Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Astounding Science Fiction

The saucer people

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Seventy years ago this week, a newspaper report in the Roswell Daily Record stated that the Air Force had captured a flying saucer on a ranch in New Mexico. For most of the next three decades, however, if you had mentioned this incident to your average science fiction fan, you probably would have gotten a blank stare. Roswell didn’t become a cultural touchstone until the late seventies, and it was overshadowed that same year by a more famous sighting by the pilot Kenneth Arnold, who claimed to have seen nine flying objects near Mount Rainier on June 24, 1947. Arnold’s account was so widely covered that the editor John W. Campbell felt obliged to write about it in Astounding Science Fiction. His editorial on the subject, which appeared in the October 1947 issue, ruled out the possibility of a secret government project—“They’d have been test-flown off some small Pacific island, where none but a few selected personnel, plus a few thousand fish, would have been around to report”—and speculated idly that flying saucers might be a form of surveillance. If we wanted to study another planet without being seen by the natives, he noted, we would take much the same approach:

For several months, our investigation would be conducted by non-contact observation; until we know much more about the people, we’ll do well to stay clear of them…A stealthy raid might kidnap a few inhabitants for general questioning and investigation…Investigation of local animals can give all the necessary basic biological science for the preliminary understanding of the local race…After several months of watching, listening, and picking up radio broadcasts, plus investigation of kidnapees, there would be a lot of material to digest. Captured books, particularly children’s books, would give adequate keys to the languages. At that point, we would be smart to clear out for at least a year of concentrated study of the material at hand…It might be a year or five years before any further steps were taken.

Years later, Isaac Asimov, who had a horror of unidentified flying objects, would list “flying saucers” among the causes on which Campbell became increasingly irrational, along with psionics and dianetics. In reality, Campbell wasn’t particularly interested in the subject, and he only covered it in the magazine when outside events obliged him to weigh in. Arnold’s sighting was one such incident, and the McMinnville photographs, which caused a sensation, prompted him to treat it again in the October 1950 issue, at a time when he was far more interested in other matters. Campbell said that flying saucers represented a problem of “no data,” and he compared such sightings to the “background count” picked up by a radiation detector—most of it was just noise. But there were some intriguing patterns:

Some type of real artifact, referred to as flying saucers, appears to exist; the incidence of reports far exceeds any reasonable level of “background count.” Too many observers—too many places—too many simultaneous observations of the same unknown. Something real exists; that we can file as real, valid data…But—this is an important datum—the planet-wide reports do not noticeably exceed the normal level of what we have called here the “background count”…It has been suggested that the flying saucers are interplanetary visitors. But the frequency of occurrence does not show an even planetary distribution; there is a background-count level around the world, with a high peak level in the United States.

He pointed out that most of the sightings took place in the Pacific Northwest, but not in adjacent regions of Canada or Mexico, and he concluded: “It’s a remarkable interplanetary visitor that shows such keen awareness of political boundaries.”

In a reversal of his earlier stance, Campbell hinted strongly that he thought that it was some kind of military program, which he confirmed in another editorial in January 1953: “Their marked tendency to confine their operations to the western United States was, in fact, a factor which made me feel, for a long time, that they were a United States military secret weapon. I was at a loss to explain why an alien, an extraterrestrial, would show such marked preference for that particular geographic area.” (As editor of the magazine Air Trails, he implied to a friend that he had seen a “flying disc,” although he wasn’t able to talk about it.) Campbell then playfully suggested another possible reason why such sightings tended to take place over “the square states,” proposing that aliens were telepathically sensitive, and that they would avoid big cities—where the psychic tension was high—in favor of less inhabited areas that showed a high degree of technological development. For the most part, however, his attitude remained cautious. At the end of the decade, in the April 1959 issue, he wrote:

To date, despite reams of argument and statements, the only sure, positive statement about UFOs that can be made is, “There is a phenomenon. Its nature and cause are totally indeterminable from the data and the technical understanding available to us at the time.” They might be scout ships of interstellar visitors…and they might be giant plasmids of ionized gases of our own atmosphere. They are not the result of any phenomenon adequately known to modern science.

Campbell, who had featured a crashed spacecraft in “Who Goes There?”, was also reluctant to publish fiction on the subject, writing in a rejection letter in 1952: “I’m afraid I can’t touch this one; the flying saucers scare me. Essentially, the point is this: science fiction is speculation based on science. That’s sane, sensible, and helpful. The flying saucers aren’t science; they’re speculation. Now speculation built on speculation is not sane, sensible, and helpful—it’s wild-blue-yonder stuff. It’s insane, and confuses the issue.”

What’s funny, of course, is that Campbell was perfectly willing to publish “speculation built on speculation” about countless other subjects, such as psionics. In October 1953, in the editorial “Unwise Knowledge,” he even made the case that science fiction was the best possible place to talk about such strange matters, since speculation for the purposes of entertainment had a purely positive value. (It’s also worth noting that he didn’t avoid the topic entirely. In the March 1961 issue of Analog, he published a very odd piece by Arthur W. Orton titled “The Four-Faced Visitors of Ezekiel,” which made the case that the vision of the merkabah was really a visit from ancient astronauts. The article generated a lot of attention, and even Asimov liked it, writing a complimentary letter that was printed a few issues later.) Yet Campbell was mostly uninterested in flying saucers, despite the fact that he was naturally sympathetic to such accounts—as a college student at Duke, he had seen a display of ball lightning at his house in Durham, North Carolina, only to have it dismissed by one of his old professors, and he later suggested that a similar phenomenon might lie behind UFO sightings. So why did he steer clear? One reason is that the territory had already been aggressively claimed by Raymond A. Palmer, the former editor of Amazing, who wrote The Coming of the Saucers with Kenneth Arnold and even founded an entire magazine devoted to it. Campbell may have figured that there wasn’t room for two editors. But there was also a more important consideration. In 1954, he wrote to a correspondent:

The flying saucers aren’t facts; they’re Somethings. They may be optical illusions, interstellar travelers, St. Elmo’s Fire, weather balloons…who knows what. To speculate on something so vague and unsure itself is the essence of insane thinking. Quite literally, it would be dangerous for a mind to speculate on unknown-somethings…I don’t know what causes “flying saucer” reports. As soon as sound data as to what it is that causes the reports is available, I’ll be willing to discuss the implications!

The italics are mine. Campbell liked data, even if it came from questionable sources, which was why he was so enthusiastic about such devices as the Hieronymus Machine. He wanted something that he could control. And when it came to flying saucers, he just couldn’t get on board.

Written by nevalalee

July 7, 2017 at 9:18 am

From Sputnik to WikiLeaks

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In Toy Story 2, there’s a moment in which Woody discovers that his old television series, Woody’s Roundup, was abruptly yanked off the air toward the end of the fifties. He asks: “That was a great show. Why cancel it?” The Prospector replies bitterly: “Two words: Sput-nik. Once the astronauts went up, children only wanted to play with space toys.” And while I wouldn’t dream of questioning the credibility of a man known as Stinky Pete, I feel obliged to point out that his version of events isn’t entirely accurate. The space craze among kids really began more than half a decade earlier, with the premiere of Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, and the impact of Sputnik on science fiction was far from a positive one. Here’s what John W. Campbell wrote about it in the first issue of Astounding to be printed after the satellite’s launch:

Well, we lost that race; Russian technology achieved an important milestone in human history—one that the United States tried for, talked about a lot, and didn’t make…One of the things Americans have long been proud of—and with sound reason—is our ability to convert theoretical science into practical, working engineering…This time we’re faced with the uncomfortable realization that the Russians have beaten us in our own special field; they solved a problem of engineering technology faster and better than we did.

And while much of the resulting “Sputnik crisis” was founded on legitimate concerns—Sputnik was as much a triumph of ballistic rocketry as it was of satellite technology—it also arose from the notion that the United States had been beaten at its own game. As Arthur C. Clarke is alleged to have said, America had become “a second-rate power.”

Campbell knew right away that he had reason to worry. Lester del Rey writes in The World of Science Fiction:

Sputnik simply convinced John Campbell that he’d better watch his covers and begin cutting back on space scenes. (He never did, but the art director of the magazine and others were involved in that decision.) We agreed in our first conversation after the satellite went up that people were going to react by deciding science had caught up with science fiction, and with a measure of initial fear. They did. Rather than helping science fiction, Sputnik made it seem outmoded.

