Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Foundation

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.

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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

The analytical laboratory

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The Martian

Over the last few months, there’s been a surprising flurry of film and television activity involving the writers featured in my upcoming book Astounding. SyFy has announced plans to adapt Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in the Strange Land as a miniseries, with an imposing creative team that includes Hollywood power broker Scott Rudin and Zodiac screenwriter James Vanderbilt. Columbia is aiming to reboot Starship Troopers with producer Neal H. Mortiz of The Fast and the Furious, prompting Paul Verhoeven, the director of the original, to comment: “Going back to the novel would fit very much in a Trump presidency.” The production company Legendary has bought the film and television rights to Dune, which first appeared as a serial edited by John W. Campbell in Analog. Meanwhile, Jonathan Nolan is apparently still attached to an adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, although he seems rather busy at the moment. (L. Ron Hubbard remains relatively neglected, unless you want to count Leah Remini’s new show, which the Church of Scientology would probably hope you wouldn’t.) The fact that rights have been purchased and press releases issued doesn’t necessarily mean that anything will happen, of course, although the prospects for Stranger in a Strange Land seem strong. And while it’s possible that I’m simply paying more attention to these announcements now that I’m thinking about these writers all the time, I suspect that there’s something real going on.

So why the sudden surge of interest? The most likely, and also the most heartening, explanation is that we’re experiencing a revival of hard science fiction. Movies like Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, and Arrival—which I haven’t seen yet—have demonstrated that there’s an audience for films that draw more inspiration from Clarke and Kubrick than from Star Wars. Westworld, whatever else you might think of it, has done much the same on television. And there’s no question that the environment for this kind of story is far more attractive now than it was even ten years ago. For my money, the most encouraging development is the movie Life, a horror thriller set on the International Space Station, which is scheduled to come out next summer. I’m tickled by it because, frankly, it doesn’t look like anything special: the trailer starts promisingly enough, but it ends by feeling very familiar. It might turn out to be better than it looks, but I almost hope that it doesn’t. The best sign that a genre is reaching maturity isn’t a series of singular achievements, but the appearance of works that are content to color inside the lines, consciously evoking the trappings of more visionary movies while remaining squarely focused on the mainstream. A film like Interstellar is always going to be an outlier. What we need are movies like what Life promises to be: a science fiction film of minimal ambition, but a certain amount of skill, and a willingness to copy the most obvious features of its predecessors. That’s when you’ve got a trend.

Jake Gyllenhaal in Life

The other key development is the growing market for prestige dramas on television, which is the logical home for Stranger in a Strange Land and, I think, Dune. It may be the case, as we’ve been told in connection with Star Trek: Discovery, that there isn’t a place for science fiction on a broadcast network, but there’s certainly room for it on cable. Combine this with the increased appetite for hard science fiction on film, and you’ve got precisely the conditions in which smart production companies should be snatching up the rights to Asimov, Heinlein, and the rest. Given the historically rapid rise and fall of such trends, they shouldn’t expect this window to remain open for long. (In a letter to Asimov on February 3, 1939, Frederik Pohl noted the flood of new science fiction magazines on newsstands, and he concluded: “Time is indeed of the essence…Such a condition can’t possibly last forever, and the time to capitalize on it is now; next month may be too late.”) What they’re likely to find, in the end, is that many of these stories are resistant to adaptation, and that they’re better off seeking out original material. There’s a reason that there have been so few movies derived from Heinlein and Asimov, despite the temptation that they’ve always presented. Heinlein, in particular, seems superficially amenable to the movies: he certainly knew how to write action in a way that Asimov couldn’t. But he also liked to spend the second half of a story picking apart the assumptions of the first, after sucking in the reader with an exciting beginning, and if you aren’t going to include the deconstruction, you might as well write something from scratch.

As it happens, the recent spike of action on the adaptation front has coincided with another announcement. Analog, the laboratory in which all these authors were born, is cutting back its production schedule to six double issues every year. This is obviously intended to manage costs, and it’s a reminder of how close to the edge the science fiction digests have always been. (To be fair, the change also coincides with a long overdue update of the magazine’s website, which is very encouraging. If this reflects a true shift from print to online, it’s less a retreat than a necessary recalibration.) It’s easy to contrast the game of pennies being played at the bottom with the expenditure of millions of dollars at the top, but that’s arguably how it has to be. Analog, like Astounding before it, was a machine for generating variations, which needs to be done on the cheap. Most stories are forgotten almost at once, and the few that survive the test of time are the ones that get the lion’s share of resources. All the while, the magazine persists as an indispensable form of research and development—a sort of skunk works that keeps the entire enterprise going. That’s been true since the beginning, and you can see this clearly in the lives of the writers involved. Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert, and their estates became wealthy from their work. Campbell, who more than any other individual was responsible for the rise of modern science fiction, did not. Instead, he remained in his little office, lugging manuscripts in a heavy briefcase twice a week on the train. He was reasonably well off, but not in a way that creates an empire of valuable intellectual property. Instead, he ran the lab. And we can see the results all around us.

Astounding Stories #9: “The Mule”

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"The Mule" by Isaac Asimov

Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

Of the four writers who stand at the heart of Astounding, the one who has been the hardest to pin down is Isaac Asimov. This might seem surprising, given that the other three figures are John W. Campbell, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard, all of whom, by any measure, had personalities and private lives of daunting complexity. Asimov, by contrast, seems like a relatively accessible figure: his life was comparatively uneventful in its externals, and he spent much of it in the lab at Boston University, giving speeches, or writing at home. He was also the author of two enormously detailed volumes of autobiography, In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt, that track his life on almost a daily basis, which would make them indispensable primary sources even if they weren’t also a huge pleasure to read. (A third volume, I, Asimov, is less essential, but still a must for fans.) He was also more of a public figure than any other science fiction writer of his time. With his glasses and sideburns, he was instantly recognizable, and I suspect that he might be the novelist, of any era, whom the greatest number of living Americans would be able to identify at sight. Decades after his death, he still has the highest name recognition of any writer in the genre. But separating the persona that he deliberately cultivated from the real man underneath presents undeniable challenges—all the more so because Asimov managed to convince millions of readers that they knew him well, when he really kept so many aspects of himself under close guard.

Asimov’s unique status as a celebrity also encourages a number of misconceptions about his career. He’s often cited as a monstrous fiction-writing machine, as Stephen King did in a recent essay for the New York Times on whether a novelist can be too productive. After evoking the likes of Max Brand and Alexandre Dumas, King continues: “And then there’s Isaac Asimov, who sold his first short story at nineteen, hammered out more than five hundred books, and revolutionized science fiction.” But there’s a big misapprehension here. Asimov was undoubtedly one of the most prolific writers who ever lived, but not on the fiction side. When you add up his novels and short stories, it’s an impressive body of work, but not that much larger than that of many other writers of his generation, and Asimov could go for years without producing much in the way of fiction at all. It was in nonfiction, and particularly in popular science, that he made his greatest mark on the world’s libraries, as well as on the consciousness of the public. For most of his life, Asimov was among the most highly regarded of authors within the closed circle of science fiction readers, but he didn’t have a mainstream bestseller until he returned to the Foundation series toward the end of his career. It was in the sheer volume of his nonfiction—which Asimov was among the first to realize would be newsworthy in itself—that he became famous to a general audience, less because of any one book than thanks to the familiarity of his face and byline.

Portrait of Isaac Asimov by Rowena Morrill

This makes it a little harder to objectively evaluate his fiction. There’s no doubt that he would be regarded as a major writer within the genre, even if he hadn’t become so famous outside of it, but his output is frankly more mixed than that of, say, Heinlein. It took Asimov a while to find his footing—although we should never forget, as King points out, that he was unbelievably young when he sold his first stories, and that he did much of his growing up as an author in full view. His single greatest breakthrough, “Nightfall,” has been voted the best science fiction story of all time on multiple occasions, although Asimov himself felt that it was overrated. The positronic robot stories are an indisputable landmark as a whole, but I’m not sure if any one installment in the series inspires particularly warm feelings in readers, and its most significant element, the Three Laws of Robotics, was really developed by Campbell. And Asimov’s limitations as a writer are more evident than they are in the best of his contemporaries. I’ve come to believe that Heinlein, Sturgeon, and the writing team of C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner, to name only the most obvious examples, could do just about anything, while Asimov seemed more comfortable working within a narrow range: it’s impossible to imagine him writing a story like “Vintage Season” or “Killdozer.” He helped define the genre, but he rarely strayed from a specific subset of it during the golden age, and it wasn’t until later, in stories like “The Last Question,” that he began to push into unexplored regions.

But I don’t want to understate his talent, because many of the stories he wrote during this early period are extraordinary. My personal favorite is “The Red Queen’s Race,” a relatively unheralded work about a professor who tries to change the future by sending physics textbooks back in time to ancient Greece: maybe it’s because of my own classics background, but I think it’s a perfect story. And then there’s the Foundation series, which remains his most lasting achievement, despite what even Asimov, on rereading it after three decades, saw as a decided lack of action or conventional suspense. (“I read it with mounting uneasiness. I kept waiting for something to happen, and nothing ever did.”) Elsewhere, the writer James Gunn notes that “the romance is almost invisible,” which is another way of saying that there are almost no women in sight. Still, it remains a fascinating work, in part because of the appeal of the notion of a secret society of psychohistorians, which had a strange afterlife when Campbell tried to create one for real at the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation in Elizabeth, New Jersey. And it includes one undeniably great novella, “The Mule,” which was Asimov’s own favorite. It benefits from having a significant female character for once, in the form of Bayta Darell, and a stunning twist ending that still works like gangbusters today. Asimov wrote it in response to Campbell’s insistence that the Seldon Plan, the “connecting backbone” of the series, had to be disrupted: “I was horrified. No, I said, no, no, no. But Campbell said: Yes, yes, yes, yes, and I knew I wasn’t going to sell him a no, no.” And as Asimov himself knew well, even the best of plans have a way of going in unexpected directions—and in life as well as in fiction.

Astounding Stories #6: “Microcosmic God” and “E for Effort”

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Microcosmic God

Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

It’s easy to forget that when Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health was first published, it wasn’t just meant as a textbook, but as a manual for an entire social movement that was designed to emerge at exactly the same time. The community that sprang up around it was no accident, and it was rooted in the very same science fiction circles that had been introduced to L. Ron Hubbard’s theories in the pages of Astounding. On the east coast, the movement was based at the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where Hubbard and his editor John W. Campbell were soon spending most of their time; on the west coast, it was centered on the Los Angeles chapter that was all but thrust into the hands of the writer A.E. van Vogt, in a disruption that took him out of science fiction for a decade. For Campbell, whose magazine had provided the initial platform that allowed Hubbard to reach a critical mass of readers, the foundation wasn’t just an adjunct to the book, but the heart of the entire project. Dianetics taught that individuals who had been “cleared” became smarter, more logical, and capable of accessing all the information they had ever learned or experienced. Unlike ordinary mortals, they were able to accurately process data from the world and evaluate it properly. And Campbell saw the foundation as a place where ideas of all kinds could be generated and refined by the heightened intellects that the therapy produced, which, in turn, was the only way to save mankind from its most destructive tendencies, as embodied in the threat of nuclear war.

This might seem like an impossibly grandiose mission, but it was only the expression, in the real world, of a longing that had been inherent in science fiction for years. The idea of a select group of enlightened men and women working together to save the human race from itself recurs repeatedly, and not just because it’s an engine for interesting stories. You see it, most famously, in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, first in the psychohistorians who transform psychology into an exact science that can be used to predict events far into the future, and then in the shadowy Second Foundation, which secretly nudges the minds of others to keep the plan on track. It’s there in Heinlein’s odd but wonderful novella Gulf, which was written just as he and Hubbard were becoming close friends, and which reads like a treatise wrapped in the pulpiest of pulp novels: it’s about a secret group of geniuses, the New Men, who parcel out scientific advances to the rest of society and defend the world against the existential threat of the nova effect, which could destroy the entire planet if it falls into the wrong hands. Perhaps most overtly, it’s visible in the numerous stories built around the general semantics of Alfred Korzybski, a fashionable theory of mental engineering that had a significant impact on authors like Hubbard, Heinlein, Poul Anderson, and van Vogt, whose novel The World of Null-A—which I hope to discuss in more detail soon—is both a fevered dramatization of Korzybski’s ideas and the weirdest story ever to appear in Astounding.

E for Effort

But for the most intriguing insights into Campbell’s hopes for the foundation, we should look at two stories in which the parallels are a little more subtle. The first is “Microcosmic God” by Theodore Sturgeon, published in 1941, which gives us a central character who reads a lot like a portrait of Campbell himself:

[Kidder] was always asking questions, and didn’t mind very much when they were embarrassing…If he was talking to someone who had knowledge, he went in there and got it, leaving his victim breathless. If he was talking to someone whose knowledge was already in his possession, he only asked repeatedly, “How do you know?”

Kidder, a scientist, is frustrated by society’s slow development of ideas, so he does it one better: he creates an artificial civilization in his laboratory populated by tiny creatures called Neoterics, who live and think at a rate hundreds of times faster than human beings, and to whom he poses scientific problems in the guise of their god. It takes the Neoterics just two hundred days to replicate all of mankind’s science, followed by the rapid development of everything from a vaccine against the common cold to an impenetrable force field, all in response to the miniature crises that he creates. It’s as perfect an allegory as I can imagine for Campbell’s vision of Astounding, which he saw as a collaboration between writers and fans to develop ideas at blinding speed, with himself as head of research. And he thought that the dianetics foundation would serve as an even greater laboratory.

The second story is by the author T.L. Sherred, who produced relatively little science fiction, but whose output includes one indisputable classic, “E for Effort,” which first appeared in 1947. It’s the story of two small-time operators who develop a technique for viewing events from any period in Earth’s history: they can literally look at anyone at any time, and they can film the result as if they had been there in person. They begin by using the technology to make popular documentaries, disguised as sword-and-sandal epics, about the likes of Alexander the Great, but they soon realize that they have something even more powerful at their disposal. By going back and documenting the sordid political realities of the first two world wars—“the cynical leaders who signed and laughed and lied”—they announce that their machine has made it impossible for governments to keep secrets, which is necessary “if atomic war is not to sear the face and fate of the world.” As one of the inventors tells the other:

War of any kind is what has made man spend most of his history in merely staying alive. Now, with the atom to use, he has within himself the seed of self-extermination. So help me, Ed, I’m going to do my share of stopping that, or I don’t see any point in living. I mean it!

In other words, what began as a form of entertainment becomes a means of saving the world. That’s exactly what Campbell thought science fiction could be. And it’s impossible to understand his hopes for dianetics, and the heartbreak that ensued when it fell short of that ideal, without remembering the vision of it that he infused, in secret, into the pages of his magazine.

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