Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Astounding Stories

Astounding Stories #22: None But Lucifer

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Note: This is the latest entry in a series in which I highlight works of speculative fiction that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

None But Lucifer, a short novel by H.L. Gold and L. Sprague de Camp that appeared in the September 1939 issue of Unknown, opens with its lead character figuring out a foolproof way of getting whatever he wants—and it isn’t a fantasy. The story begins with its protagonist, Hale, living in deliberate poverty in a tenement in New York, and within the space of a few pages, merely as an experiment, he talks his way into a lucrative job, a beautiful apartment, and a luxurious lifestyle, mostly just to prove that he can. Hale’s system depends on aiming absurdly high while showing as much apparent contempt for his true goal as possible. As he explains to an incredulous listener:

I can get anything I want any time I want it…Moreover, anybody can use my system…I go after what I want obliquely, by seeming to aim at something else, but grabbing sideways at what I really want…I can be aiming at money, fame, love, an easy life, or influence—but I wouldn’t show which one I really wanted. You’d have to guess…The main thing is to keep your mouth shut about what you really want. The next most important thing is to get out of your social class. You can depend on your own class or the one just above it to defeat you…But if you break out of your class, the one you’re crashing isn’t sure of your aims, and can’t crush you so effectively.

He concludes: “If you’re trying to get a job as a clerk, your objective is pathetically simple to figure out. You want to eat. But if you go after a hundred-thousand-a-year position, with a crack at the boss’s daughter, it gets tougher to analyze your goal.” And that’s particularly true if you manage to break through the barriers that your social class has imposed.

As a list of commandments for con artists and other hustlers—you keep your motives hidden, avoid your own social class, and show as much contempt for possible for what you really want—this approach is as valid as ever, and there are times when it reminds me queasily of Neil Strauss’s The Game. But Gold and de Camp have larger ambitions of their own. The man to whom Hale is describing his strategy isn’t an ordinary human being at all. It’s Lucifier himself, who has been quietly running the world for thousands of years in the guise of an unassuming businessman named Mr. Johnson. Hale has figured out the sinister truth, which is that our world is Hell, and we’re all being punished without our knowledge for sins that we committed in a previous lifetime. (Hale’s first clue came from a line from the novelist Arnold Bennett: “Of all the inhabitants of the inferno, none but Lucifer knows that hell is hell.” Or as Eleanor Shellstrop memorably realized: This is the Bad Place!”) With this information in hand, Hale approaches Lucifer with an ultimatum. He wants to be an equal partner in the management of Hell, or he’ll tell the world about his system for getting whatever you want, which will upset the delicate balance of suffering. Lucifer agrees, and he takes Hale under his wing. And while we reasonably suspect that there’s more to the deal than meets the eye, for the moment, we’re more interested in hearing Lucifer expound on his methods of keeping mankind in an ideal state of misery. For instance:

Running Hell on an efficient basis happens to be my business, and I run it the same as any other businessman runs his business, by practical, common-sense methods…I’m immortal, of course. Hence I can control the world’s money simply by investing a little and waiting for the interest charges to pile up. Outside of that, I can run the world merely by a magnificent system of obtaining information, an understanding of men’s desires, and a knowledge of how to use pivot men. And, of course, the ability to start and stop the flow of money. In most cases the last can be done without a penny.

This is a terrific premise for a story, although None But Lucifer—which de Camp rewrote from Gold’s initial draft, with uncredited contributions from John W. Campbell—doesn’t quite live up to its opening. The middle sags a bit, and it doesn’t follow through completely on its promise. But it’s deliciously quotable throughout, and I can hardly imagine the effect that it must have had on the impressionable teenagers who bought it for twenty cents in 1939. Here, for example, is Lucifer on the efficiency of his strategies for causing pain, which don’t involve tracking every last person on earth, but just a few crucial people: “It’s enough to keep track of trade and production and social, political, and economic movements, with the key figures in each category, their influence, their motives and objectives, and what effect certain…uh…stimuli will have on their own categories and on society in general…No black magic—just detailed information and a knowledge of human nature.” A few pages later, Lucifer explains his attitude toward war:

Except in unusual cases, I never concentrate on tormenting a single person. That would be inefficient…The chronic state of crisis, never quite reaching war, which I have labored incessantly to create, is kept simmering. The world was growing apathetic, but now there is a very gratifying turmoil. Millions of people have been made afraid and unhappy. Others have had their hopes raised. At the proper moment those hopes will be dashed, and they, too, will be unhappy.

