Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Foundation

The Machine of Lagado

with one comment

Yesterday, my wife wrote to me in a text message: “Psychohistory could not predict that Elon [Musk] would gin up a fraudulent stock buyback price based on a pot joke and then get punished by the SEC.” This might lead you to wonder about our texting habits, but more to the point, she was right. Psychohistory—the fictional science of forecasting the future developed by Isaac Asimov and John W. Campbell in the Foundation series—is based on the assumption that the world will change in the future more or less as it has in the past. Like all systems of prediction, it’s unable to foresee black swans, like the Mule or Donald Trump, that make nonsense of our previous assumptions, and it’s useless for predicting events on a small scale. Asimov liked to compare it to the kinetic theory of gases, “where the individual molecules in the gas remain as unpredictable as ever, but the average person is completely predictable.” This means that you need a sufficiently large number of people, such as the population of the galaxy, for it to work, and it also means that it grows correspondingly less useful as it becomes more specific. On the individual level, human behavior is as unforeseeable as the motion of particular molecules, and the shape of any particular life is impossible to predict, even if we like to believe otherwise. The same is true of events. Just as a monkey or a dartboard might do an equally good job of picking stocks as a qualified investment advisor, the news these days often seems to have been generated by a bot, like the Subreddit Simulator, that automatically cranks out random combinations of keywords and trending terms. (My favorite recent example is an actual headline from the Washington Post: “Border Patrol agent admits to starting wildfire during gender-reveal party.”)

And the satirical notion that combining ideas at random might lead to useful insights or predictions is a very old one. In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift describes an encounter with a fictional machine—located in the academy of Lagado, the capital city of the island of Balnibarbi—by which “the most ignorant person, at a reasonable charge, and with a little bodily labour, might write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, laws, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study.” The narrator continues:

[The professor] then led me to the frame, about the sides, whereof all his pupils stood in ranks. It was twenty feet square, placed in the middle of the room. The superfices was composed of several bits of wood, about the bigness of a die, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender wires. These bits of wood were covered, on every square, with paper pasted on them; and on these papers were written all the words of their language, in their several moods, tenses, and declensions; but without any order…The pupils, at his command, took each of them hold of an iron handle, whereof there were forty fixed round the edges of the frame; and giving them a sudden turn, the whole disposition of the words was entirely changed.  He then commanded six-and-thirty of the lads, to read the several lines softly, as they appeared upon the frame; and where they found three or four words together that might make part of a sentence, they dictated to the four remaining boys, who were scribes.

And Gulliver concludes: “Six hours a day the young students were employed in this labour; and the professor showed me several volumes in large folio, already collected, of broken sentences, which he intended to piece together, and out of those rich materials, to give the world a complete body of all arts and sciences.”

Two and a half centuries later, an updated version of this machine figured in Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum, which is where I first encountered it. The book’s three protagonists, who work as editors for a publishing company in Milan, are playing in the early eighties with their new desktop computer, which they’ve nicknamed Abulafia, after the medieval cabalist. One speaks proudly of Abulafia’s usefulness in generating random combinations: “All that’s needed is the data and the desire. Take, for example, poetry. The program asks you how many lines you want in the poem, and you decide: ten, twenty, a hundred. Then the program randomizes the line numbers. In other words, a new arrangement each time. With ten lines you can make thousands and thousands of random poems.” This gives the narrator an idea:

What if, instead, you fed it a few dozen notions taken from the works of [occult writers]—for example, the Templars fled to Scotland, or the Corpus Hermeticum arrived in Florence in 1460—and threw in a few connective phrases like “It’s obvious that” and “This proves that?” We might end up with something revelatory. Then we fill in the gaps, call the repetitions prophecies, and—voila—a hitherto unpublished chapter of the history of magic, at the very least!

Taking random sentences from unpublished manuscripts, they enter such lines as “Who was married at the feast of Cana?” and “Minnie Mouse is Mickey’s fiancee.” When strung together, the result, in one of Eco’s sly jokes, is a conspiracy theory that exactly duplicates the thesis of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which later provided much of the inspiration for The Da Vinci Code. “Nobody would take that seriously,” one of the editors says. The narrator replies: “On the contrary, it would sell a few hundred thousand copies.”

