Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Astounding Stories

Astounding Stories #1: Galactic Patrol

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Galactic Patrol by E.E. Smith

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 here to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. 

Nothing dates more quickly than a vision of the future. This isn’t just because reality has a way of catching up with and passing even the most plausible predictions, or because certain narrative elements, like the constant smoking we find in so much golden age science fiction, become anachronistic even before the prophesied year approaches. It’s because any literary work is inevitably saturated with the era that created it, regardless of genre. Language, cultural attitudes, style, pacing: they all require some degree of mental adjustment, just as a modern moviegoer has to be ready to meet the classic films of the forties halfway. If you aren’t willing to undergo that kind of mental shift, like a viewer who can’t sit through Casablanca because it’s in black and white, you’ve shut yourself off from an entire world of storytelling: anything outside that window—which creeps forward over time, cutting you off from more and more of the past—remains out of bounds. Science fiction, in any medium, is particularly vulnerable to this. If few of us watch When Worlds Collide or This Island Earth for our own pleasure these days, it isn’t just because the special effects seem clunky, but because it’s hard to accept an idea of the future filtered through the idiom of the fifties. Go back further to the pulps, and that cognitive divide looms even wider. And if you’re going to read the science fiction of the thirties, you have to account for the personal equation that separates you from its intended audience, a gap that even devoted fans can have trouble crossing.

This is all my way of leading up to the fact that Galactic Patrol by E.E. “Doc” Smith probably requires less of an adjustment to enjoy today than any other story of the space opera or superscience genre. In other words, it’s a blast, and it’s the first novel I’d recommend to anybody who was curious about what was happening in science fiction before the golden age. Smith, who in his nonwriting life was a food engineer specializing in doughnut mixes, isn’t all that familiar to mainstream readers today, but he was beloved, even idolized, within the fandom for decades, and it isn’t hard to see why. Galactic Patrol is the first installment in the saga of the Lensmen, an interstellar police force tasked with protecting the galaxy from the depredations of a ruthless nation of space pirates. (Just whisper the word “Lensman” and you feel a little internal shiver of anticipation, even if you have no idea what it means.) Each officer wears the Lens, a jewel constructed by an advanced alien race that serves as a universal translator, telepathic communicator, and identification badge. It can be wielded only by its intended user, who is selected after a rigorous training process designed to produce individuals of superhuman bravery, intelligence, and integrity. Galactic Patrol follows Kimball Kinnison, a recent graduate from the academy, on his first mission, and although he starts out by “attacking imaginary foes and actual meteorites with equal zeal”—as L. Ron Hubbard would later do during his own brief command in the Navy—he rapidly embarks on an adventure that dwarfs anything the genre had ever seen.

E.E. "Doc" Smith

Because the book really moves. Smith’s conception of interstellar travel is based on an inertialess drive, which instantly accelerates a spacecraft to faster than the speed of light, and Galactic Patrol has what I can only describe as an inertialess narrative. It’s as close as any novel can get to pure action, jumping from one high point to the next without any of the boring parts in between, and it doesn’t let up until literally the very last word. It sends both Kinnison and the reader bounding across the galaxy, and at its best, it’s still breathtaking. In fact, it miraculously manages to evoke both Star Trek and Star Wars, in sort of the same way that the Aeneid contains both the Iliad and the Odyssey, except that Smith is their great originator. It anticipates Star Trek in revolving around a starship and its crew—including an oddly familiar engineer who emerges from below decks, clutching a spanner and asking for some grease soap—but its breakneck pacing and emphasis on action are closer to Star Wars, although significantly more violent. (“As he struck and struck and struck again, the cell became a gorily reeking slaughter-pen, its every corner high-piled with the shattered corpses of the Wheelmen and its floor running with blood and slime.”) Parts of it even look ahead to Dune, with its idea of a single planet serving the sole source of a priceless drug, in this case a kind of superheroin called thionite. It’s all very artless, but thrilling, and it could only have come from the heart. Later, as one of the first in a long line of imitators, John W. Campbell would make his name in much the same kind of story, but in his hands, it feels like hackwork, while Smith writes this sort of novel just because he loves it.

Not every element of Galactic Patrol has aged equally well. There are the obvious moments of dissonance, like the fact that the crew of the spacecraft plots its course using calipers, compass, and slide rule, or that when we’re introduced to a “computer,” it turns out to be a man who computes for a living. Its attitudes toward women are harder to stomach: the Lensmen we meet are exclusively male, and for most of the story, the only women in sight are nurses, decoys, or hostages, along with the unnamed “stenographer” with whom Kinnison collides at headquarters. Only Clarissa MacDougall, the red-headed nurse who becomes Kinnison’s love interest, gets anything like a real speaking part. (It’s worth noting that Smith’s first novel, Skylark of Space, had two significant female characters, thanks in all likelihood to his coauthor Lee Hawkins Garby—another female writer who has fallen out of the history of science fiction.) It’s a boy’s book of adventure in space, sexless and morally unwavering, and once you account for this, it comes closer than any other story to recapturing the excitement of the days in which readers would lurk at newsstands to avidly await the next installment of a serial in Astounding. Later, the genre would leave Smith behind: he was grandfathered into Campbell’s circle of authors as a beloved elder statesman, but he never broke through to a readership outside the fandom. And that’s a real loss. The kind of storytelling that he perfected, for better or worse, is still what occurs to most people when they think of science fiction, even if they know it only through his imitators. And Galactic Patrol gives it to you uncut, like a pure hit of thionite.

Written by nevalalee

March 16, 2016 at 10:03 am

Astounding Stories #2: For Us, the Living

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For Us, the Living

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 the February 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, the editor John W. Campbell put out a call for submissions from unpublished writers, framing the request with a surprising claim:

From our past experience, authors don’t, generally speaking, “work their way up.” Heinlein’s first story, “Life-Line,” was the first he submitted here. De Camp’s first published story was his first submission; it was also a good yarn. Van Vogt, similarly, sold the first story he submitted, as have many of the other authors. Apparently, if you can write good, strong fiction, you can, and will, write good, strong fiction the first time.

Obviously, this statement flies in the face of much of what we know—or think we know—about how writers grow and develop, and although Campbell was evidently hoping to encourage new authors here, his words probably had a disheartening effect on writers who didn’t manage to break through with their initial sales. (Reading the same editorial today also reminds us of how much has changed over the last seventy-five years: Campbell says that a writer could buy “a new car or so” with a novel-length story sold to a pulp magazine, which certainly isn’t the case now.) Later on, Campbell would admit of one exception to the general rule: Isaac Asimov, he liked to say, was the one instance of a writer who submitted unpublishable early stories and slowly worked his way to the top. And for any critic or historian of science fiction, it’s tempting to see Asimov and Heinlein as occupying opposite ends of the spectrum: the slow learner and the phenomenon who was a star right out of the gate.

Except that it’s a little more complicated. It’s true that it took repeated attempts for Asimov to break into the magazine: he submitted ten stories to Campbell before he sold one, and his second sale came after two years of trying. But when you take the overall shape of a writer’s life into account, two years doesn’t seem that long, particularly when you consider how young Asimov was at the time. When his first story, “Marooned Off Vesta,” was published in Amazing, he was just nineteen years old, and his apprenticeship took place in public. His first submission, “Cosmic Corkscrew,” was also his first serious attempt at writing any story with an eye to publication, and he rarely wrote anything ever again without submitting it somewhere. Given that all of these stories were relatively short, it’s clear that he acquired a tremendous amount of craft at a record pace, and the impression that he gives in his memoirs of a long struggle is really the chronicle of a prodigy. Heinlein, by contrast, seemed to come out of nowhere, but that isn’t exactly true, either. He was thirteen years older than Asimov, for one thing, and by the time he started writing, he had served in the Navy, worked hard as a political organizer, and turned his hand to a number of business ventures that paid off mostly in experience. (Asimov rarely left Brooklyn, and he spent most of his time at school or behind the counter of his father’s candy store.) And although “Life-Line”—which was followed by a string of rejections—was his first sale, it wasn’t his first story. He had, in fact, already written an entire novel, and it’s crucial to any understanding of his subsequent career, although not in the way that you might expect.

Robert A. Heinlein

The novel is titled For Us, the Living, and it was discovered in a garage, almost by accident, after Heinlein’s death. It’s unclear if Heinlein himself would have ever published it, because I suspect that he’d be the first to admit that it isn’t very good. The hero, Perry Nelson, is a contemporary engineer who gets into a car crash and is somehow thrown into the year 2086. On his arrival, he encounters a series of talking heads who expound at great length on the social, political, and monetary situation in their utopian world, which is presented to the reader without a hint of irony. There are a few powerful scenes in which Perry, who has fallen in love with a woman of the future, has to deal with his twentieth-century jealousy over her society’s sexual freedom, but Heinlein seems much less interested in sex than in economics. In fact, that’s why he wrote the book: he had become interested in social credit while working for Upton Sinclair’s political campaign in California, and he decided to write a novel as a vehicle for interminable discussions of economic theory. And it works about as well as you might expect. Encountering For Us, The Living after E.E. Smith’s Galactic Patrol—which Heinlein would have read in Astounding just the year before—serves as a stark reminder of how the conventions of science fiction can be used to stifle narrative imagination as much as to enable it. Years later, Heinlein would become close friends with Smith, whom he once called the single greatest influence on his work, but you can’t see it here. It’s a novel by a man who didn’t yet completely understand the kind of writer he was destined to be.

And we should be grateful for this. Heinlein shopped around the manuscript without success, but his next attempt at fiction, “Life-Line,” sold to Astounding on the first try, and it has all the qualities that For Us, the Living lacks—it’s swift, fun, and memorable, without a trace of didacticism. On some level, he simply had to get all of it out of his system, and there’s no question that writing three hundred bad pages makes it easier to write thirty good ones. But the truth is a bit more subtle. If it weren’t for Heinlein’s didactic tendencies, it wouldn’t have occurred to him to write a book at all: at the time, there was no market for science fiction in novel form, and the fact that the magazines were the only game in town enabled writers like Asimov to submit their first, amateurish efforts. Heinlein, instead, wrote a novel, as no commercially savvy writer ever would, because it was the only way to express his ideas. And even if it failed in every other respect, it gave him the training he needed, in secret, to emerge fully formed in the pulps. The didactic streak would never entirely depart from his work, and his strongest early stories, like “If This Goes On—,” are the ones in which it fades into the background. (I like Heinlein best when he isn’t so sure of himself, as in the aptly named “Solution Unsatisfactory,” which hauntingly anticipates many of the dilemmas of the Cold War without proposing any answers.) But the experience of For Us, the Living, which he would use as a source of raw material for years, taught him that an audience would be more open to a message when it was delivered with plot, character, and action. And at his best, he never forgot that he was writing for us, the readers.

Astounding Stories #3: “The Legion of Time”

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The Legion of Time

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

When we talk about the golden age of anything, it’s always tempting to give it a definitive beginning and end. You often hear, for instance, that the golden age of science fiction officially commenced with the July 1939 issue of Astounding, which included debut stories from A.E. van Vogt and Isaac Asimov and was followed a month later by the first appearance in print of Robert A. Heinlein. Similarly, it’s convenient to say that it ended in May 1950, with the publication in the same magazine of L. Ron Hubbard’s article “Dianetics: The Evolution of a Science.” These are neat, plausible boundaries, but you could easily make the case that the beginning, the ending, or both deserve to be placed somewhere else. It’s equally reasonable to state that the real turning point wasn’t the debut of any particular author, but the promotion of John W. Campbell to a position of true editorial control, which occurred sometime around March 1938. Others have claimed that the golden age abruptly ended with the entry of the United States into World War II, which scattered the magazine’s core group of writers far and wide. Robert Silverberg, among others, has convincingly argued that the fifties were the actual golden age, and that the years from 1939 onward were “more like a false dawn.” And while such divisions are always a little arbitrary, they’re a valuable way of organizing our thinking about how the genre has grown and changed.

My own views on the subject are still evolving, but I’m ready to make one statement: any definition of the golden age that doesn’t include “The Legion of Time” by Jack Williamson is necessarily incomplete. It was initially published as a three-part serial starting in May 1938, so it falls outside the window mentioned above, but it’s such a transformative story that part of me believes that it inaugurated the golden age all on its own. And Campbell himself sensed this at the time. We first hear about it in an editorial note in March, in which Campbell, clearly excited, says that Williamson has submitted an outline for a story then called “The Legion of Probability” that he expects will be sensational. In the following issue, he announces that the novella is as just as good as he had hoped, and that it will stand as the first of a series of “mutant” stories in Astounding that will push the whole genre into new directions. What sets it apart, in his eyes, is a novel conception of time travel: the idea that two or more alternate futures might exist simultaneously, based on the outcome of a single pivotal moment in the past, and that these opposing universes—which can’t interact with each other directly—could engage in a struggle for existence by seeking to influence events in our present. It’s a great premise, and as Campbell observes, it could generate hundreds of different plots.

Jack Williamson

But what really sets “The Legion of Time” apart is the sheer energy and inventiveness of the story it tells. It opens with Dennis Lanning, a man from our own time, being contacted by two beautiful women, Lethonee and Sorainya, from alternate futures in which the existence of one depends on the destruction of the other. In some unknown way, the actions that Lanning will take—we aren’t told how—will determine which of the two will survive. We soon learn that Lethonee’s civilization is basically good, while Sorainya’s is basically evil, but Lanning remains powerfully attracted to both. This might sound like a case of Betty and Veronica on a cosmic scale, but Williamson cleverly plays with Lanning’s dilemma, which persists even after he realizes that Sorainya is really the warrior queen of a kingdom of gigantic ants. And what I love about the result is how vigorously Williamson exploits the conventions of pulp science fiction in service of his unforgettable premise. He gives us such narrative delights as a team of heroes, plucked out of our reality at the moment of death, helming a ghost ship called the Chronion across oceans of time; an epic, gory siege on a palace in which an army of ant men is mowed down in a hail of machine-gun fire; an escape from a dungeon that involves carving a key from the skeleton of its previous occupant; and the moment in which we learn that the future of humanity depends on whether or not a young boy in the Ozarks notices a tiny object lying in the grass.

And “The Legion of Time” feels like a hinge point in itself. It’s squarely in the tradition of the adventure stories that Astounding had been publishing up to that point, and it gives us all the pulpy pleasures and more that the magazine had led fans to expect, but in its attention to character, its wealth of ideas, and its emotional charge, it represents a high point that the genre wouldn’t touch again until Heinlein’s “If This Goes On—” appeared almost two years later. When Lanning, his mission accomplished, returns at last to the future he has created and discovers that Lethonee and Sorainya have been mysteriously fused into the same woman, the effect is unbelievably satisfying. And “The Legion of Time” itself reads like the superimposition of two possible futures for science fiction, one of which pushed deeper into the hairbreadth escapes and pitched space battles that had typified the whole genre, often gloriously, while the other developed a new respect for atmosphere, character, and visionary ideas. Either one might have been wonderful, and in fact, Astounding would continue to pursue both ideals for years to come. But in “The Legion of Time,” the seeds of both are visible, and the clues it provided to Campbell and his circle of writers would yield dividends over the next decade. There may never be a consensus over where the golden age begins or ends, and there probably shouldn’t be. But I think it starts here.

Astounding Stories #4: Sinister Barrier

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Sinister Barrier

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

At the beginning of the only episode worth watching of the tenth season of The X-Files, a dejected Mulder says wearily to Scully: “Charles Fort spent his entire life researching natural and scientific anomalies, which he published in four books, all of which I know by heart. And at the end of his life, Fort himself wondered if it hadn’t all been a waste…Is this really how I want to spend the rest of my days? Chasing after monsters?” To which Scully gently replies: “We’ve been given another case, Mulder. It has a monster in it.” And while Mulder’s air of despondency can be attributed in large part to the sensibilities of writer Darin Morgan—who once had a character divided over whether to commit suicide or become a television weatherman—the reference to Fort is revealing. Charles Fort, who died in 1932, was a tireless cataloger of anomalous events from newspapers and scientific journals, mostly gathered in the reading room of the New York Public Library, and he’s something of a secular saint to those of us who try to take an agnostic approach to the unexplained. During his life, he was the object of a small but devoted following that included the authors Theodore Dreiser and Ben Hecht, and in the years that followed, he became the hidden thread that ran through an entire subgenre of science fiction. The X-Files, as Morgan implies, falls directly in his line of descent, and if I’m honest with myself, when I look at the science fiction I’ve published, it’s obvious that I do, too.

And I’m not the only one. Take Sinister Barrier by Eric Frank Russell, which I think is one of the four or five best science fiction novels ever written. It was originally published in 1939 in the inaugural issue of Unknown, and there’s a persistent rumor that John W. Campbell founded the entire magazine solely to find a place for this sensational story, which wasn’t quite right for Astounding. The truth is a little more complicated than that, but there’s no question that the novel made a huge impression on Campbell, as it still does on receptive readers today. After a quick nod to Charles Fort on the very first page, it opens with one of the great narrative hooks of all time: scientists across the world are committing suicide in exceptionally gruesome ways, and the only factor connecting the deaths, at least at first, is the fact that each man had painted his upper arm with iodine and dosed himself with mescal and methylene blue. Bill Graham, a kind of proto-Mulder working for military intelligence, is assigned to the investigation, and as he digs even deeper into the case, the anomalies continue to multiply. He discovers that one of the dead scientists had been looking into the low rate of goiter among the institutionally insane, and in a page of discarded notes, he reads the words: Sailors are notoriously susceptible. And he ultimately realizes that an excess of iodine—common in a seafaring diet, and inversely correlated with goiter—leads to changes in the eye and nervous system that allowed the scientists to stumble across a terrible truth.

Eric Frank Russell

By this point in the novel, I was sitting up in my chair, because what Russell is doing here is so close to what I’ve spent so many stories trying to achieve. And the big revelation more than lives up to our expectations. It turns out that humanity isn’t the highest form of life on this planet: instead, we’re little more than cattle being raised and devoured by aliens called Vitons that live in the upper atmosphere. Normally, they exist in the infrared range, so they’re invisible, but after being dosed with iodine, mescal, and methylene blue, we can see them for what they really are: balls of glowing plasma that descend on their unwilling victims and suck out their emotional energy. The Vitons can also read minds, which means that they can target and destroy anyone who glimpses the truth, and once Graham realizes what is going on, he finds that his own thoughts—and even his dreams—can betray him to the enemy. Other human beings can also be controlled by the Vitons, turning them into murderous automatons, which means that he can trust no one. This only complicates his efforts to fight the menace, which he soon identifies as the secret cause behind countless seemingly unrelated events. The Vitons deliberately inflame religious hatred and incite wars, in order to feed off the violent emotions that ensue, and they’re the explanation for such disparate mysteries as the disappearance of the Mary Celeste, the enigma of Kaspar Hauser, ball lightning, and, of course, alien abductions and unidentified flying objects. And as a global cataclysm ensues, Graham finds himself at the center of the resistance movement aimed at freeing mankind from its unseen oppressors.

In all honesty, the third act of Sinister Barrier doesn’t quite live up to that amazing opening, and it all comes down to the development of a superweapon that can destroy the alien menace, a plot device that was already a cliché by the late thirties. And it suffers, like much of the science fiction of its era, from a poorly developed love interest, when Russell’s heart is so clearly elsewhere. But it’s still an amazing read. It takes the novel less than eighty pages to accelerate from that initial string of unconnected deaths to action on a planetary scale, and it’s crammed throughout with action. At its best, it’s unbelievably fun and ingenious, and at times, it eerily anticipates developments to come. (For instance, it speculates that the Vitons were behind the actual unexplained suicide of the astronomer William Wallace Campbell, who, decades later, would lend his name to the Campbell Crater on Mars—which also honors a certain science fiction editor.) It’s so good, in fact, that it makes later efforts in the same line seem almost superfluous. To modern eyes, it reads like an entire season’s worth of The X-Files compressed into a single breathless narrative, and it even anticipates The Matrix in its vision of the entire human race enslaved and fed upon without its knowledge. If Fort was the godfather of the paranormal, Russell was the first author to fully realize its possibilities in fiction, and anyone who explores the same ground is in his debt, knowingly or otherwise. And I’m strangely glad that I didn’t discover this novel until I’d already made a few similar efforts of my own. If I’d known about it, I might have been too daunted to go any further. Because a little knowledge, as Russell warns us, can be a dangerous thing.

Astounding Stories #5: Death’s Deputy and Final Blackout

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Final Blackout

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

Of all the millions of words that have been written about and by L. Ron Hubbard, the one observation that I always try to keep in mind appears in Going Clear by Lawrence Wright:

The many discrepancies between Hubbard’s legend and his life have overshadowed the fact that he genuinely was a fascinating man: an explorer, a best-selling author, and the founder of a worldwide religious movement. The tug-of-war between Scientologists and anti-Scientologists over Hubbard’s biography has created two swollen archetypes: the most important person who ever lived and the world’s greatest con man. Hubbard himself seemed to revolve on this same axis, constantly inflating his actual accomplishments in a manner that was rather easy for his critics to puncture. But to label him a pure fraud is to ignore the complex, charming, delusional, and visionary features of his character that made him so compelling to the many thousands who followed him and the millions who read his work. One would also have to ignore his life’s labor in creating the intricately detailed epistemology that has pulled so many into its net—including, most prominently, Hubbard himself.

This is a carefully worded and closely reasoned passage from an excellent book, and I think it’s fundamentally correct. And it’s very tempting to believe that the same holds true for Hubbard’s science fiction: that he was a major author whose undeniable accomplishments have been overshadowed by what he later became.

Unfortunately, this is only half true. As I’ve gone back to read all of Hubbard’s stories from Astounding and Unknown, I’ve been struck by two points. The first is the relatively small percentage of his total output that science fiction represents, although he’s invariably categorized as a science fiction writer; the second is how indifferent he often seems to the genre itself. Hubbard’s earliest works for Campbell, like “The Dangerous Dimension” and “The Tramp,” are comic fantasies iced with the lightest imaginable frosting of scientific jargon, and subsequent efforts like “General Swamp, C.I.C.” are straight military or naval fiction that could be transferred from Venus to Earth with a minimum of revision. He wasn’t the only author to write something else and call it science fiction, of course, but Hubbard has a palpable lack of interest in even maintaining the illusion. (Later stories like “The Kilkenny Cats” are written with what feels like a vein of genuine contempt for the genre’s conventions, and it isn’t until the Ole Doc Methuselah series, almost a decade down the line, that we find Hubbard writing it with anything like affection.) He was always more suited for fantasy, and his stories for Unknown are something else: undeniably dated, but written with real energy and enthusiasm. Reading any of his early Astounding stories followed by Slaves of Sleep reminds you of the difference between an author who is just going through the motions and one who is tickled by his own plot. And the half dozen short novels that he wrote for Unknown—along with one really nice, nasty shorter story, “Borrowed Glory”—are still fun and readable, although of limited interest to anyone who isn’t already a hardcore fan.

Death's Deputy

There are two exceptions. One is Death’s Deputy, a surprisingly superb short fantasy novel that first appeared in Unknown in 1940. Its hero is a pilot in the Canadian Air Force who is shot down over France, only to be saved by the intervention of a supernatural entity who later introduces himself as Destruction Incarnate. After refusing to serve him, the pilot is returned to the world of the living, where he finds that he’s become both unbelievably lucky and a curse to the people around him, who tend to die gruesome deaths that anticipate Final Destination. It’s inventive, vividly written, and enriched by what feels like Hubbard’s real interest in the subject—qualities that so much of his other fiction lacks. The other exception is Final Blackout, usually regarded as his single best novel, which was published two months later in Astounding. It follows a mythic figure known only as the Lieutenant as he leads a brigade of soldiers through a Europe devastated by decades of plague and nuclear war. They engage in small, meaningless skirmishes with the pockets of enemy troops they encounter, treating the rival officers with mutual respect while scavenging for food and supplies. The Lieutenant himself is so effective and beloved that he becomes a threat to the few remaining generals, who recall him to headquarters to be relieved of command. From there, events rapidly escalate into a conflict with global consequences, all of it narrated with an understated professionalism, even eloquence, that is utterly unlike Hubbard’s usual style. Of all his stories, it’s the one on which he imposes himself the least, and the only one in which he seems personally curious about what happens next.

And I’m not sure where it came from. The two novels appeared almost back to back, after a six-month break in which Hubbard published only one short story for Campbell, at a time when he was engaged in a fruitless effort to get a job with the War Department. And both narratives are obviously influenced by the situation in Europe, lending them a tone of fundamental seriousness that is rarely in evidence elsewhere in his work—which is fortunate, because his sense of humor hasn’t aged well. Before long, in stories like “The Professor was a Thief” and The Indigestible Triton, he would be back in his usual groove, alternating between science fiction that doesn’t seem to have interested even its author and engaging fantasy that only completists should bother to read today. (Two of the novels from this period, Typewriter in the Sky and Fear, are sometimes still regarded with respect, but both are uneven stories with ideas that would have been better developed at half the length, although the latter has a good twist ending.) But Final Blackout is powerful, and Death’s Deputy is a real find, which makes it all the more inexplicable that Galaxy Press, which otherwise seems determined to publish every last piece of pulp that Hubbard ever wrote, hasn’t bothered to release it. After the war, Hubbard would go on to write The End is Not Yet, an agonizingly sincere serial that Campbell later said he agreed to publish mostly out of pity—but by then, we’re deep into the next act of his life, which would culminate in Dianetics. In some ways, it’s the solution to the mystery with which this post began: Hubbard is remembered as a major science fiction author because dianetics made its debut in Astounding, not the other way around. And that’s a twist that even Hubbard himself might not have seen coming.

Written by nevalalee

April 13, 2016 at 10:00 am

Astounding Stories #6: “Microcosmic God” and “E for Effort”

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Microcosmic God

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

It’s easy to forget that when Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health was first published, it wasn’t just meant as a textbook, but as a manual for an entire social movement that was designed to emerge at exactly the same time. The community that sprang up around it was no accident, and it was rooted in the very same science fiction circles that had been introduced to L. Ron Hubbard’s theories in the pages of Astounding. On the east coast, the movement was based at the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where Hubbard and his editor John W. Campbell were soon spending most of their time; on the west coast, it was centered on the Los Angeles chapter that was all but thrust into the hands of the writer A.E. van Vogt, in a disruption that took him out of science fiction for a decade. For Campbell, whose magazine had provided the initial platform that allowed Hubbard to reach a critical mass of readers, the foundation wasn’t just an adjunct to the book, but the heart of the entire project. Dianetics taught that individuals who had been “cleared” became smarter, more logical, and capable of accessing all the information they had ever learned or experienced. Unlike ordinary mortals, they were able to accurately process data from the world and evaluate it properly. And Campbell saw the foundation as a place where ideas of all kinds could be generated and refined by the heightened intellects that the therapy produced, which, in turn, was the only way to save mankind from its most destructive tendencies, as embodied in the threat of nuclear war.

This might seem like an impossibly grandiose mission, but it was only the expression, in the real world, of a longing that had been inherent in science fiction for years. The idea of a select group of enlightened men and women working together to save the human race from itself recurs repeatedly, and not just because it’s an engine for interesting stories. You see it, most famously, in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, first in the psychohistorians who transform psychology into an exact science that can be used to predict events far into the future, and then in the shadowy Second Foundation, which secretly nudges the minds of others to keep the plan on track. It’s there in Heinlein’s odd but wonderful novella Gulf, which was written just as he and Hubbard were becoming close friends, and which reads like a treatise wrapped in the pulpiest of pulp novels: it’s about a secret group of geniuses, the New Men, who parcel out scientific advances to the rest of society and defend the world against the existential threat of the nova effect, which could destroy the entire planet if it falls into the wrong hands. Perhaps most overtly, it’s visible in the numerous stories built around the general semantics of Alfred Korzybski, a fashionable theory of mental engineering that had a significant impact on authors like Hubbard, Heinlein, Poul Anderson, and van Vogt, whose novel The World of Null-A—which I hope to discuss in more detail soon—is both a fevered dramatization of Korzybski’s ideas and the weirdest story ever to appear in Astounding.

E for Effort

But for the most intriguing insights into Campbell’s hopes for the foundation, we should look at two stories in which the parallels are a little more subtle. The first is “Microcosmic God” by Theodore Sturgeon, published in 1941, which gives us a central character who reads a lot like a portrait of Campbell himself:

[Kidder] was always asking questions, and didn’t mind very much when they were embarrassing…If he was talking to someone who had knowledge, he went in there and got it, leaving his victim breathless. If he was talking to someone whose knowledge was already in his possession, he only asked repeatedly, “How do you know?”

Kidder, a scientist, is frustrated by society’s slow development of ideas, so he does it one better: he creates an artificial civilization in his laboratory populated by tiny creatures called Neoterics, who live and think at a rate hundreds of times faster than human beings, and to whom he poses scientific problems in the guise of their god. It takes the Neoterics just two hundred days to replicate all of mankind’s science, followed by the rapid development of everything from a vaccine against the common cold to an impenetrable force field, all in response to the miniature crises that he creates. It’s as perfect an allegory as I can imagine for Campbell’s vision of Astounding, which he saw as a collaboration between writers and fans to develop ideas at blinding speed, with himself as head of research. And he thought that the dianetics foundation would serve as an even greater laboratory.

The second story is by the author T.L. Sherred, who produced relatively little science fiction, but whose output includes one indisputable classic, “E for Effort,” which first appeared in 1947. It’s the story of two small-time operators who develop a technique for viewing events from any period in Earth’s history: they can literally look at anyone at any time, and they can film the result as if they had been there in person. They begin by using the technology to make popular documentaries, disguised as sword-and-sandal epics, about the likes of Alexander the Great, but they soon realize that they have something even more powerful at their disposal. By going back and documenting the sordid political realities of the first two world wars—“the cynical leaders who signed and laughed and lied”—they announce that their machine has made it impossible for governments to keep secrets, which is necessary “if atomic war is not to sear the face and fate of the world.” As one of the inventors tells the other:

War of any kind is what has made man spend most of his history in merely staying alive. Now, with the atom to use, he has within himself the seed of self-extermination. So help me, Ed, I’m going to do my share of stopping that, or I don’t see any point in living. I mean it!

In other words, what began as a form of entertainment becomes a means of saving the world. That’s exactly what Campbell thought science fiction could be. And it’s impossible to understand his hopes for dianetics, and the heartbreak that ensued when it fell short of that ideal, without remembering the vision of it that he infused, in secret, into the pages of his magazine.

Astounding Stories #7: “Mimsy Were the Borogoves”

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Mimsy Were the Borogoves

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

A few weeks ago, in a post about one of my own novels, I wrote: “Whenever I read stories from the golden age of science fiction, I’m struck by the absence of women, which seems less like a sin than a mistake. It’s hard to think of a story from that era that wouldn’t have been improved by turning half the men into women.” And I stand by this. We happen to be living through a moment in the genre—as well as in the larger culture—in which issues of representation are frequently discussed, so it might seem that I’m retrojecting my own values and concerns onto an era in which they don’t really fit. But when you read two or three hundred science fiction stories in a row, as I’ve recently done, it becomes harder to make that argument. The lack of women, and the interchangeability of many of the men, is a glaring flaw, and the monotonous stream of male protagonists would have seemed problematic even then. Even if much of it was unconscious or the result of the pressures of the market, that doesn’t make it any easier to defend. Most of the writers for Astounding were young men, and when you’re trying to crank out sellable stories at a rate that allows you to make a living, you’re likely to fall back on the sorts of characters you can write without thinking. This usually means writing about people who wear the same face that you see when you look in the mirror every morning. And when you’re expending your finite store of mental energy on coming up with passable twists, it becomes harder to develop empathy for men and women unlike yourself, unless you make a point of it.

This brings me to the remarkable writing team of C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner, who would have stood out anywhere, but especially in the pages of Astounding. We can begin, properly, with the simple observation that they were both outstanding writers. In fact, I’d rank them second only to Heinlein among writers of the golden age in terms of their style, breadth of interest, and quality of ideas. The stories they wrote under their own names or under pseudonyms like Lawrence O’Donnell and Lewis Padgett are stunningly varied and invariably interesting: “The Twonky,” “Time Locker,” “Mimsy Were the Borogoves,” “Clash by Night,” “When the Bough Breaks,” and “Vintage Season” alone would be a credit to any writer, and they’re often very different in tone, structure, and effect. The fact that Moore and Kuttner were a married couple who would often work on a story in turns, with one going upstairs to resume at the typewriter where the other had left off, goes part of the way toward explaining the sheer variety of their work. More to the point, it also helps to account for some of the qualities that make their work so appealing today: a genuine interest in women, in the inner lives of children, and particularly in married life, either as a focal point of the story or as its unstated backdrop. Reading them reminds us of how rarely the science fiction of the golden age has anything worthwhile to say about marriage or families, both of which are essential aspects of existence, and their darkly humorous—and sometimes just dark—take on these subjects has few parallels in the stories of the time.

Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore

Inevitably, readers have often tried to figure which of the two was primarily responsible for which stories, but Moore and Kuttner themselves said that they sometimes couldn’t remember who wrote what. There’s no question that they were exceptionally in tune, and that each brought out the best in the other. At times, you can almost feel them engaging in an internal dialogue to bring out the full potential of a premise, as in my two favorite stories written under the Lewis Padgett name, “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” and “When the Bough Breaks,” which are variations on the same core idea. The first, which is more famous, is about a scientist from the future who accidentally sends a box of toys from his era back to the twentieth century, where it’s found by an eleven-year-old boy and his two-year-old sister. (Another box goes back even earlier, to be found by a girl named Alice Liddell.) The toys—which include an impossibly lifelike anatomical doll, a tesseract puzzle, and a cube that can display projections of the user’s thoughts—reshape the brains of the two kids, and in the end, they learn a formula that allows them to vanish into the dimension from which the box came, leaving their bewildered parents behind. “When the Bough Breaks” builds on a similar premise, with a highly evolved man of the future sending a team of emissaries back in time to train him as a baby, much to the chagrin of his father and mother, who find themselves living with a child with superhuman intelligence and telepathic powers but the instinctive sadism and selfishness of a toddler. In the end, unable to cope with their monstrous son, they quietly agree to let him destroy himself.

These are two of the most memorable stories ever published in Astounding, and what I especially like about them, aside from the believable marriages they depict, is how they capture and allegorize the mixed feelings that most parents feel toward their own children. When you’re raising a child, you find that she can change from a miniature adult into a small, fierce animal from one moment to the next, that she spends much of her life in a secret world that you can never fully understand, and she has a latent capacity for cruelty as well as for love, both of which are bounded only by her physical limitations. “When the Bough Breaks,” in particular, takes these insights to their limit, and the result is the kind of story that never would have occurred to a writer who was unable to think himself into the lives of a couple with children. (It’s worth noting, too, that Moore and Kuttner had no children themselves, yet their rendering of the darker side of parenthood is frighteningly accurate—which reminds us that the sophisticated young parents of their fiction aren’t just a self-portrait, but the outcome of sustained sympathy and imagination.) Both Moore and Kuttner were more than capable of doing fine work individually, but it was their combined intelligence that took them into places that few other writers were willing or able to explore. Moore wrote some excellent stories on her own, notably the novella “No Woman Born,” but after Kuttner’s sudden death in 1958, she retired from short fiction. And they left behind a series of stories that, like the nonsense words in “Mimsy Were the Borogoves,” open a window onto a world, or a genre, that is very different from the one we know today.

Astounding Stories #8: The World of Null-A

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The World of Null-A

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 were going to invent a pulp science fiction writer who went on to become the founder of a worldwide religious movement, working solely from first principles, you’d probably end up with someone less like L. Ron Hubbard than like A.E. van Vogt. And the lives of the two men paralleled each other in surprising ways. They were born almost exactly one year apart, and they both entered science fiction relatively late, after working extensively in other genres—Hubbard in adventure and western fiction, van Vogt in confession stories. (Van Vogt later said: “When I wrote confession-type stories, every sentence…had to contain an emotion in it. For example, you don’t say, ‘I lived at 323 Brand Street.’ You say, ‘Tears came to my eyes as I thought of my tiny bedroom at 323 Brand Street.’”) But the different paths by which they ended up in the pages of Astounding Science Fiction are revealing in themselves. Hubbard wandered in because he was invited to contribute stories by the upper management, and he wasn’t about to turn down a new market, although he had little instinctive feel or love for the field; van Vogt was galvanized by the release of John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?”, the first half of which he read, unbelievably excited, while standing up at a newsstand. From the beginning, you can see the difference: Hubbard is professional but mercenary, falling back on the same easy formulas and twists, while van Vogt writes the way he does because he can’t seem to help himself.

This isn’t to say that van Vogt lacked a working writer’s pragmatism: he structured his plots in chunks of eight hundred words, with new developments or complications arriving like clockwork, and he carefully studied such manuals as John Gallishaw’s The Only Two Ways to Write a Story. Without that kind of scaffolding, his stories would disintegrate or fly apart out of centrifugal force into their component pieces, as they constantly threaten to do. Van Vogt was simultaneously the crudest and most advanced of the science fiction writers of his generation, and his work is often bewildering. Stories like “Black Destroyer” or “Vault of the Beast” leave you feeling as if you’ve lived through an experience that you can’t entirely explain, and it’s hard to tell where a simple lack of polish shades into a deliberate tone of alienation, or an agonized attempt to work out ideas that can’t be expressed in ordinary ways. Hubbard’s acolytes like to say that he used his writing to fund his serious research, and that his work reflects his ongoing interest in the mind, a claim that isn’t sustained by the stories themselves: he never shows much of an interest in ideas beyond what he needs to get from one sentence to the next. (The most generous interpretation is that he wanted to keep his theories to himself, out of fear that Campbell would try to take them over—a concern that was more than justified by what actually happened with dianetics.) But other writers seized on the opportunity that science fiction afforded to explore tangled philosophical concepts in a popular setting, and none did so more feverishly than van Vogt.

A.E. van Vogt

It all culminated in The World of Null-A, a serial published in 1945 that looks more or less as you’d expect an attempt to incorporate elements of non-Aristotelean logic into a pulp context to look—that is, like an utterly insane mess. To say that the plot defies summarization isn’t just a figure of speech. It opens with its hero, Gilbert Gosseyn, preparing to enter “the games,” a series of tests that will determine whether he is mentally advanced enough to join a colony of enlightened citizens on Venus. (Gosseyn, like the other members of the upper classes, has been trained using the general semantics of Alfred Korzybski, who in the world of the story is revered as something like a prophet.) In a succession of chaotic developments, Gosseyn discovers that he isn’t who he thinks he is; that all his memories are false; that he’s the target of a conspiracy that involves the President of the United States and his daughter, designed to destroy the machine that keeps civilization on its course; and that whenever he dies, which he does more than once, he’s resurrected in a new body. And this is all before he also realizes that Earth is a strategic planet in a struggle between two competing factions of the Galactic Empire, that he himself contains both a supercharged “extra brain” and the secret to immortality, and that he can only learn the whole truth if he tracks down a mysterious figure called X. There is much, much more, and the result, by any measure, is the weirdest story ever published in Astounding. As Campbell wrote in a note to readers: “Two days after you finish the story, you’ll realize its size more fully.”

In The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Peter Nicholls and John Clute refer to van Vogt and Hubbard as “the two rogue members of the early Campbell pantheon.” This is correct, up to a point, except that Hubbard’s stake in the genre was rarely more than opportunistic, while van Vogt was closer to an inspired madman who drew heavily on his own dreams. He was the single greatest influence on Philip K. Dick, which puts him near the heart of science fiction’s main line of development, but, like E.E. Smith, he’s a major figure who remains largely unknown outside the field. It’s possible to link his relative obscurity to Hubbard as well: in 1950, the Los Angeles branch of the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation was all but thrust into van Vogt’s hands, taking him out of science fiction for most of a decade in which writers like Asimov and Heinlein were making incursions into the mainstream. If his career hadn’t been derailed, he might well have attained the cultural prominence that he deserves—although he may also have been too weird, too intense, and too unclassifiable to fit comfortably within conventional boundaries. In The World of Null-A, van Vogt writes: “Countless billions of people had lived and died without ever suspecting that every word they spoke, or that was spoken at them, had helped to create the disordered brains with which they confronted the realities of their worlds.” And for all his flaws, he came closer to any writer of his era to revealing a reality unlike the one we take for granted, and to affording us a glimpse of our own disordered minds.

Astounding Stories #9: “The Mule”

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"The Mule" by Isaac Asimov

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

Of the four writers who stand at the heart of Astounding, the one who has been the hardest to pin down is Isaac Asimov. This might seem surprising, given that the other three figures are John W. Campbell, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard, all of whom, by any measure, had personalities and private lives of daunting complexity. Asimov, by contrast, seems like a relatively accessible figure: his life was comparatively uneventful in its externals, and he spent much of it in the lab at Boston University, giving speeches, or writing at home. He was also the author of two enormously detailed volumes of autobiography, In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt, that track his life on almost a daily basis, which would make them indispensable primary sources even if they weren’t also a huge pleasure to read. (A third volume, I, Asimov, is less essential, but still a must for fans.) He was also more of a public figure than any other science fiction writer of his time. With his glasses and sideburns, he was instantly recognizable, and I suspect that he might be the novelist, of any era, whom the greatest number of living Americans would be able to identify at sight. Decades after his death, he still has the highest name recognition of any writer in the genre. But separating the persona that he deliberately cultivated from the real man underneath presents undeniable challenges—all the more so because Asimov managed to convince millions of readers that they knew him well, when he really kept so many aspects of himself under close guard.

Asimov’s unique status as a celebrity also encourages a number of misconceptions about his career. He’s often cited as a monstrous fiction-writing machine, as Stephen King did in a recent essay for the New York Times on whether a novelist can be too productive. After evoking the likes of Max Brand and Alexandre Dumas, King continues: “And then there’s Isaac Asimov, who sold his first short story at nineteen, hammered out more than five hundred books, and revolutionized science fiction.” But there’s a big misapprehension here. Asimov was undoubtedly one of the most prolific writers who ever lived, but not on the fiction side. When you add up his novels and short stories, it’s an impressive body of work, but not that much larger than that of many other writers of his generation, and Asimov could go for years without producing much in the way of fiction at all. It was in nonfiction, and particularly in popular science, that he made his greatest mark on the world’s libraries, as well as on the consciousness of the public. For most of his life, Asimov was among the most highly regarded of authors within the closed circle of science fiction readers, but he didn’t have a mainstream bestseller until he returned to the Foundation series toward the end of his career. It was in the sheer volume of his nonfiction—which Asimov was among the first to realize would be newsworthy in itself—that he became famous to a general audience, less because of any one book than thanks to the familiarity of his face and byline.

Portrait of Isaac Asimov by Rowena Morrill

This makes it a little harder to objectively evaluate his fiction. There’s no doubt that he would be regarded as a major writer within the genre, even if he hadn’t become so famous outside of it, but his output is frankly more mixed than that of, say, Heinlein. It took Asimov a while to find his footing—although we should never forget, as King points out, that he was unbelievably young when he sold his first stories, and that he did much of his growing up as an author in full view. His single greatest breakthrough, “Nightfall,” has been voted the best science fiction story of all time on multiple occasions, although Asimov himself felt that it was overrated. The positronic robot stories are an indisputable landmark as a whole, but I’m not sure if any one installment in the series inspires particularly warm feelings in readers, and its most significant element, the Three Laws of Robotics, was really developed by Campbell. And Asimov’s limitations as a writer are more evident than they are in the best of his contemporaries. I’ve come to believe that Heinlein, Sturgeon, and the writing team of C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner, to name only the most obvious examples, could do just about anything, while Asimov seemed more comfortable working within a narrow range: it’s impossible to imagine him writing a story like “Vintage Season” or “Killdozer.” He helped define the genre, but he rarely strayed from a specific subset of it during the golden age, and it wasn’t until later, in stories like “The Last Question,” that he began to push into unexplored regions.

But I don’t want to understate his talent, because many of the stories he wrote during this early period are extraordinary. My personal favorite is “The Red Queen’s Race,” a relatively unheralded work about a professor who tries to change the future by sending physics textbooks back in time to ancient Greece: maybe it’s because of my own classics background, but I think it’s a perfect story. And then there’s the Foundation series, which remains his most lasting achievement, despite what even Asimov, on rereading it after three decades, saw as a decided lack of action or conventional suspense. (“I read it with mounting uneasiness. I kept waiting for something to happen, and nothing ever did.”) Elsewhere, the writer James Gunn notes that “the romance is almost invisible,” which is another way of saying that there are almost no women in sight. Still, it remains a fascinating work, in part because of the appeal of the notion of a secret society of psychohistorians, which had a strange afterlife when Campbell tried to create one for real at the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation in Elizabeth, New Jersey. And it includes one undeniably great novella, “The Mule,” which was Asimov’s own favorite. It benefits from having a significant female character for once, in the form of Bayta Darell, and a stunning twist ending that still works like gangbusters today. Asimov wrote it in response to Campbell’s insistence that the Seldon Plan, the “connecting backbone” of the series, had to be disrupted: “I was horrified. No, I said, no, no, no. But Campbell said: Yes, yes, yes, yes, and I knew I wasn’t going to sell him a no, no.” And as Asimov himself knew well, even the best of plans have a way of going in unexpected directions—and in life as well as in fiction.

Astounding Stories #10: “Way in the Middle of the Air”

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Way in the Middle of the Air

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

The golden age of science fiction, at least as I define it, ended in May 1950, with the initial publication of the article “Dianetics: The Evolution of a Science” in Astounding. (Technically, the issue would have appeared on newsstands the month before, but let’s not split hairs.) Yet with every end comes a beginning, and science fiction itself was far from dead: The Martian Chronicles was released just a few weeks later, and it success marked a signal moment in the genre’s passage into the mainstream. Its author, Ray Bradbury, had been desperate to get into the pages of Astounding, but despite the patient mentoring of Leigh Brackett and the friendship of Robert A. Heinlein, he was only able to sell one short story and a couple of minor pieces. In the end, he was the only major science fiction writer of his era who emerged outside the influence of John W. Campbell, and this wasn’t simply an oversight. Campbell had met Bradbury and critiqued his submissions at length, and the two men shared mutual close friends, but they never saw eye to eye. And while Campbell’s overall track record remains unimpeachable—it’s all but inevitable that he would overlook a promising talent or two out of the dozens he developed—it still feels like a loss. When I raised the issue at a panel last month at the Nebula Conference, the editor Stanley Schmidt said that it was less a question of a failure to recognize talent than of Bradbury not quite fitting in with Campbell’s vision, which is true enough. But it’s hard not to see his absence as anything less than a gap in the history of the magazine.

My favorite story in The Martian Chronicles is “Mars is Heaven!”, which appears under the title “The Third Expedition,” but the one that I’ve been thinking about the most is “Way in the Middle of the Air,” which starkly exposes both Bradbury’s strengths and his limitations. Bradbury had trouble selling it: it was published for the first time in the book itself, although it later appeared in Raymond A. Palmer’s Other Worlds Science Stories, and when you read it, you can see why. It’s about a small town in the South whose entire black population packs up and leaves on a rocket for Mars. The story is seen through the eyes of a group of white landowners, who sit sullenly watching the exodus from the porch of a hardware store. Its satirical targets are obviously the racists who are left behind, and there’s no question that Bradbury’s heart was in the right place. But the result is still intensely problematic, at least to modern readers. The black colonists are seen mostly as a monolithic mass moving through the center of town: “And in that slow, steady channel of darkness that cut across the white glare of day were touches of alert white, the eyes, the ivory eyes staring ahead, glancing aside, as the river, the long and endless river, took itself from old channels into a new one.” And the only reasonable reaction to lines like “the watermelon patches, if any, were left alone to heat their hidden liquors in the sun” and “in still farther meadows, the watermelons lay, unfingerprinted” is to wish fervently that they didn’t exist.

Ray Bradbury

But the real problem is that once the colonists have left for Mars, we never hear from them again. In the text as it stands, the implication is that they all returned to Earth, like everybody else, when war broke out back home—which feels even less plausible in this case than it does for the other settlers. Bradbury was keenly aware of this omission, and his reaction to it is fascinating in itself. In the biography Becoming Ray Bradbury, Jonathan R. Eller writes:

For his October 1949 submission of The Martian Chronicles typescript, he had prepared a short narrative bridge passage to explain why these people did not appear anywhere else in the saga. In this bridge, titled “The Wheel,” the interplanetary journey is portrayed like a spiritual saga in miniature, an Old Testament-style journey to the Promised Land. In this brief interlude, the actual destination is really less important than the freedom it stands for—the black pioneers deviate from course and eventually end up on Venus. But this option was too facile and dismissive, and Bradbury soon realized it; “The Wheel” was deleted from the Chronicles before the galleys were set, and Bradbury instead completed a full and logical sequel set on Mars.

This sequel, “The Other Foot,” appeared in The Illustrated Man, but it doesn’t fit in with the chronology of The Martian Chronicles: for its plot to make sense, it requires that only black colonies exist on Mars. For all his efforts and good intentions, Bradbury was unable to find a place for these colonists anywhere in his larger story.

Which tells us a lot about the author himself. If the Bradbury of this period has a weakness, it’s that he’s prone to falling in love with an image or a gag or a twist for its own sake, without considering how it fits into the big picture or working out its deeper implications. You see a similar problem in “The Silent Towns,” an equally discomfiting story in the same collection, and he was so taken, it seems, by the effect of “Way in the Middle of the Air”—which is an undeniably powerful story—that he made room for it here, despite his full knowledge that the absence of the black colonists in the rest of the narrative would create a self-evident hole. (He ultimately appears to have had second thoughts about it: the story was omitted in the British publication and in the later 1997 edition.) For many readers, his most appealing quality as a writer is the warm streak of nostalgia that pervades his fiction, but it can also shade into sentimentality in its worst sense, in which the symbols and trappings of small-town America are mistaken for a coherent set of values. Personally, I prefer Bradbury in his darker, more sinister mode, which is why I think his masterpiece is “Mars is Heaven!”, which begins as an evocation of idyllic Americana and twists it into an unforgettable nightmare. “Way in the Middle of the Air” deserves to be read and remembered, if only because it’s the kind of story that few other authors of the era could even have contemplated writing: it’s impossible to imagine it ever running in Astounding. But it strands its colonists in the middle of the air, and it would be left to other writers to take them to the stars.

Astounding Stories #11: The Moon is Hell

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The Moon is Hell

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 May 11, 1953, the science fiction editor John W. Campbell wrote a long letter to his stepmother Helen. He never mailed it, but it was preserved among his papers, and it’s a document of immense biographical interest. Campbell, who was chafing under what he saw as his father’s lack of appreciation for what he had achieved in his career, spent a full page listing his professional accomplishments, and he concluded:

My current plans are long-range; when I took over Astounding seventeen years ago, my plans were long range, too…The next step which literature must take is to develop a novel-like story in which the story shows the development of a culture through various experiences…Science fiction is now trying to develop the presentation techniques whereby an individual can understand and appreciate the developmental processes affecting entire cultures. Naturally, we haven’t completed the development of these techniques yet, and we have, in consequence, a rather patchy, unsuccessful literature. It’s like the first automobiles; they were less reliable, rougher riding, noisier, and smellier than the horse and buggy.

But their developmental stage was well worth the effort; their inadequacies in the early days were properly forgiven, but also properly recognized as inadequacies.

When I read these lines, I found myself thinking of Campbell’s novel The Moon is Hell, which first appeared in book form in 1951. It’s best remembered now as one of the very few stories that Campbell published in the three decades after he became the editor of Astounding Science Fiction. By all indications, it’s an apprentice work that was first written sometime in the early thirties, but it appears to have been carefully revised by its author before publication—the writing is far smoother and more accomplished than anything else Campbell was putting out at that stage. And the timing of its release was significant in itself. Science fiction was in a transitional moment: the impact of dianetics was just beginning to be felt, ambitious new competitors were appearing on newsstands, and authors like Heinlein were making their big push into the mainstream. For Campbell, it must have seemed like a good time for a statement of purpose, which is what The Moon is Hell really is—the quintessential hard science fiction novel, built from the ground up from first principles. As the author P. Schuyler Miller wrote in his review in Astounding:

Surely everyone who has done any science fiction has dreamed of writing a realistic story of the first men on another world, worked out with an absolute minimum of hokum—no green princesses, no ruins of alien civilizations, no hostile high priests. The ultimate would be the story of the first men on the Moon—a world without air, without life, or the possibility of life.

John W. Campbell, Jr.

And that’s exactly what Campbell gives us here. The Moon is Hell is told in the form of a journal kept by Dr. Thomas Ridgley Duncan, a physicist and second in command of the first mission to the dark side of the Moon. After the expedition’s relief ship crashes on landing, the astronauts are left stranded with no way to contact Earth; a steadily diminishing supply of food, air, and water; and the knowledge that it will be months before anyone back home realizes that they need to be rescued. They set to work with admirable discipline to obtain the necessities of life from the rocks around them, extracting hydrogen and oxygen from gypsum, developing new techniques for synthesizing nutrients, building generators and engines, turning the starch in their clothes and books into bread, and finally digging out an entire settlement underground, complete with a library and swimming pool. (Much of the plot anticipates The Martian in its determination to science the shit out of the situation.) The diary format allows Campbell to deliver all of this material unencumbered by any interruptions: long sections of it read like a briefing or an extract from a textbook. It’s a novel written by a chemist for other chemists, posing a series of ingenious scientific problems and solutions, and it has enough good ideas to fuel a dozen hard science fiction stories. Reading it, I was reminded of the joke title of the book on which the three protagonists are working in Foucault’s Pendulum: The Wonderful Adventure of Metals. Because although there are no recognizable characters in sight, this is a calculated choice—the real hero is chemistry itself.

The result, to be honest, can be pretty hard going, and although it gets better toward the end, the pages don’t exactly fly by. I found myself admiring each paragraph while vaguely dreading the next: it’s a relatively short novel, but it seems very long. (In its original edition, it was published together with The Elder Gods, a story that Campbell wrote on assignment for Unknown—its original author, Arthur J. Burks, had failed to deliver a publishable manuscript—that provides a much more engaging display of his talents.) But it’s also exactly the novel that Campbell wanted to publish. It provides as perfect a summation as you could want of its author’s strengths and limitations, as well as those of hard science fiction as a whole. This isn’t a narrative about individuals, but about the scientific method itself, and it succeeds in some respects in his goal of telling a story about a culture: it’s implied that the stranded astronauts are laying the foundations for a permanent presence in space. And although it doesn’t work as a novel by any conventional standard, it’s indispensable as a sort of baseline. It’s as if Campbell decided to stake out the limits of hard science fiction as an example to his readers and writers: this is a novel that nobody ought to imitate, but which provides an essential reference point by which all efforts in that vein can be judged. And it’s no accident that it was published at a moment when Campbell was about to push into dianetics, psionics, and fringe science, as if he had already gone as far in the other direction as he possibly could. As Emerson said of Shakespeare, Campbell wanted to plant the standard of humanity “some furlongs forward into chaos,” but first, he had to give us an ideal of order, even if it was hell to read.

Astounding Stories #12: “Izzard and the Membrane”

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Izzard and the Membrane

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

“The Internet is the great masterpiece of civilization,” Virginia Heffernan writes in her new book Magic and Loss, and whether or not you agree with her, it’s hard to deny its importance. It touches every aspect of our lives, at least in the parts of the world where it’s possible for you to read these words now, and any attempt to write about how we live today has to take it into account. For those who like to define science fiction as a predictive literature, its failure to collectively foresee the Internet in a meaningful way—in the sense that it devoted so much energy to such subjects as space travel—is perhaps the genre’s greatest cause for regret. You could say, fairly enough, that it’s easy to point out such shortcomings in hindsight, or even that science fiction’s true strength doesn’t lie in prediction, but in preparing its readers for developments that none of us can see coming. But there’s no denying that the absence of anything like the Internet in the vast majority of science fiction has enormous practical consequences. It means that most visions of the future are inevitably dated, and that we need to continuously suspend disbelief to read stories about galactic empires in which computers or information technology don’t play any part at all. (In some ways, the internal logic of Dune, in which thinking machines have been outlawed, has allowed it to hold up in respects that Frank Herbert himself probably never anticipated.)

Of course, in a literature that constantly spun out wild notions in all directions, there were a few stories that were bound to seem prescient, if only by the law of truly large numbers. The idea of a worldwide machine that runs civilization—and the problems that an ordinary mortal would have in dealing with it—was central to R. DeWitt Miller’s “The Master Shall Not Die,” which was published in 1938. Eight years later, A.E. van Vogt’s visionary novel Slan showed its hero interacting through a computer with a Bureau of Statistics that put “a quadrillion facts” at his disposal. Most impressive of all is Will Jenkins’s “A Logic Named Joe,” which appeared a short time earlier: Jenkins, better known under the pen name Murray Leinster, built the story around an interlinked computer network that can answer any conceivable question, and which has already replaced most of the world’s filing clerks, secretaries, and messenger services. When one of the computers accidentally develops “ambition,” it gleefully provides users with advice on how to murder their wives, shows dirty videos to children, and makes suggestions for other illegal queries they might want to ask. (When faced with the prospect of simply turning the system off, a character objects: “If we shut off logics, we go back to a kind of civilization we have forgotten how to run!”) It not only looks forward with eerie accuracy to the Internet, but speculates about what might come next. And yet the clues it provided went mostly unexplored.

But the story that fills me with the most awe is “Izzard and the Membrane” by Walter M. Miller, Jr., which was published in the May 1951 issue of Astounding. Miller is best known today as the author of A Canticle for Leibowitz, but he was also a prolific author of short fiction, and in a single novelette, he manages to lay out most of the concerns of the contemporary transhumanist movement. It’s about an American cyberneticist who has developed an innovative synaptic relay system—a neural network, in other words—that can be used to build a gigantic computer. After being kidnapped by the Russians, who break his will by showing him faked footage of his wife having an affair, he agrees to build a machine for them, called Izzard, that can analyze itself and suggest improvements to its own architecture. Izzard is designed to oversee the coming invasion of the United States, but it also becomes self-aware and develops a method, not just for reproducing attributes of consciousness, but of uploading an existing brain into its data banks. The hero uses it to replicate his wife, who has died, along with himself, so that his soul merges with its image in the machine. Once inside, he gradually becomes aware of another presence, who turns out to be a member of a race that has achieved transcendence already, and which is closely monitoring his work. In the end, he uses his newfound powers to foil the invasion, and he’s reunited with his wife in a virtual simulation, via a portal called the membrane, that allows him to start a new life in the universe inside his own mind.

The result is one of my ten favorite science fiction stories of all time, and not simply because it predicts a dazzling array of issues—the singularity, mind uploading, simulated reality—that seem to have entered the mainstream conversation only in the last decade or so. It’s also an exciting read, full of action and ingenious plot twists, that takes more than one reading to appreciate. Yet like “A Logic Named Joe,” it was an outlier: it doesn’t seem to have inspired other writers to take up its themes in any significant way. To some extent, that’s because it carries its premise about as far as it could possibly go, and if any story can be truthfully described as ahead of its time, it’s this one. But it’s intriguing to think about an alternative direction that science fiction might have taken if “Izzard and the Membrane” had served as the starting point for a line of speculation that the authors of the time had collaborated in developing, with some of the enthusiasm that the editor John W. Campbell devoted instead to channeling the energies of his writers into psionics. It might not have affected the future directly: in some ways, we’re still catching up to the vision that Miller provides here. But we might be better prepared to confront the coming challenges if we had absorbed them as part of the common language of science fiction over the last sixty years. “The future,” William Gibson famously observed, “is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” And that’s true of science fiction, too.

Astounding Stories #13: “The Cold Equations”

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The Cold Equations

Note: As part of the research process for my book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ve taken 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

The plot of “The Cold Equations,” a short story by Tom Godwin that first appeared in Astounding in August 1954, can be summarized in just a few sentences. Its protagonist is Barton, the pilot of the Stardust, a small emergency spacecraft carrying a shipment of serum that is urgently needed to save the lives of six colonists on an isolated planet. Because the emergency vessels are deployed only as a last resort from larger transports, they carry the bare minimum of fuel required to get them to their destination, and any extra weight would cause the entire ship to crash. As a result, the punishment for stowaways is severe: in order to save the ship as a whole, the pilot is legally obligated to immediately eject any unauthorized passengers through the airlock. The story opens with Barton discovering that he has a stowaway, a teenage girl named Marilyn, who snuck onboard to visit her brother at the ship’s destination, unaware that the penalty was death. Barton, in despair, realizes that he has no choice but to jettison her: if he doesn’t, they’ll both die, along with the six colonists awaiting the serum. After an agonized discussion of the situation, Marilyn comes to terms with her fate. Barton allows her to talk to her brother over the radio one last time, then marches her into the airlock and opens the doors. Marilyn is sucked into space to die horribly, while Barton returns to the controls. As a character in another story reminded his captain under similar circumstances, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few—or the one.

And that’s pretty much it. “The Cold Equations” made an enormous impression on readers at the time, and it’s the only story by Godwin, a favorite of editor John W. Campbell, that is still widely read or anthologized. Of all the short stories that were published in Astounding after the golden age, it’s the one that has probably inspired the most subsequent discussion, usually in response to the question of whether or not Campbell deliberately avoided unhappy endings. Ben Bova, who certainly knows what he’s talking about, once wrote:

It is no secret that Campbell did prefer “upbeat” stories. He had little tolerance for weaklings or failures…Does this mean he automatically rejected “downbeat,” pessimistic stories? No, as a glance at Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations”…will show…The theme of the story is classical: the universe (or what the ancient Greeks would have called Destiny) does not care about our petty loves and desires. One and one inexorably add up to two, no matter how desperately we would have it otherwise.

Years after “The Cold Equations” was published Campbell laughingly recalled the story’s evolution. “He [Godwin] kept wanting to save the girl.” The editor had to insist on the “downbeat” ending. To do otherwise would have been to turn a memorable story into merely another “gadget” tale.

Campbell later said that he sent the manuscript back to Godwin no fewer than four times in order to get the bleak ending that he wanted. As it stands, the story is almost ludicrously free of the engineering heroics that readers had come to expect: both Barton and Marilyn quickly come to see her fate as a given, which seems to imply that Campbell was willing to push a story into dark places if he felt that the logic demanded it.

The Cold Equations

Yet the truth is a little more complicated. “The Cold Equations” emerged from a period in Campbell’s career when he was frustrated with orthodoxy of all kinds, and he was on the verge of taking the fateful plunge, which would consume his life for more than a decade, into psionics and fringe science. He also believed that it was worth embracing a contrarian stance for its own sake, as he explained to the writer Raymond F. Jones in a letter from 1954:

We’ve called the technique the Demeaned Viewpoint technique. It boils down to this: Consider the viewpoint that you just can’t consider under any circumstances, and find validity in it. There is no viewpoint that has zero validity—though some have very small validity, or very limited application. But if there is some viewpoint that you hold to be anathema—it must be important if you expend the effort to anathematize it!

And this was the explicit motivation for the ending of “The Cold Equations.” As Campbell said in a letter to his friend Wayne Batteau from later that year:

That [story], you see, is simply a Demeaned Viewpoint gimmick on the proposition “Human sacrifice is absolutely unacceptable.” So we deliberately, knowingly and painfully sacrifice a young, pretty girl…and make the reader accept that it is valid!

In other words, it wasn’t so much that Campbell saw a dark ending as following inexorably from the premise, but that he systematically twisted the story to subject the reader to an unpleasant thought experiment. This is a subtle distinction, but a real one. And many readers didn’t accept it at all. Gary Westfahl noted that the story was good physics, but bad engineering: the fact that the emergency ship is built without any factor of safety is clearly just a plot device. More recently, Cory Doctorow wrote: 

The parameters of “The Cold Equations” are not the inescapable laws of physics. Zoom out beyond the page’s edges and you’ll find the author’s hands carefully arranging the scenery…The author, not the girl, decided that there was no autopilot that could land the ship without the pilot. The author decided that the plague was fatal to all concerned, and that the vaccine needed to be delivered within a timeframe that could only be attained through the execution of the stowaway.

Doctorow concludes that the story is “an elaborate shell game.” And he’s right. But so is nearly every work of science fiction, which quietly rigs the rules for the sake of the story that the writer wants to tell, no matter how implausible it might be. What sets “The Cold Equations” apart—and why I don’t think it holds up as a story, despite its historical importance—is that by blatantly loading the dice to create its no-win situation, it inadvertently reveals its own fakery. As Doctorow says, the real cold equations are “parameterized by human beings.” And we finish the story knowing that it wasn’t Barton, or physics, who killed Marilyn. It was Godwin and Campbell.

Astounding Stories #14: The Heinlein Juveniles

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Have Space Suit—Will Travel

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

“There is a major but very difficult realization that needs to be reached about [Cary] Grant—difficult, that is, for many people who like to think they take the art of film seriously,” David Thomson writes in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. The realization, he says, is that along with being a great movie star and a beloved style icon, Grant was “the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema.” There’s a comparable realization, I’ve decided, that has to be reached about Robert A. Heinlein. As well as being a cult figure, the first science fiction writer to break through to the mainstream, and an object of veneration for countless fans, he was also the best writer the genre ever produced. And believe me, I know how boring this sounds. Frankly, I’d love to come up with a contrarian stance—that Heinlein is interesting primarily for his historical significance, that he’s revered mostly out of nostalgia, or that a handful of masterpieces allow us to overlook the fact that much of what he wrote was routine. But none of this is true. Of all the science fiction writers I’ve read, Heinlein is consistently the most compelling author, the most interesting thinker, and the most versatile artist. He’s the one writer of his era who could seemingly do anything, and who actually did it over an extended period of time for a big popular audience: great ideas, meticulously developed science and technology, worldbuilding, plot, action, character, philosophy, style. Heinlein was given what the sports writer Bill Simmons likes to call the “everything” package at the car wash, and he more than lived up to it. To a very real extent, Heinlein was the golden age of science fiction, and it’s hard to imagine John W. Campbell doing any of it without him.

This doesn’t mean that Heinlein was a perfect writer. For all the smart, tough, attractive women in his fiction, most of them ultimately come across as desirable fantasy objects for a certain kind of man. (The one really likable, compelling female character in his work, aside from Podkayne of Mars and Hazel Stone in The Rolling Stones, is Cynthia Randall in “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag.”) He never entirely lost the didactic streak that undermines his first unpublished novel, For Us, the Living, even if he advanced so rapidly in craft that it didn’t really matter. His late novels are a mixed bag, but they were never anything less than intensely personal, and they could hardly have been written by anyone else. And it goes without saying—or maybe it doesn’t—that merely because Heinlein was the strongest writer, sentence by sentence, in the history of the genre, it doesn’t mean that he was right about everything, or even about most things. As you read his stories, you find yourself nodding in agreement, and it’s only later that you start to raise reasonable objections. A novel like Starship Troopers is so cunningly constructed around its central argument that it can take you a while to realize how completely the author has stacked the deck. Heinlein liked to say that he was only trying to inspire people to ask the right questions, which isn’t untrue, although it seems a little disingenuous. He’s the most interesting case study I know on the difference between artistic mastery and good advice. They aren’t always the same thing, but they aren’t mutually exclusive, either: they coincide some but not all of the time, which is why the reader has to pay close attention.

Tunnel in the Sky

If I wanted to give a new reader a showcase for Heinlein’s talents, I’d probably start with his early, wonderful novella “If This Goes On—,” but I’d also consider recommending a few of his juveniles. These are the twelve books that he wrote for Scribner’s between 1947 and 1958, and although they were originally intended for young adults, they exemplify most of his strengths and almost none of his flaws. Heinlein explicitly conceived them as an updated version of the Horatio Alger books that he had loved growing up, and his pedagogical tendencies are both fully indulged and totally charming. The moral precepts he’s trying to inculcate couldn’t be more straightforward: “Hard work is rewarded.” “Studying hard pays off, in happiness as well as in money.” “Stand on your own feet.” And because he saw a strong technical education as the royal road to the stars, these books amount to the best propaganda imaginable for a career in the sciences. They’re filled with the kind of lectures—how a spaceship works, the physics of zero gravity, the design of a spacesuit—that most writers are rightly discouraged from including, but which many readers like me secretly crave, and Heinlein serves them up with great style. There’s no question that they inspired countless young people to go into science and engineering, which makes me regret the fact that he deliberately excluded half of his potential audience:

I established what has continued to be my rule for writing for youngsters. Never write down to them. Do not simplify the vocabulary nor the intellectual concepts. To this I added subordinate rules: No real love interest and female characters should only be walk-ons.

You could justify this by saying that these books were marketed by the publisher toward boys anyway, and that most of them wouldn’t have patience for girls. But it still feels like a lost opportunity.

Of all the juveniles, my favorite is Tunnel in the Sky, which starts out by anticipating The Hunger Games or even Battle Royale, moves into Lord of the Flies territory, and winds up as something unforgettably strange and moving. But they’re all worth reading, except maybe the aptly titled Between Planets, a transitional book that plays like Asimov at his most indifferent. Rocket Ship Galileo sends Tom Swift to the moon; Space Cadet looks ahead to Starship Troopers, but also Ender’s Game; Red Planet is terrifically exciting, and provides the first instance in which the adults take over the story from the kids; Farmer in the Sky is flawless hard science fiction; Starman Jones and The Rolling Stones come the closest to the ideal of a boy’s book of adventure in space; The Star Beast is uneven, but appealingly peculiar; Time for the Stars is a great time-dilation story; Citizen of the Galaxy has a lot of fun updating Kipling’s Kim for the future; and Have Space Suit—Will Travel begins as a lark, then grows gradually deeper and more resonant, to the point where I’m halfway convinced that it was one of Madeline L’Engle’s primary inspirations for A Wrinkle in Time. Heinlein’s uncanny ability to follow his imagination into odd byways without losing momentum, which is possibly his most impressive trick, is never on greater display than it is here. The best sequences, as in Starship Troopers, often take place in what amounts to basic training, and many of the juveniles fall into the same curious pattern: after a hundred fascinating pages about the hero’s education, there’s a sense of loss when the actual plot kicks in, as when Rocket Ship Galileo settles for a third act about Nazis in space. We’ve seen most of these crises before, and other writers, as well as Heinlein, will give us plenty of space battles and close escapes. But we’ve never been educated this well.

Astounding Stories #15: The Space Merchants

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The Space Merchants

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

Of all the supporting figures whom I expect to play a significant role in Astounding, the one I’m most looking forward to getting to know better is Frederik Pohl. His engaging memoir, The Way the Future Was, provided me with one of the first nudges I needed to get this project off the ground, and he pops up in it repeatedly, to the point where I can almost envision an alternative version of this book with Pohl, and not John W. Campbell, at its center. He was almost exactly the same age as Isaac Asimov, on whom he made a huge impression when they met at the age of nineteen, and he quickly established himself as an important fan, agent, editor, and writer, in roughly that order. Campbell seems to have been wary of the younger man’s energy: he met with him frequently and passed along as much lore as he could about the technical side of magazine publishing, which he was picking up himself at the same time, like a piano teacher who manages to stay just one lesson ahead of the pupil. Yet their relationship had more than a trace of All About Eve, and Campbell, incredibly, never bought a story from Pohl. “Fair mortified my feelings, he did,” Pohl writes with fake offhandedness in his autobiography, but it speaks to a deeper rivalry between the two men. Campbell was never able to lower his guard around Pohl, and he clearly sensed that science fiction was just barely big enough for the two of them as it was. And in fact, when you combine Pohl’s achievements as a fan and a writer with his later editorial work, you end up with the only plausible competitor to Campbell in terms of his impact on the evolution of the genre.

Pohl’s interests always ran along an intriguingly divergent track from Campbell’s, and they amounted to an entire alternative vision of what science fiction could be. His repeated return to themes of advertising and consumer culture, for instance, feels even more prescient now than it did then, and Pohl knew that he had hit on the subject of a lifetime, both for its cultural relevance and for its ability to inspire great stories. After World War II, Pohl tried to write a mainstream novel about Madison Avenue, only to realize that he didn’t know enough about it to make it believable. So he simply got a job at an advertising agency and ended up working in the industry for years, much as an aspiring writer of hard science fiction might wind up with a PhD in physics: it was fieldwork of the most fundamental kind. It seems safe to say that advertising and multinational corporations will play a larger role in the lives of most human beings than space travel will, and by focusing on their impact, Pohl was able to invent possible futures that were more resonant and plausible than much of what Campbell was publishing at the time. “The Midas Plague,” for example, describes a world in which the availability of cheap robot labor has led to a surplus of everything, resulting in a reversal of the familiar logic of economics: poor people are obliged to consume as many luxury goods as possible, and only the rich can afford to live a simple life. (If this sounds farfetched, just think of all the minimalist blogs that advise you to pare your possessions down to what you can carry in a backpack, which in itself is a token of unimaginable privilege.) And “The Tunnel Under the World,” which I think is one of the ten best science fiction stories ever written, takes the idea of the consumer focus group to its horrifying conclusion.

The Way the Future Was by Frederik Pohl

But my favorite is The Space Merchants, originally published in Galaxy as Gravy Planet, which Pohl wrote in collaboration with C.M. Kornbluth. (Kornbluth is a fascinating figure in his own right: he was responsible for a number of unforgettably dark short stories, notably “The Little Black Bag,” and dropped dead of a heart attack on his way to an interview for the editorship of Fantasy & Science Fiction—a point of divergence for the genre if there ever was one.) The novel’s premise is so good that it suffers a little today from seeming almost too obvious. Decades from now, the world is controlled by dueling ad agencies, which engage in private wars for clients and customers; the United States Congress consists of representatives of major corporations, such as “the gentleman from Rummy-Cola”; voters are weighted by net worth; and a relentless stream of propaganda is used to distract the populace from real problems of scarcity, overpopulation, and ecological damage. All of this background is worked unobtrusively into the story, and if it seems slightly facile when spelled out here, it doesn’t play that way on the page. If the book were simply a satire, it would still be worth reading, but about a third of the way through, it abruptly transforms itself from a futuristic version of Mad Men into a remarkably entertaining and inventive thriller, thanks largely to Kornbluth’s contributions. It’s one of the few really great science fiction page-turners, right up there with Sinister Barrier and The Demolished Man, and if you go into it, as I did, expecting little more than bleak social commentary, you’ll be surprised by how relentlessly the plot accelerates. It’s a reminder of how great ideas benefit from being grounded in an equally compelling story, and it’s one of the first novels I’d recommend to an intelligent reader who was curious about what science fiction can really do.

Along the way, it also sheds fresh light on Campbell’s limitations. The Space Merchants features many of the hallmarks of the science fiction that was being published in Astounding: a subplot about colonizing Venus, an interest in hypnotism and thought control, and a kind of wild momentum in its middle section that recalls A.E. van Vogt, as well as Alfred Bester. But it’s hard to imagine Campbell publishing a story that viewed its subject through this particular lens. Campbell liked to portray himself and his readers as skeptics who questioned all the usual assumptions, but on a social and political level, he was fundamentally conservative, and he had little inclination to attack the corporations that bought most of the ads in his magazine. It’s no accident that both Pohl and Kornbluth were members of the Futurians, whom I’ve described elsewhere, following Damon Knight, as forming a kind of counterculture to Campbell and his circle, and their early flirtations with socialism provided them with the same sort of tool that fringe science later offered to Campbell: a club that could be used against the prevailing orthodoxy, albeit from very different directions. But their choice of weapons was revealing. Campbell felt that the greatest threat was a scientific conformity that prevented the establishment from considering radical new ideas, while Pohl’s primary concern was the concentration of money and power that kept ordinary men and women from thinking any thoughts outside the narrow range prescribed by major corporations. Looking around the world today, it’s obvious which of the two men was closer to the mark. And although I’ve always said that the predictive function of science fiction is overrated, this is one case in which it feels a little too close for comfort.

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

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 #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 #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 #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.

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