When Lucifer poses the problem of what should be done as humanity proceeds toward an inevitable global conflict, Hale gives the correct answer: “I guess I’d try to prevent war…To keep the world frightened for as long as possible.” Lucifer praises his insight, but he adds a reminder: “Even though the war crisis is our most absorbing problem at the moment, we must never cease using the smaller torments.”

None But Lucifer was written before the outbreak of war in Europe, and it was on newsstands when Hitler invaded Poland. Typically, in a later issue, Campbell was quick to play up the coincidence: “None But Lucifer was begun last spring, worked out in detail last summer, bought and started on the process of being set in type late last summer. And it was on the stands at the time Europe was busily proving for the world that Lucifer does rule this planet.” Yet there are few points in history when its insights wouldn’t seem relevant. Reading it over recently, I was most struck by the passage in which Hale marvels at the universal state of suffering:

Millions out of work; increase in the relief budget attacked by the economy lobby—and effectively, since they were now so powerful; hunger marches, riots, strikes, lockouts, freezing of credit. Out of all that torment and strife there should have been a little happiness. The isolationists and the economizers should have felt jubilant. But actually they were as frightened as the rest of the country…It seemed that people were unhappy no matter what you did.

Throughout the story, Hale wonders what the world’s inhabitants could possibly have done in a previous life to deserve such torment, and he never really finds out. In a closing twist, however, he finds that the very worst sinners are given the darkest punishment of all—in the next life, they’re doomed to become Lucifer himself. “Evidently we—those of us who are doomed, from time to time, to the supreme torment of indeterminate immortality as manager of Hell—committed the most unspeakable crimes in some other existence,” Lucifer explains before handing over the reins to the newly reluctant Hale. “While Hell would no doubt supply plenty of torment without our help, a manager is evidently required to assure the most efficient and economical distribution of misery.”

I’ll be appearing tonight at the Tuesday Funk reading series at Hopleaf Bar at 5148 N. Clark St. in Chicago at 7:30pm. Hope to see some of you there!

Astounding Stories #21: Black Man’s Burden

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Note: With less than half a year to go until the publication of Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’m returning, after a long hiatus, to the series in which I highlight works of science fiction that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

“This never gets old,” T’Challa says in Black Panther, just before we see the nation of Wakanda in its full glory for the first time. It’s perhaps the most moving moment in this often overwhelmingly emotional film, and it speaks to how much of its power hinges on the idea of Wakanda itself. Most fictional countries in the movies—a disproportionate number of which seem to be located in Africa, South America, or the Middle East—are narrative evasions, but not here. As Ishaan Tharoor wrote recently in the Washington Post:

Wakanda, like many places in Africa, is home to a great wealth of natural resources. But unlike most places in Africa, it was able to avoid European colonization. Shielded by the powers of vibranium, the element mined beneath its surface that enabled the country to develop the world’s most advanced technology, Wakanda resisted invaders while its rulers constructed a beautiful space-age kingdom.

Or as the writer Evan Narcisse observed elsewhere to the Post: “Wakanda represents this unbroken chain of achievement of black excellence that never got interrupted by colonialism.” It’s imaginary, yes, but that’s part of the point. In his review, Anthony Lane of The New Yorker delivered a gentle rebuke: “I wonder what weight of political responsibility can, or should, be laid upon anything that is accompanied by buttered popcorn. Vibranium is no more real than the philosopher’s stone…Are 3-D spectacles any more reliable than rose-tinted ones, when we seek to imagine an ideal society?” But the gap between dreams and reality is precisely how the best science fiction—and Black Panther, along with so much else, is a kickass science fiction movie—compels us to see the world with new eyes.

The fiction published by the editor John W. Campbell rarely tackled issues of race directly, and the closest that it ever came was probably a series that began with Black Man’s Burden, the first installment of which ran in the December 1961 issue of Analog. It revolves around a coalition of African-American academics working undercover to effect social and political change in North Africa, with the ultimate goal of uniting the region in the scientific and cultural values of the West. The protagonist is a sociologist named Homer Crawford, who explains:

The distrust of the European and the white man as a whole was prevalent, especially here in Africa. However, and particularly in Africa, the citizens of the new countries were almost unbelievably uneducated, untrained, incapable of engineering their own destiny…We of the Reunited Nations teams are here because we are Africans racially but not nationally, we have no affiliations with clan, tribe, or African nation. We are free to work for Africa’s progress without prejudice. Our job is to remove obstacles wherever we find them. To break up log jams. To eliminate prejudices against the steps that must be taken if Africa is to run down the path of progress, rather than to crawl.