When I first read this as a teenager, I thought it was one of the great things in the world, and part of me still does. I immediately began to look for similar connections between random ideas, which led me to some of my best story ideas, and I still incorporate aspects of randomness into just about everything that I do. Yet there’s also a pathological element to this form of play that I haven’t always acknowledged. What makes it dangerous, as Eco understood, is the inclusion of such seemingly innocent expressions as “it’s obvious that” and “this proves that,” which instantly transforms a scenario into an argument. (On the back cover of the paperback edition of Foucault’s Pendulum, the promotional copy describes Abulafia as “an incredible computer capable of inventing connections between all their entires,” which is both a great example of hyping a difficult book and a reflection of how credulous we can be when it comes to such practices in real life.) We may not be able to rule out any particular combination of events, but not every explanatory system is equally valid, even if all it takes is a modicum of ingenuity to turn it into something convincing. I used to see the creation of conspiracy theories as a diverting game, or as a commentary on how we interpret the world around us, and I devoted an entire novel to exorcising my fascination with this idea. More recently, I’ve realized that this attitude was founded on the assumption that it was still possible to come to some kind of cultural consensus about the truth. In the era of InfoWars, Pizzagate, and QAnon, it no longer seems harmless. Not all patterns are real, and many of the horrors of the last century were perpetuated by conspiracy theorists who arbitrarily seized on one arrangement of the facts—and then acted on it accordingly. Reality itself can seem randomly generated, but our thoughts and actions don’t need to be.

Written by nevalalee

October 2, 2018 at 9:36 am

Forward the foundation

leave a comment »

On February 6, which already seems like a lifetime ago, the private company SpaceX conducted a successful launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket, which some enthusiasts hope will eventually serve as the vehicle for a manned mission to Mars. Its dummy payload consisted of Elon Musk’s personal Tesla Roadster, permanently mounted to the second stage, which is currently orbiting the sun. A mannequin dressed as an astronaut, “Starman,” sits in the driver’s seat, and its stereo system was set to continuously play David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” Even at the time, it struck me as a resplendently tacky gesture—which may have been the whole point—and in retrospect, it feels like a transitional moment for Musk, who would never again be able to take his uncritical press coverage for granted. Of all the comments that it inspired, the most prescient may have been from the space archaeologist Alice Gorman, who wrote on The Conversation:

The sports car in orbit symbolizes both life and death. Through the body of the car, Musk is immortalized in the vacuum of space. The car is also an armor against dying, a talisman that quells a profound fear of mortality…The red sports car symbolizes masculinity—power, wealth and speed—but also how fragile masculinity is. Stereotypically, the red sports car is the accessory of choice in the male midlife crisis, which men use to rebel against perceived domestication.

On another level, the launch also served as a nerd’s version of the gold record on the Voyager spacecraft, loaded with pop culture signifiers that wouldn’t have made it through the approval process at NASA. Apart from the David Bowie song, its cargo included a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the glove compartment, along with a matching towel and a Don’t Panic sign on the dashboard, as well as a secret payload. After the launch, it was revealed that the roadster also included a tiny quartz optical disk, designed to last for billions of years, that could theoretically store every book ever written. In the end, it ended up carrying just three. As Nova Spivack, a founder of the Arch Mission Foundation, explained in a blog post:

Our goal…is to permanently archive human knowledge for thousands to billions of years. We exist to preserve and disseminate humanity’s knowledge across time and space, for the benefit of future generations. To accomplish this we have begun building special Arch libraries (pronounced: “Arks”). Our first Arch libraries are data crystals that last billions of years. We plan to use many media types over time however—whatever material is the best available for the goal. We are very happy to announce that our first Arch library, containing the Isaac Asimov Foundation trilogy, was carried as payload on today’s SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch, en route to permanent orbit around the Sun.