And that’s more or less exactly what happened. There was a brief spike in sales, followed by a precipitous fall as mainstream readers abandoned the genre. I haven’t been able to find specific numbers for this period, but one source, the Australian fan Wynne Whitford, states that the circulation of Astounding fell by half after Sputnik—which seems high, but probably reflects a real decline. In a letter written decades later, Campbell said of Sputnik: “Far from encouraging the sales of science fiction magazines—half the magazines being published lost circulation so drastically they went out of business!” An unscientific glance at a list of titles appears to support this. In 1958, the magazines Imagination, Imaginative Tales, Infinity Science Fiction, Phantom, Saturn, Science Fiction Adventures, Science Fiction Quarterly, Star Science Fiction, and Vanguard Science Fiction all ceased publication, followed by three more over the next twelve months. The year before, just four magazines had folded. There was a bubble, and after Sputnik, it burst.

At first, this might seem like a sort of psychological self-care, of the same kind that motivated me to scale back my news consumption after the election. Americans were simply depressed, and they didn’t need any reminders of the situation they were in. But it also seems to have affected the public’s appetite for science fiction in particular, rather than science as a whole. In fact, the demand for nonfiction science writing actually increased. As Isaac Asimov writes in his memoir In Joy Still Felt:

The United States went into a dreadful crisis of confidence over the fact that the Soviet Union had gotten there first and berated itself for not being interested enough in science. And I berated myself for spending too much time on science fiction when I had the talent to be a great science writer…Sputnik also served to increase the importance of any known public speaker who could talk on science and, particularly, on space, and that meant me.

What made science fiction painful to read, I think, was its implicit assumption of American superiority, which had been disproven so spectacularly. Campbell later compared it to the reaction after the bomb fell, claiming that it was the moment when people realized that science fiction wasn’t a form of escapism, but a warning:

The reactions to Sputnik have been more rapid, and, therefore, more readily perceptible and correlatable. There was, again, a sudden rise in interest in science fiction…and there is, now, an even more marked dropping of the science-fiction interest. A number of the magazines have been very heavily hit…I think the people of the United States thought we were kidding.

And while Campbell seemed to believe that readers had simply misinterpreted science fiction’s intentions, the conventions of the genre itself clearly bore part of the blame.

In his first editorials after Sputnik, Campbell drew a contrast between the American approach to engineering, which proceeded logically and with vast technological resources, and the quick and dirty Soviet program, which was based on rules of thumb, trial and error, and the ability to bull its way through on one particular point of attack. It reminds me a little of the election. Like the space race, last year’s presidential campaign could be seen as a kind of proxy war between the American and Russian administrations, and regardless of what you believe about the Trump camp’s involvement, which I suspect was probably a tacit one, there’s no question as to which side Putin favored. On one hand, you had a large, well-funded political machine, and on the other, one that often seemed comically inept. Yet it was the quick and dirty approach that triumphed. “The essence of ingenuity is the ability to get precision results without precision equipment,” Campbell wrote, and that’s pretty much what occurred. A few applications of brute force in the right place made all the difference, and they were aided, to some extent, by a similar complacency. The Americans saw the Soviets as bunglers, and they never seriously considered the possibility that they might be beaten by a bunch of amateurs. As Campbell put it: “We earned what we got—fully, and of our own efforts. The ridicule we’ve collected is our just reward for our consistent efforts.” Sometimes I feel the same way. Right now, we’re entering a period in which the prospect of becoming a second-rate power is far more real than it was when Clarke made his comment. It took a few months for the implications of Sputnik to really sink in. And if history is any indication, we haven’t even gotten to the crisis yet.