All of this is explained to the reader at great length. There’s some effective action, but much of the story consists of the characters talking, and if these young black intellectuals all end up sounding a lot like John W. Campbell, that shouldn’t be surprising—the author, Mack Reynolds, later said that the story and its sequels “were written at a suggestion of John Campbell’s and whole chunks of them were based on his ideas.” Many sections are taken verbatim from the editor’s letters and editorials, ranging from his musings on judo, mob psychology, and the virtues of the quarterstaff to blanket statements that border on the unforgivable: “You know, with possibly a few exceptions, you can’t enslave a man if he doesn’t want to be a slave…The majority of Jefferson’s slaves wanted to be slaves.”

We’re obviously a long way from Wakanda here—but although Black Man’s Burden might seem easy to hate, oddly enough, it isn’t. Mack Reynolds, who had lived in North Africa, was a talented writer, and the serial as a whole is intelligent, restrained, consistently interesting, and mindful of the problems with its own premise. To encourage the locals to reject tribalism in favor of modern science, medicine, and education, for instance, the team attributes many of its ideas to a fictional savior figure, El Hassan, on the theory that such societies “need a hero,” and by the end, Homer Crawford has reluctantly assumed the role himself. (There are shades not just of T.E. Lawrence but of Paul Atreides, whose story would appear in the magazine just two years later.) But he has few illusions about the nature of his work. As one of his colleagues puts it in the sequel:

Monarchies are of the past, and El Hassan is the voice of the future, something new. We won’t admit he’s just a latter-day tyrant, an opportunist seizing power because it’s there crying to be seized. Actually, El Hassan is in the tradition of Genghis Khan, Temerlane, or, more recently, Napoleon. But he’s a modern version, and we’re not going to hang the old labels on him.

Crawford mordantly responds: “As a young sociologist, I never expected to wind up a literal tyrant.” And Reynolds doesn’t pretend to offer easy solutions. The sequel, Border, Breed, Nor Birth, closes with a bleak denial of happy endings, while the concluding story, “Black Sheep Astray,” ends with Crawford, overthrown after a long rule as El Hassan, returning to start a new revolution among the younger generation, at the likely cost of his life. The leads are drawn with considerable care—even if Reynolds has a bad habit of saying that they look “surprisingly like” Joe Louis or Lena Horne—and their mere presence in Analog is striking enough that one prominent scholar has used it to question Samuel R. Delany’s claim that Campbell rejected one of his stories because “his readership would be able to relate to a black main character.”

Yet this overlooks the fact that an ambitious, messy, uncategorizable novel like Delany’s Nova is worlds apart from a serial that was commissioned and written to Campbell’s specifications. And its conceptual and literary limitations turn out to be closely related. Black Man’s Burden is constructed with diligence and real craft, but this doesn’t make its basic premise any more tenable. It interrogates many of its assumptions, but it doesn’t really question the notion of a covert operation to shape another country’s politics through propaganda, guerrilla action, and the assimilation of undercover agents into the local population. This isn’t science fiction. It’s what intelligence agencies on both sides were doing throughout the Cold War. (If anything, the whisper campaign for El Hassan seems primitive by contemporary standards. These days, the plan would include data analysis, viral messaging in support of favored policies or candidates, and the systematic weaponization of social media on the part of foreign nationals. What would be wrong with that?) By the story’s own logic, the project has to be run by black activists because the locals are suspicious of white outsiders, but there’s no suggestion that their underlying goals are any different—and if the same story would be unthinkable with a white protagonist, it implies that it has problems here that can’t be addressed with a change of race. It’s also characteristically evasive when it comes to how psychohistory actually works. Reading it again, I found myself thinking of what William Easterly writes in The White Man’s Burden:

A Planner thinks he already knows the answers; he thinks of poverty as a technical engineering problem that his answers will solve. A Searcher admits he doesn’t know the answers in advance…A Planner believes outsiders know enough to impose solutions. A Searcher believes only insiders have enough knowledge to find solutions, and that most solutions must be homegrown.

Planners still exist in foreign aid—but they can also edit magazines. Campbell was one of them. Black Man’s Burden was his idea of how to deal with race in Analog, even as he failed to make any effort to look for black writers who knew about the subject firsthand. And it worked about as well here as it did anywhere else.

