather than experience, to make our decisions. The primary culprit, Korzybski argued, was the word “is,” which always involves either a tautology or a falsehood. When we say that A is B, we’re either saying that it’s equivalent to itself, which doesn’t yield any useful information, or we’re falling prey to one of several fallacies. Either we’re saying that one unique object is identical to another; that an object is the same thing as the label we’ve given it, or to the overall class to which it belongs; or that it can be described in terms that can be agreed upon by all observers. And a moment’s reflection reveals that none of this is true.

Alfred Korzybski

Most of us, I think, will grant these points. What set Korzybski apart is that he attempted to train himself and others to systematically overcome these misconceptions, using a few misleadingly simple tricks. He advised his readers to be skeptical of any form of the verb “to be,” and that whenever they were told that something was the same as something else, they should reflexively respond: “This is not that.” The goal, he said, was “consciousness of abstracting,” or a constant, everyday awareness of how we think using different orders of abstractions. Words are not objects; objects are distinct from the inferences that we make about them; and the gap between the general and the particular means that no statement can be entirely true or false, but only probable in various degrees. To underline these points, Korzybski liked to use a model called the Structural Differential, a teaching aid made out of wooden pegboards and lengths of string that were supposed to symbolize the abstracting process of the human nervous system. Students were told to study and handle it in silence, which would nonverbally remind them of the difference between an event, an object, a label, and the levels of abstraction above it. If this all sounds like an unwieldy way of seeing the world, well, it is. But it’s all in service of what seems to me like a worthwhile goal: to insert a mental pause, or what Korzybski calls “the neurological delay,” before we unthinkingly respond to a statement or situation.

If we think of general semantics as an elaborate system for training us to pause to question our assumptions, it becomes a lot more comprehensible. It’s also worth noting that Korzbyski wasn’t opposed to abstraction, which he saw as a necessary tool and shortcut, but to its misuse. The ability for one generation to build on the abstractions developed by its predecessors, which he calls “time-binding,” is what separates human beings from the animals—but only if we’re good at it. Conventional language, which Korzybski associated with the followers of Aristotle, just makes it harder to pass along useful information; his non-Aristotelean approach was pitched as a more accurate reflection of reality, as well as a practical tool for generating and conveying ideas. And it’s probably worth a try. (If you don’t feel like plowing through all eight hundred pages of Science and Sanity, Korzybski advises readers to start with the shorter, self-contained section “The Mechanism of Time-Binding,” which includes most of the book’s practical advice.) Pausing before you think, interrogating your assumptions, and being conscious of your abstractions are all worthwhile goals, but they’re easier said than done: one of Korzybski’s followers later estimated that “about thirty” people had mastered it. You could argue that Korzybski overstated his case, that he exaggerated the benefits of his approach, and that he cloaked it in a lot of unnecessary pseudoscience. But he was right about the basic problem. And it’s easy to wish that we lived in a society in which we responded to all disagreements by pausing, smiling, and asking sincerely: “What do you mean?”

Written by nevalalee

October 11, 2016 at 8:39 am

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