The Imaginary Dr. Kutzman

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A Criticism of Dianetics

In my recent piece on Longreads about L. Ron Hubbard and the origins of Scientology, I note that Hubbard initially didn’t want the first important article on dianetics to appear in Astounding Science Fiction at all. In April of 1949, he made efforts to reach out to such organizations as the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, and the Gerontological Society in Baltimore, and he only turned to the science fiction editor John W. Campbell after all of these earlier attempts had failed. Most of the standard biographies of Hubbard mention this fact, but what isn’t always emphasized is that even Campbell, who became one of Hubbard’s most passionate supporters, didn’t seem all that eager to publish the piece in Astounding. Campbell knew perfectly well that printing this material in a pulp magazine would make it hard for it to be taken seriously, and he was also concerned that it would be mistaken for a hoax article, like Isaac Asimov’s story about the fictional compound thiotimoline. As a result, even as Campbell served as a key member of the team that was developing dianetics in Bay Head, New Jersey, he continued to push for it to make its first appearance in a professional journal. Later that year, Dr. Joseph Winter, their third crucial collaborator, reached out “informally” about a paper to the Journal of the American Medical Association, only to be told that it lacked sufficient evidence, and he got much the same response from the American Journal of Psychiatry. It was only after they had exhausted these avenues that they decided to publish “Dianetics: The Evolution of a Science” in the magazine that Campbell himself edited—which tells us a lot about how they had originally wanted their work to be received.

At that point, Campbell was hardly in a position to be objective, but he wanted to present the article to his readers in a way that at least gave the appearance of balance. Accordingly, he proposed that they find a psychiatrist to write a critical treatment of dianetics, presumably to run alongside Hubbard’s piece—but he was doomed to be disappointed in this, too. On December 9, 1949, Hubbard wrote: “In view of the fact that no psychiatrist to date has been able to look at Dianetics and listen long enough to find out the fundamentals, Dianetic explanations being dinned out by his educational efforts about Freud, we took it upon ourselves to compose the rebuttal.” Incredibly, Hubbard and Winter wrote up an entire article, “A Criticism of Dianetics,” that spent over five thousand words laying out the case against the new therapy, credited to the nonexistent “Irving R. Kutzman, M.D.” (In his letter, Hubbard argued that the “M.D.” was justified, since it reflected the contributions of Winter, a general practitioner and endocrinologist from Michigan.) Hubbard claimed that the essay consisted of the verbatim comments of four psychiatrists he had consulted on the subject, including one he had met while living in Savannah, Georgia, and that he had “played them back very carefully,” using the perfect memory that a dianetic “clear” possessed. He also described setting up “a psychiatric demon” to write the piece, which refers to the notion that a clear can deliberately create and break down temporary delusions for his private amusement. To the best of my knowledge, this paper, which I discovered among Campbell’s correspondence, hasn’t been published or discussed anywhere else, and it provides some fascinating insights into Hubbard’s thinking at the time.

L. Ron Hubbard to John W. Campbell

The most interesting thing about “A Criticism of Dianetics” is how straightforward it is. Hubbard told Campbell that “it is in no sense an effort to be funny and it is not funny,” and for most of the piece, there’s little trace of burlesque. Notably, it anticipates many of the objections that would be raised against dianetics, including the idea that it merely repackaged existing psychological concepts. As “Kutzman” writes: “Further examination…disclosed that scraps of Dianetics have been known for thousands of years. Except for one or two relatively minor matters, all of them are known to the modern psychologist.” He also observes that Hubbard has only thirteen months of data—which is actually generous, given how little he disclosed about any of his alleged cases—and that there’s no evidence that any perceived improvements will last. It’s only toward the end that the mask begins to slip. “Kutzman” speaks glowingly of “the new technique of trans-orbital leukotomy and the older and more reliable technique of pre-frontal lobotomy,” with which “patients can be treated more swiftly and will be less of a menace to society than heretofore.” He concludes: “By such operations…[the neurosurgeon] can get rid of that part of your personality which is causing all your trouble.” (Even the name “Kutzman,” I suspect, is a bad pun.) The piece dismisses General Semantics and cybernetics, the latter of which it attributes to a “Dr. Werner [sic],” and closes with an odd account of the fictional Kutzman being audited by Hubbard, in which he explains away the prenatal and childhood memories that he recovered as delusions: “I had eaten excessively at supper and…my ulcer had been troubling me for some time.” It ends: “Discoveries not solidly founded in classical psychoanalysis are not likely to be easily accepted by a social world which already comprehends all the basic problems of the human mind.”