Astounding Stories #20: “Unwillingly to School”

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Note: With less than half a year to go until the publication of Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’m returning, after a long hiatus, to the series in which I highlight works of science fiction that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

In its broad outlines, “Unwillingly to School” looks pretty much like the kind of novella that you’d expect to find in the January 1958 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, with a premise straight out of a Heinlein juvenile. Its narrator is a stubborn teenager working on a small family farm in a mining colony around the star Excenus. Through a series of unlikely developments, the protagonist goes reluctantly to college on earth, displays a few surprising talents, and ends up studying Cultural Engineering, which is the science of intervening discreetly in the development of immature civilizations—all of which is very Campbellian. The difference is that the main character is a nineteen-year-old girl named Lysistrata “Lizzie” Lee, and she speaks in the first person with the kind of distinct, funny voice that rarely made it into the magazine. For instance, here’s a description of visitors to the farm: “Peoples’ wives from Town come out to board some times, Dad lets them because he thinks they will Mother me. Well mostly I manage to steer them off and no hard feelings, it is my home after all they got to be reasonable about it if they want to stay.” And a little later, when Lizzie still thinks that the plan to send her off to college is part of a convoluted trick to get her out of a jam:

We are to go shopping buying some clothes for me to wear on Earth, it seems to me this is carrying realism too far but I do not want any more time in the hotel with nothing to do…M’Clare is all the time trying to get me to talk, he says for instance Have I ever thought about going to College? I say Sure, I count my blessings now and then.

It’s a tightly imagined, utterly engaging story, and John W. Campbell loved it. In his acceptance letter to the author, Pauline Ashwell, who had originally submitted the story under the pseudonym “Paul Ash,” the editor wrote enthusiastically:

I’m taking “Unwillingly to School”; it’s completely delightful and completely unique. On this one, I really feel you should use your own feminine name; only a woman could have achieved that precise presentation of a girl’s enthusiastic, bubbling-with-life, confused, yet strongly directed thinking…I hope you’ll be able to make the London Science Fiction Convention this September; I’ll be there, and I’d enjoy meeting you.

And in the announcement of the contents of the upcoming issue, Campbell described the novella in terms that would have struck longtime readers as unusually glowing:

The lead novelette will be “Unwillingly to School,” by Pauline Ashwell. She is genuinely, no-kidding, a new author, not an old one in a new disguise. There has never been a science-fiction story like this before; I am hopefully praying, however, that Miss Ashwell can repeat and extend the adventures of Lizzie Lee, who must be read to be believed. Lizzie is a teenage girl that I am extremely glad I never met, and delighted to have read about; she’s a menace, and in the course of “Unwillingly to School” she breaks every rule of English grammar, punctuation, and composition I ever heard about, and I think invents a few in order to rebel against them, too. Lizzie is this year’s Christmas present to the readers, from Astounding Science Fiction.

In the end, the response from readers was underwhelming. “Unwillingly to School” ranked third in the monthly Analytical Laboratory poll, behind “All the King’s Horses” by Robert Silverberg and Randall Garrett, a story that was much more typical of what Campbell was publishing in the late fifties. (Both Ashwell and her story did receive Hugo nominations the following year, which wouldn’t be the last time that the tastes of the readers diverged from those of the major awards.) Almost two years later, there was a sequel, “The Lost Kafoozalum,” a likable story that gave up much of Lizzie’s voice—it was basically a Competent Man story with a female lead, which shouldn’t understate how unusual this was. It also ranked third. And on March 25, 1962, Campbell felt obliged to write to Robert A. Heinlein in his rejection of the story that became Podkayne of Mars:

The last yarn we ran which had a teenage girl as the central character was “Unwillingly To School”; it was written by an expert on teenage girls (she had been one; she taught at a girl’s school; she was a biologist-anthropologist—and she could write and had a magnificent sense of humor). It didn’t go over so hot—our readers appear to be less than enthusiastic about the peculiarities of teenage girl’s thinking. That seems to be a reasonable attitude; teenage girls don’t like teenage girls’ thinking either—including their own. They’re inherently frustrated, squeezed thereby into an inferiority complex type of apparent self-satisfaction, are immensely erratic, and utterly undependable.

It’s a shame, because Lizzie was, frankly, a more interesting character than Poddy, and while Ashwell later wrote two more installments in the series in the eighties, which I haven’t read, it would have been nice to see more of her in the sixties.

