Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Deadline

Meanwhile at the Pentagon

leave a comment »

On June 9, 1963, or exactly fifty-five years ago last week, newspaper readers were treated to an unusual installment of the comic strip Steve Canyon. It was the one of the first mainstream public depictions of a military war game. As the characters are told in their briefing:

You are persons of importance in your own fields—from which we hope to receive new slants on problems we live with here in the Pentagon every day! You have been divided arbitrarily into blue and red teams. The blues will be the United States and its allies. The reds will pretend to be the command staff of the Red Bloc nations. You will be given a series of hypothetical situations…Each team, in separate rooms, will decide what next to do. You will have all the actual forces of your own group to throw into the mock crisis…Each morning you will cast the die to determine who will be team captain for that day. After each side has made its initial and countermoves, the control team will evaluate the results and make a judgment on the score! We on the control team are umpires! We do not wear uniforms but we are from all branches of the Department of Defense. We will give you true answers to known strengths on both sides—which is one reason these games must be classified as secret—and no documents you use may leave these rooms!

The colonel concludes: “Team evaluations and control evaluations will be sent to the proper authorities each morning. There is no assurance that any of the material will ever be used.” But not all of the participants in the room seem convinced. As one whispers nervously to another: “Ed, do you think they’d act on a request for a quick transfer to Vietnam?”

In fact, Steve Canyon creator Milton Caniff was providing an accurate description of the gaming exercises that had long been conducted by the Joint War Games Group, which had been formed on the recommendation of defense aide Henry Rowen, a former analyst for the RAND Corporation. As the scholar Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi notes in her article “Simulating the Unthinkable,” which she later adapted into a section of her biography of Herman Kahn, these games were viewed with interest by such officials as Robert F. Kennedy, who proposed taking a similar approach to the problem of civil rights. They remained controversial within the Pentagon, however, with some expressing reservations over the government “playing games,” and even their proponents preferred the more respectable term “simulation.” The use of gaming wasn’t technically a secret, but it was rarely publicized, and Caniff’s strip seems to have led to some internal consternation. Ghamari-Tabrizi writes:

Apparently some members of the [Joint Chiefs of Staff] gaming agency sought to create favorable publicity among the armed forces. Because cartoon protagonist Steven Canyon was a gallant Air Force officer, Caniff was quite popular with Air Force personnel. He was regularly briefed about bases and service matters as possible material for his comic strip saga. Sometime in 1963, Caniff was invited to observe one of the Pentagon exercises, which he subsequently featured in his 9 June strip. The JCS were dumbfounded by the unexpected disclosure. While the comic strip did not provoke focused national attention to war-gaming as feared, [MIT professor] Lincoln Bloomfield recalled: “When to their chagrin [Caniff] went public and the strip hit the street, it also hit the fan. The embarrassment (and extensive kidding) they endured in-house caused the folks in the Pentagon basement to vow never again to make the mistake of allowing an uncleared round-bottomed civilian on the premises.”

The circumstances behind the appearance of this information, which Ghamari-Tabrizi states was “leaked,” remain fairly obscure. (In the version of the story published in The Worlds of Herman Kahn, she omits the sentence stating that members of the gaming agency had “sought to create favorable publicity.”) As far as I can determine, the first discussion of the incident in print is in the book War Games by Thomas B. Allen, and there doesn’t seem to be any mention of it at all in Meanwhile…, the massive biography of Caniff by R.C. Harvey. There’s no question that Caniff was on friendly terms with the Air Force, which often provided him with material for the strip—although he maintained that his level of access was no greater than that of any ordinary journalist. And Caniff seems to have been genuinely wary of the possibility of an inadvertent leak. Harvey describes an incident in which Caniff allegedly received unwanted attention from the government in March 1944, in the form of a visit from the FBI:

The two G-men had been civil, even polite, but their unrelenting humorlessness invested the visit with a chilly stiffness that was almost frightening. Nothing Caniff could say brought a smile to the lips of either one of them. They’d come, one of them explained soberly, because the cartoonist had been accused of being a spy, so they were obliged to investigate. The charge had been made by the London Express, and it stemmed from the Terry and the Pirates strip published March 17. In that strip, Flip Corkin is shown briefing his pilots in northern India for an invasion of Burma. On March 18, the news broke: in real-life Burma, Phil Cochran’s First Air Commandos were engaged in exactly such an invasion. [Cochran was Caniff’s childhood friend, and he had served as the model for the character of Flip Corkin.] The coincidence was too much for London editors: since they knew the strip had been drawn weeks before its publication date, Caniff must have known about Cochran’s invasion well in advance. The British newspapermen wanted to know how he found out.

Affording to Harvey, Caniff was worried that he might have gotten Cochran into trouble, and he spent most of the afternoon arguing to the agents that the timing was just a coincidence.

As regular readers of this blog will recognize, this anecdote has striking similarities to the “Deadline” incident, in which a story in Astounding Science Fiction briefly raised the possibility of a leak at the Manhattan Project. If Caniff’s account can be credited, the two “investigations” were unfolding at practically the same time—Cleve Cartmill’s “Deadline” appeared on February 11, 1944, and an agent from the Counterintelligence Corps visited John W. Campbell at his office on March 8, or a week and a half before the alleged visit to Caniff. I’ve learned to be skeptical of such stories, which tend to be embellished across multiple retellings, and I haven’t been able to find any sources apart from Caniff himself. (In Milton Caniff: Conversations, he claims to have received another visit from the FBI after accidentally using the actual code name for an allied radio station.) Yet the war game strip was real enough, which only raises further questions. As Harvey writes:

Over the years, Caniff developed several techniques to protect himself and his sources against inadvertently revealing military secrets…[such as] letting a base photographer develop any photographs he took on a base so that prints of anything classified could be culled out before he could use them. Sometimes he checked plots with the Air Force in advance if he suspected he was treading near classified territory. “I’d go to my neighborhood Air Force information officer and say, Can this be done—?” Caniff said. “And I’d describe what was going to do. If I asked him a direct question about it, I’d be putting him in a position of lying—or not lying—to me, but I didn’t need to ask him directly. I watch the guy’s face, and if he suddenly gets tight under the collar, then I know it’s time to quit my idea and go to lunch.”

Given what we know about Caniff—who, unlike John W. Campbell, was unhesitatingly patriotic—it seems doubtful that he would have included any information in the strip without full assurance that its release had been approved. The most plausible explanation, perhaps, is that one group within the government “leaked” it at the expense of another, with Caniff caught somewhere in the middle. It still happens today. You just don’t tend to see it in the comics.

The uranium in the wine bottle

with one comment

In the March 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, readers were treated to the story “Deadline” by Cleve Cartmill, which was set on an alien planet consumed by a war between two factions known as the “Sixa” and the “Seilla.” Its hero was a spy, complete with a prehensile tail, whose mission was to fly into enemy territory and destroy the ultimate weapon before it could be detonated. The story itself was undeniably mediocre, and it would be utterly forgotten today if it weren’t for its description of the weapon in question, an atomic bomb, which Cartmill based almost verbatim on letters from the editor John W. Campbell, who had pitched the idea in the first place. According to the physicist Edward Teller, it was plausible enough to cause “astonishment” at the Manhattan Project, which counted many readers of the magazine among its scientists, and after it was brought to the attention of the Counterintelligence Corps, both Campbell and Cartmill were interviewed to investigate the possibility of a leak. In reality, “Deadline” wasn’t even much of a prediction—Campbell, who was feeling frustrated about his lack of involvement in war research, had a hunch that an atomic bomb was in the works, and he packed the story with technical information that was already in the public domain. He evidently hoped that it would draw official interest that might lead to a real defense role, which failed to materialize. After the war, however, it paid off immensely, and Campbell found himself hailed as a prophet. Cartmill, the credited author, neatly fell out of the picture, and the fact that the story hadn’t predicted much of anything was lost on most readers. Campbell had essentially orchestrated the most famous anecdote of his career, planting “Deadline” in the magazine expressly so that he could point to it later, and across multiple retellings, the details of the ensuing investigation were exaggerated beyond recognition. As the historian Donald Spoto aptly puts it: “[His] calculated image of himself as a prophet does not coincide with the truth; inspired by his sense of publicity, he told a better story than the facts reveal.”

But Spoto isn’t writing about Campbell, but about Alfred Hitchcock, in his classic biography The Dark Side of Genius, and the story here isn’t “Deadline,” but the great romantic thriller Notorious. As legend has it, when Hitchcock had to come up with the MacGuffin, or the plot point that would drive the rest of the movie, he proposed a sample of uranium hidden in a wine bottle by a group of Nazis in Brazil. As he said to François Truffaut in their famous book-length interview:

The producer said, “What in the name of good­ness is that?” I said, “This is uranium; it’s the thing they’re going to make an atom bomb with.” And he asked, “What atom bomb?” This, you must remember, was in 1944, a year before Hiroshima. I had only one clue. A writer friend of mine had told me that scientists were working on a secret project someplace in New Mexico. It was so secret that once they went into the plant, they never emerged again. I was also aware that the Germans were conducting experiments with heavy water in Norway. So these clues brought me to the uranium Mac­Guffin. The producer was skeptical, and he felt it was absurd to use the idea of an atom bomb as the basis for our story. I told him that it wasn’t the basis for the story, but only the MacGuffin, and I explained that there was no need to attach too much importance to it.

In the end, the idea was approved, and Hitchcock and screenwriter Ben Hecht allegedly went to Pasadena to get background information from the physicist Robert A. Millikan. According to Hitchcock, Millikan responded: “You want to have yourselves arrested and have me arrested as well?” After this outburst, Milkian informed them—in something of a non sequitur—that the idea was impossible anyway, although others evidently felt that they had come too close for comfort. As Hitchcock confided in Truffaut: “I learned later that after­ward the FBI had me under surveillance for three months.”

Like many movie buffs, I accepted this story without question for years, but when you encounter it after the “Deadline” incident, it starts to seem too good to be true, which it was. As Spoto writes in The Dark Side of Genius: “The business of the uranium remained a considerable source of publicity for Hitchcock  to the end of his life. To François Truffaut, to this writer, and to many others, he always insisted that he had chosen the device of uranium ore in Nazi experiments quite coincidentally, far in advance of the detonation of the atomic bomb in Japan in August 1945…He always emphasized, in every discussion of Notorious, that he was virtually a prophet.” The truth, Spoto continues, was very different:

By the time Notorious actually began filming, in October 1945, Hitchcock had made yet another trip to London…and he had returned to Los Angeles for final script work in September—after the bombings of Japan, and after he had spent several weeks in New York testing actors, among whom were several famous German refugees he finally cast in the film. On the basis of news from these German contacts, and from the accounts that flooded the world press…Hitchcock and Hecht refined the last addenda to their script just before the first day of production…All the evidence suggests that in truth the uranium was included after the fact.

As for the allegation of government surveillance, it was evidently based on a general directive from the FBI that the producer David O. Selznick received in May, which cautioned that any movie that featured American intelligence would have to be cleared by the State Department. Like Campbell, Hitchcock liked to make people think that he had been given special attention, and over the years, in both cases, the stories only grew.

There are obvious similarities between these two incidents, as well as equally noteworthy differences. With “Deadline,” the description of the bomb is the story’s sole reason for existing, while Notorious would still be a masterpiece even if the MacGuffin had been something else entirely. (As Hitchcock allegedly told his producer: “Look, if you don’t like uranium, let’s make it industrial diamonds, which the Germans need to cut their tools with.” He claimed to have later told a movie executive who had objected to the screenplay on grounds of its implausibility: “You were wrong to attach any importance to the MacGuffin. Notorious was simply the story of a man in love with a girl who, in the course of her official duties, had to go to bed with another man and even had to marry him. That’s the story.” And even if he invented the conversation, his point still stands.) The other difference is the use to which each anecdote was put. For Hitchcock, the uranium incident, and the reputation that it gave him as a “prophet,” was just another way of burnishing his image, and although he enjoyed dining out on it, it was a minor part of his legend. Campbell, by contrast, used it as the basis for his entire postwar career. Just two weeks after Hiroshima, The New Yorker profiled him in a Talk of the Town piece titled “1945 Cassandra,” in which it credulously wrote:

If you want to keep up with, or possibly stay ahead of, the development of secret weapons in time of war, you had better…go to the pulps, preferably Astounding. One reason is that Astounding, which has for the past ten years or so been predicting atomic bombs and using them to liven up its stories, has been permitted to duck some of the security rules that made high-echelon government officials such halting conversationalists in recent months.

And that reputation hinged largely on the myth of “Deadline” and its creation. It bought Campbell tremendous credibility after the war, earned or otherwise, and it played a significant role in science fiction’s big push into the mainstream. Eventually, the editor would stake—and lose—all of that goodwill on dianetics. But for a few years, Campbell, like Hitchcock, got to play his audience like a piano, and both men liked to pretend that they had once been notorious.

Farewell to Mystic Falls

with one comment

Note: Spoilers follow for the series finale of The Vampire Diaries.

On Friday, I said goodbye to The Vampire Diaries, a series that I once thought was one of the best genre shows on television, only to stop watching it for its last two seasons. Despite its flaws, it occupies a special place in my memory, in part because its strengths were inseparable from the reasons that I finally abandoned it. Like Glee, The Vampire Diaries responded to its obvious debt to an earlier franchise—High School Musical for the former, Twilight for the latter—both by subverting its predecessor and by burning through ideas as relentlessly as it could. It’s as if both shows decided to refute any accusations of unoriginality by proving that they could be more ingenious than their inspirations, and amazingly, it sort of worked, at least for a while. There’s a limit to how long any series can repeatedly break down and reassemble itself, however, and both started to lose steam after about three years. In the case of The Vampire Diaries, its problems crystallized around its ostensible lead, Elena Gilbert, as portrayed by the game and talented Nina Dobrev, who left the show two seasons ago before returning for an encore in the finale. Elena spent most of her first sendoff asleep, and she isn’t given much more to do here. There’s a lot about the episode that I liked, and it provides satisfying moments of closure for many of its characters, but Elena isn’t among them. In the end, when she awakens from the magical coma in which she has been slumbering, it’s so anticlimactic that it reminds me of what Pauline Kael wrote of Han’s revival in Return of the Jedi: “It’s as if Han Solo had locked himself in the garage, tapped on the door, and been let out.”

And what happened to Elena provides a striking case study of why the story’s hero is often fated to become the least interesting person in sight. The main character of a serialized drama is under such pressure to advance the plot that he or she becomes reduced to the diagram of a pattern of forces, like one of the fish in D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s On Growth and Form, in which the animal’s physical shape is determined by the outside stresses to which it has been subjected. Instead of making her own decisions, Elena was obliged to become whatever the series needed her to be. Every protagonist serves as a kind of motor for the story, which is frequently a thankless role, but it was particularly problematic on a show that defined itself by its willingness to burn through a year of potential storylines each month. Every episode felt like a season finale, and characters were freely killed, resurrected, and brainwashed to keep the wheels turning. It was hardest on Elena, who, at her best, was a compelling, resourceful heroine. After six seasons of personality changes, possessions, memory wipes, and the inexplicable choices that she made just because the story demanded it, she became an empty shell. If you were designing a show in a laboratory to see what would happen if its protagonist was forced to live through plot twists at an accelerated rate, like the stress tests that engineers use to put a component through a lifetime’s worth of wear in a short period of time, you couldn’t do much better than The Vampire Diaries. And while it might have been theoretically interesting to see what happened to the series after that one piece was removed, I didn’t think it was worth sitting through another two seasons of increasingly frustrating television.

After the finale was shot, series creators Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec made the rounds of interviews to discuss the ending, and they shared one particular detail that fascinates me. If you haven’t watched The Vampire Diaries, all you need to know is that its early seasons revolved around a love triangle between Elena and the vampire brothers Stefan and Damon, a nod to Twilight that quickly became one of the show’s least interesting aspects. Elena seemed fated to end up with Stefan, but she spent the back half of the series with Damon, and it ended with the two of them reunited. In a conversation with Deadline, Williamson revealed that this wasn’t always the plan:

Well, I always thought it would be Stefan and Elena. They were sort of the anchor of the show, but because we lost Elena in season six, we couldn’t go back. You know Nina could only come back for one episode—maybe if she had came back for the whole season, we could even have warped back towards that, but you can’t just do it in forty-two minutes.

Dobrev’s departure, in other words, froze that part of the story in place, even as the show around it continued its usual frantic developments, and when she returned, there wasn’t time to do anything but keep Elena and Damon where they had left off. There’s a limit to how much ground you can cover in the course of a single episode, so it seemed easier for the producers to stick with what they had and figure out a way to make it seem inevitable.

The fact that it works at all is a tribute to the skill of the writers and cast, as well as to the fact that the whole love triangle was basically arbitrary in the first place. As James Joyce said in a very different context, it was a bridge across which the characters could walk, and once they were safely on the other side, it could be blown to smithereens. The real challenge was how to make the finale seem like a definitive ending, after the show had killed off and resurrected so many characters that not even death itself felt like a conclusion. It resorted to much the same solution that Lost did when faced with a similar problem: it shut off all possibility of future narrative by reuniting its characters in heaven. This partially a form of wish fulfillment, as we’ve seen with so many other television series, but it also puts a full stop on the story by leaving us in an afterlife, where, by definition, nothing can ever change. It’s hilariously unlike the various versions of the world to come that the series has presented over the years, from which characters can always be yanked back to life when necessary, but it’s also oddly moving and effective. Watching it, I began to appreciate how the show’s biggest narrative liability—a cast that just can’t be killed—also became its greatest asset. The defining image of The Vampire Diaries was that of a character who has his neck snapped, and then just shakes it off. Williamson and Plec must have realized, consciously or otherwise, that it was a reset button that would allow them to go through more ideas than would be possible than a show on which a broken neck was permanent. Every denizen of Mystic Falls got a great death scene, often multiple times per season, and the show exploited that freedom until it exhausted itself. It only really worked for three years out of eight, but it was a great run while it lasted. And now, after life’s fitful fever, the characters can sleep well, as they sail off into the mystic.

A pair of deadlines

with 4 comments

Illustration by Paul Orban for "Deadline" by Cleve Cartmill

In late 1943, the science fiction writer Cleve Cartmill pitched a story to the editor John W. Campbell about the design and construction of an atomic bomb. (This was long before Hiroshima, of course, or even Trinity, and the Manhattan Project was still one of the most highly guarded secrets of the war.) Campbell jumped at the prospect, and in their ensuing correspondence, he outlined how such a weapon could work, based solely on information in the public domain. The result, “Deadline,” appeared the following year in the March issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Cartmill himself called the story a “stinker,” and much of its science was wrong, but it also got a lot right, and it was often unsettlingly specific. According to Edward Teller, the future father of the hydrogen bomb and a longtime fan of the magazine, the story provoked “astonishment” at Los Alamos, and it immediately raised the possibility of a leak. The War Department deployed an investigator from the Counterintelligence Corps to look into Campbell and Cartmill, and although the report ultimately concluded that there was no security breach, it characterized Campbell as an “egotist.” Much later, Campbell would say that he was relieved that the man who interviewed him failed to notice the map on his wall with pins marking the addresses of his subscribers—including a suspicious clustering around a post office box in New Mexico. And even if this last detail is apocryphal, it isn’t an exaggeration to call it one of the most famous episodes in Campbell’s career. It’s one of those legends that science fiction never tires of telling about itself.

But as I’ve looked into this incident while doing research for my upcoming book, I’ve found that most of the assumptions about it are either false or highly inaccurate. “Deadline” didn’t come out of nowhere: atomic power had been a frequent theme in Astounding almost from the day it was founded, and topics like isotope separation and the nuclear chain reaction had been discussed in stories and Campbell’s own editorials for years. “Deadline” might have been a “stinker,” but its very clumsiness—with thinly disguised surrogates for the Allies and Axis called the “Seilla” and “Sixa”—was a deliberate hint to get readers to dismiss it as a narrative and to look between the lines. It’s sometimes cited as an example of science fiction’s ability to predict the future, but really, it’s closer to the opposite: Campbell knew exactly what was in the air, and he cobbled the science together from the available sources to match what he guessed was already happening. (It isn’t hard to believe that he had a decent hunch of what was taking place at Los Alamos: Asimov, who was working with Heinlein at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, later wrote that he had known the bomb was in the works since the early forties.) And far from being surprised by the investigation, Campbell actively courted it. Just two years earlier, in an editorial titled “Too Good at Guessing,” he had said that Astounding would avoid publishing stories set in the near future for the duration of the war, in order to avoid accidentally giving away potential lines of military research. His abrupt reversal indicates that the story was a deliberate provocation, “a probe,” in Gregory Benford’s words. And unpacking Campbell’s motivations is a central part of the story I’ll be telling.

Illustration by Paul Orban for "Deadline"

Even as I contemplate these issues, though, I’m also keenly aware of another deadline: December 4, 2017. That’s when the complete draft of my book will be due. (I just confirmed this last week, after operating for the last couple of months without a fixed delivery date in mind.) It leaves me with exactly twenty months, which might seem like more than enough: it’s more time than it took me to finish my last two novels combined, and as I write this, it feels like a long way from now. But it isn’t—at least not when I consider the amount of work I have ahead of me. The controversy surrounding “Deadline,” for instance, is one of the most richly documented chapters of Campbell’s life, but the more I look at it, the harder it is to pin down the facts and to properly interpret what they mean. This goes double for aspects of his career that haven’t been thoroughly covered before. When you add in the fact that I’m also dealing with Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard, all three of whom grow even more enigmatic the closer you look at them, twenty months starts to seem like a tight schedule indeed. Which is pretty much how it should be. This is the kind of subject in which the amount of research and thought involved is infinitely expansible: there’s always another story to read, another thread to follow, or another theme to explore, and much of my energy will be devoted to prioritizing and triaging the possible angles. It’s going to be a real challenge, and although I don’t doubt that I can pull it off, the sheer volume of material that needs to be covered and organized into a coherent shape leaves me wishing that I had a spare decade or two.

Yet twenty months—which really means more like two years, when you account for the time I spent preparing the initial proposal—seems about right. It’s long enough to do it justice, but not so long that I can afford to get complacent. I’ve always worked best under deadlines, voluntary or otherwise, both because they give me a reason to stick to the task and because they enforce an intensity of thought that can only be helpful. I have a decent sense of the ground that this book needs to cover, and the devil will lie in assembling the details and placing them within a meaningful framework. Without a looming delivery date, there’s a very real temptation to continue gathering information forever: I could spend the next two years just leafing through old issues of Astounding and Analog. With the clock ticking, though, at some point, I’ll have no choice but to stop reading and start writing, and I’ve already had to get the ball rolling on the endless acts of housekeeping that take up half of any nonfiction project. (I’ve just gotten my hands on a huge trove of Campbell’s unpublished letters from the San Diego State University Library, with hopes of obtaining more soon, and just reading through all of it will take a couple of months.) Still, it’s all tremendously exciting, and whenever I feel daunted by its scope and complexity, I remind myself of how lucky I am to have this chance in the first place. And if all goes well, by the end of next year, I’ll look back at this post and marvel that we’ve all traveled so far into the future.

Written by nevalalee

April 8, 2016 at 9:43 am

%d bloggers like this: