Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘F. Orlin Tremaine

Turning every page

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Analog Science Fiction and Fact

In a note at the end of The Passage of Power, the biographer Robert A. Caro describes an important source of information about the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, and he concludes: “While no one (including me) has counted the number of pages…the number may be in the area of forty thousand. I don’t know how many of these pages I’ve read, but I’ve read a lot of them.” And you can feel his sense of quiet satisfaction as he says this. The four volumes that have been published of The Years of Lyndon Johnson are all great reads, but for my money, some of the best drama unfolds in the endnotes, which provide a kind of stealth parallel memoir by Caro as he plows his way through a mountain of available material. In the case of someone like Johnson, the problem isn’t a lack of data, but its overwhelming abundance: his presidential library alone contains something like forty-four million documents. Dealing with this kind of overload, which represents more than one author could read in multiple lifetimes, forces a writer to develop strategies for managing the sheer volume of possible research. You start with a list of subjects that you know will be relevant and drill down from there, following up on other leads as they emerge; you find that certain witnesses are more valuable than others, and you make a point of reading whatever they have to say; or you engage in a sort of longitudinal survey, revisiting the same ideas over time. The result, when you’re done, is both systematic and scattershot, and that’s how it should be. But eventually, you come back to what Caro’s old managing editor Alan Hathaway said to him at Newsday: “Turn every goddamn page.”

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been doing what I can to follow that advice, attacking the research for my upcoming book on two fronts. The first consists simply of going through every issue of Astounding Science Fiction, Unknown, and Analog published in editor John W. Campbell’s lifetime. So far, I’ve worked my way through about fifteen years of these magazines, from the beginning of the Great Depression to the end of World War II, with another quarter of a century to go. Obviously, I can’t stop to read, or even skim, every story, and I usually end up focusing on the editorials, the filler items, and the responses to the letters to the editor—in short, anything that Campbell himself wrote. (As for the stories themselves, I can only echo Caro by saying that I don’t know how many I’ve read, but I’ve read a lot.) Sometimes an advertisement or a piece of art will catch my eye: you could write an entire book about the International Correspondence Schools ads that opened nearly every issue, or the cigarette ads that appeared on every back cover. And the mere act of turning the pages reveals patterns that might otherwise be invisible. It gives you an overview, like a time-lapse video, of the magazine’s evolution, and I’ve found my ideas about certain topics changing perceptibly. I’ve begun to recognize how the epochal changes in the history of science fiction were really the result of many incremental shifts, and how the seeds of the golden age were planted in the work of Campbell’s predecessors, Harry Bates and F. Orlin Tremaine. This approach doesn’t allow for much in the way of granular analysis, of which I plan to do more than my share elsewhere, but the perspective that it provides has structured my thinking in profound ways.

Microfilm reader

My other source of raw data is Campbell’s correspondence. His surviving letters, which often preserve both sides of the exchange, amount to about thirty thousand pages, and this doesn’t even include hundreds of additional documents in repositories like the Heinlein Archives. The late Perry Chapdelaine published a selection of it in three huge volumes, which are invaluable, but barely scratch the surface. As I’ve known for a long time, the real treasure trove lies in the form of the seven microfilm reels in which Chapdelaine copied the entire collection, only three copies of which appear to have ever been made. (The original letters are archived at San Diego State University, but it would be difficult for me to spend the weeks or months there required to go through it properly.) Almost since this project began, I’ve been trying to get my hands on the microfilm, and last week—after a series of setbacks and snafus, including the revelation that one complete set seems to have disappeared—I managed to cobble together the whole thing with reels from the Library of Congress and Texas A&M University, along with a huge assist from the public library in Oak Park. As a result, I’ve been spending most of my recent afternoons at the library’s microfilm reader. Frankly, I hadn’t been aware of the advances in microfilm viewing technology, and I imagined myself sitting in a basement carrel like Clarice in The Silence of the Lambs. In fact, the library’s setup is wonderful: it allows me to scroll quickly through the images, adjust the focus and contrast, and even take screen shots for later reference. Despite the relative convenience, though, it still presents big challenges. Many of the letters, which are photographs of carbon copies, are impossible to read, and they’re preserved in a seemingly arbitrary order. My best guess is that it will take me something like fifteen hours just to visually inspect every letter in a single reel, much less figure out what is and isn’t important.

Yet it’s already paying off. As I’ve learned through my encounters with every page of Astounding, there’s a big difference between confronting primary sources without any intermediation and reading the same material after it has been edited and curated. It’s like looking at a life as it unfolds, almost day by day, with all the messiness you’d expect, and you develop odd intuitions: when I’m scrolling rapidly through the microfilm, I can recognize certain writers at a glance, based on the kind of typewriter they used, and I can quickly sort the letters into different categories. Most of it is routine correspondence, but there are hidden gems as well. On April 17, 1962, for instance, a young reporter from the Champaign-Urbana News Gazette sent Campbell a query letter about a story he hoped to submit on PLATO, a computer-assisted educational system developed by the University of Illinois. He wrote: “It seems to me that PLATO is a nightmarish mechanical personification of the stiffened, calcified mind of Orthodox Science.” Campbell replied: “This sounds interesting. Let’s see it!” No other letters from the exchange survive, and I wouldn’t even bother mentioning it here if the reporter in question weren’t Roger Ebert. At the time, he was nineteen years old—or Isaac Asimov’s age when he sold his first short story—and five years away from becoming a film critic. It’s hard not to wonder what might have happened if Campbell, whom Ebert once called “my hero,” had taken him under his wing, and although I doubt it will even end up in the book, the discovery of this unexpected encounter between two of the most important men in my life is the kind of thing that makes it all worthwhile. And I never would have found it if I hadn’t turned every page.

The space between us

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Elizabeth Kolbert

Last year, Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker published a skeptical article about the various proposals to put human beings on Mars. Kolbert, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her excellent book The Sixth Extinction, is inclined—as many of us are—to regard such projects as Mars One as the province of hucksters and crackpots, but she’s also doubtful of the entire idea of planetary colonization itself. Taking note of the Fermi Paradox, which asks why we haven’t seen any evidence of the alien life that logic says should be all around us, Kolbert suggests that the lack of visible signs of intelligent activity isn’t due to some unavoidable cataclysm that swallows up all civilizations or a mysterious resolve to remain invisible, but the result of a sensible focus elsewhere: “Perhaps the reason we haven’t met any alien beings is that those which survive aren’t the type to go zipping around the galaxy. Maybe they’ve stayed quietly at home, tending their own gardens.” Kolbert concludes that the idea of sending people to Mars “is either fantastically far-fetched or deeply depressing.” When I read those words six months ago, something in me rebelled against them on a fundamental level: I wasn’t ready to give up on that dream. But at some point in recent days, I realized that I’d changed my mind, and that I now agree with Kolbert. I no longer think that we have any business going to Mars. At least not yet.

And I’ve arrived at this conclusion not despite my background in science fiction, but because of it. One of the smartest observations ever made about the genre comes courtesy of the great Jack Williamson, who once said:

The average [science fiction] author is more stage magician, a creator of convincing illusions, than scientist or serious prophet. In practice, once you’re into the process of actually writing a work of fiction, the story itself gets to be more important than futurology. You become more involved in following the fictional logic you’ve invented for your characters, the atmosphere, the rush of action; meanwhile, developing real possibilities recedes. You may find yourself even opting for the least probable event rather than the most probable, simply because you want the unexpected.

This certainly squares with my own experience as a writer. And that last sentence applies not just to the plots of individual stories but to the conventions of science fiction as a whole. When we think of science fiction, we tend to think first of manned space flight, which means that it’s also inextricably tied up with our vision of our “real” future. But when you look at that assumption more closely, it falls apart. Why, exactly, should we assume that space will be an integral part of our destiny as a species? And why did science fiction try so hard to convince us that it would be?

Jack Williamson

The real answer lies in Williamson’s shrewd observation: “The story itself gets to be more important than futurology.” When science fiction reemerged as a viable genre in the late twenties and early thirties, it was essentially a subcategory of men’s adventure fiction, with ray guns substituted for revolvers. Many of the stories it told could easily have been translated into earthly terms, and space was less important in itself than as the equivalent of the unexplored frontier of the western: it stood for the unknown, and it was a perfect backdrop for exciting plots. Later, however, under the guidance of editors like F. Orlin Tremaine and John W. Campbell of Astounding Science Fiction, the genre began to take itself more seriously as futurology—but with outer space grandfathered in as a setting, even if it had little to do with any plausible vision of things to come. Space exploration began to seem like an essential part of our shared future because it happened to be part of the genre already, for reasons that had less to do with serious speculation than with a writer’s need to keep the pages turning. And it takes a real effort of the imagination, now that science fiction seems so inevitable, to see how arbitrary that emphasis really was, and how so much of it depends on what Campbell, in particular, happened to find interesting. (As Bruce Sterling put it: “There has never been another editor of [Campbell’s] stature who would sort of come in and say, ‘All right, you guys are going to do it my way—and here is like a series of things we’re going to write about: robots, psi, space travel. And here’s a bunch of stuff we’re not going to write about: women, black people, drugs.'”)

And trying to shape our future based on decisions made by an army of pulp writers, no matter how talented, strikes me now as quixotic, in the original sense of the term. As Umberto Eco says in Foucault’s Pendulum: “People don’t get the idea of going back to burn Troy just because they read Homer.” In reality, our future is already taking a very different form: grounded on this planet, founded on information, and mindful of the fragility of our predicament right here. And it’s time that we grudgingly recognized this. This doesn’t mean that we need to give up on the dream of putting a person on Mars: only that we detach it, gently but firmly, from the idea of our collective destiny, and restore it to its proper place as a kind of interesting side project. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter if we do it in the next fifty years or the next five hundred, especially when there are so many other problems that require our attention right now. (The longing to see it happen in our own lifetimes is understandable, but also a little selfish.) Our efforts to explore and understand space itself are vital and elevating, as the recent flurry of excitement over a potential Planet Nine reminds us, but devoting billions of dollars to placing a human being on a spacecraft—simply because a few good writers seized our imagination decades ago—seems misguided at best, irresponsible at worst. If we really want to explore the unknown for the sake of our souls, there’s always the deep sea, or Antarctica, which would confer the same spiritual benefits at far less of a cost. And while there may not be life on Mars, now or ever, we can still allow ourselves to hope for a life beyond it.

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