And the episode gets at something important about Campbell. As an editor, he never had much of an interest in diversifying his writers or characters, at least when it came to race, but he would have been happy to have had more women. His readers, who were overwhelmingly male, weren’t particularly interested, and when such efforts as “Unwillingly to School” failed to make an impression, he dropped it. On some level, this reflects the role that he claimed to see for himself, writing decades earlier: “A magazine is not an autocracy, as readers tend to believe, ruled arbitrarily by an editor’s opinions. It is a democracy by readers’ votes, the editor serving as election board official. The authors are the candidates, their style and stories the platform.” And there’s no question that he listened seriously to feedback from his readers as a whole. On another level, though, it only tells us which battles he was willing to fight. Campbell was more than glad to take on issues that he thought were important, like psionics, and persistently force them onto his audience in the absence of any conceivable demand. He could have chosen to invest the same energy into issues of representation, which could only have elevated the quality of the fiction that he was publishing, but when the readers pushed back, he didn’t press it. That’s more revealing than anything else, and it represents a real loss. Campbell published important work by such authors as Leigh Brackett, Catherine L. Moore, Judith Merril, and Anne McCaffrey, but the magazine mostly lacked straightforward stories like “The Lost Kafoozalum,” in which women appeared without comment as the heroes of the stock gadget and engineering stories that filled the pages of Astounding and Analog. As a result, the migration of women into hard science fiction never really took place, at least not under Campbell’s watch. He wanted it to happen. But not quite badly enough.

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.

Astounding Stories #18: “Noise Level”

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Noise Level

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

On March 31, 1952, the science fiction editor John W. Campbell wrote a long letter to his friend Robert A. Heinlein. It began: “I’ve got an idea that may appeal to you as a starting point for a yarn. If so—I’d love it. If not—lemme know, and I’ll try it on someone else.” Campbell went on to describe the plot in great detail, from its initial premise to its concluding twist, which was unusual in itself: he often pitched ideas to writers, but he was generally happiest when the author came back to him with something he wasn’t expecting. In this case, however, he clearly wanted a story written to order. Here’s how it started:

The top scientists of the country are called into closed, secret session. One of the top men of the National Research Council gets up and explains. Joseph Quincy Doakes, a twenty-eight-year-old physicist, came to the Council and claimed he had an antigravity device. His technical knowledge was definitely of the highest order, but he was an insufferable egotist. He refused to tell anything about it until they’d seen it work. He gave a demonstration, a personal flying device. It worked.

The scientists are shown filmed footage of the test at an airfield, with the inventor flying miraculously toward the sky—until something goes wrong. There’s a malfunction, the inventor crashes from five hundred feet, and he’s killed at once, with the antigravity device itself reduced to a smoking ruin.

As soon as the presentation is over, the scientists are informed that their assignment is to reproduce Doakes’s discovery, whatever the hell it was. Unfortunately, Doakes was so paranoid about his ideas being stolen that he left no record of his work: no notes, no diagrams, no trace of the underlying theory. All that remains is a nearly indecipherable audio recording of a brief explanation that he gave on the airfield that day, only a few words of which are audible. The scientists are each given a copy of the tape, along with unlimited resources and funding, and ordered to get cracking: “We need that device.” Eventually, after much feverish work, they manage to reconstruct a working antigravity machine using these meager clues, in defiance of all known laws of physics. And here’s the kicker, as Campbell told it to Heinlein:

The whole thing [is] one hundred percent fake. The purpose being this: a situation has been established wherein the top physicists of the nation have had firmly, solely planted on them these two propositions: an antigravity device can be made [and] we have to make it…With twenty brilliant minds, stored with vast quantities of data related to the problem, running wide open and under pressure to glean the necessary facts—with a whispering, noise-loaded voice in their ears, the voice of a dead man who did it—the half-heard, and nine-tenths guessed concepts he speaks—the tremendous straining concentration to find that hidden answer—

And you know, Bob, that same basic mechanism should work for a lot of other things!

In other words, it was a hoax designed to make the scientists to devote their best efforts to solving a problem that they otherwise would have dismissed out of hand. (As Norton Juster puts it so movingly in The Phantom Tollbooth: “So many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.”)

Noise Level

Heinlein ultimately passed on the idea, and Campbell eventually gave it to Raymond F. Jones, who wrote it up as a novelette that was published under the title “Noise Level” in the December 1952 issue of Astounding. It’s a wonderful story in its own right, and Jones adds a lot of nice touches that aren’t there in Campbell’s original pitch. For example, the scientists are taken to what they’re told was the home of the device’s late inventor, whose name in the finished version is Dunning. The house has a beautiful tinkerer’s lab, a machine shop, and a strange pair of libraries: one filled with physics and engineering titles, the other with books about astrology, the occult, and Eastern mysticism. As one of the scientists says disbelievingly: “It isn’t possible…that Dunning owned and understood both of these libraries.” Later, when asked why they included “the stuff on Babylonian mysticism, astrology, and the rest of that crud,” an organizer of the hoax explains:

The whole project was set up to be as noisy as possible…We didn’t know how to produce antigravity, so we gave you a picture of a man who did, and made it as noisy as possible to loosen up your own noise filters on the subject. I offered you a dose of omniscient noise on the subject of antigravity, and the one inescapable conclusion that it had been done.

By “omniscient noise,” he’s referring to the idea, discussed earlier on, that pure noise—a completely random sequences of pulses—contains all possible messages and information, and that our ability to understand it depends on the mental filters that we’ve set up. Give a team of geniuses a source of raw noise and loosen up their filters, the story argues, and they can figure out just about anything, as long as they’re convinced that it’s possible.

And while “Noise Level” doesn’t bear Campbell’s name, it’s still one of the most personal statements he ever allowed into print. (It’s especially revealing that he originally approached Heinlein with the premise. Heinlein had written up a few of Campbell’s ideas before, in stories like “Sixth Column,” “Solution Unsatisfactory,” and “Universe,” but he hadn’t done so for over a decade. The fact that Campbell tried pitching the idea to his single best writer, even though it was highly unlikely that Heinlein would take it, tells us how important it was to him.) One of the first problems that occurs to anyone who studies Campbell is how the same man who was almost singlehandedly responsible for the rise of hard science fiction could also endorse such concepts as dianetics, psionics, the Hieronymus Machine, and the Dean Drive. You could say that Campbell genuinely believed that these phenomena existed; that he wanted to be responsible for popularizing a major discovery that would rival atomic power and space travel; that he saw them as a way to maintain science fiction’s status as a frontier literature; or that he wanted to challenge scientific orthodoxy by feeding it some of the most outrageous concepts imaginable. To some extent, all of these interpretations are accurate. But I’d like to think that Campbell revealed his true motivations in “Noise Level,” and that he spent his last two decades at the magazine deliberately trying to make his ongoing experiment with his readers as noisy as possible. Like the two libraries in Dunning’s house, Astounding ran hard science fiction side by side with pieces on psychic powers and dowsing, and many readers couldn’t understand how Campbell could believe in both. Maybe he did—but he also wanted to give his readers the chaotic raw material that they needed to expand their way of thinking. Whether or not he succeeded is another question entirely. But he thought it would take them to the stars.

Written by nevalalee

September 28, 2016 at 9:33 am

Astounding Stories #17: The Thiotimoline Papers

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The Micropsychiatric Applications of Thiotimoline

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

In May of 1947, Isaac Asimov, who was then a graduate student in organic chemistry at Columbia University, was hard at work in the lab. As part of the research he was conducting for his doctorate, he had to dissolve a compound called catechol in an enzyme solution and time the reaction with a stopwatch. As he describes it in his memoir In Memory Yet Green:

Catechol, as it happens, is very readily soluble, especially when it exists as fluffy crystals that present a large surface to the water. The result is that as soon as the catechol touches the surface of the water it dissolves. It just seems to vanish without ever penetrating the water’s skin.

As I watched it one morning I thought idly: What if it dissolves just before it hits the water?

Asimov saw immediately that this would be a good idea for a science fiction story, and he had the additional inspiration to write it up as a spoof article for a scientific journal about this imaginary compound. He was dreading the process of writing his dissertation in a dry academic style, and he thought that composing a parody would allow him to blow off some steam. Asimov proposed the idea to the editor John W. Campbell, who loved it, and the result, “The Endochronic Properties of Resubliminated Thiotimoline,” was published in the March 1948 issue of Astounding Science Fiction.

The article was a big hit with readers, and it remains a minor classic. At a time when many of us dread the unfunny fake press releases that appear on every April Fool’s Day, it can be hard to appreciate the impression that it made. Unlike most stories in the same vein, it keeps a poker face throughout, and it evidently fooled a lot of readers, at least at first glance: Campbell later claimed that the New York Public Library was flooded with requests for the fictitious papers listed in its bibliography. It inspired letters from fans describing their own experiments, including one on “neurotic thiotimoline”—in which the dissolution of thiotimoline activated a mechanism that prevented the water from being added, creating a paradox—and another on a “prediction machine” built from a chain of thiotimoline reactors. (The second letter criticized the first as “a pack of lies,” saying: “I strongly suspect that it was a cheap publicity trick for some sort of new religious cult [the writer] is planning to start which will involve the worship of a thiotimoline god.”) A second gag article along the same lines, “The Aphrodite Project” by Philip Latham, took the form of an abstract of a government report on an unmanned probe to Venus. This one caused a fair amount of bewilderment as well, and Campbell even got a few phone calls about it, prompting him to clarify that it was fictional in an editor’s note, and to warn readers that an upcoming piece, “Progress Report” by John Pomeroy, would have “gags at all levels.” He ultimately instituted an informal editorial policy that such articles could only appear once every eighteen months or so, clearly labeled as “Special Features,” and by that point, much of the fun was gone.

Isaac Asimov

This much of the story, at least, is familiar to many science fiction fans. What isn’t as well known is how the thiotimoline gag complicated Campbell’s plans for a more significant project: the introduction of dianetics. In the December 1949 issue, Campbell wrote: “But the item that most interests me at the moment is an article on the most important subject imaginable. This is not a hoax article. It is an article on the science of the mind, of human thought.” Campbell, in other words, realized that a lot of readers might think that the dianetics article was just another parody, and I suspect that his attempts to flag all spoof articles more explicitly going forward was an attempt to head off any confusion. When the article “Dianetics: The Evolution of a Science” appeared the following year, Dr. Joseph Winter, the endocrinologist who collaborated with Campbell and L. Ron Hubbard on its development, drew the distinction even more emphatically in his introduction:

[Campbell] wanted to make certain that you readers would not confuse dianetics with thiotimoline or any other bit of scientific sporting. This is too important to be misunderstood.

Anecdotally, it seems that more than a few readers did think that the article was a spoof of the language of psychiatry. And while this probably would have happened anyway, it isn’t hard to believe that thiotimoline made it all the more difficult for many people to take it seriously.

But that isn’t quite the end of the story. In 1953, after Campbell had broken away from Hubbard, he published a sequel to the original thiotimoline paper, titled “The Micropsychiatric Applications of Thiotimoline.” In the article, Asimov writes that he has received funding from the American Association for the Advancement of Quantitative Psychiatry, which believes that thiotimoline can be used to quantify mental disorders: “It is the purpose of the present paper, in part, to show that by use of thiotimoline, certain mental disorders can be quantitated and their diagnosis converted from an uncertain art to an exact science.” The time at which thiotimoline dissolves depends on the willpower of the person adding it to the solution, which means that it can provide a benchmark for measuring the strength of the human will, in a new science that Asimov calls “willometry.” Observing that subjects with multiple personalities cause a sample of thiotimoline to dissolve at different times, he uses this fact to establish ten “grades” of deviations, as well as to classify schizophrenics into “levo” and “dextro” varieties. Asimov concludes:

The value of such a subdivision of schizophrenia may well be said to be of incalculable potentialities and, indeed, to found new science of quantitative micropsychiatry. How much more useful is it to say of a patient that he is a vertical schizophrenic, levo variety, Grade 3, than simply to say that he is schizophrenic.

It’s a conscious parody of dianetics, with its tone scale, its elaborate pseudoscientific vocabulary, and its claim to have transformed psychiatry into an exact science. Campbell would have seen this, too—and I’d like to believe that he published it as a small act of revenge on Hubbard, long after their partnership had dissolved.

Astounding Stories #16: “Witches Must Burn”

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Witches Must Burn

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

If you’re a science fiction fan, it’s tempting to relate the current presidential election to the stories that you’ve read in the past, as if the extreme scenarios that earlier writers have envisioned can help us make sense of our predicament. When Donald Trump came up at a panel I attended this weekend, which included such writers as Larry Niven, Joe Haldeman, Greg Bear, and Gregory Benford, one of the participants—I think it was David Brin—compared him to Heinlein’s imaginary demagogue Nehemiah Scudder. (“Blood at the polls and blood in the streets, but Scudder won the election,” Heinlein once wrote. “The next election was never held.”) But an even better reference point is the novelette “Witches Must Burn” by James E. Gunn, which appeared in Astounding in 1956. It opens with a mob burning a university to the ground, forcing the protagonist, a psychologist named John Wilson, to flee for his life. Watching a news broadcast, he sees that Harvard is in flames. Outlined against the fire is the leader of the movement, an obvious McCarthy surrogate named Senator Bartlett, who has roused “lowbrows” into a revolt against “eggheads.” Bartlett says grimly:

They are not to blame who have taken justice into their own hands…They are to blame who have driven the people to this desperate end. And they are paying the price for placing themselves above the people and above the welfare of humanity.

When we think of the contempt for “experts” and “elites” that underlies such phenomena as the rise of Trump and the Brexit disaster, it isn’t hard to draw a parallel. Gunn, in fact, was inspired by the flight of intellectuals from Germany and Italy before World War II, and he later remembered: “The story I contemplated imagined a revolution from which…science would be restored to its original position as a respected member of the tribe with a special talent for making miracles.” Most of the story runs more or less along those lines, with Wilson trying to get in touch with an underground that can get him safely out of the country. But then it takes an unexpected turn. Toward the end, Wilson comes face to face with the leader of the resistance, a man named Pike, who asks him whether he really wants to run away to Brazil. When Wilson says that he doesn’t have a choice, Pike replies: “The human problems must be lived with. You’re a fool, John Wilson, and worse—you’re a fool who knows he is right, who is sure that he has the Answers if They will only listen.” Pike continues:

You think that because you’re a little brainier than the Lowbrows your convictions are superior; it isn’t true. Because you can manipulate a few people…you think that you know people. Nuts, Dr. Wilson! Senator Bartlett knows more about people than you will ever know. He accepts them for what they are, and he manipulates them by the millions. By any standard, you are a failure.

And a little later, Pike adds: “Nature has a way of scrapping failures. The eggheads are being scrapped now so that the components can be used for more valuable organisms.”

James E. Gunn

This is a dramatic departure from the tone of the story so far, and in fact, this entire section emerged from Gunn’s discussions with John W. Campbell, who forced him to rewrite the story’s conclusion. (Or as Gunn drily notes: “In his characteristic contrarian way, Campbell took the opposite position—that people had a right to be upset at the scientists…I was convinced—or, if not convinced, persuaded, since it was Campbell who would authorize payment.”) You can hear a lot of Campbell here:

You blame the Lowbrow because he wants security more than the truth…But nobody wants security more than you do. You want the world to admit how right you are, no matter what the truth is—because then you won’t have to change your beliefs. The Lowbrow seeks his security in human convictions and faiths and strong attachments; you seek your security in the assurance of Absolute Law. Both are static; both are equally deadly.

And here:

Too long [the universities] served as fortresses of isolation, walling in the learned man, the eggheads of yesterday and today, insulating them from humanity and its problems. What you were doing was so much more important than the problems of the little man who kept tugging at your sleeve, trying to get your attention. Finally he had to try something else. He gave you exactly the kind of trouble he had: insecurity and the fear of sudden death. Maybe, his instincts said, he could learn something from your efforts to solve the problem.

“He was wrong,” Pike concludes. “Your only solution was to run.” And Pike ultimately convinces Wilson to give himself up to the lowbrows, so that he has no choice but to come to terms with the social forces that he tried to dismiss or ignore:

Force yourself to admit their viewpoint into your understanding. Discover, as a psychologist, what your patient really is and how to cure him, rather than demanding that the patient be some hypothetical patient you can cure. Try to understand why the witch-burner and the witch are children of the same confusion, fathered by the same inner necessity. Learn to sympathize with the emotional need for scapegoats in an era of bewilderment when old gods are toppling and old ways of life are falling.

When I spoke to Gunn about the story, he said that it took him years to understand why Campbell made him change the ending, and it seems that he never entirely agreed with the decision. (It’s also impossible to separate it from Campbell’s instinctive distrust of the scientific establishment, which he thought was just as resistant to change as anyone else.) But it’s a message that is worth remembering for other reasons. The eggheads are victims, but they’re also failures, because they were unable to understand the concerns of the people who were susceptible to Bartlett precisely because they were vulnerable and neglected. And if we can’t heed that warning, then we have no one else to blame if nature decides to scrap us, too.

Written by nevalalee

August 24, 2016 at 8:49 am

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