In any event, it was never published, and it isn’t clear whether Hubbard or Winter ever thought that it would be. Hubbard wrote to Campbell: “Any article you receive will, I know, run something on this order if written by a psychiatrist…May I invite you to peruse same, not in any misguided spirit of levity, but as a review of the composite and variously confirmed attitudes Dianetics meets in the field of those great men who guide our minds.” No actual rebuttal ever materialized, and dianetics was presented in the pages of Astounding without any critical analysis whatsoever. (Interestingly, Hubbard did contribute to a point/counterpoint discussion on at least two other occasions. One was in the November 1950 issue of Why Magazine, which ran Hubbard’s “The Case For It” with “The Case Against It” by Dr. Oscar Sachs of Mount Sinai, and the other was in the May 1951 installment of Marvel Science Stories, which contained positive articles on dianetics from Hubbard and Theodore Sturgeon and a critical one from Lester del Rey. Campbell could have arranged for something similar in Astounding, if he had really wanted it.) But it provides a valuable glimpse into a transitional moment in Hubbard’s career. Compared to the author’s later attacks on psychiatry, its tone is restrained, even subtle—which isn’t a description that usually comes to mind for Hubbard’s work. Yet it’s equally clear that he had already given up on reaching mainstream psychologists and psychiatrists, even to the extent of convincing one to compose an objective response. Campbell, for his part, still clung to the hope of obtaining academic or scientific recognition. Much of the tragicomedy of what happened over the next eighteen months emerged from that basic misunderstanding. And the seeds of it are visible here.

Written by nevalalee

February 23, 2017 at 8:50 am

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 MAYA prophecy

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Raymond Loewy on the cover of Time Magazine

In this month’s issue of The Atlantic, there’s an excerpt from the upcoming book Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction. Its author, Derek Thompson, argues that success in a wide range of fields results from what researchers have called “optimal newness”—a degree of innovation that is advanced enough to be striking, but also just familiar enough to be accessible. Thompson illustrates his point with numerous examples, from plot formulas in prestige dramas to chord progressions in popular music, and he notes that science and business are vulnerable to it as well:

In 2014, a team of researchers from Harvard University and Northeastern University wanted to know exactly what sorts of proposals were most likely to win funding from prestigious institutions such as the National Institutes of Health—safely familiar proposals, or extremely novel ones? They prepared about 150 research proposals and gave each one a novelty score…The most-novel proposals got the worst ratings. Exceedingly familiar proposals fared a bit better, but they still received low scores. “Everyone dislikes novelty,” Karim Lakhani, a co-author, explained to me, and “experts tend to be overcritical of proposals in their own domain.” The highest evaluation scores went to submissions that were deemed slightly new. There is an “optimal newness” for ideas, Lakhani said—advanced yet acceptable.

Thompson frames his argument with a consideration of the career of the industrial designer Raymond Loewy, who summed up the principle with the acronym MAYA: “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable.” And while this may seem like a tautology—an innovation is acceptable until it isn’t—it’s worth scrutinizing more closely. When we look at business or the arts, we find that they often reward the simulation of innovation, which pushes all the right buttons for novelty while remaining fundamentally conventional. The result can be an entire culture that regards itself as innovative while really only repeating an endless cycle of the same clichés. You can see this clearly in technology, of which Thompson writes:

In Silicon Valley, where venture capitalists also sift through a surfeit of proposals, many new ideas are promoted as a fresh spin on familiar successes. The home-rental company Airbnb was once called “eBay for homes.” The on-demand car-service companies Uber and Lyft were once considered “Airbnb for cars.” When Uber took off, new start-ups began branding themselves “Uber for [anything].”

And when every company is talking about “disruption,” it implies that very little is being disrupted at all—especially when the startups in question are inclined to hire people who look just like the founders.

Charles Atlas

Not surprisingly, I found myself applying this observation to the history of science fiction. When you look at Astounding in the golden age through the lens of “optimal newness,” you find that it fits the definition pretty well. John W. Campbell was famously conservative in many respects, and he was wary of directly engaging such subjects as sex and religion. In 1939, when he first read Robert A. Heinlein’s “If This Goes On—,” he loved it, but he also noted in a letter to a friend that it was “too hot to handle,” and that the references to religion had to be carefully edited. Decades later, he was still saying the same thing—the phrase “too hot to handle” recurs repeatedly in his correspondence. Campbell had a fixed idea of how much change his readers would tolerate. As he later wrote to his father: “[Astounding] is carefully expurgated to suit the most prudish—while I’m busy sawing away at the piling on which the whole crazy structure is resting.” And his caution is visible in other ways. When he took over Astounding, it was still basically a pulp magazine, and in order to retain his readership, he couldn’t depart too far from the original model. Instead, he tweaked it in small but significant ways. Instead of the usual hypermasculine heroes, he introduced a new kind of character—the “competent man” who solved all of his problems using logic and engineering. But he was still a white male. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Campbell that he could be anything else. And as late as 1967, he was still saying that he didn’t think his readers could accept a black protagonist.

And he had good reasons for believing this. One of the first things that everyone notices about the fans of this era—who were a small subset, but a highly visible one, of the readership as a whole—is that many of them were outsiders. They were poor, sickly, unathletic, and sexually inexperienced, and they craved stories that told them that they could become something more. Like Charles Atlas, whose ads were inescapable in the magazine’s pages, Campbell was selling a vision of transformation, which said that you, too, could become a superman if you worked hard enough at it. And he was telling the truth. The sense of otherness that many young science fiction fans experienced was a temporary one, inseparable from the hell of adolescence, and most of them grew up to become productive members of society. They were competent men in larval form. But the genre had less to say to fans who were set apart by qualities that couldn’t merely be outgrown, like race, gender, or sexuality. Like Silicon Valley, it was pitched to appeal to a particular kind of outcast, and this was reflected in the heroes that it celebrated. As long as the formula remained intact, you could do pretty much as you liked. But it also limited the kinds of stories that could be told, to the point where it created a self-fulfilling prophecy about the writers who were drawn to it. The planets were exotic, but the faces were familiar. It’s no secret that science fiction has always tended to take the approach of optimal newness, and that it innovated within acceptable boundaries. But acceptable to whom?

Written by nevalalee

December 14, 2016 at 9:31 am

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

Astounding Stories #19: They’d Rather Be Right

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They'd Rather Be Right

Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

They’d Rather Be Right, which was originally serialized in Astounding Science Fiction in 1954, is often called the worst novel ever to win a Hugo Award. Like many stories from those days, it was based on a premise by the editor John W. Campbell, which he shopped around to his stable of writers until he found somebody who was willing to take it. Here’s how he described it in a letter to G. Harry Stine:

Imagine somebody invents a machine—we’ll call it the “psychosomatron”—full of electronic tubes, automatic integrators, chemical analyzers, biochemical agents, and automatic injector contraptions. The psychomatron can take an old, broken-down, feeble man of ninety and, in four one-hour treatments, turn him into a vigorous, active, twenty-five-year-old equivalent. It will take any adult and turn him into his physical-health-maximum.

However, since so much physical deterioration is psychosomatic…the machine also has to realign the individual’s experiences and ideas—has to integrate them, too, into an harmonious system…The result is somewhat disconcerting to people, however…Eternal youth and strength, wisdom, success, happiness—but only at the cost of giving up every prejudice and bias you hold so dear.

Campbell then gives the hypothetical case of a ninety-year-old white supremacist who accepts the treatment, becomes young again—but only at the cost of losing all of his racial prejudices. Another example, which was probably closer to Campbell’s heart, is “the dreamy-eyed idealist [who] hates it because it turned his friend into a vigorous, hard-working, practical individual—who’s getting things done instead of carrying on the dear old, long, long discussions about what somebody ought to do.”

After pitching the idea to the great Eric Frank Russell, who passed, Campbell gave it to Mark Clifton, who ultimately wrote it up as a collaboration with Frank Riley. Campbell was delighted by the result:

It came out exactly as I expected it would—unlike the plots either of us had discussed, because it took off on its own and built itself as it went…It is no more like what I had in mind than it is like what you started with.

In fact, the result is indeed somewhat different from what Campbell had conceived. It focuses on a pair of cyberneticists who have developed a computer, nicknamed Bossy, with a perfect synthetic mind. (Bossy was originally a servomechanism designed as a missile guidance system, which is the first of many references to the work of Norbert Wiener.) In the face of the widespread fear that Bossy will take over people’s jobs, the scientists are forced to flee from an anti-intellectual mob—a theme that would later be explored in greater depth by James Gunn in “Witches Must Burn.” With the aid of Joe, a student with telepathic abilities, they set up a secret workshop in a slum, where they decide to focus on one particular line of research: the complete regeneration of the human body. Their first test subject is Mabel, a faded ex-prostitute with a heart of gold, who is transformed by Bossy into the most beautiful woman anyone has ever seen, with superhuman ethical, intellectual, and psychic abilities. Overnight, public opinion turns in favor of the treatment, but it quickly curdles after it becomes clear that not everyone can benefit from it. Mabel was an ideal patient because she’d long ago given up all her convictions. Individuals with more firmly engrained prejudices, like the older of the two scientists who developed the process, subconsciously resist giving up their cherished preconceptions, and so the therapy fails.

They'd Rather Be Right

Up to this point, the story is readable but not particularly inspired, studded with passages and ideas that might have been drawn straight from Campbell’s letters and editorials. What makes it interesting—and more worthwhile than its reputation implies—is the master plan of the young telepath Joe, who has been secretly running the project all along. Immortality, he reveals, was nothing but bait to convince people to become more enlightened, and it clearly hasn’t worked: Bossy is treated as just another weapon, with the government fighting various private interests for control. The solution, Joe says, is to put Bossy into mass production, “like vacuum cleaners, radios, automobiles,” and make her cheap enough so everybody can have one:

The actual machine, itself, [would] be available to anyone who wanted her…He realized what this would do to the economy of the world; but the changes which Bossy would bring about were only magnifications of the changes which had occurred when the steering wheel replaced the buggy whip…Each man would now hold all the answers he needed to solve his own economic problems—the answers would be limited only by the man’s inability to ask the right questions…There must be intercommunication between all the Bossies.

The italics, of course, are mine. It continues: “The world sat stunned at the announcement that everyone would have Bossy. No one had ever believed that any except a special privileged few would benefit from her.” And in a long closing speech, Joe lays out the rules of the new era in human history: “Bossy is just a tool. Bossy can answer your questions, but only if you ask them…Ladies and gentlemen of the world. There she sits. Bossy is yours.”

That’s how it ends—and I think it’s fair to say that his words have a somewhat different ring today than they did in the early fifties. They’d Rather Be Right might fail to offer a plausible or dramatically satisfying vision of a world faced with the prospect of immortality, but it does a remarkable job of laying out the implications of affordable personal computers and the Internet, a full three decades before it was even conceivable. I’ve noted before how rarely science fiction foresaw what ended up being the most significant technological and cultural development of our time, and Clifton and Riley’s novel is arguably more prescient about our predicament than more famous stories like “A Logic Named Joe.” As Joe the telepath says:

There she sits. She is a tool who will heat your homes, or bring you entertainment, or cook your food, or bathe the baby, or walk the dog, or figure your income tax…She can also give you a tremendous comprehension in time, the nature of which we do not yet even dream. She can give you immortality. But you must rise to her requirements…She is yours. She is not a threat. But she is a challenge. She is perhaps the greatest challenge which mankind has ever been called upon to meet…She is a challenge to your willingness to learn rather than to argue.

When you remove the idea of immortality from the equation, or reframe it properly as an allegory, it becomes obvious that the test that the story describes is one that we’ve all been given, and mostly failed, over the last twenty years. It’s no exaggeration to say that we all have the technological and informational resources to become the best versions of ourselves, at ridiculously low prices, but we generally prefer to use these tools to become more like what we already are. We play out this scenario every time we go online. They’d Rather Be Right has plenty of flaws, but it also came true, which is more than we can say for most of the acknowledged masterpieces of science fiction. Clifton and Riley would probably agree that it wasn’t a great novel. But maybe they’d rather be right.

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