Technically, the survival of Asimov’s work isn’t quite as assured as that of the Voyager gold record—it will be annihilated, along with everything else, when the sun’s red giant phase reaches the orbit of Mars in about seven billion years. (This might seem like a meaningless distinction, but I also suspect that Asimov would have been the first to make it.) Yet it’s still a remarkable tribute, and the way in which the Foundation trilogy ended up in space is instructive in itself. In his post, Spiwack writes:

Asimov’s Foundation series was the inspiration for the Arch Mission Foundation, many years ago when we first conceived of this project. It is a metaphor for what we hope this can become, and it is the perfect cornerstone as our mission begins…The series’ protagonist, Hari Seldon, endeavors to preserve and expand upon all human culture and knowledge through a 30,000 year period of turmoil. We felt this was a very fitting first payload to include in the Arch…This truly can evolve into Asimov’s vision of an Encyclopedia Galactica someday — an encyclopedia containing all the knowledge accumulated by a galaxy-spanning civilization.

In an interview with Mashable, Spiwack adds that he loved the Foundation books as a teenager, and that they were “in the air around MIT” when he did summer research there in college. Sending the disk to space wasn’t originally part of the plan, but, as the article notes, it may have influenced the choice of texts: “[Spiwack had] heard Elon Musk loved the trilogy too, and maybe he’d be able to press one of the five disks into the SpaceX founder’s hands some day.”

I’m in favor of any effort to preserve information in a lasting form for future generations, even if the impulse reflects a midlife crisis that we’re experiencing as a society as a whole—a life stage, which spans decades, in which we’re forced to contemplate the choices that we’ve made as a species. (Arch’s true predecessor isn’t the Voyager record, but the Rosetta Project of the Long Now Foundation, which has developed a nickel disk that can store microscopic etchings of thousands of pages.) And such projects are always about more than they seem. Even in the original story “Foundation,” the Encyclopedia Galactica is nothing but an elaborate mislead, as Hari Seldon himself reveals at the end:

The Encyclopedia Foundation, to begin with, is a fraud, and always has been…It is a fraud in the sense that neither I nor my colleagues care at all whether a single volume of the Encyclopedia is ever published. It has served its purpose, since by it…we attracted the hundred thousand scientists necessary for our scheme, and by it we managed to keep them preoccupied while events shaped themselves, until it was too late for any of them to draw back.

This is very far from what Spivack calls “Asimov’s vision of an Encyclopedia Galactica…containing all the knowledge accumulated by a galaxy-spanning civilization.” But the unconscious motive might well be the same. When you assemble people for this kind of project, the reasoning goes, there might be interesting consequences that you can’t predict in advance—and I confess that I sort of believe this. “We really just did it as a test,” Spivack said of the disk to Mashable. “If we’d known it would go to space, we would have put more stuff on it.”

The science fiction sieve

leave a comment »

Note: To celebrate the World Science Fiction Convention this week in San Jose, I’m republishing a few of my favorite pieces on various aspects of the genre. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on June 28, 2017.

In a remarkably lucid essay published last year 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

August 15, 2018 at 9:00 am

The long now

with 4 comments

In early 1965, Tom Wolfe noticed a book on the shelves of Ken Kesey’s house in La Honda, California, which had become a gathering place for the young, mostly affluent hippies whom the journalist had dubbed “the Beautiful People.” In Kesey’s living room, “a curious little library” was growing, as Wolfe recounts in typically hyperbolic fashion in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test:

Books of science fiction and other mysterious things, and you could pick up almost any of these books and find strange vibrations. The whole thing here is so much like…this book on Kesey’s shelf, Robert Heinlein’s novel, Stranger in a Strange Land. It is bewildering. It is as if Heinlein and the Pranksters were bound together by some inexplicable acausal connecting bond. This is a novel about a Martian who comes to earth, a true Superhero, in fact…raised by infinitely superior beings, the Martians. Beings on other plants are always infinitely superior in science fiction novels. Anyway, around him gathers a mystic brotherhood, based on a mysterious ceremony known as water-sharing. They live in—La Honda! At Kesey’s! Their place is called the Nest. Their life transcends all the usual earthly games of status, sex, and money. No one who once shares water and partakes of life in the Nest ever cares about such banal competitions again. There is a pot of money inside the front door, provided by the Superhero…Everything is totally out front in the Nest—no secrets, no guilt, no jealousies, no putting anyone down for anything.

