Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Foundation

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The Martian

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

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

Jake Gyllenhaal in Life

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

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

Astounding Stories #9: “The Mule”

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"The Mule" by Isaac Asimov

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

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

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

Portrait of Isaac Asimov by Rowena Morrill

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

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

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

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Microcosmic God

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

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

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

E for Effort

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

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

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

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

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

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

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