Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Foundation

The First Foundation, Part 3

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In the fall of 1941, John W. Campbell of Astounding Science Fiction found himself in an enviable position. Two of his writers—Jack Williamson and Isaac Asimov—had come to him independently with the idea of a series of stories based on the rise and fall of a Galactic Empire, which would provide the perfect background for one of the editor’s pet notions, the development of a true science of history. At first, he seemed happy to let the two of them work on the problem simultaneously. Asimov had once asked him: “How can you bear not to write?” Campbell replied enthusiastically: “I discovered something better, Asimov. I’m an editor…When I was a writer, I could only write one story at a time. Now I can write fifty stories at a time. There are fifty writers out there writing stories they’ve talked with me about. There are fifty stories I’m working on.” As Asimov recalled years later:

That was the way he saw us all. We were extensions of himself; we were his literary clones; each of us doing, in his or her own way, things Campbell felt needed doing; things that he could do but not quite the way we could; things that got done in fifty different varieties of ways.

On another occasion, Campbell clarified his position: “When I give an idea to a writer and it comes back to me exactly the way I gave it to him, I don’t give that writer any more ideas. I don’t want it my way; I can do that myself. I want my idea his way.” And when he set both Asimov and Williamson to work on the theme of the cycles of galactic civilizations, he may have been hoping that each writer would deliver a different take on a premise that could go in any number of directions.

Campbell often farmed out the same idea to multiple writers, both to get a variety of stories and as a kind of insurance policy to increase the odds that at least one author would follow through, and in this case, it turned out to be a shrewd decision. After writing “Breakdown,” which had been conceived as the first installment of a series, Williamson became stuck. As he recounts in his memoir Wonder’s Child:

Encouraged by the way [“Breakdown”] went, I planned a sequel. I called that Star of Empire. It was to carry the same historic theme to a larger scale, picturing the fall of a vast interstellar civilization. By early fall, with pages enough—certainly with content enough—I could see that it was going badly wrong, though the reasons baffled me.

Williamson shared his concerns with Campbell, who responded in an important letter dated October 7, 1941. Noting that the genre was changing rapidly, Campbell advised Williamson—one of the few writers of the old guard to make the transition—to think about rebranding himself, perhaps with the use of a pen name:

If you gave yourself a clean-cut break, became a wholly new personality—your own, present, fully developed personality—your whole psychology of approach would be entirely different…When you write as a different person, you half-consciously throw out elements of your old style…You’re starting now on a completely new type of material…Start a new—your own present—personality to tell it.

Williamson responded that the idea of a pseudonym was “worth thinking over,” and he confessed that he was still having trouble with Star of Empire. Campbell advised him to set it aside for now: “You’ll probably get more and better work done when things begin to stick.” It proved to be good advice. But when you read between the lines, you can see that Campbell was also gently nudging Williamson away from the series that they had discussed. By then, Asimov had already written “Foundation,” which was submitted on September 8 and accepted almost immediately. Asimov had intuitively attacked the theme from a different angle, and in many ways, his approach was more promising. Instead of starting on earth in the near future, as Williamson had done in “Breakdown,” “Foundation” was set tens of thousands of years from now, in an empire with a population in the quadrillions, which provided the necessary mass of humanity for the statistical equations of psychohistory. (It was also an all-human galaxy, with no aliens, which Asimov later attributed to a desire to avoid Campbell’s racially charged attempts to demonstrate mankind’s superiority over extraterrestrials. But it’s equally true that it allowed him to deal only with human psychology, and that adding intelligent aliens to the mix might have made psychohistory, already a tenuous conceit, totally unworkable.) Asimov’s love of puzzles was more suited to the spirit of psychohistory, which was about posing a problem and revealing a solution, while Williamson still thought in the old, vigorous pulp terms. Most of all, Williamson was thirty-three years old, set in his ways, and living in New Mexico, while Asimov was a decade younger, compliant, and conveniently nearby in Brooklyn. If Campbell wanted to affect the course of the series, it was obvious which of these two writers would be the better vehicle.

A decade later, Williamson reworked the sequel to “Breakdown” as The Star Bridge with James Gunn, but the whole incident stands as a notable example of Campbell steering writers in one direction or another, based on where their strengths seemed to lie. (He and Williamson ended up working on three stories about antimatter, with the author writing under the pen name Will Stewart—a nod to Campbell’s old pseudonym Don A. Stuart—and the editor providing the technical background. Unlike the Foundation series, it was a collaboration that could be conducted by mail.) Asimov, in turn, was the best choice imaginable to explore psychohistory, and the stakes were about to become very high. Campbell believed that technology had introduced a new factor into history, as L. Sprague de Camp wrote in the article “The Science of Whithering”:

Societies may have behaved in a cyclic fashion until the Machine introduced such a powerful new linear factor as to start us off on a new course of historical development…There are reasons for believing that machine technology has broken whatever cyclical series existed, largely because people seem to remember and profit by experience in technical development much more than they do in political and social development.

The notion that mankind was entering a new era, characterized by an accelerating rate of change, was central to Campbell’s vision of science fiction, and psychohistory was one way of dealing with the challenges that it presented. Asimov’s motivations were far more personal, and they go a long way toward explaining why he was the right man for the job, even if he never shared his true feelings with Campbell. In an interview with Gunn in 1979, Asimov said: “I’d been living through the Hitler era in the 1930s, where no matter what anyone did, Hitler kept winning victories, and the only way that I could possibly find life bearable at the time was to convince myself that no matter what he did, he was doomed to defeat in the end. That he couldn’t win.” Gunn said: “Psychohistory is against it.” And Asimov responded: “That’s right.”

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.

The First Foundation, Part 1

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On April 16, 1941, a highly regarded science fiction author wrote a letter to the editor John W. Campbell. “Besides some shorter material, I should like to do another serial for Astounding,” the writer said, and he described what he had in mind in considerable detail:

I’m interested in theories of the growth and decay of cultures…It would be interesting, I think, to show the logical culmination of that process in an interstellar civilization. Super-perfect transportation enables the human race to concentrate in a single megalopolis—“The Ultimate City,” or “N.” It is a tremendous artificial structure, larger than a planet. Its rulers enjoy sophistication and splendor…The story would deal with a group of characters during the fall of N. Reflections of Salammbô, the fall of Rome, the Reformation, the French and American Revolutions. The battle of a few individuals to find independence, to found a new world…I don’t know as much as I would like of the philosophy of culture-cycles. Perhaps I’ll dip a little further into Spengler—if the available libraries turn out to have Decline of the West.

You might reasonably think that this writer was Isaac Asimov, whose story “Foundation” appeared in the magazine the following May—but it wasn’t. It was Jack Williamson, whose letter crossed Campbell’s desk months before Asimov made his own pitch. Williamson’s interest in “the growth and decay of cultures” led to a pair of stories, “Backlash” and “Breakdown,” that anticipated the Foundation series, but which have been almost totally forgotten. And question of why we’re still talking about Asimov’s version, while Williamson’s efforts quickly fell into relative obscurity, amounts to one of the most intriguing problems from the whole history of the golden age.

We can begin by observing that the concept of psychohistory—or a psychological science that can accurately predict future events on a mass scale—was one that Campbell had been developing for a long time. The year before, he had published an article by L. Sprague de Camp titled “The Science of Whithering,” which ran in two parts starting in the July 1940 issue of Astounding. De Camp provided an overview of such philosophers of history as Hegel, Marx, Spengler, and Toynbee, and he also outlined the ideal attributes of such a science:

If there were such a science, what would it be like? It would have a body of observable facts, and would overlap with history, anthropology, sociology, economics, vital statistics, and perhaps one or two other sciences. Students of the science should be able to observe uniformities among these facts, deduce laws from these uniformities, and from the laws make predictions that are later borne out by observation.

De Camp concluded: “Let us encourage the fascinating study of whithering, in the hope that it will grow up from its present embryonic state into a big, healthy science.” A few months earlier, Heinlein had proposed a science of propaganda in his landmark novella “If This Goes On—,” which, combined with Asimov’s “Homo Sol,” prompted a fan named Lynn Bridges to presciently identify a trend toward “sociological science fiction.” Campbell and his authors were also taking an interest in “mathematical psychology,” which applied such methods on an individual scale. Asimov described the use of elaborate equations to predict behavior in the short story “The Imaginary,” which Campbell rejected, and he wrote in a letter to the magazine: “If we can understand Einstein and Hitler down to the mathematical whys and wherefores, we might try to boost along a few Einsteins and cut down on a few Hitlers, and progress might really get going.” And Campbell responded: “Psychology isn’t an exact science—but it can be.”

Fusing these two concepts together into a single story was the next logical step, and while Williamson wasn’t the earliest writer to allude to such ideas, he may have been the first to explicitly pitch a serial around it. He said in an interview years later:

I had read Spengler’s Decline of the West and several volumes of Toynbee’s study of history. Toynbee appealed to me because of his “challenge and response” notion, derived from the stimulus response theory of psychology, which enabled him to make his cultures or civilizations into entities that had regular, predictable lifetimes. This was plausible to him and to a lot of people studying history at the time. It created the possibility that one might be able to get a kind of handle on the future—an idea I could see could be applied as a means of forecasting a future history. So I based “Breakdown” on Spengler and Toynbee, and I wrote a drama of the decline and fall of a future civilization. It seemed obvious that since people seem so endlessly fascinated with the eclipse of Greece and the fall of Rome, the notion of our own civilization falling into ruin would naturally have a similarly strong emotional appeal.

Before “Breakdown,” Williamson wrote and sold “Backlash,” a routine time travel story that reveals traces of the same train of thought. As one character says: “Years ago, when we saw the totalitarian storm sweeping the world, we planned the Pantechnicon to protect one seed of civilization…It’s hidden here. A scientific Shangri-La, to be a lamp of culture through the dark age ahead.” This sounds a lot like Asimov’s Foundation. In his autobiography Wonder’s Child, Williamson dismisses the story as “undistinguished,” and its familiar notion of changing the present by targeting a “node” in the past—which Williamson himself had explored in “The Legion of Time”—is far less interesting than the idea of forecasting the future. But it was still on newsstands on August 1, 1941, when Asimov came to Campbell with his proposal for a story about the decline and fall of a Galactic Empire, and it’s hard not to believe that it was on both men’s minds.

Williamson’s novelette “Breakdown,” which appeared at the end of the year in the January 1942 issue, is even more noteworthy. As the earth is consumed by the flames of revolution, a character named Melkart, a more sinister Hari Seldon, grimly tells the ruler of all mankind: “You have made the solar system into a laboratory for the test of my politicotechnic theories.” And when asked if he understands what is taking place, Melkart responds:

I’ve known for thirty years…Old Giovanni Vico had a glimmer of it, with his “law of cycles,” back in the seventeen hundreds. Spengler and Toynbee glimpsed it. Sprague, later, saw farther. But it remained to me to reduce the laws of the rise and fall of human cultures to the exact science that I call destiny.

Melkart, notably, is unable to change the course of history—he can only predict it. “Breakdown” ends with the ruler escaping the planet to found “a tiny seed of civilization” among the stars, of which Williamson writes in Wonder’s Child:

The story sprang from my fascination that Arnold Toynbee’s notion that civilizations are super-organisms with lifespans of centuries. As I adapted the idea, the life of every culture is its own historic purpose…In my story, that vitalizing purpose had been the human conquest of the solar system; with the conquest complete, its destiny fulfilled, the space empire breaks down. I felt a sense of truth in that, and enjoyed the sense of tragic drama. Encouraged by the way it went, I planned a sequel.

But the sequel was never published, at least not in Astounding, and in the meantime, Asimov’s “Foundation” had appeared. Tomorrow, I’ll delve further into the issue of why one man’s vision was eclipsed by the other, and the surprising light that this sheds on the tangled origins of psychohistory.

The world spins

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Note: This post discusses plot points from Sunday’s episode of Twin Peaks.

“Did you call me five days ago?” Dark Cooper asks the shadowy shape in the darkness in the most recent episode of Twin Peaks. It’s a memorable moment for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that he’s addressing the disembodied Philip Jeffries, who was played by David Bowie in Fire Walk With Me, and is now portrayed by a different voice actor and what looks to be a sentient tea kettle. But that didn’t even strike me as the weirdest part. What hit me hardest is the implication that everything that we’ve seen so far this season has played out over less than a week in real time—the phone call to which Dark Cooper is referring occurred during the second episode. Admittedly, there are indications that the events onscreen have unfolded in a nonlinear fashion, not to draw attention to itself, but to allow David Lynch and Mark Frost to cut between storylines according to their own rhythms, rather than being tied down to chronology. (The text message that Dark Cooper sends at the end of the scene was received by Diane a few episodes ago, while Audrey’s painful interactions with Charlie apparently consist of a single conversation parceled out over multiple weeks. And the Dougie Jones material certainly feels as if it occurs over a longer period than five days, although it’s probably possible to squeeze it into that timeline if necessary.) And if viewers are brought up short by the contrast between the show’s internal calendar and its emotional duration, it’s happened before. When I look back at the first two seasons of the show, I’m still startled to realize that every event from Laura’s murder to Cooper’s possession unfolds over just one month.

Why does this feel so strange? The obvious answer is that we get to know these characters over a period of years, while we really only see them in action for a few weeks, and their interactions with one another end up carrying more weight than you might expect for people who, in some cases, met only recently. And television is the one medium that routinely creates that kind of disparity. It’s inherently impossible for a movie to take longer to watch than the events that it depicts—apart from a handful, like Run Lola Run or Vantage Point, that present scrambled timelines or stage the same action from multiple perspectives—and it usually compresses days or weeks of action within a couple of hours. With books, the length of the act of reading varies from one reader to the next, and we’re unlikely to find it particularly strange that it can take months to finish Ulysses, which recounts the events of a single day. It’s only television, particularly when experienced in its original run, that presents such a sharp contrast between narrative and emotional time, even if we don’t tend to worry about this with sitcoms, procedurals, and other nonserialized shows. (One interesting exception consists of shows set in high school or college, in which it’s awfully tempting to associate each season with an academic year, although there’s no reason why a series like Community couldn’t take place over a single semester.) Shows featuring children or teenagers have a built-in clock that reminds us of how time is passing in the real world, as Urkel or the Olsen twins progress inexorably toward puberty. And occasionally there’s an outlier like The Simpsons, in which a quarter of a century’s worth of storylines theoretically takes place within the same year or so.

But the way in which a serialized show can tell a story that occurs over a short stretch of narrative time while simultaneously drawing on the emotional energy that builds up over years is one of the unsung strengths of the entire medium. Our engagement with a favorite show that airs on a weekly basis isn’t just limited to the hour that we spend watching it every Sunday, but expands to fill much of the time in between. If a series really matters to us, it gets into our dreams. (I happened to miss the initial airing of this week’s episode because I was on vacation with my family, and I’ve been so conditioned to get my fix of Twin Peaks on a regular basis that I had a detailed dream about an imaginary episode that night—which hasn’t happened to me since I had to wait a week to watch the series finale of Breaking Bad. As far as I can remember, my dream involved the reappearance of Sheriff Harry Truman, who has been institutionalized for years, with his family and friends describing him euphemistically as “ill.” And I wouldn’t mention it here at all if this weren’t a show that has taught me to pay close attention to my dreamlife.) Many of us also spend time between episodes in reading reviews, discussing plot points online, and catching up with various theories about where it might go next. In a few cases, as with Westworld, this sort of active analysis can be detrimental to the experience of watching the show itself, if you see it as a mystery with clues that the individual viewer is supposed to crack on his or her own. For the most part, though, it’s an advantage, with time conferring an emotional weight that the show might not have otherwise had. As the world spins, the series stays where it was, and we’ve all changed in the meantime.

The revival of Twin Peaks takes this tendency and magnifies it beyond anything else we’ve seen before, with its fans investing it with twenty-five years of accumulated energy—and this doesn’t even account for the hundreds of hours that I spent listening to the show’s original soundtrack, which carries an unquantifiable duration of its own. And one of the charming things about this season is how Lynch and Frost seem to have gone through much the same experience themselves, mulling over their own work until stray lines and details take on a greater significance. When Dark Cooper goes to his shadowy meeting above a convenience store, it’s paying off on a line that Mike, the one-armed man, uttered in passing during a monologue from the first Bush administration. The same applies to the show’s references to a mysterious “Judy,” whom Jeffries mentioned briefly just before disappearing forever. I don’t think that these callbacks reflect a coherent plan that Lynch and Frost have been keeping in their back pockets for decades, but a process of going back to tease out meanings that even they didn’t know were there. Smart writers of serialized narratives learn to drop vague references into their work that might pay off later on. (Two of my favorite examples are Spock’s “Remember” at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and the Second Foundation, which Isaac Asimov introduced in case he needed it in a subsequent installment.) What Twin Peaks is doing now is analogous to what the writers of Breaking Bad did when they set up problems that they didn’t know how to solve, trusting that they would figure it out eventually. The only difference is that Lynch and Frost, like the rest of us, have had more time to think about it. And it might take us another twenty-five years before we—or they—figure out what they were actually doing.

Written by nevalalee

August 22, 2017 at 9:08 am

The weight of lumber

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In my discussion yesterday of huge scholarly projects that expanded to take up the lives of their authors, I deliberately left out one name. Arnold J. Toynbee was a British historian and author of the twelve volumes of A Study of History, the most ambitious attempt to date at a universal theory of the rise and fall of civilizations. Toynbee has intrigued me for as long as I can remember, but he’s a little different from such superficially similar figures as Joseph Needham and Donald Knuth. For one thing, he actually finished his magnum opus, and even though it took decades, he more or less stuck to the plan of the work that he published in the first installment, which was an achievement in itself. He also differed from the other two in reaching a wide popular audience. Thousands of sets of his book were sold, and it became a bestseller in its two-volume abridgment by D.C. Somervell. It inspired countless essays and thick tomes of commentary, argument, and response—and then, strangely, it simply went away. Toynbee’s name has all but disappeared from mainstream and academic consideration, maybe because his ideas were too abstruse for one and too grandiose for the other, and if he’s recognized today at all, it’s probably because of the mysterious Toynbee tiles. (One possible successor is the psychohistory of the Foundation series, which has obvious affinities to his work, although Isaac Asimov played down the connection. He read the first half of A Study of History in 1944, borrowing the volumes one at a time from L. Sprague de Camp, and recalled: “There are some people who, on reading my Foundation series, are sure that it was influenced basically by Toynbee. They are only partly right. The first four stories were written before I had read Toynbee. ‘Dead Hand,’ however, was indeed influenced by it.”)

At the Newberry Library Book Fair last week, I hesitated over buying a complete set of Toynbee, and by the time I made up my mind and went back to get it, it was gone—which is the kind of mistake that can haunt me for the rest of my life. As a practical matter, though, I have all the Toynbee I’ll ever need: I already own the introductory volume of A Study of History and the Somervell abridgment, and it’s frankly hard to imagine reading anything else. But I did pick up the twelfth and last volume, Reconsiderations, published seven years after the rest, which might be the most interesting of them all. It’s basically Toynbee’s reply to his critics in over seven hundred pages of small type, in the hardcover equivalent of a writer responding to all the online comments on his work one by one. Toynbee seems to have read every review of his book, and he sets out to engage them all, including a miscellaneous section of over eighty pages simply called Ad Hominem. It’s a prickly, fascinating work that is probably more interesting than the books that inspired it, and one passage in particular caught my eye:

One of my critics has compared earlier volumes of this book to a “palace” in which “the rooms…are over-furnished to the point of resembling a dealer’s warehouse.” This reviewer must also be a thought-reader; for I have often thought of myself as a man moving old furniture about. For centuries these lovely things had been lying neglected in the lumber-rooms and attics. They had been piled in there higgledy-piggledy, in utter disorder, and had been crammed so tight that nobody could even squeeze his way in to look at them and find out whether they were of any value. In the course of ages they had been accumulating there—unwanted rejects from a score of country houses. This unworthy treatment of these precious pieces came to trouble me more and more; for I knew that they were not really junk; I knew that they were heirlooms, and these so rare and fine that they were not just provincial curiosities; they were the common heritage of anyone who had any capacity for appreciating beauty in Man’s handiwork.

In speaking of “lumber-rooms and attics,” Toynbee is harking back to a long literary tradition of comparing the mind itself to a lumber-room, which originally meant a spare room in a house full of unused furniture and other junk. I owe this knowledge to Nicholson Baker’s famous essay “Lumber,” reprinted in his collection The Size of Thoughts, in which he traces the phrase’s rise and fall, in a miniature version of what Toynbee tries to do for entire civilizations. Baker claims to have chosen the word “lumber” essentially at random, writing in his introduction: “Now feels like a good time to pick a word or a phrase, something short, and go after it, using the available equipment of intellectual retrieval, to see where we get…It should be representatively out of the way; it should have seen better days. Once or twice in the past it briefly enjoyed the status of a minor cliché, but now, for one reason or another, it is ignored or forgotten.” This might be a description of A Study of History itself—and yet, remarkably, Baker doesn’t mention the passage that I’ve quoted here. I assume that this is because he wasn’t aware of it, because it fits in beautifully with the rest of his argument. The dread of the mind becoming a lumber-room, crammed with useless odds and ends, is primarily a fear of intellectuals, as expressed by their patron saint Sherlock Holmes:

I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic…It is a mistake to think that this little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent.

Baker explains: “This is a form of the great scholarly worry—a worry which hydroptically book-thirsty poets like Donne, Johnson, Gray, Southey, and Coleridge all felt at times—the fear that too much learning will eventually turn even an original mind into a large, putty-colored regional storage facility of mislabeled and leaking chemical drums.”

Toynbee’s solution to the problem of mental lumber, like that of Needham and Knuth, was simply to pull it out of his brain and put it down on paper, even if it took three decades and twelve volumes. It’s hard not to be stirred by his description of his efforts:

At last I found that I could not bear this shocking situation any longer, so I set my own hand to a back-breaking job. I began to drag out the pieces, one by one, and to arrange them in the hall. I could not pretend to form a final judgement on the order in which they should be placed. Indeed, there never could be a final judgement on this, for a number of attractive different orders could be imagined, each of them the right order from some particular point of view. The first thing to be done was to get as many of the pieces as possible out into the open and to assemble them in some order or other. If once I had them parked down in the hall, I could see how they looked and could shift them and re-shift them at my leisure. Perhaps I should not have the leisure; perhaps the preliminary job of extracting these treasures from the lumber-rooms and attics would turn out to be as much as I could manage with my single pair of hands. If so, this would not matter; for there would be plenty of time afterwards for other people to rearrange the pieces, and, no doubt, they would be doing this again and again as they studied them more closely and came to know more about them than would ever be known by me.

It’s through arrangement and publication that lumber becomes precious again, and from personal experience, I know how hard it can be to relinquish information that has been laboriously brought to light. But part of the process is knowing when to stop. As Baker, a less systematic but equally provocative thinker, concludes:

I have poked through verbal burial mounds, I have overemphasized minor borrowings, I have placed myself deep in the debt of every accessible work of reference, and I have overquoted and overquibbled—of course I have: that is what always happens when you pay a visit to the longbeards’ dusty chamber…All the pages I have flipped and copied and underlined will turn gray again and pull back into the shadows, and have no bearing on one another. Lumber becomes treasure only temporarily, through study, and then it lapses into lumber again. Books open, and then they close.

The science fiction sieve

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In a remarkably lucid essay published last week in Nautilus, the mathematician Noson S. Yanofsky elegantly defines the self-imposed limitations of science. Yanofsky points out that scientists deliberately take a subset of phenomena—characterized mostly by how amenable it is to their chosen methods—for their field of study, while leaving the rest to the social sciences or humanities. (As Paul Valéry put it: “Science means simply the aggregate of all the recipes that are always successful. All the rest is literature.”) He visualizes science as a kind of sieve, which lets in some subjects while excluding others:

The reason why we see the structure we do is that scientists act like a sieve and focus only on those phenomena that have structure and are predictable. They do not take into account all phenomena; rather, they select those phenomena they can deal with…Scientists have classified the general textures and heights of different types of clouds, but, in general, are not at all interested in the exact shape of a cloud. Although the shape is a physical phenomenon, scientists don’t even attempt to study it. Science does not study all physical phenomena. Rather, science studies predictable physical phenomena. It is almost a tautology: science predicts predictable phenomena.

Yanofsky groups these criteria under the general heading “symmetry,” and he concludes: “The physicist must be a sieve and study those phenomena that possess symmetry and allow those that do not possess symmetry to slip through her fingers.” I won’t get into the rest of his argument, which draws an ingenious analogy from mathematics, except to say that it’s worth reading in its entirety. But I think his thesis is sound, and it ties into many issues that I’ve discussed here before, particularly about the uncomfortable status of the social sciences.

If you’re trying to catch this process in action, though, the trouble is that the boundaries of science aren’t determined by a general vote, or even by the work of isolated geniuses, but emerge gradually and invisibly from the contributions of countless individuals. But if I were a historian of science, I’d take a close look at the development of science fiction, in which an analogous evolution occurred in plain sight over a relatively short period of time. You can see it clearly in the career of the editor John W. Campbell, who remained skeptical of the social sciences, but whose signal contribution to the genre may have been to put them at its center. And the “sieve” that he ended up using is revealing in itself. A significant turning point was the arrival on his desk of Robert A. Heinlein’s landmark novella “If This Goes On—,” of which Campbell wrote in 1939:

Robert Heinlein, in his “If This Goes On—,” presents a civilization in which mob psychology and propaganda have become sciences. They aren’t, yet…Psychology isn’t a science, so long as a trained psychologist does—and must—say “there’s no telling how an individual man will react to a given stimulus.” Properly developed, psychology could determine that.

As an editor, Campbell began to impose psychological and sociological elements onto stories where they didn’t always fit, much as he would gratuitously insert references to uranium-235 during World War II. He irritated Isaac Asimov, for instance, by asking him to add a section to the story “Homo Sol” about “certain distinctions between the emotional reactions of Africans and Asians as compared with those of Americans and Europeans.” Asimov saw this as an early sign of Campbell’s racial views, and perhaps it was, but it pointed just as convincingly to his interest in mass psychology.

And readers took notice at a surprisingly early stage. In the November 1940 issue of Astounding, a fan named Lynn Bridges presciently wrote:

The Astounding Science Fiction of the past year has brought forth a new type of story, best described, perhaps, as “sociological” science fiction. The spaceships…are still present, but more emphasis has been placed on the one item which will have more to do with shaping the future than anything else, that strange race of bipeds known as man…Both Asimov [in “Homo Sol”] and Heinlein [in “If This Goes On—”] treat psychology as an exact science, usable in formulas, certain in results. I feel called upon to protest. Its very nature prevents psychology from achieving the exactness of mathematics…The moment men stop varying and the psychologist can say definitely that all men are alike psychologically, progress stops and the world becomes a very boring Utopia.

Campbell responded: “Psychology could improve a lot, though, without becoming dangerously oppressive!” Just two months later, in a letter in the January 1941 issue, Asimov referred to the prospect of “mathematical psychology”: “If we can understand Einstein and Hitler down to the mathematical whys and wherefores, we might try to boost along a few Einsteins and cut down on a few Hitlers, and progress might really get going.” Campbell replied much as before: “Psychology isn’t an exact science—but it can be.” Implicit in the whole discussion was the question of whether psychology could be tackled using the same hard-headed engineering approach that had worked for the genre before. And as I’ve written elsewhere, the evolution of Campbellian science fiction is largely one of writers who were so good at lecturing us about engineering that we barely even noticed when they moved on to sociology.

But what interests me now is the form it took in Astounding, which looks a lot like the sieve that Yanofsky describes. Campbell may have hoped that psychology would learn how to predict “how an individual man will react to a given stimulus,” but he seems to have sensed that this wouldn’t be credible or interesting in fiction. Instead, he turned to two subsets of psychology that were more suited to the narrative tools at his disposal. One was the treatment of simplified forms of human personality—say, for instance, in a robot. The other was the treatment of large masses of individuals. Crucially, neither was necessarily more possible than predicting the behavior of individuals, but they had the advantage that they could be more plausibly treated in fiction. Campbell’s preferred instrument at the time was Asimov, who was reliable, willing to take instruction, and geographically close enough to talk over ideas in person. As a result, Asimov’s most famous stories can be read as a series of experiments to see how the social sciences could be legitimately explored by the genre. The Three Laws of Robotics, which Campbell was the first to explicitly formulate, are really a simplified model of human behavior: Campbell later wrote that they were essentially “the basic desires of a small child, with the exception that the motivation of desire for love has been properly omitted.” At the other end of the spectrum, psychohistory looks for laws that can be applied on a mass scale, and it’s central not only to the Foundation series but even to “Nightfall,” with its theme of the cyclical rise and fall of civilizations. In science, you could draw a parallel to artificial intelligence and macroeconomics, which represent two extremes at which qualities of symmetry and predicability seem to enter the realm of psychology. In between, there’s a vast terrain of human experience that Campbell was never quite able to tackle, and that impulse ended up being channeled into dianetics. But much as science can be defined as everything that makes it through the sieve of symmetry, Campbell had a sieve of his own, and the result was the science fiction of the golden age.

Written by nevalalee

June 28, 2017 at 9:07 am

The Mule and the Beaver

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If you wanted to construct the most prolific writer who ever lived, working from first principles, what features would you include? (We’ll assume, for the purposes of this discussion, that he’s a man.) Obviously, he would need to be capable of turning out clean, publishable prose at a fast pace and with a minimum of revision. He would be contented—even happy—within the physical conditions of writing itself, which requires working indoors at a desk alone for hours on end. Ideally, he would operate within a genre, either fiction or nonfiction, that lent itself to producing pages fairly quickly, but with enough variety to prevent burnout, since he’d need to maintain a steady clip every day for years. His most productive period would coincide with an era that gave him steady demand for his work, and he would have a boundless energy that was diverted early on toward the goal of producing more books. If you were particularly clever, you’d even introduce a psychological wrinkle: the act of writing would become his greatest source of satisfaction, as well as an emotional refuge, so that he would end up taking more pleasure in it than almost anything else in life. Finally, you’d provide him with cooperative publishers and an enthusiastic, although not overwhelming, readership, granting him a livelihood that was comfortable but not quite lavish enough to be distracting. Wind him up, let him run unimpeded for three or four decades, and how many books would you get? In the case of Isaac Asimov, the total comes to something like five hundred. Even if it isn’t quite enough to make him the most productive writer of all time, it certainly places him somewhere in the top ten. And it’s a career that followed all but axiomatically from the characteristics that I’ve listed above.

Let’s take these points one at a time. Asimov, like all successful pulp writers, learned how to crank out decent work on deadline, usually limiting himself to a first draft and a clean copy, with very little revision that wasn’t to editorial order. (And he wasn’t alone here. The pulps were an unforgiving school, and they quickly culled authors who weren’t able to write a sentence well enough the first time.) From a young age, Asimov was also drawn to enclosed, windowless spaces, like the kitchen at the back of his father’s candy store, and he had a persistent daydream about running a newsstand in the subway, where he could put up the shutter and read magazines in peace. After he began to write for a living, he was equally content to work in his attic office for up to ten hours a day. Yet it wasn’t fiction that accounted for the bulk of his output—which is a common misconception about his career—but a specific kind of nonfiction. Asimov was a prolific fiction writer, but no more so than many of his contemporaries. It was in nonfiction for general readers that he really shone, initially with such scientific popularizations as The Chemicals of Life and Inside the Atom. At first, his work drew on his academic and professional background in chemistry and biochemistry, but before long, he found that he was equally adept at explaining concepts from the other sciences, as well as such unrelated fields as history and literature. His usual method was to work straight from reference books, dictionaries, and encyclopedias, translating and organizing their concepts for a lay audience. As he once joked to Martin Gardner: “You mean you’re in the same racket I am? You just read books by the professors and rewrite them?”

This kind of writing is harder than it sounds. Asimov noted, correctly, that he added considerable value in arranging and presenting the material, and he was better at it than just about anyone else. (A faculty member at Boston University once observed him at work and exclaimed: “Why, you’re just copying the dictionary!” Asimov, annoyed, handed the dictionary to him and said: “Here. The dictionary is yours. Now go write the book.”) But it also lent itself admirably to turning out a lot of pages in a short period of time. Unlike fiction, it didn’t require him to come up with original ideas from scratch. As soon as he had enough projects in the hopper, he could switch between them freely to avoid becoming bored by any one subject. He could write treatments of the same topic for different audiences and cannibalize unsold material for other venues. In the years after Sputnik, there was plenty of demand for what he had to offer, and he had a ready market for short articles that could be collected into books. And since these were popular treatments of existing information, he could do all of the work from the comfort of his own office. Asimov hated to fly, and he actively avoided assignments that would require him to travel or do research away from home. Before long, his productivity became a selling point in itself, and when his wife told him that life was passing him by, Asimov responded: “If I do manage to publish a hundred books, and if I then die, my last words are likely to be, ‘Only a hundred!’” Writing became a place of security, both from life’s small crises and as an escape from an unhappy marriage, and it was also his greatest source of pleasure. When his daughter asked him what he would do if he had to choose between her and writing, Asimov said: “Why, I would choose you, dear.” But he adds: “But I hesitated—and she noticed that, too.”

Asimov was a complicated man—certainly more so than in the version of himself that he presented to the public—and he can’t be reduced to a neat set of factors. He wasn’t a robot. But those five hundred books represent an achievement so overwhelming that it cries out for explanation, and it wouldn’t exist if certain variables, both external and internal, hadn’t happened to align. In terms of his ability and ambition, Asimov was the equal of Campbell, Heinlein, or Hubbard, but in place of their public entanglements, he channeled his talents into a safer direction, where it grew to gargantuan proportions that only hint at how monstrous that energy and passion really were. (He was also considerably younger than the others, as well as more naturally cautious, and I’d like to believe that he drew a negative lesson from their example.) The result, remarkably, made him the most beloved writer of them all. It was a cultural position, outside the world of science fiction, that was due almost entirely to the body of his nonfiction work as a whole. He never had a bestseller until late in his career, but the volume and quality of his overall output were enough to make him famous. Asimov was the Mule, the unassuming superman of the Foundation series, but he conquered a world from his typewriter. He won the game. And when I think of how his talent, productivity, and love of enclosed spaces combined to produce a fortress made of books, I think of what David Mamet once said to The Paris Review. When asked to explain why he wrote, Mamet replied: “I’ve got to do it anyway. Like beavers, you know. They chop, they eat wood, because if they don’t, their teeth grow too long and they die. And they hate the sound of running water. Drives them crazy. So, if you put those two ideas together, they are going to build dams.”

Written by nevalalee

March 22, 2017 at 9:54 am

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