He closes with a string of quotations from the character Jubal Harshaw, who had affinities to Wolfe himself, including the skeptical but grudgingly admiring line: “Ain’t nobody here but [just] us gods.”

One member of Kesey’s circle who undoubtedly read the novel was Stewart Brand, my hero, who pops up in Wolfe’s book as an “Indian freak” and later founded The Whole Earth Catalog, which became famous for a similar declaration of intent: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” (As I retype it now, it’s that one italicized word that strikes me the most, as if Brand were preemptively replying to Wolfe and his other detractors.) Much later, in the celebrated essay “We Owe it All to the Hippies,” Brand writes:

We all read Robert Heinlein’s epic Stranger in a Strange Land as well as his libertarian screed-novel, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Hippies and nerds alike reveled in Heinlein’s contempt for centralized authority. To this day, computer scientists and technicians are almost universally science-fiction fans. And ever since the 1950s, for reasons that are unclear to me, science fiction has been almost universally libertarian in outlook.

Heinlein and his circle don’t figure prominently in the Catalog, in which the work of fiction that receives the most attention is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. But Brand later recommended the Foundation trilogy as part of the Manual for Civilization collection at the Long Now Foundation, which may have been a subtle hint to its true intentions. In the Foundation series, after all, the writing of the Encyclopedia Galactica is an elaborate mislead, a pretext to build an organization that will ultimately be turned to other ends.  An even better excuse might be the construction and maintenance of an enormous clock designed to last for ten thousand years—an idea that is obviously too farfetched for fiction. In an interview, Brand’s friend Kevin Kelly protested too much: “We’re not trying to be Hari Seldon from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation.” Yeah, right.

Brand himself was only tangentially inspired by science fiction, and his primarily exposure to it was evidently through the remarkable people with whom he surrounded himself. In his book The Media Lab, which was published in 1988, Brand asks the roboticist Marvin Minsky why he’s so interested in science fiction writers, and he quotes from the answer at length:

Well, I think of them as thinkers. They try to figure out the consequences and implications of things in as thoughtful a way as possible. A couple of hundred years from now, maybe Isaac Asimov and Fred Pohl will be considered the important philosophers of the twentieth century, and the professional philosophers will almost all be forgotten, because they’re just shallow and wrong, and their ideas aren’t very powerful. Whenever Pohl or Asimov writes something, I regard it as extremely urgent to read it right away. They might have a new idea. Asimov has been working for forty years on this problem: if you can make an intelligent machine, what kind of relations will it have with people? How do you negotiate when their thinking is so different? The science fiction writers think about what it means to think.

Along with Asimov and Pohl, Brand notes, the other writers whom Minsky studied closely included Arthur C. Clarke, Heinlein, Gregory Benford, James P. Hogan, John W. Campbell, and H.G. Wells. “If Minsky had his way,” Brand writes, “there would always be a visiting science fiction writer in resident at the Media Lab.” In practice, that’s more or less how it worked out—Campbell was a frequent visitor, as was Asimov, who said that Minsky was one of the handful of people, along with Carl Sagan, whom he acknowledged as being more intelligent than he was.

To be honest, I doubt that Asimov and Pohl will ever be remembered as “the important philosophers of the twentieth century,” although if they might have a better shot if you replace “philosophers” with “futurologists.” It seems a reasonably safe bet that the Three Laws of Robotics, which Campbell casually tossed out in his office for Asimov to develop, will be remembered longer than the vast majority of the work being produced by the philosophy departments of that era. But even for Kesey, Brand, and all the rest, the relationship was less about influence than about simple proximity. When Wolfe speaks of “an acausal connecting bond” between Heinlein and the Merry Pranksters, he’s consciously echoing the subtitle of Carl Jung’s Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle, which may be the best way to think about it. During moments of peak cultural intensity, ideas are simultaneously developed by different communities in ways that may only occasionally intersect. (On April 6, 1962, for instance, Asimov wrote to Campbell to recommend that he investigate the video game Spacewar, which had been developed just two months earlier at MIT. Campbell spent the next decade trying to get an article on it for Analog, which Albert W. Kuhfeld finally wrote up for the July 1971 issue. A year later, Brand wrote a piece about it for Rolling Stone.) And Brand himself was keenly aware of the costs of such separation. In The Media Lab, he writes:

Somewhere in my education I was misled to believe that science fiction and science fact must be kept rigorously separate. In practice they are so blurred together they are practically one intellectual activity, although the results are published differently, one kind of journal for careful scientific reporting, another kind for wicked speculation.

In 1960, Campbell tried to tear down those barriers in a single audacious move, when he changed the title of his magazine from Astounding to Analog Science Fact & Fiction. For most of his career, Brand has been doing the same thing, only far more quietly. But I have a hunch that his approach may be the one that succeeds.

Thinkers of the unthinkable

with 4 comments

At the symposium that I attended over the weekend, the figure whose name seemed to come up the most was Herman Kahn, the futurologist and military strategist best known for his book On Thermonuclear War. Kahn died in 1983, but he still looms large over futures studies, and there was a period in which he was equally inescapable in the mainstream. As Louis Menand writes in a harshly critical piece in The New Yorker: “Herman Kahn was the heavyweight of the Megadeath Intellectuals, the men who, in the early years of the Cold War, made it their business to think about the unthinkable, and to design the game plan for nuclear war—how to prevent it, or, if it could not be prevented, how to win it, or, if it could not be won, how to survive it…The message of [his] book seemed to be that thermonuclear war will be terrible but we’ll get over it.” And it isn’t surprising that Kahn engaged in a dialogue throughout his life with science fiction. In her book The Worlds of Herman Kahn, Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi relates:

Early in life [Kahn] discovered science fiction, and he remained an avid reader throughout adulthood. While it nurtured in him a rich appreciation for plausible possibilities, [his collaborator Anthony] Wiener observed that Kahn was quite clear about the purposes to which he put his own scenarios. “Herman would say, ‘Don’t imagine that it’s an arbitrary choice as though you were writing science fiction, where every interesting idea is worth exploring.’ He would have insisted on that. The scenario must focus attention on a possibility that would be important if it occurred.” The heuristic or explanatory value of a scenario mattered more to him than its accuracy.

Yet Kahn’s thinking was inevitably informed by the genre. Ghamari-Tabrizi, who refers to nuclear strategy as an “intuitive science,” sees hints of “the scientist-sleuth pulp hero” in On Thermonuclear War, which is just another name for the competent man, and Kahn himself openly acknowledged the speculative thread in his work: “What you are doing today fundamentally is organizing a Utopian society. You are sitting down and deciding on paper how a society at war works.” On at least one occasion, he invoked psychohistory directly. In the revised edition of the book Thinking About the Unthinkable, Kahn writes of one potential trigger for a nuclear war:

Here we turn from historical fact to science fiction. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels describe a galaxy where there is a planet of technicians who have developed a long-term plan for the survival of civilization. The plan is devised on the basis of a scientific calculation of history. But the plan is upset and the technicians are conquered by an interplanetary adventurer named the Mule. He appears from nowhere, a biological mutant with formidable personal abilities—an exception to the normal laws of history. By definition, such mutants rarely appear but they are not impossible. In a sense, we have already seen a “mule” in this century—Hitler—and another such “mutant” could conceivably come to power in the Soviet Union.

And it’s both frightening and revealing, I think, that Kahn—even as he was thinking about the unthinkable—doesn’t take the next obvious step, and observe that such a mutant could also emerge in the United States.

Asimov wouldn’t have been favorably inclined toward the notion of a “winnable” nuclear war, but Kahn did become friendly with a writer whose attitudes were more closely aligned with his own. In the second volume of Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, William H. Patterson describes the first encounter between the two men:

By September 20, 1962, [the Heinleins] were in Las Vegas…[They] met Dr. Edward Teller, who had been so supportive of the Patrick Henry campaign, as well as one of Teller’s colleagues, Herman Kahn. Heinlein’s ears pricked up when he was introduced to this jolly, bearded fat man who looked, he said, more like a young priest than one of the sharpest minds in current political thinking…Kahn was a science fiction reader and most emphatically a Heinlein fan.

Three years later, Heinlein attended a seminar, “The Next Ten Years: Scenarios and Possibilities,” that Kahn held at the Hudson Institute in New York. Heinlein—who looked like Quixote to Kahn’s Sancho Panza—was flattered by the reception:

If I attend an ordinary cocktail party, perhaps two or three out of a large crowd will know who I am. If I go to a political meeting or a church or such, I may not be spotted at all…But at Hudson Institute, over two-thirds of the staff and over half of the students button-holed me. This causes me to have a high opinion of the group—its taste, IQ, patriotism, sex appeal, charm, etc. Writers are incurably conceited and pathologically unsure of themselves; they respond to stroking the way a cat does.

And it wasn’t just the “stroking” that Heinlein liked, of course. He admired Thinking About the Unthinkable and On Thermonuclear War, both of which would be interesting to read alongside Farnham’s Freehold, which was published just a few years later. Both Heinlein and Kahn thought about the future through stories, in a pursuit that carried a slightly disreputable air, as Kahn implied in his use of the word “scenario”:

As near as I can tell, the term scenario was first used in this sense in a group I worked with at the RAND Corporation. We deliberately choose the word to deglamorize the concept. In writing the scenarios for various situations, we kept saying “Remember, it’s only a scenario,” the kind of thing that is produced by Hollywood writers, both hacks and geniuses.

You could say much the same about science fiction. And perhaps it’s appropriate that Kahn’s most lasting cultural contribution came out of Hollywood. Along with Wernher von Braun, he was one of the two most likely models for the title character in Dr. Strangelove. Stanley Kubrick immersed himself in Kahn’s work—the two men met a number of times—and Kahn’s reaction to the film was that of a writer, not a scientist. As Ghamari-Tabrizi writes:

The Doomsday Machine was Kahn’s idea. “Since Stanley lifted lines from On Thermonuclear War without change but out of context,” Khan told reporters, he thought he was entitled to royalties from the film. He pestered him several times about it, but Kubrick held firm. “It doesn’t work that way!” he snapped, and that was that.

The Worlds of If

leave a comment »

As I prepare for my upcoming presentation this weekend at the Grappling With the Futures conference, I’ve been thinking a lot about the evolution of psychohistory, the fictional science that figures prominently in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. When it comes to describing how psychohistory is actually supposed to work in practice, however, the original stories aren’t much help. At first, the definition of the field might seem clear enough. If you initially encountered the trilogy in book form, it’s right there in the text, in an entry from the Encyclopedia Galactica:

Psychohistory: …Gal Dornick, using nonmathematical concepts, has defined psychohistory to be that branch of mathematics which deals with the reactions of human conglomerates to fixed social and economic stimuli…Implicit in all these definitions is the assumption that the human conglomerate being dealt with is sufficiently large for valid statistical treatment.

This seems fairly straightforward. But it wasn’t added to the series until the hardcover edition published by Gnome Press in 1951, for which Asimov wrote a new opening chapter called “The Psychohistorians.” When the novelette “Foundation” originally appeared in the May 1942 issue of Astounding, the word “psychohistory” was used only once. We’re informed that Hari Seldon is “the greatest psychologist of all time,” and that he has the ability “to unravel human emotions sufficiently to be able to predict broadly the historical sweep of the future” using “simple psychological technique.” But we aren’t told how—just what. Psychohistory isn’t a method here, but a claim about results.

It’s also possible that Asimov himself had only a vague idea about it. As I’ve noted elsewhere, psychohistory seems to have been largely the brainchild of John W. Campbell, who was more interested in what it could do than in how it would work. The year before, in the nonfiction article “The Science of Whithering,” L. Sprague de Camp had written in the magazine:

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.

And the method didn’t even need to be scientific. At the time, Campbell was also editing the fantasy magazine Unknown, and on May 6, 1942, he told one of his most valued contributors, Anthony Boucher, that he was considering a standalone issue devoted to prophecy: “The philosophy of prophecy, the record, through the past, of the various classes of prophecy, and the problems of the prophet.” He continued:

Second, there would be the main section consisting of prophecy. This would be devoted to several different types of prophecy concerning the present world situation and, specifically, the war. Who’ll win (and if the prophets have the sense God gave little green apples, the answer to that one’s going to be easy for them to figure out) and, more important, how, by what route, by licking who first, and when. When will Japan be knocked out? When will Italy fold? When’s Hitler going down to defeat?

This last statement is remarkably revealing. What Campbell wanted were predictions, specifically ones related to the war. As Hitler rewrote the map of Europe, the anxiety to knew what would come next—which is one to which I think we can all relate these days—became overwhelming, and the source didn’t matter, as long as it was “borne out by observation.” At this moment of global crisis, Campbell was willing to seek answers from astrology, numerology, and the prophecies of Nostradamus. (The prophecy issue, notably, never appeared, thanks largely to what Campbell characterized as an inability to find “competent fanatics”: “Nobody with any reputation or ability in the fields I wanted was willing to name names and date dates.” The italics are mine.) Psychohistory was simply a way to express these impulses in language that would feel at home in a science fiction magazine. Even Asimov, who never seems to have been altogether comfortable with Campbell’s ideas, was driven by much the same motivation. Decades later, he had a revealing exchange about the origins of the Foundation series in an interview with James Gunn:

Asimov: Mind you, this was also a time when 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: Psychohistory is against it.
Asimov: That’s right…I suppose that was my literary response to my own feelings, which have no basis, I suppose, except that it made me feel better.

It was a longing that expressed itself equally well as psychohistory or prophecy, and it was about to assume its most convincing form. Not surprisingly, the science fiction magazines of the period often published stories that presented alternative outcomes for the war, including some that ended with victory for the Axis. Anthony Boucher justified this in a letter to Campbell that was published in Astounding in June 1943:

We are not, thank God, prophets. We don’t write what we feel sure is going to happen, but what, under certain circumstances, might happen…Now we aren’t expecting an Axis victory, any more than we are expecting worldwide tidal waves or planetary collisions or the invasion of little green men from Alpha Centauri. These disasters are all, with varying probabilities, present in one or more of the possible Worlds-of-If. And the more we write about ingenious ruses by which the Axis secures victory…the less apt those ruses are to succeed, and the more certain we can be that my sons and your daughter will inherit, in deepest truth, the best of all Possible Worlds.

Science fiction, in other words, was a way of generating models of potential outcomes and working through their implications. The real psychohistorians were the science fiction writers and fans, and psychohistory was a veiled way for the genre to talk about itself and its claims for foreseeing the future. Campbell might have been content to leave it there—but he was unable to leave well enough alone. In 1950, the year before the Foundation series appeared in hardcover, another author wrote: “The social organisms which we call states and nations behave and react in every respect as though they were individual organisms…The social organism behaves in a manner which can be graphed on the tone scale.” It was L. Ron Hubbard, who called the concept “political dianetics.” And he and Campbell were about to start a foundation of their own.

Into the West

leave a comment »

A few months ago, I was on the phone with a trusted adviser to discuss some revisions to Astounding. We were focusing on the prologue, which I had recently rewritten from scratch to make it more accessible to readers who weren’t already fans of science fiction. Among other things, I’d been asked to come up with ways in which the impact of my book’s four subjects was visible in modern pop culture, and after throwing some ideas back and forth, my adviser asked me plaintively: “Couldn’t you just say that without John W. Campbell, we wouldn’t have Game of Thrones?” I was tempted to give in, but I ultimately didn’t—it just felt like too much of a stretch. (Which isn’t to say that the influence isn’t there. When a commenter on his blog asked whether his work had been inspired by the mythographer Joseph Campbell, George R.R. Martin replied: “The Campbell that influenced me was John W., not Joseph.” And that offhand comment was enough of a selling point that I put it in the very first sentence of my book proposal.) Still, I understood the need to frame the story in ways that would resonate with a mainstream readership, and I thought hard about what other reference points I could honestly provide. Star Trek was an easy one, along with such recent movies as Interstellar and The Martian, but the uncomfortable reality is that much of what we call science fiction in film and television has more to do with Star Wars. But I wanted to squeeze in one last example, and I finally settled on this line about Campbell: “For more than three decades, an unparalleled series of visions of the future passed through his tiny office in New York, where he inaugurated the main sequence of science fiction that runs through works from 2001 to Westworld.”

As the book is being set in type, I’m still comfortable with this sentence as it stands, although there are a few obvious qualifications that ought to be made. Westworld, of course, is based on a movie written and directed by Michael Crichton, whose position in the history of the genre is a curious one. As I’ve written elsewhere, Crichton was an unusually enterprising author of paperback thrillers who found himself with an unexpected blockbuster in the form of The Andromeda Strain. It was his sixth novel, and his first in hardcover, and it seems to have benefited enormously from the input of editor Robert Gottlieb, who wrote in his memoir Avid Reader:

The Andromeda Strain was a terrific concept, but it was a mess—sloppily plotted, underwritten, and worst of all, with no characterization whatsoever. [Crichton’s] scientists were beyond generic—they lacked all human specificity; the only thing that distinguished some of them from the others was that some died and some didn’t. I realized right away that with his quick mind, swift embrace of editorial input, and extraordinary work habits he could patch the plot, sharpen the suspense, clarify the science—in fact, do everything necessary except create convincing human beings. (He never did manage to; eventually I concluded that he couldn’t write about people because they just didn’t interest him.) It occurred to me that instead of trying to help him strengthen the human element, we could make a virtue of necessity by stripping it away entirely; by turning The Andromeda Strain from a documentary novel into a fictionalized documentary. Michael was all for it—I think he felt relieved.

The result, to put it mildly, did quite well, and Crichton quickly put its lessons to work. But it’s revealing that the flaws that Gottlieb cites—indifferent plotting, flat writing, and a lack of real characterization—are also typical of even some of the best works of science fiction that came out of Campbell’s circle. Crichton’s great achievement was to focus relentlessly on everything else, especially readability, and it’s fair to say that he did a better job of it than most of the writers who came up through Astounding and Analog. He was left with the reputation of a carpetbagger, and his works may have been too square and fixated on technology to ever be truly fashionable. Yet a lot of it can be traced back to his name on the cover. In his story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” Jorge Luis Borges speaks of enriching “the slow and rudimentary act of reading by means of a new technique—the technique of deliberate anachronism and fallacious attribution.” In this case, it’s pretty useful. I have a hunch that if The Terminal Man, Congo, and Sphere had been attributed on their first release to Robert A. Heinlein, they would be regarded as minor classics. They’re certainly better than many of the books that Heinlein was actually writing around the same time. And if I’m being honest, I should probably confess that I’d rather read Jurassic Park again than any of Asimov’s novels. (As part of my research for this book, I dutifully made my way through Asimov’s novelization of Fantastic Voyage, which came out just three years before The Andromeda Strain, and his fumbling of that very Crichtonesque premise only reminded me of how good at this sort of thing Crichton really was.) If Crichton had been born thirty years earlier, John W. Campbell would have embraced him like a lost son, and he might well have written a better movie than Destination Moon.

At its best, the television version of Westworld represents an attempt to reconcile Crichton’s gifts for striking premises and suspense with the more introspective mode of the genre to which he secretly belongs. (It’s no accident that Jonathan Nolan had been developing it in parallel with Foundation.) This balance hasn’t always been easy to manage, and last night’s premiere suggests that it can only become more difficult going forward. Westworld has always seemed defined by the pattern of forces that were acting on it—its source material, its speculative and philosophical ambitions, and the pressure of being a flagship drama on HBO. It also has to deal now with the legacy of its own first season, which set a precedent for playing with time, as well as the scrutiny of viewers who figured it out prematurely. The stakes here are established early on, with Bernard awakening on a beach in a sequence that seems like a nod to the best film by Nolan’s brother, and this time around, the parallel timelines are put front and center. Yet the strain occasionally shows. The series is still finding itself, with characters, like Dolores, who seem to be thinking through their story arcs out loud. It’s overly insistent on its violence and nudity, but it’s also cerebral and detached, with little possibility of real emotional pain that the third season of Twin Peaks was able to inflict. I don’t know if the center will hold. Yet’s also possible that these challenges were there from the beginning, as the series tried to reconcile Crichton’s tricks with the tradition of science fiction that it clearly honors. I still believe that this show is in the main line of the genre’s development. Its efforts to weave together its disparate influences strike me as worthwhile and important. And I hope that it finds its way home.

%d bloggers like this: