Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘E.E. Smith

The end of an era

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On July 11, 1971, the science fiction editor John W. Campbell passed away quietly at his home in New Jersey. When he died, he was alone in his living room, watching Mexican wrestling on the local Spanish channel, which was his favorite television show. (I should also note in passing that it was a genre with deep affinities to superhero culture and comic books.) Word of his death quickly spread through fandom. Isaac Asimov was heartbroken at the news, writing later of the man whom he had always seen as his intellectual father: “I had never once thought…that death and he had anything in common, could ever intersect. He was the fixed pole star about which all science fiction revolved, unchangeable, eternal.” For the last decade, Analog had been on the decline, and Campbell was no longer the inescapable figure he had been in the thirties and forties, but it was impossible to deny his importance. In The Engines of the Night, Barry N. Malzberg spends several pages chronicling the late editor’s failings, mistakes, and shortcomings, but he concludes unforgettably:

And yet when I heard of Campbell’s sudden death…and informed Larry Janifer, I trembled at Janifer’s response and knew that it was so: “The field has lost its conscience, its center, the man for whom we were all writing. Now there’s no one to get mad at us anymore.”

Tributes appeared in such magazines as Locus, and Campbell’s obituary ran in the New York Times, but the loss was felt most keenly within the close community of science fiction readers and writers—perhaps because they sensed that it marked an end to the era in which the genre could still be regarded as the property of a small circle of fans.

I thought of this earlier this week, when the death of Stan Lee inspired what seemed like a national day of mourning. For much of the afternoon, he all but took over the front page of Reddit, which is an achievement that no other nonagenarian could conceivably have managed. And it’s easy to draw a contrast between Lee and Campbell, both in their cultural impact and in the way in which they were perceived by the public. Here’s how Lee is described in the book Men of Tomorrow:

His great talent, in both writing and life, was to win people’s affection. He was raised to be lovable by a mother who worshipped him. “I used to come home from school,” said Stan, “and she’d grab me and fuss over me and say, ‘You’re home already? I was sure today was the day a movie scout would discover you and take you away from me!’” She told Stan that he was the most handsome, most talented, most remarkable boy who’d ever lived. “And I believed her!” Stan said. “I didn’t know any better!” Stan attacked the world with a crooked grin and a line of killer patter. No one else in comics ever wanted to badly to be liked or became so good at it. He was known as a soft touch on advances, deadlines, and extra assignments. Even people who didn’t take him seriously as an editor or writer had to admit that Stan truly was a nice guy.

This couldn’t be less like Campbell, who also had a famous story about coming home from school to see his mother—only to be confronted by her identical twin, his aunt, who hated him. He claimed that this memory inspired the novella that became The Thing. And while I’m not exactly a Freudian biographer, it isn’t hard to draw a few simple conclusions about how these two boys might have grown up to see the world.

Yet they also had a surprising amount in common, to the point that I often used Lee as a point of comparison when I was pitching Astounding. Lee was over a decade younger than Campbell, which made him nearly the same age as Isaac Asimov and Frederik Pohl—which testifies both to his longevity and to how relatively young Campbell and Asimov were when they died. Lee’s first job in publishing was as an assistant in the comics division of the pulp publisher Martin Goodman, presumably just a few steps away from Uncanny Tales, which suggests that he could just as easily have wound up in one as well as the other. He became the interim comics editor at the age of nineteen, or the same age as Pohl when he landed his first editing job. (I’m not aware of Lee crossing paths with any of my book’s major figures during this period, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they moved in the same circles in New York.) Like Campbell, Lee’s legacy is conventionally thought to consist of moving the genre toward greater realism, better writing, and more believable characters, although the degree to which each man was responsible for these developments has been disputed. Both also cultivated a distinct voice in their editorials and letters columns, which became a forum for open discussion with fans, although they differed drastically in their tones, political beliefs, and ambitions. Campbell openly wanted to make a discovery that would change the world, while Lee seemed content to make his mark on the entertainment industry, which he did with mixed success for decades. It can be hard to remember now, but there was a long period when Lee seemed lost in the wilderness, with a sketchy production company that filed for bankruptcy and pursued various dubious projects. If he had died in his seventies, or just after his cameo in Mallrats, he might well have been mourned, like Campbell, mostly by diehard fans.

Instead, he lived long enough to see the movie versions of X-Men and Spider-Man, followed by the apotheosis of the Marvel Universe. And it’s easy to see the difference between Campbell and Lee as partially a matter of longevity. If Campbell had lived to be the same age, he would have died in 2005, which is a truly staggering thought. I have trouble imagining what science fiction would have been like if he had stuck around for three more decades, even from the sidelines. (It isn’t hard to believe that he might have remained a fixture at conventions. The writer and scholar James Gunn—not to be confused with the director of Guardians of the Galaxy—is almost exactly Stan Lee’s age, and I sat down to chat with him at Worldcon two years ago.) Of course, Campbell was already estranged from many writers and fans at the time of his death, and unlike Lee, he was more than willing to alienate a lot of his readers. It seems unlikely that he would have been forgiven for his mistakes, as Lee was, simply out of the affection in which he was held. If anything, his death may have postponed the reckoning with his racism, and its impact on the genre, that otherwise might have taken place during his lifetime. But the differences also run deeper. When you look at the world in which we live today, it might seem obvious that Lee’s comics won out over Campbell’s stories, at least when measured by their box office and cultural impact. The final installment in E.E. Smith’s Galactic Patrol was published just a few months before the debut of a character created by the science fiction fans Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, but you still see kids dressed up as Superman, not the Gray Lensman. That may seem inevitable now, but it could easily have gone the other way. The story of how this happened is a complicated one, and Lee played a huge part in it, along with many others. His death, like Campbell’s, marks the end of an era. And it may only be now that we can start to figure out what it all really meant.

Children of the Lens

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During World War II, as the use of radar became widespread in battle, the U.S. Navy introduced the Combat Information Center, a shipboard tactical room with maps, consoles, and screens of the kind that we’ve all seen in television and the movies. At the time, though, it was like something out of science fiction, and in fact, back in 1939, E.E. “Doc” Smith had described a very similar display in the serial Gray Lensman:

Red lights are fleets already in motion…Greens are fleets still at their bases. Ambers are the planets the greens took off from…The white star is us, the Directrix. That violet cross way over there is Jalte’s planet, our first objective. The pink comets are our free planets, their tails showing their intrinsic velocities.

After the war, in a letter dated June 11, 1947, the editor John W. Campbell told Smith that the similarity was more than just a coincidence. Claiming to have been approached “unofficially, and in confidence” by a naval officer who played an important role in developing the C.I.C., Campbell said:

The entire setup was taken specifically, directly, and consciously from the Directrix. In your story, you reached the situation the Navy was in—more communications channels than integration techniques to handle it. You proposed such an integrating technique, and proved how advantageous it could be…Sitting in Michigan, some years before Pearl Harbor, you played a large share in the greatest and most decisive naval action of the recent war!

Unfortunately, this wasn’t true. The naval officer in question, Cal Laning, was indeed a science fiction fan—he was close friends with Robert A. Heinlein—but any resemblance to the Directrix was coincidental, or, at best, an instance of convergence as fiction and reality addressed the same set of problems. (An excellent analysis of the situation can be found in Ed Wysocki’s very useful book An Astounding War.)

If Campbell was tempted to overstate Smith’s influence, this isn’t surprising—the editor was disappointed that science fiction hadn’t played the role that he had envisioned for it in the war, and this wasn’t the first or last time that he would gently exaggerate it. Fifteen years later, however, Smith’s fiction had a profound impact on a very different field. In 1962, Steve Russell of M.I.T. developed Spacewar, the first video game to be played on more than one computer, with two spaceships dueling with torpedoes in the gravity well of a star. In an article for Rolling Stone written by my hero Stewart Brand, Russell recalled:

We had this brand new PDP-1…It was the first minicomputer, ridiculously inexpensive for its time. And it was just sitting there. It had a console typewriter that worked right, which was rare, and a paper tape reader and a cathode ray tube display…Somebody had built some little pattern-generating programs which made interesting patterns like a kaleidoscope. Not a very good demonstration. Here was this display that could do all sorts of good things! So we started talking about it, figuring what would be interesting displays. We decided that probably you could make a two-dimensional maneuvering sort of thing, and decided that naturally the obvious thing to do was spaceships…

I had just finished reading Doc Smith’s Lensman series. He was some sort of scientist but he wrote this really dashing brand of science fiction. The details were very good and it had an excellent pace. His heroes had a strong tendency to get pursued by the villain across the galaxy and have to invent their way out of their problem while they were being pursued. That sort of action was the thing that suggested Spacewar. He had some very glowing descriptions of spaceship encounters and space fleet maneuvers.

The “somebody” whom he mentions was Marvin Minsky, another science fiction fan, and Russell’s collaborator Martin Graetz elsewhere cited Smith’s earlier Skylark series as an influence on the game.

But the really strange thing is that Campbell, who had been eager to claim credit for Smith when it came to the C.I.C., never made this connection in print, at least not as far as I know, although he was hugely interested in Spacewar. In the July 1971 issue of Analog, he published an article on the game by Albert W. Kuhfeld, who had developed a variation of it at the University of Minnesota. Campbell wrote in his introductory note:

For nearly a dozen years I’ve been trying to get an article on the remarkable educational game invented at M.I.T. It’s a great game, involving genuine skill in solving velocity and angular relation problems—but I’m afraid it will never be widely popular. The playing “board” costs about a quarter of a megabuck!

Taken literally, the statement “nearly a dozen years” implies that the editor heard about Spacewar before it existed, but the evidence legitimately implies that he learned of it almost at once. Kuhfeld writes: “Although it uses a computer to handle orbital mechanics, physicists and mathematicians have no great playing advantage—John Campbell’s seventeen-year-old daughter beat her M.I.T. student-instructor on her third try—and thereafter.” Campbell’s daughter was born in 1945, which squares nicely with a visit around the time of the game’s first appearance. It isn’t implausible that Campbell would have seen and heard about it immediately—he had been close to the computer labs at Harvard and M.I.T. since the early fifties, and he made a point of dropping by once a year. If the Lensman series, the last three installments of which he published, had really been an influence on Spacewar, it seems inconceivable that nobody would have told him. For some reason, however, Campbell, who cheerfully promoted the genre’s impact on everything from the atomic bomb to the moon landing, didn’t seize the opportunity to do the same for video games, in an article that he badly wanted to publish. (In a letter to the manufacturers of the PDP-1, whom he had approached unsuccessfully for a writeup, he wrote: “I’ve tried for years to get a story on Spacewar, and I’ve repeatedly had people promise one…and not deliver.”)

So why didn’t he talk about it? The obvious answer is that he didn’t realize that Spacewar, which he thought would “never be widely popular,” was anything more than a curiosity, and if he had lived for another decade—he died just a few months after the article came out—he would have pushed the genre’s connection to video games as insistently as he did anything else. But there might have been another factor at play. For clues, we can turn to the article in Rolling Stone, in which Brand visited the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory with Annie Leibovitz, which is something that I wish I could have seen. Brand opens with the statement that computers are coming to the people, and he adds: “That’s good news, maybe the best since psychedelics.” It’s a revealing comparison, and it indicates the extent to which the computing movement was moving away from everything that Campbell represented. A description of the group’s offices at Stanford includes a detail that, if Campbell had read it, would only have added insult to injury:

Posters and announcements against the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon, computer printout photos of girlfriends…and signs on every door in Tolkien’s elvish Fëanorian script—the director’s office is Imladris, the coffee room The Prancing Pony, the computer room Mordor. There’s a lot of hair on those technicians, and nobody seems to be telling them where to scurry.

In the decade since the editor first encountered Spacewar, a lot had changed, and Campbell might have been reluctant to take much credit for it. The Analog article, which Brand mentions, saw the game as a way to teach people about orbital mechanics; Rolling Stone recognized it as a leading indicator of a development that was about to change the world. And even if he had lived, there might not have been room for Campbell. As Brand concludes:

Spacewar as a parable is almost too pat. It was the illegitimate child of the marrying of computers and graphic displays. It was part of no one’s grand scheme. It served no grand theory. It was the enthusiasm of irresponsible youngsters. It was disreputably competitive…It was an administrative headache. It was merely delightful.

The Slan solution

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Slan by A.E. van Vogt

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

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

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

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

"Solution Unsatisfactory" by Robert A. Heinlein

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

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

In response, Heinlein wrote:

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

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

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

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

Written by nevalalee

December 12, 2016 at 9:49 am

The graying lensmen

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The Hugo Losers Party

There were thousands of fans in attendance at last week’s World Science Fiction Convention, but I swear that I kept seeing the same fifty faces. With the exception of a reading that I did with a few writers from Analog, all of my events revolved around the history of science fiction, which an emphasis on stories and authors from the golden age. Not surprisingly, the audience at these panels tended to skew older, and many attendees had clearly been coming to Worldcon for decades. I was almost always the youngest panelist at the head table, and I can’t be sure that I wasn’t also the youngest person in the room on more than one occasion. Whenever we discussed the genre, the same handful of names kept popping up, and many of them would have inspired blank stares from a younger crowd: John W. Campbell himself, of course, but also writers like E.E. Smith, author of Gray Lensman, and A.E. van Vogt. (At one point, at a discussion titled “Classics in the Corner,” I said: “I’m not sure how many people read E.E. Smith these days.” A lot of hands shot up, which led another panelist to observe: “This is probably the wrong room to ask that question.”) And although I was aware that the average age at Worldcon has long been higher than that at most similar gatherings, and it seems to get older every year, it felt as if I were spending the weekend at a convention within the convention—an enclave in which a vibrant but graying crowd gathers to celebrate writers, stories, and a shared history that the larger community is beginning to forget.

And these fears are far from groundless. A high point of the weekend, at least for me, was a roundtable discussion held by the academic conference about Campbell and the golden age. The tone of the panel was reverent, if not toward Campbell personally then toward his impact on the field, and the only discordant note was struck by a panelist who noted that his writing students aren’t especially interested in Campbell these days—if they’re even aware of who he was. In response, Robert Silverberg said: “You can’t see oxygen, either, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real.” But I don’t think there’s any doubt that the dissenting voice had a point. For a lot of younger writers, Campbell is a tertiary influence, at best, and he certainly isn’t the living presence that he was for the fans and authors of an earlier generation. His place has largely been taken by more recent artists whose struggles and victories seem more urgent than those of writers whose best work was published before World War II. When you look more closely, of course, you find that their concerns are far closer to the present than they might first appear, and you can draw agonizingly important lessons from their example. But this takes time and energy that a lot of younger writers have rightly devoted to other matters. It was Campbell himself, I think, who observed that readers are essentially hiring writers to perform a service: to think more deeply about a subject than they can for themselves. And my hope is that the book I’m writing will do some of the necessary legwork, allowing writers and readers my age or younger to plunder Campbell, Heinlein, and all the rest for what they have to offer.

The June 1992 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine

This only reflects my own journey, which has more in common, in many respects, with the young writers who aren’t aware of Campbell than with the older fans and authors whom I’ve encountered along the way. I came into the genre as randomly as most of us do, assembling my picture of it from an assortment of heterogenous materials: a single issue of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, now lost, which I got for Christmas when I was twelve and replaced a few days ago with a copy I bought at the dealer’s room at the convention; novels by writers like Madeline L’Engle, Jane Yolen, and Orson Scott Card; and the nearly simultaneous discovery of Jorge Luis Borges and The X-Files. None of it was systematic, or even conscious, and my exposures to older influences weren’t exactly in the best possible order. (When I mentioned at a panel that the first Heinlein novel I ever read was The Number of the Beast, there was an audible gasp.) I’d been writing science fiction seriously for almost ten years before I realized that I was harking back, without knowing it, to stories like “Who Goes There?” and Sinister Barrier. It wasn’t until I began thinking about this book that I sought out authors like Smith or van Vogt, and I’m constantly confronted by areas that I have yet to explore. Part of me wishes that I’d been more deliberate about it much earlier, but that isn’t how fans evolve. And in trying to go back and build myself into the kind of reader who is capable of tackling Campbell and the others on their own terms, I’ve become more conscious both of what the different generations of fans have in common and of the ways in which they continue to diverge.

But I’ve also come to realize that older and younger fans are snapshots of a single continuum. The Futurians, as I’ve noted before, were incredibly young when the fan community began—most of them were still living with their parents—and the patterns that they inaugurated are still being played out online. We think of these guys as men with white beards, but that’s only because what they alternately created and rebelled against has endured to the time of their grandchildren. (When Slan won the Retro Hugo award for Best Novel on Thursday, A.E. van Vogt’s granddaughter was there to accept it, and she got the most rapturous round of applause that I heard all weekend.) On the last night of the convention, I found myself at the Hugo Losers Party, which began decades ago as an informal gathering in George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois’s hotel room and has been transformed since into a lavish event with hundreds of guests. It felt like a real moment of catharsis, after a weekend that had been charged with powerful emotions and occasional tensions, and it threw a random sampling of attendees onto the same dance floor and shook them all up. Looking around the Midland Theatre, I saw emerging writers and aging legends standing side by side, or crowding into the same elevator, and it was more clear to me than ever how one ripens into the other. Virtually everyone enters the fandom at a young age, and even if the years have started to show for some, it only puts me in mind of what James Caan reminds us in The Way of the Gun: “The only thing you can assume about a broken-down old man is that he’s a survivor.” And I should only be so lucky to survive as long.

Written by nevalalee

August 23, 2016 at 8:25 am

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 #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 #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

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