Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Foundation

The Men Who Saw Tomorrow, Part 2

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In the early forties, William Anthony Parker White—who used the pen name “Anthony Boucher”—was a successful mystery novelist, a noted Sherlockian, and a member in good standing of the Mañana Literary Society of Los Angeles. On May 12, 1941, he submitted an article to John W. Campbell that he hoped their mutual friend, Robert A. Heinlein, had been “kind enough to mention.” In his cover letter, Boucher wrote:

This is an attempt to interpret Nostradamus in the light of present events and to go even further and take a chance on the immediate future…It is (so far as I know) the only completely honest contemporary interpretation of the prophecies. The film shorts and the popularizers have cheated right and left—misquoted, mistranslated, cut, transposed, amalgamated, and what have you. It’s startling enough without cheating, and a damned sight more impressive.

By “film shorts,” Boucher was presumably referring to such newsreels as “More About Nostradamus,” produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which loosely applied the French seer’s prophecies to the ongoing war in Europe. Boucher, not unreasonably, thought that he could do better. He proposed that the article run under his real name, but Campbell evidently saw his background in mystery fiction as a selling point, and on the cover of the issue in which the piece ran, the editor made the connection clear: “Nostradamus the Prophet…named names and places—and has been proven incredibly accurate. What specific prophecies did he make concerning our time? A famous author of detective stories does a little analyzing of the clues Nostradamus left.”

The result was “On a Limb,” a witty article that appeared in the October 1941 issue of the magazine that was then known as Unknown Worlds. Like Campbell, Boucher evokes “time travel” as one possible explanation for Nostradamus’s alleged gifts, and he has an interesting response to the objection of why no one has been able to take advantage of these prophecies to change events before they happen:

The essence of true prophecy is that it must be disbelieved or misinterpreted. If it can be circumvented, it will be false. Cassandra, whom Apollo blessed with prophecy and cursed with an incredulous public, is the perfect archetype of the prophet. Nostradamus realized this. He had first written his prophecies, we gather, clearly and in sequence. Then, foreseeing the impossible contradiction of this procedure, he cast them into cryptic quatrains, in the damnedest French you ever read, and shuffled them out of all time order. As a result, they can usually be interpreted only after the event. Attempts at reading the future result in such catastrophes as Bouys’s confident proof to Napoleon that Nostradamus promised him victory forever, including a satisfactory invasion of England.

And in an editor’s note in the June 1942 issue, Campbell drew a clever comparison: “It was customary, then, to publish a scientific discovery in code, in anagram, in horribly confused allegory, or by depositing a sealed description of the discovery with some trusted friend. That way, while the “publication” didn’t do anybody any good, the discoverer was able, later on when it became general knowledge, or was discovered by someone else, to give the key to his code, anagram, or what have you, and prove that the had been the first discoverer.”

The obvious consequence of such obscurity, as Boucher notes, is that Nostradamus is all but useless when it comes to forecasting events in advance. As a result, the second half of the article, which consists of specific prophecies about what the war will bring, takes the author out on “a long and shaky limb.” (“File this copy of Unknown Worlds away carefully,” Boucher writes dryly. “It may make good reading in another year or two.”) And in retrospect, the results are about as accurate as you might expect. Boucher’s most specific prophecy, based on the line “Because of war, the king will abandon his realm,” was that George VI would flee to Canada after the fall of his prime minister, which is about as wrong as it gets. And Boucher’s claim that one phrase—“la matiere du pont”—refers to armaments produced by the DuPont company seems to have been too much even for Campbell, who wrote in a closing note:

The foregoing article on the prophecies of Nostradamus is thoroughly incredible. Nostradamus’ prophecies were thoroughly incredible—in the degree of their accuracy. Somehow it seems easier to believe that a man might successfully predict the movements and broad sweeps of the histories of nations than that one, two, or four centuries before it happens, the individual directly involved can be named…That seems, somehow, beyond the realm of prophecy. That Nostradamus could name…a particular corporation, specifying one of the products of that corporation, seems even more improbable…Anagrams and puns do exist in Nostradamus; to read from his quatrains the names and exact circumstances seems much as though the interpreter were finding in them things the author had not put there.

But what really caught my eye is the italicized section above. At precisely the same time that Campbell was editing Boucher’s article, he was discussing psychohistory with Isaac Asimov, who was about to write in the original story “Foundation”: “A great psychologist such as [Hari] Seldon could unravel human emotions and human reactions sufficiently to be able to predict broadly the historical sweep of the future.” And I strongly suspect that Campbell’s treatment of prediction in Unknown affected its much more famous incarnation in Astounding. As I’ve noted before, in “Foundation,” psychohistory is presented less as a specific method than as a claim about results. We aren’t told the first thing about how it works, and not even the characters seem especially clear on the concept. (As one says blandly to another: “Seldon was the greatest psychologist of our time…It seems reasonable to assume that he used his science to determine the probable course of the history of the immediate future.” And that’s all we get, apart from the flat assertion that Seldon “could easily have worked out the historical trends of the future by simple psychological technique.”) Since the claim had to stand on its own, it had to be plausible in itself—which means that it could only apply to “the broad sweep” of events, and it couldn’t be too specific. As Campbell understood about Nostradamus, a system that was able to generate names and dates seemed to fall outside the realm of credible science. And Nostradamus certainly wasn’t useful in the way that psychohistory was supposed to be. In the June 1942 issue, Boucher granted that most of his earlier prophecies had been wrong, or remained unfulfilled, and he reminded readers of a point that he had made earlier:

Prophecy is of no practical value. Its interest lies solely in its appeal to intellectual curiosity and in its possible use as evidence of some extrasensory power latent in mankind. Interpreting prophecies concerning the past is a task for an abstract scholar. Attempting to apply prophecies to the future is nothing but a game.

But the game wasn’t quite over yet. Tomorrow, I’ll be talking about two more players who appeared at slightly different stages. One was L. Sprague de Camp. The other was Orson Welles.

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November 1, 2018 at 9:29 am

The Machine of Lagado

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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

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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

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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.

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August 15, 2018 at 9:00 am

The long now

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Foundation and Hollywood

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Yesterday, the news broke that Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy will finally be adapted for television. I’ve learned to be skeptical of such announcements, but the package that they’ve assembled sounds undeniably exciting. As we learn from an article in The Wrap:

HBO and Warner Bros. TV are teaming to produce a series based on Isaac Asimov‘s Foundation trilogy that will be written and produced by Interstellar writer Jonathan Nolan…Nolan, who is already working with HBO on Westworld, has been quietly developing the project for the last several months. He recently tipped his hand to Indiewire, which asked him: “What’s the one piece of science fiction you truly love that people don’t know enough about?” [Nolan replied:] “Well, I fucking love the Foundation novels by Isaac Asimov…That’s a set of books I think everyone would benefit from reading.”

Whoops, my mistake—that’s a story from two years ago. The latest attempt will be developed by David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman for Apple, which acquired it from Skydance Television in what Deadline describes as “a competitive situation.” And when you turn back the clock even further, you find that efforts to adapt the trilogy were made in the nineties by New Line Cinema, which went with The Lord of the Rings instead, and even by Roland Emmerich, who might be the last director whom you’d entrust with this material. There were probably other projects that have been long since forgotten. And it doesn’t take a psychohistorian to realize that the odds are stacked against this new version ever seeing the light of day.

Why has the Foundation series remained so alluring to Hollywood, yet so resistant to adaptation? For a clue, we can turn to Asimov himself. In the early eighties, he was approached by Doubleday to write his first new novel in years, and an editor laid out the situation in no uncertain terms: “Listen, Isaac, let me make it clear. When [editor Betty Prashker] said ‘a novel,’ she meant ‘a science fiction novel,’ and when we say ‘a science fiction novel,’ we mean ‘a Foundation novel.’ That’s what we want.” Asimov was daunted, but the offer was too generous to refuse, so he decided to give it a try. As he recounts in his memoir I. Asimov:

Before I got started, I would have to reread the Foundation trilogy. This I approached with a certain horror…I couldn’t help noticing, of course, that there was not very much action in it. The problems and resolutions thereof were expressed primarily in dialogue, in competing rational discussions from different points of view, with no clear indication to the reader which view was right and which was wrong.

This didn’t mean that the trilogy wasn’t engaging—Asimov thought that “it was a page-turner,” and when he was done, he was surprised by his personal reaction: “I experienced exactly what readers had been telling me for decades—a sense of fury that it was over and there was no more.” But if you’re looking to adapt it into another medium, you quickly find that there isn’t a lot there in terms of conventional drama or excitement. As Omar Sharif once said about Lawrence of Arabia: “If you are the man with the money and somebody comes to you and says he wants to make a film…with no stars, and no women, and no love story, and not much action either…what would you say?

In fact, it’s hard to pin down exactly what the Foundation series—or at least the first book—has to offer the movies or television. Speaking as a fan, I can safely state that it doesn’t have memorable characters, iconic scenes, or even much in the way of background. If I were hired to adapt it, I might react in much the same way that William Goldman did when he worked on the movie version of Maverick. Goldman confesses in Which Lie Did I Tell? that his reasons for taking the assignment were simple: “I knew it would be easy…The last thing in life I wanted was to try another original. This adaptation had to be a breeze—all I needed to do was pick out one of the old [episodes] that had too much plot, expand it, and there would be the movie.” He continues:

One of the shocks of my life happened in my living room, where I spent many hours looking at the old Maverick shows I’d been sent. Because, and this was the crusher, television storytelling has changed…Not only was the [James] Garner character generally passive, there was almost no plot at all. Nothing for me to steal. I essentially had to write, sob, another original.

Similarly, the Foundation series gives a writer almost nothing to steal. Once you get to “The Mule,” the action picks up considerably, but that’s obviously your second—or even your third—season, not your first. In the meantime, you’re left with the concept of psychohistory and nothing else. You have to write another original. Which is essentially what happened with I, Robot.

And even psychohistory can be more trouble that it might be worth. It works most convincingly over the course of years or decades, which isn’t a timeframe that lends itself to movies or television, and it naturally restricts the ability of the characters to take control of the story. Which isn’t to say that it’s impossible. (In fact, I have some decent ideas of my own, but I’ll keep them to myself, in case Goyer and Friedman ever want to take a meeting. My schedule is pretty packed at the moment, but it frees up considerably in a few months.) But it’s worth asking why the Foundation series has been such a tempting target for so long. It’s clearly a recognizable property, which is valuable in itself, and its highbrow reputation makes it seem like a promising candidate for a prestige adaptation, although even a glance at the originals shows how deeply they remain rooted in the pulp tradition from which they emerged. If I were a producer looking to move into science fiction with a big acquisition, this would be one of the first places that I’d look, even if these stories aren’t exactly what they seem to be—the Deadline article says that they “informed” the Star Wars movies, which is true only in the loosest possible sense. When you combine the apparent value of the material with the practical difficulty of adapting it, you end up with the cycle that we’ve seen for decades. Asimov was the most famous name in science fiction for thirty years, and his works were almost perpetually under option, but apart from a quickie adaptation of Nightfall, he died before seeing any of it on the screen. He was glad to take the money, but he knew that his particular brand of fiction wouldn’t translate well to other media, and he concluded with what he once called Asimov’s First Law of Hollywood: “Whatever happens, nothing happens.”

The axioms of behavior

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Earlier this week, Keith Raniere, the founder of an organization known as Nxivm, was arrested in Mexico, to which he had fled last year in the wake of a devastating investigation published in the New York Times. The article described a shady operation that combined aspects of a business seminar, a pyramid scheme, and a sex cult, with public workshops shading into a “secret sisterhood” that required its members to provide nude photographs or other compromising materials and be branded with Raniere’s initials. (In an email obtained by the Times, Raniere reassured one of his followers: “[It was] not originally intended as my initials but they rearranged it slightly for tribute.”) According to the report, about sixteen thousand people have taken the group’s courses, which are marketed as leading to “greater self-fulfillment by eliminating psychological and emotional barriers,” and some went even further. As the journalist Barry Meier wrote:

Most participants take some workshops, like the group’s “Executive Success Programs,” and resume their lives. But other people have become drawn more deeply into Nxivm, giving up careers, friends and families to become followers of its leader, Keith Raniere, who is known within the group as “Vanguard”…Former members have depicted [Raniere] as a man who manipulated his adherents, had sex with them and urged women to follow near-starvation diets to achieve the type of physique he found appealing.

And it gets even stranger. In 2003, Raniere sued the Cult Education Institute for posting passages from his training materials online. In his deposition for the suit, which was dismissed just last year, Raniere stated:

I discovered I had an exceptional aptitude for mathematics and computers when I was twelve. It was at the age of twelve I read The Second Foundation [sic] by Isaac Asimov and was inspired by the concepts on optimal human communication to start to develop the theory and practice of Rational Inquiry. This practice involves analyzing and optimizing how the mind handles data. It involves mathematical set theory applied in a computer programmatic fashion to processes such as memory and emotion. It also involves a projective methodology that can be used for optimal communication and decision making.

Raniere didn’t mention any specific quotations from Asimov, but they were presumably along the lines of the following, which actually appears in Foundation and Empire, spoken by none other than the Mule:

Intuition or insight or hunch-tendency, whatever you wish to call it, can be treated as an emotion. At least, I can treat it so…The human mind works at low efficiency. Twenty percent is the figure usually given. When, momentarily, there is a flash of greater power it is termed a hunch, or insight, or intuition. I found early that I could induce a continual use of high brain-efficiency. It is a killing process for the person affected, but it is useful.

At this point, one might be tempted to draw parallels to other cults, such as Aum Shinrikyo, that are also said to have taken inspiration from Asimov’s work. In this case, however, the connection to the Foundation series seems tangential at best. A lot of us read science fiction at the golden age of twelve, and while we might be intrigued by psychohistory or mental engineering, few of us take it in the direction that Raniere evidently did. (As one character observes in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum: “People don’t get the idea of going back to burn Troy just because they read Homer.”) In fact, Raniere comes off a lot more like L. Ron Hubbard, at least in the version of himself that he presents in public. In the deposition, he provided an exaggerated account of his accomplishments that will strike those who know Hubbard as familiar:

In 1988, I was accepted into the Mega Society. The requirements to be accepted into the Mega Society were to have a demonstrated IQ of 176…In 1989, I was accepted into the Guinness Book of World Records under the category “Highest IQ.” I also left my position as a Computer Programmer/Analyst and resumed business consulting with the intention to raise money to start the “Life Learning Institute.” At this point in time I became fascinated with how human motivation affected behavior. I started to refine my projective mathematical theory of the human mind to include a motivational behavior equation.

And when Raniere speaks of developing “a set of consistent axioms of how human behavior interfaced with the world,” it’s just a variation on an idea that has been recycled within the genre for decades.

Yet it’s also worth asking why the notion of a “mathematical psychology” appeals to these manipulative personalities, and why many of them have repackaged these ideas so successfully for their followers. You could argue that Raniere—or even Charles Manson—represents the psychotic fringe of an impulse toward transformation that has long been central to science fiction, culminating in the figure of the superman. (It’s probably just a coincidence, but I can’t help noting that two individuals who have been prominently linked with the group, the actresses Kristin Kreuk and Allison Mack, both appeared on Smallville.) And many cults hold out a promise of change for which the genre provides a convenient vocabulary. As Raniere said in his deposition:

In mathematics, all things are proven based on axioms and a step by step systematic construction. Computers work the same way. To program a computer one must first understand the axioms of the computer language, and then the step by step systematic construction of the problem-solution methodology. Finally, one must construct the problem-solution methodology in a step by step fashion using the axioms of the language. I discovered the human mind works the same way and I formalized the process.

This sounds a lot like Hubbard, particularly in the early days of dianetics, in which the influence of cybernetics was particularly strong. But it also represents a limited understanding of what the human mind can be, and it isn’t surprising that it attracts people who see others as objects to be altered, programmed, and controlled. The question of whether such figures as Hubbard or Raniere really buy into their own teachings resists any definitive answer, but one point seems clear enough. Even if they don’t believe it, they obviously wish that it were true.

The fall of the foundation

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Note: Spoilers follow for the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov.

At the World Science Fiction Convention two years ago in Kansas City, I attended a panel where an audience member asked a question about Donald Trump. There were audible groans from the room, but one of the panelists—I think it was David Brin—drew a parallel between Trump and Nehemiah Scudder, the religious demagogue who casts an ominous shadow across Heinlein’s Future History. It was a clever comparison, but as time goes on, I’ve come to realize that there’s an even better surrogate from the golden age of science fiction. I’ve seen it mentioned here and there online, but the most thorough treatment is by Chris Taylor of Mashable, who writes of the psychohistorians of Asimov’s Foundation series:

They hope to preserve all the knowledge of civilization after the collapse of the Empire, as predicted by foresighted futurist Hari Seldon. We see them overcome various “Seldon crises,” gaining more and more star systems—until the Empire collapses halfway through the second book, Foundation and Empire, ahead of schedule. At this point in the story, the Foundation seems as secure as Obama-era technocracy did. It’s the end of history, basically—and though a group of underground democrats grumble about its rigid political system, the rational, enlightened, science-friendly Foundation has clearly triumphed over the forces of darkness and anarchy…Then out of nowhere comes the Mule, a terrifying warlord who conquers the entire Foundation in the space of a year. Seldon’s…prediction turns out to be badly wrong—as useless, say, as pre-election polling in November 2016. He didn’t see the Mule coming…[The Mule] turns out to have developed a one-in-a-trillion genetic mutation that gives him a strange power: the ability to implant the emotion of his choice in others. So the Mule instills his followers with ecstatic, fanatical loyalty, and sticks his opponents with despair and “a miserable sense of defeat.”

Taylor’s excellent article, which is worth reading in its entirety, highlights passages from Asimov’s stories—much of which the Mule spends in disguise as a clown—that have taken on an uncanny resonance. Here, for instance, we see Han Pritcher, a decorated military hero who once opposed the Mule, only to be converted by him after a failed assassination attempt:

Pritcher caught a mental breath and tried to think back. How had he been before the Mule had Converted him from the diehard democrat that he had been? It was hard to remember. He could not place himself mentally. He could not break the lining wires that bound him emotionally to the Mule…There had been no sensation the first time. There had been no pain, no mental jar—not even a feeling of discontinuity. He had always loved the Mule. If there had ever been a time long before—as long before as five short years—when he had thought he hadn’t loved him, that he had hated him—that was just a horrid illusion. The thought of that illusion embarrassed him.

And a little while later, when the First Speaker of the Second Foundation addresses the Mule directly at last:

Emotional contact such as you and I possess is not a very new development…but the faculty of direct emotional contact tended to atrophy with the development of speech a million years back…[But] you were born with it…We calculated the extent to which a megalomania would take control of you and we thought we were prepared…The added psychic distortion due to your inferiority complex passed us by. We allowed only for megalomania—not for an intensely psychopathic paranoia as well.

And if you’re wondering whether these parallels might have occurred to anyone within the Republican Party itself—well, it’s possible. Here’s what one prominent conservative wrote two decades ago in a book titled To Renew America, which seems now like a slightly less catchy version of Trump’s favorite slogan:

While Toynbee was impressing me with the history of civilizations, Isaac Asimov was shaping my view of the future in equally profound ways…For a high school student who loved history, Asimov’s most exhilarating invention was the “psychohistorian” Hari Seldon. The term does not refer to Freudian analysis but to a kind of probabilistic forecasting of the future of whole civilizations. The premise was that, while you cannot predict individual behavior, you can develop a pretty accurate sense of mass behavior. Pollsters and advertisers now make a good living off the same theory.

The author was Newt Gingrich, whose love of science fiction has been amply documented elsewhere—he wrote science fiction novels, participated in Jerry Pournelle’s think tank on the Strategic Defense Initiative, gave a controversial speech at the Nebula Awards, and mused during his last presidential campaign about placing a permanent base on the moon. And he really likes the Foundation series. As Ray Smock, the former historian of the House of Representatives, wrote in a fascinating article on the subject: “The greatest influence on Newt Gingrich, the conservative Republican, was the liberal atheist Isaac Asimov…Newt saw not just entertainment but a master plan using the Foundation trilogy as his political handbook, a guide to how one man creates a new force for civilized life.”

Gingrich, like the economist Paul Krugman, wanted to be Hari Seldon, and at first, he pursued his goals in the manner of any aspiring psychohistorian. (As Smock writes with a straight face: “While Hari Seldon created the Foundation to carry out his work, Newt used a variety of foundations and organizations to foster his work.”) So how did he become such a vocal defender of our generation’s equivalent of the Mule? Helpfully, Gingrich published an entire book on the subject, Understanding Trump, which includes a passage that sheds some light on the problem, mostly by speaking of Trump as if he were a super empath:

[Donald Trump] has a sixth sense about connecting with the American people. For instance, Trump routinely spoke to crowds of ten to twenty thousand people, but if you watched his gestures and body language, you saw that he was connecting with audience members one by one…Trump’s familiarity and comfortableness with working-class Americans also enables him to intuit what people care about and what they are looking for…In addition to giving strength and resolve to his supporters, I am sure the rallies were critical to maintaining Trump’s spirit as well. He was able to stay in tune with, and be guided by, the will of the people.

And if you want to understand the fundamental strangeness of what remains of the Republican Party, it helps to see it as an organization of men who thought fondly that they were a foundation of Hari Seldons, but who turned out to be embarrassingly eager to throw in their lot with the Mule, contenting themselves with “wins” on specific issues even as their party was irrevocably transformed. Trump, like the Mule, seems to have only gradually understood the extent of his power: “Slowly, I learned that I could reach into those minds and turn the pointer to the spot I wished, that I could nail it there forever.” Now he clearly knows what he can do. And he fooled many of us for a long time into thinking that he was a clown.

The Road to Foundation

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As I’ve recounted here before, on August 1, 1941, Isaac Asimov was riding the subway to John W. Campbell’s office in New York when the history of science fiction changed forever. In his memoir In Memory Yet Green, Asimov, who was twenty-one at the time, recalls the moment at which he first conceived of what became the Foundation series:

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

For reasons that I’ll discuss below, I’m reasonably sure that the illustration that Asimov describes is the one reproduced above, which was drawn by the lyricist W.S. Gilbert himself. And what strikes me the most about this anecdote now is the fact that Asimov looked at this particular picture, ignored the Fairy Queen entirely, and turned it into a series in which no women of any consequence would appear for years. To make a slightly facetious comparison, if I were a therapist giving Asimov the Thematic Apperception Test, in which the subject is asked to look at a picture and make up a story about it, this is the point at which I would sit up slightly in my chair.

Recently, it occurred to me to try to figure out which book Asimov was carrying on the train that day, if only because it’s interesting to dig into what a writer might have been reading at a given moment. The great model here is John Livingston Lowes’s The Road to Xanadu, which obsessively connects the imagery of “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to the travel narratives that Samuel Coleridge was studying at the time. Asimov, it’s worth noting, was skeptical of Lowes’s approach:

I tried reading the book in my youth, but gave up. It could only interest another Coleridge scholar. Besides, I saw no point to it. Granted that the phrases already existed scattered through a dozen books, they existed for everybody. It was only Coleridge who thought of putting them together, with the necessary modifications, to form one of the great poems of the English language. Coleridge might not have been a hundred percent original but he was original enough to make the poem a work of genius.

But this kind of search can be diverting in itself, and it didn’t take me long to conclude that Asimov’s book was likely to have been Plays and Poems of W.S. Gilbert, which was published by Random House in 1932. As far as I can tell, it’s one of only two books available at the time that included both the lyrics to Iolanthe and the illustrations by Gilbert, and it would have been easy to find. (The other is a book titled Authentic Libretti of the Gilbert and Sullivan Operas, which was published a few years later to coincide with a tour by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, and it doesn’t look like something that Asimov would have brought on the subway.)

The edition, as it happens, is available online for free, and it can be amusing to left through it while keeping the young Asimov in mind. This isn’t literary criticism, exactly, but a kind of scholarly reverie, and it’s valuable primarily for the chain of associations that it evokes. The book opens with a lengthy introduction by Deems Taylor, a music critic and occasional member of the Algonquin Round Table, and I’d like to think that Asimov would have seen aspects of himself in it. For example, here’s Taylor on Gilbert’s early years as a writer:

For a time, his writings, although voluminous, attracted no attention whatsoever. He tried everything—reporting, dramatic criticism, editorials, weekly news letters to provincial papers, political polemics, essays—all the forms of quotidian literature that flow from the pen of any young person who vaguely “wants to write” (a sentence that, appropriately, has no object). The results were financially negligible. Nor did he have the meagre satisfaction of knowing that there were those who were watching him, believing in him. Nobody was watching a young journalistic hack who was no different from scores of his fellows except that he combined a gift for saying cutting things with a complete inability to refrain from saying them.

This sounds a lot like Asimov in the days when he was trying to break into Astounding, and as I thought more about Gilbert and Sullivan themselves, who brought out the best in each other, I saw them for the first time as shadows of Asimov and Campbell in the thirties, of whose partnership the former once wrote: “Campbell and I, in those first three years of my writing career—the crucial and formative ones—were a symbiotic organism.”

But the section that intrigues me the most comes near the end of the introduction. Speaking fondly of the characters of HMS Pinafore, The Mikado and all the rest, Taylor writes:

As this gay, silly, endearing crew skip upon the stage, the sum of all that they say is always the same thing; and it is a romantic thing: That the light of pure reason casts grotesque shadows; that a world in which there is nothing but the letter of the law, and the logical conclusion, and the inevitable deduction, and the axiomatic fact, and the rational course of conduct, is, in the last account, a ridiculous one. Looking at their world, in which there is everything but the truth that lies beyond logic, we perceive that it is, in more ways than one, an impossible world.

It’s hard for me to read this now without reflecting that Asimov was just moments away, as he rode the train to Campbell’s office, from conceiving nothing less than “a world in which there is nothing but the letter of the law, and the logical conclusion, and the inevitable deduction, and the axiomatic fact, and the rational course of conduct,” which would end up dominating much of the rest of his life. And while I’m no expert on Gilbert and Sullivan, viewing the Foundation series through that lens seems like a promising approach. Asimov, as I’ve noted elsewhere, never seems to have been particularly interested in psychohistory, which was mostly Campbell’s invention, and he was more conscious of its limitations than many of its fans are. (In The End of Eternity, Asimov describes a similar group of scientists as a collection of “psychopaths.”) And what Taylor writes of these operettas applies just as well to many of the stories that they inspired: “The sky has cleared, the problems solve themselves, and everything has suddenly turned out all right. Every fundamental axiom of human motive and conduct has been outraged, and we are delighted.”

The manufacturers of worlds

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For the last few days, as part of a deliberate break from writing, I’ve been browsing contentedly through my favorite book, The Annotated Sherlock Holmes by William S. Baring-Gould. It was meant to be a comforting read that was as far removed from work as possible, but science fiction, unsurprisingly, can’t seem to let me go. Yesterday, I was looking over The Sign of the Four when I noticed a line that I’ve read countless times without really taking note of it. As Holmes leaves Baker Street to pursue a line of the investigation, he says to Watson, who has remained behind: “Let me recommend this book—one of the most remarkable ever penned. It is Winwood Reade’s Martyrdom of Man. I shall be back in an hour.” Toward the end of the novel, speaking of the difficulty in predicting what any given human being will do, Holmes elaborates:

Winwood Reade is good upon the subject…He remarks that, while the individual man is an insoluble puzzle, in the aggregate he becomes a mathematical certainty. You can, for example, never foretell what any one man will do, but you can say with precision what an average number will be up to. Individuals vary, but percentages remain constant. So says the statistician.

This is remarkably like what Isaac Asimov writes of psychohistory, a sociological version of the ideal gas law that can predict the future based on the existence of a huge number—perhaps in the trillions—of individual lives. And it seemed worth checking to see if this passage could cast any light on the origins of the imaginary science that I’ve spent so much time exploring.

It pains me to say that Holmes himself probably wasn’t a direct influence on the Foundation series. There was a considerable overlap between Sherlockians and science fiction writers—prominent members of both camps included Anthony Boucher, Poul Anderson, Fletcher Pratt, and Manly Wade Wellman—but John W. Campbell wasn’t among them, and Asimov was drafted only reluctantly into the Baker Street Irregulars. (He writes in I. Asimov: “Conan Doyle was a slapdash and sloppy writer…I am not really a Holmes enthusiast.”) For insight, we have to go back to Winwood Reade himself, a British historian, explorer, and correspondent of Charles Darwin whose discussion of the statistical predictability of the human race appears, interestingly, in an argument against the efficacy of prayer. Here’s the full passage from The Martyrdom of Man, which was published in 1872:

All phenomena, physical and moral, are subject to laws as invariable as those which regulate the rising and setting of the sun. It is in reality as foolish to pray for rain or a fair wind as it would be to pray that the sun should set in the middle of the day. It is as foolish to pray for the healing of a disease or for daily bread as it is to pray for rain or a fair wind. It is as foolish to pray for a pure heart or for mental repose as it is to pray for help in sickness or misfortune. All the events which occur upon the earth result from Law: even those actions which are entirely dependent on the caprices of the memory, or the impulse of the passions, are shown by statistics to be, when taken in the gross, entirely independent of the human will. As a single atom, man is an enigma; as a whole, he is a mathematical problem. As an individual, he is a free agent; as a species, the offspring of necessity.

At the end of the book, Reade takes his own principles to their logical conclusion, becoming, in effect, an early writer of science fiction. Its closing section, “Intellect,” sketches out a universal history that anticipates Toynbee, but Reade goes further: “When we understand the laws which regulate the complex phenomena of life, we shall be able to predict the future as we are already able to predict comets and eclipses and planetary movements.” He describes three inventions that he believes will lead to an era of global prosperity:

The first is the discovery of a motive force which will take the place of steam, with its cumbrous fuel of oil or coal; secondly, the invention of aerial locomotion which will transport labour at a trifling cost of money and of time to any part of the planet, and which, by annihilating distance, will speedily extinguish national distinctions; and thirdly, the manufacture of flesh and flour from the elements by a chemical process in the laboratory, similar to that which is now performed within the bodies of the animals and plants.

And after rhapsodizing over the utopian civilization that will result—in which “poetry and the fine arts will take that place in the heart which religion now holds”—he turns his thoughts to the stars:

And then, the earth being small, mankind will migrate into space, and will cross the airless Saharas which separate planet from planet, and sun from sun. The earth will become a Holy Land which will be visited by pilgrims from all the quarters of the universe. Finally, men will master the forces of nature; they will become themselves architects of systems, manufacturers of worlds. Man then will be perfect; he will then be a creator; he will therefore be what the vulgar worship as a god.

Reade was inevitably seen as an atheist, and although he didn’t like the label, he inclined many readers in that direction, as he did in one of the most interesting episodes in this book’s afterlife. The scene is World War II, which tested the idea of psychohistory to its limit, and the speaker is the author of the memoir The Enchanted Places:

The war was on. I was in Italy. From time to time [my father] used to send me parcels of books to read. In one of them were two in the Thinker’s Library series: Renan’s The Life of Jesus and Winwood Reade’s The Martyrdom of Man. I started with The Life of Jesus and found it quite interesting; I turned to The Martyrdom and found it enthralling…There was no God. God had not created Man in His own image. It was the other way round: Man had created God. And Man was all there was. But it was enough. It was the answer, and it was both totally convincing and totally satisfying. It convinced and satisfied me as I lay in my tent somewhere on the narrow strip of sand that divides Lake Comacchio from the Adriatic; and it has convinced and satisfied me ever since.

I wrote at once to my father to tell him so and he at once wrote back. And it was then that I learned for the first time that these were his beliefs, too, and that he had always hoped that one day I would come to share them…So he had sent me The Martyrdom. But even then he had wanted to play absolutely fair, and so he had added The Life of Jesus. And then he had been content to leave the verdict to me. Well, he said, the church had done its best. It had had twenty-four years’ start—and it had failed.

The author adds: “If I had to compile a list of books that have influenced my life, high on the list would undoubtedly be Winwood Reade’s The Martyrdom of Man. And it would probably be equally high on my father’s list too.” The father in question was A.A. Milne. And the son was named Christopher Robin.

The First Foundation, Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The First Foundation, Part 2

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

—Private Willis, Iolanthe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The First Foundation, Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The world spins

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

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

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

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

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

Written by nevalalee

August 22, 2017 at 9:08 am

The weight of lumber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The science fiction sieve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by nevalalee

June 28, 2017 at 9:07 am

The Mule and the Beaver

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

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

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

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

Written by nevalalee

March 22, 2017 at 9:54 am

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