Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Edward Gibbon

The First Foundation, Part 2

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Though never nurtured in the lap
Of luxury, yet I admonish you,
I am an intellectual chap,
And think of things that would astonish you.

—Private Willis, Iolanthe

It’s tempting to think that if Isaac Asimov hadn’t taken the subway to John W. Campbell’s office on August 1, 1941, the history of science fiction would have been very different. Here’s how Asimov, who was twenty-one at the time, describes the incident in his autobiography:

On the way down I racked my brain for a story idea. Failing, I tried a device I sometimes used. I opened a book at random and then tried free association, beginning with whatever I saw. The book I had with me was a collection of the Gilbert and Sullivan plays. I opened it to Iolanthe—to the picture of the Fairy Queen throwing herself at the feet of Private Willis, the sentry. Thinking of sentries, I thought of soldiers, of military empires, of the Roman Empire—of the Galactic Empire—aha!

Asimov had always wanted to write a “future-historical” story, and he was still smarting over the rejection of his novelette “Pilgrimage,” which had been bounced seven times by three different editors. He thought to himself: “Why shouldn’t I write of the fall of the Galactic Empire and the return of feudalism, written from the viewpoint of someone in the secure days of the Second Empire? I thought I knew how to do it for I had read Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire from first page to last at least twice, and I had only to make use of that.” When he got to the office, he pitched it to the editor, who was immediately interested in the idea. Or as Asimov put it: “Campbell blazed up as I had never seen him do.”

If you’ve read my post from yesterday, you know that Campbell “blazed up” in large part because he had been thinking along those lines already. But what really happened at that meeting? We only have Asimov’s side of the story—although a third witness was almost certainly in the room where it happened—and there aren’t any contemporaneous letters that recount it. But there are a few tantalizing hints. In his essay “The Story Behind the Foundation,” Asimov writes that “over the course of an hour” the two of them arrived at a scheme for a series informed by the science of psychohistory, “which Campbell and I thrashed out between us.” Asimov had envisioned it as a single novelette, but Campbell had bigger plans:

It will have to be an open-ended series of stories…Short stories, novelettes, serials, all fitting into a particular future history, involving the fall of the First Galactic Empire, the period of feudalism that follows, and the rise of the Second Galactic Empire…I want you to write an outline of the future history. Go home and write the outline.

Campbell had recently published the chronology of Heinlein’s Future History, but Asimov wasn’t the kind of writer who could work under such constraints: “I went home, dutifully, and began preparing an outline that got longer and longer and stupider and stupider until I finally tore it up.” (Heinlein, I should note, didn’t just sit down and work out a timeline from scratch, but structured it around stories that he had already written or wanted to write.) Asimov decided to write the series on the fly, making it up as he went along, and Campbell had given him a useful escape hatch. In their first conversation, the editor had advised that he establish the existence of two foundations of psychohistorians, the second of which would be based at some secret location at the other end of the galaxy: “You may need the second one later on.”

But let’s get back to the statement that Campbell and Asimov “thrashed out” psychohistory between them at that initial meeting. In an interview decades later with James Gunn, Asimov offered the fullest account of the conversation that we’re ever likely to get:

Psychohistory originated in a discussion between myself and Campbell, as so many of the things in my early science fiction stories did. And I think Campbell must have been reading about symbolic logic at the time. There is some reference to symbolic logic in the first story, and that was more or less forced on me by John Campbell; it didn’t come naturally to me, because I knew nothing about symbolic logic. And he felt in our discussion that symbolic logic, further developed, would so clear up the mysteries of the human mind as to leave human actions predictable. The reason human beings are so unpredictable was we didn’t really know what they were saying and thinking because language is generally used obscurely. So what we needed was something that would unobscure the language and leave everything clear. Well, this I didn’t believe.

Asimov explained that as a chemist, he was more comfortable with an analogy drawn from the ideal gas law, which predicts behavior in the aggregate that can’t be foreseen on the level of the individual particles. He concluded: “For me, it was the kinetic theory of gases, and that was secondarily imposed, and it was John Campbell who really started it with symbolic logic.” The italics are mine. Asimov openly acknowledged that Campbell was the first one to articulate the Three Laws of Robotics, but he was more possessive when it came to psychohistory, stating elsewhere of his “purpose” in writing the Foundation series: “I wanted to consider essentially the struggle of psychohistory, something I made up myself.” But in his conversation with Gunn, Asimov came as close as he ever did to giving the lion’s share of the credit to Campbell.

And this isn’t hard to believe, when you consider their relationship at the time. Campbell was ten years older than Asimov, who still regarded the editor with awe—which brings us to that third witness. Catherine Tarrant, Campbell’s assistant editor, occupied the desk next to him for decades, and in countless anecdotes from the golden age of science fiction, she was the silent and unacknowledged presence in the room. Asimov doesn’t explicitly say that she was present on August 1, 1941, but there’s no reason to believe that she wasn’t, and in his memoir, he hints at what Tarrant might have seen that day:

Catherine, whom I invariably called Miss Tarrant in those days and for years afterward, was usually in the office when I talked to Campbell, sitting quietly and almost unnoticeably in the background, but not missing a thing. Years afterward, she would enjoy herself by describing those early days to younger writers. Invariably, she would tell them, in detail, how I sat there in adoring admiration of Campbell, drinking in every word he said. I always thought I listened with a cool self-possession, but perhaps that was not how it appeared to others.

As time passed, the two men would interact more as equals, but they weren’t there yet in the early forties. Asimov was emerging as a talent to watch, but it was thanks largely to the robot stories and to “Nightfall,” which owed a great deal to Campbell’s influence, and their dynamic was still that of a mentor and protégé. Asimov’s initial pitch for “Foundation,” if we take his account at face value, didn’t mention psychohistory at all, and he brought it to Campbell at a moment when the editor had been thinking intently about the subject with Jack Williamson, L. Sprague de Camp, and even Heinlein. When those are the initial conditions, it doesn’t take a mathematical psychologist to figure out what might have happened next. But it doesn’t quite explain why Campbell decided to pursue the concept so aggressively with Asimov, rather than with Williamson, who had approached him with a similar idea first. I’ll have more to say about this tomorrow.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

July 30, 2013 at 7:30 am

Robert Caro and the work of a lifetime

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What does it mean to devote your life to one book? Yesterday, I spoke about the figure of the freelancer turned man of letters, who spends his career moving from subject to subject like a shark, but this tells us nothing about a man like Robert Caro, who has spent his entire life writing about two subjects, and for the past forty years only one, the life of Lyndon Johnson. What was originally expected to run three volumes has now expanded to four, with a fifth on the way, covering something like 3,500 pages, with most of Johnson’s presidency yet to come. As Charles McGrath points out in a recent profile in the New York Times, Caro has now spent more time writing about the crucial years of Lyndon Johnson’s life than Johnson spent living them. At first glance, then, Caro might seem like the opposite of the kind of writer I’ve described. But when you look more closely, as Caro himself would, you find surprising affinities.

If Caro has mostly turned aside from other kinds of work, it wasn’t because he didn’t need it—McGrath’s profile notes that Caro and his wife sold their house in Long Island and moved to the Bronx to save money during the writing of his first book. Instead, Caro’s singlemindedness seems inspired by both his own meticulous personality and an almost fanatical sense of progressive revelation, the idea that looking closely enough at one life can allow us to understand an entire society, but only if we dig as deeply as possible. And it helps, of course, that he has chosen subjects that lend themselves to such expansiveness. As McGrath points out, The Years of Lyndon Johnson encompasses everything from detailed miniature biographies of secondary characters like Sam Rayburn or Hubert Humphrey to a history of the United States Senate, all of which Caro furnishes for the sake of necessary context. In short, like any author, he constantly follows his curiosity into unexpected places—he’s just lucky enough to be able to encompass it under one larger theme.

I haven’t read all of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, although those three big volumes have been staring down imposingly from my bookshelves for a long time now, but I have read The Power Broker, Caro’s biography of Robert Moses, which remains one of my fondest memories from a lifetime of reading nonfiction. It’s about as big, physically, as a book can be and still fit between two covers, but it’s a marvel of pacing and detail—the reader’s interest never flags—and we can almost believe Caro when he says that he cut 350,000 words and still regrets every one. (The real hero of McGrath’s piece is editor Robert Gottlieb.) Caro clearly takes his cues from Gibbon, an edition of which is visible in his office, and like Gibbon, his life has been consumed by one great work, to an extent that seems to have taken even his loved ones by surprise. “I never thought this would be all he’d write about,” his wife Ina says. “I’ve always wanted him to finish a novel.”

But of course, Caro has already written his novel, or novels, which are buried throughout his larger work. (Just one example out of many: the account in The Power Broker of the relationship between Robert Moses and his brother Paul, which reads like a self-contained tragedy.) Every story unfolds into others, and episodes that were originally conceived as a single chapter end up taking up most of a book. In this sense, Caro’s approach really is Homeric: in the Iliad, there are passages of a couple of lines in the surviving text that, when originally sung, could be expanded by the performer to last for hours, based on the interests of the audience. Similarly, there are times when Caro’s work reads like a standard biography of Johnson in which each paragraph has been expanded in every imaginable direction. Like Thomas Mann, Caro knows that only the exhaustive is truly interesting. And its pursuit is, in every sense, the work of a lifetime.

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