Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Frederik Pohl

The mogul empire

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Earlier this month, the news sites DNAinfo and Gothamist were abruptly closed by their owner, the billionaire Joe Ricketts, after their staff voted to join the Writers Guild of America East. Ricketts, who founded Ameritrade and controls the Chicago Cubs, took down the home pages of both publications—including, temporarily, their archives, which made it hard for their suddenly jobless reporters to even access their own clips—and replaced them with a letter stating that the sites hadn’t been successful enough “to support the tremendous effort and expense needed to produce the type of journalism on which the company was founded.” Back in September, however, Ricketts wrote a blog post, “Why I’m Against Unions At Businesses I Create,” that cast his decision in a somewhat different light:

In my opinion, the essential esprit de corps that every successful company needs can’t exist when employees and ownership see themselves as being on opposite ends of a seesaw.  Everyone at a company—owners and employees alike—need to be sitting on the same end of the seesaw because the world is sitting on the other end. I believe unions promote a corrosive us-against-them dynamic that destroys the esprit de corps businesses need to succeed.  And that corrosive dynamic makes no sense in my mind where an entrepreneur is staking his capital on a business that is providing jobs and promoting innovation.

Of course, his response to his newly unionized employees, who hadn’t even made any demands yet, wasn’t exactly conducive to esprit de corps, either. As a headline in the opinion section of the New York Times put it, Ricketts, who supported Donald Trump after spending millions of dollars in an unsuccessful bid to derail his candidacy, seems to have closed his own businesses entirely out of spite.

And this isn’t just a story about unionization, but the unpleasant flip side of a daydream to which many of us secretly cling about journalism—the notion that in the face of falling circulation and a shaky business model, its salvation lies with philanthropic or ambitious billionaires. We’ve seen this work fairly well with Jeff Bezos and the Washington Post, but other recent examples don’t exactly inspire confidence. In 2012, The New Republic was acquired by Chris Hughes of Facebook, who cut its annual number of print issues in half and revamped it as a “vertically integrated digital-media company,” leading to the resignations of editors Franklin Foer and Leon Wieseltier. (Foer rebounded with a book pointedly titled World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, while Wieseltier has suffered from unrelated troubles of his own.) Go a little further back, and you have the acquisition of the New York Observer by none other than Jared Kushner, which went about as well as you would expect. As Rich Cohen writes in Vanity Fair:

The Observer was a hybrid—tabloid heart, broadsheet brain. A funny man in a serious mood, a serious man with a sense of humor…Kushner either did not get this or did not care. Millennials have a thing about broadsheets. They’ve grown up reading on phones, that smooth path of entry. They can’t stand unwieldiness—following a piece from front page to jump, and all that folding, and the ink stains your fingers.

Kushner took the Observer to tabloid size, discontinued its print edition, and even fired Rex Reed, turning the paper into a ghost town. He and Hughes are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, but they both seized a vulnerable publication, tried to turn it into something that it wasn’t, and all but destroyed it. Ricketts, who shut down Gothamist a mere eight months after buying it, simply took that process to its logical conclusion. And these cases all point to the risk involved when the future of a media enterprise lies in the hands of an outside benefactor who sees no reason not to dismantle it as impulsively as he bought it in the first place.

Obviously, there are countless examples of media companies that fared poorly after an acquisition, but I’ve been thinking recently about one particular case, in which The New Republic also figures prominently. The American News Company was the distribution firm and wholesaler on which many magazines once depended to get on newsstands, and its collapse in 1957 is widely seen as an “extinction event” that caused a meltdown of the market for short science fiction. (For additional details, see this post, particularly the comments.) Here’s how Frederik Pohl describes it in The Way the Future Was:

ANC was big, mighty, and old. It had been around so long that over the years it had acquired all sorts of valuable property. Land. Buildings. Restaurants. Franchises. Items of considerable cash value, acquired when time was young and everything was cheap, and still carried on their books at the pitiful acquisition costs of 1890 or 1910. A stock operator took note of all this and observed that if you bought up all the outstanding stock in ANC (a publicly held corporation) at prevailing prices, you would have acquired an awful lot of valuable real estate at, really, only a few cents on the dollar. It was as profitable as buying dollar bills for fifty cents each…So he did. He bought a controlling interest and liquidated the company.

The truth is slightly more complicated. The American News Company had been on the decline for years, with the departure of such major clients as Time, Look, and Newsweek, and its acquirer wasn’t a “stock operator,” but Henry Garfinkle, the wealthy owner of a newsstand chain called the Union News Corporation. There were obvious possibilities for vertical integration, and for the first year or so, he seems to have made a real effort to run the combined company.

Unfortunately, in the face of falling sales for the industry as a whole, his efforts took the form of a crackdown on small niche magazines that were having trouble sustaining large audiences, in a cycle that seems awfully familiar. (As one contemporary account stated: “The American News Company found that the newsstand demand for some of the more intellectual magazines like The New Republic, Commonweal, Wisdom, and Faith was so small that it was profitless to carry them.”) His brutal tactics alienated publishers, including Dell, its largest client, which filed a lawsuit for restraint of trade. More magazines left, including The New Yorker and Vogue, which, combined with an ongoing antitrust investigation, was what finally led Garfinkle to cut his losses and liquidate. Yet there isn’t much doubt that Garfinkle’s approach played a role in driving his clients away, and he had plenty of help on that front. He had started his empire with a single newsstand that he bought in his teens with a loan from a generous patron, and when he took control of the American News Company, the transaction was masterminded by his general council, who had joined the firm the year before. As one author describes this attorney’s “hardball legal tactics”:

[He] later claimed to have engineered Garfinkle’s successful coup. At the publicly held company’s annual meeting in March 1955, Garfinkle headed a dissident group that eventually forced the management to resign. This bold move allowed Garfinkle to gain control of the ninety-one-year-old company, which called itself the world’s oldest magazine wholesaler. Garfinkel revamped the ailing company, renamed it Ancorp National Services, Inc., and gained a near stranglehold on the distribution of newspapers and magazines in the Northeast.

This passage appears in Thomas Maier’s biography Newhouse. The benefactor who gave Garfinkle his start was Sam Newhouse, Sr., and the general counsel who oversaw the takeover—and remained at the company throughout all that followed—was none other than Roy Cohn. I’m not saying that Cohn, on top of everything else, also killed the science fiction market. But if history has taught us one thing, it’s that publications should watch out when a buyer like this comes calling.

When Del met Elron

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Last week, I posted a quote about the legendary acting teacher and performer Del Close, who is revered as one of the founders of modern improvisational comedy. (Close served as the “house metaphysician” for years on Saturday Night Live, and his students included John Belushi, Bill Murray, and Mike Meyers. He only rarely appeared on camera himself, but you might recognize him from a very peculiar cameo in one scene in The Untouchables, in which he plays the alderman who tries to bribe Eliot Ness.) While reading about his life, I also came across the interesting claim that Close had met L. Ron Hubbard sometime in the early fifties. As Kim Howard Johnson notes in the biography The Funniest One in the Room, Close was a science fiction fan in his teens in Kansas, reading such pulps as Startling Stories and making plans to publish his own fanzine, and his attention was caught by a noteworthy development in the genre: “During the summer of their sophomore year, Del introduced [a friend] to Dianetics, the book by then-science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard, and Del led them in experiments in prebirth awareness.” There was nothing particularly unusual about this—dianetics was unquestionably the story of the year among fans, and a majority of readers were disposed to approach it favorably. Most teenagers in the midwest had to be content with observing the movement from a distance, but fate intervened, as Close recalled years later:

I immediately fell madly in love with [local actress Aneta Corsaut]…I was utterly enthralled with this young lady. I used to go down to Wichita—well, that’s where the bus went, then you get a bus from Wichita to Hutchinson, which is about thirty-five miles further on. That’s where I met L. Ron Hubbard, was visiting Aneta.

Hubbard had moved to Wichita at the invitation of his benefactor Don Purcell, a local real estate investor and businessman who had rescued him after the sudden implosions of the dianetics foundations in Los Angeles and Elizabeth, New Jersey. Close documented his visit to Hubbard, which seems to have taken place sometime in second half of 1951, in an autobiographical story in the comic book Wasteland, which he wrote with John Ostrander in the late eighties. I’ve gotten my hands on a copy of the issue, and it’s quite something. It opens with a dramatization of one of Close’s dreams, in which he’s living on an island with a goat, a lion, and a “mother bear.” He’s reluctant to leave, protesting that he can’t breathe water, but the goat butts him off the edge of a cliff. The scene then cuts to the auditing session in Wichita, where Hubbard, identified as “Elron,” asks Close: “Strange dream. Were you delivered with forceps?” Hubbard proposes that they check with Close’s mother, but the teenager refuses to consider it. After offering his interpretation—“Well, I don’t ordinarily deal in dreams—leave that to the psychiatrists—but this is obviously a birth dream”—Hubbard invites Close to have a fencing match. As they cross sabers, Hubbard suggests that the bear, who hums rhythmically throughout the dream, is a memory of the mother’s heartbeat, while the pressure of the goat’s horns represents her ribs. He informs Close that this will be their last auditing session, saying that he’s having “some serious difficulties with the powers that be,” and gives the unwary fan a whack across the face. Before they part ways, Hubbard muses over turning dianetics into a religion, and he’s thrilled when Close asks him to autograph his novel Death’s Deputy: “I don’t have a copy of this myself! Let me buy it off ya!” Close leaves, thinking to himself: “I feel like the goat has kicked me out again.” And the story ends there.

There’s no way to know for sure, but the account strikes me as utterly convincing, with many small details that would never occur to anyone who was simply fabricating a story. Hubbard’s suggestion that they call Close’s mother recalls an incident in the book Dianetics, in which an anonymous patient—actually John W. Campbell himself—recounted a birth memory that was then checked directly with the source:

Objective reality did not matter but this patient had a mother near at hand and objective reality was established simply by returning her in therapy to his birth. They had not communicated about it in detail. The recording of her sequence compared word for word with his sequence, detail for detail, name for name.

Hubbard had fenced with Jack Parsons in Pasadena, including one memorable incident with the woman who became his second wife, as George Pendle recounts in Strange Angel: “Hubbard, regaining his composure after the initial ferocity of the attack, fought the formidable Betty back a few steps and stopped the assault by rapping her smartly across the nose with his foil.” And Hubbard’s identification of the humming bear with the mother’s heartbeat recalls a similar lecture that Campbell gave to Frederik Pohl in 1950, after asking if he ever had migraines:

And I said, “No, I’ve never had a migraine headache,” and [Campbell] said, “Most people do, and I know how they’re caused—they’re caused by the fetal memory. Because in the womb of the mother, there are these rhythmic sounds. There’s this slow one”—the food gurgling down her intestinal canal or something—“and a rapid one which is her heartbeat.” And he beat them out simultaneously on the desk and I got the damnedest headache I ever had in my life.

The comic is also filled with numerous touches that aren’t conclusive in themselves, but which ring very true, like the fact that Close asks Hubbard to sign a copy of Death’s Deputy. (It’s probably Hubbard’s best novel, but it’s fallen into obscurity, and it isn’t a title that would occur to most people.) Johnson’s biography of Close takes it as an accurate representation:

The comic book story agrees with the accounts Del would give to friends of his time with Hubbard. In his later years, Del would explain that Hubbard cured his asthma in 1951 at the Witchita Dianetics Foundation; however, Del also said that Hubbard taught him to smoke Kools. He claimed that Hubbard was always complaining about the AMA and the IRS, reiterating his desire to start a religion. His retellings of his experiences with Hubbard remained consistent, and there is little doubt he was being truthful.

If anything, those Kools might be the most convincing detail of all—they were Hubbard’s cigarette of choice from at least the early fifties until his death. Close’s account is particularly valuable because it’s one of the few outside glimpses we have of Hubbard during a crucial period in his career, when he was transitioning from dianetics into what would soon become the Church of Scientology. If Close can be trusted, the transformation into a religion was on the founder’s mind as early as 1951, which is a useful data point—its earliest prior appearance in the public record was a letter from Hubbard to Helen O’Brien, dated April 10, 1953, in which he wrote: “I await your reaction on the religion angle.” Which doesn’t mean that it was a coherent plan. Hubbard rarely seemed to know what he was doing from one week to the next, and for most of his improbable life, he was improvising.

The analytical laboratory

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The Martian

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

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

Jake Gyllenhaal in Life

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

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

The millennial bug

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Ernest Hemingway

“The myth that underemployed, poorly housed young people are joyfully engaged in a project of creative destruction misrepresents our economic reality,” Laura Marsh wrote earlier this week in The New Republic. Marsh was lashing out, and to some extent with good reason, at the way in which the media likes to portray millennials as cultural rebels. She points out that many of the lifestyle trends that have been observed in people under thirty-five—communal living, car sharing, a preference for “accessing” content rather than paying for individual movies or albums, even a dislike of paper napkins—have less to do with free choice than with simple economic considerations. We’re living in a relatively healthy economy that has been rough on young workers and recent graduates, and millennials, on average, have lower standards of living than their parents did at the same age. It’s no surprise, then, that the many of the social patterns that they exhibit would be shaped by these constraints. What frustrates Marsh is the idea that millennials are voluntarily electing to eliminate certain elements from their lives, like vacations or steady jobs, rather than being forced into those choices by a dearth of opportunity. Headlines tell us that “Millennials are killing the X industry,” when a more truthful version would be “Millennials are locked out of the X industry.” As Marsh concludes: “There’s nothing like being told precarity is actually your cool lifestyle choice.”

I’m not going to dispute this argument, which I think is a pretty reasonable one. But I’d also like to raise the possibility that Marsh and her targets are both right. Let’s perform a quick thought experiment, and try to envision a millennial lifestyle—at least of the kind that is likely to influence the culture in a meaningful way—that isn’t in some way connected to economic factors. The fact is, we can’t. For better or worse, every youth subculture, particularly of the sort that we like to romanticize, emerges from what Marsh calls precarity, or the condition of living on the edge. Sometimes it’s by choice, sometimes it isn’t, and it can be hard to tell the difference. Elsewhere, I’ve described the bohemian lifestyle as a body of pragmatic solutions to the problem of trying to make art for a living. A book like Tropic of Cancer is a manual of survival, and everything that seems distinctive about its era, from the gatherings in coffee shops to the drug and alcohol abuse, can be seen in that light. You could say much the same of the counterculture of the sixties and seventies: being a hippie is a surprisingly practical pursuit, with a limited set of possible approaches, if you’re determined to prioritize certain values. In time, it becomes a style or a statement, but only after a few members of that generation have produced important works of art. And because the artists fascinate us, we look at their lives for clues of how they emerged, while forgetting how much of it was imposed by financial realities.

Henry Miller

Take the Futurians, for example, whom I can discuss at length because I’ve been thinking about them a lot. They were a circle of science fiction fans who gathered around the charismatic figure of Donald A. Wollheim in the late thirties, and they can seem impossibly remote from us—more so, I suspect, than the Lost Generation of the decade before. But when you look at them more closely, you start to see a lot of familiar patterns. They practiced a kind of communal living; they were active on the social media of their time, namely the fanzines, in which they engaged in fierce ideological disputes; and many of them were drawn to a form of socialism that even a supporter of Bernie Sanders might find extreme. Most were unemployed, trying to scratch out a living as freelance writers and consistently failing to break into the professional magazines. And they were defined, on a practical level, by their lack of money. Fred Pohl says that his favorite activity was to walk for miles with a friend to a lunch counter in Times Square to buy a cheap sandwich and cup of coffee, and turn around to trudge home again, which would kill most of an afternoon. James Blish and Virginia Kidd lived for months on a bag of rice. Whenever someone got a job, he or she left the group. The rest continued to scrape by as best they could. And the result was a genuine counterculture that arose at the point where the Great Depression merged with the solutions that a few gifted but underemployed writers developed to hang in there for as long as possible.

This probably isn’t much consolation to a recent graduate in his or her twenties whose only ambition at the moment is to pay the rent. But that’s true of previous generations as well. We tend to remember a handful of exceptional individuals, particularly those who produced defining works of art, and we forget the others who were just trying to get by. As the decades pass, I suspect that the same process will occur with the millennials, and that the narrative of who they were will have less to do with Marsh’s thoughtful essay than with the think pieces about how twentysomethings are killing relationships, or car culture, or the napkin industry. And it won’t be wrong. Invariably, at any point in history, the majority of young people don’t have many resources—and that’s especially true for those who use their twenties to try to tell stories about themselves. Where the periods differ is in the details, which is why the boring fact of precarity tends to fade into the background while the external manifestations get our attention. This is already happening now, and at a more accelerated rate than ever before. It’s premature to accuse the millennials, with their science-fictional name, of “killing” anything, just as it’s too soon to figure out exactly what they’ve accomplished. Marsh writes of the baby boomers: “They can’t understand that sometimes change happens for reasons other than cultural rebellion.” But it would be more accurate to say that cultural rebellion and strategies for survival come from the same place.

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September 1, 2016 at 9:00 am

Astounding Stories #15: The Space Merchants

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The Space Merchants

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 all the supporting figures whom I expect to play a significant role in Astounding, the one I’m most looking forward to getting to know better is Frederik Pohl. His engaging memoir, The Way the Future Was, provided me with one of the first nudges I needed to get this project off the ground, and he pops up in it repeatedly, to the point where I can almost envision an alternative version of this book with Pohl, and not John W. Campbell, at its center. He was almost exactly the same age as Isaac Asimov, on whom he made a huge impression when they met at the age of nineteen, and he quickly established himself as an important fan, agent, editor, and writer, in roughly that order. Campbell seems to have been wary of the younger man’s energy: he met with him frequently and passed along as much lore as he could about the technical side of magazine publishing, which he was picking up himself at the same time, like a piano teacher who manages to stay just one lesson ahead of the pupil. Yet their relationship had more than a trace of All About Eve, and Campbell, incredibly, never bought a story from Pohl. “Fair mortified my feelings, he did,” Pohl writes with fake offhandedness in his autobiography, but it speaks to a deeper rivalry between the two men. Campbell was never able to lower his guard around Pohl, and he clearly sensed that science fiction was just barely big enough for the two of them as it was. And in fact, when you combine Pohl’s achievements as a fan and a writer with his later editorial work, you end up with the only plausible competitor to Campbell in terms of his impact on the evolution of the genre.

Pohl’s interests always ran along an intriguingly divergent track from Campbell’s, and they amounted to an entire alternative vision of what science fiction could be. His repeated return to themes of advertising and consumer culture, for instance, feels even more prescient now than it did then, and Pohl knew that he had hit on the subject of a lifetime, both for its cultural relevance and for its ability to inspire great stories. After World War II, Pohl tried to write a mainstream novel about Madison Avenue, only to realize that he didn’t know enough about it to make it believable. So he simply got a job at an advertising agency and ended up working in the industry for years, much as an aspiring writer of hard science fiction might wind up with a PhD in physics: it was fieldwork of the most fundamental kind. It seems safe to say that advertising and multinational corporations will play a larger role in the lives of most human beings than space travel will, and by focusing on their impact, Pohl was able to invent possible futures that were more resonant and plausible than much of what Campbell was publishing at the time. “The Midas Plague,” for example, describes a world in which the availability of cheap robot labor has led to a surplus of everything, resulting in a reversal of the familiar logic of economics: poor people are obliged to consume as many luxury goods as possible, and only the rich can afford to live a simple life. (If this sounds farfetched, just think of all the minimalist blogs that advise you to pare your possessions down to what you can carry in a backpack, which in itself is a token of unimaginable privilege.) And “The Tunnel Under the World,” which I think is one of the ten best science fiction stories ever written, takes the idea of the consumer focus group to its horrifying conclusion.

The Way the Future Was by Frederik Pohl

But my favorite is The Space Merchants, originally published in Galaxy as Gravy Planet, which Pohl wrote in collaboration with C.M. Kornbluth. (Kornbluth is a fascinating figure in his own right: he was responsible for a number of unforgettably dark short stories, notably “The Little Black Bag,” and dropped dead of a heart attack on his way to an interview for the editorship of Fantasy & Science Fiction—a point of divergence for the genre if there ever was one.) The novel’s premise is so good that it suffers a little today from seeming almost too obvious. Decades from now, the world is controlled by dueling ad agencies, which engage in private wars for clients and customers; the United States Congress consists of representatives of major corporations, such as “the gentleman from Rummy-Cola”; voters are weighted by net worth; and a relentless stream of propaganda is used to distract the populace from real problems of scarcity, overpopulation, and ecological damage. All of this background is worked unobtrusively into the story, and if it seems slightly facile when spelled out here, it doesn’t play that way on the page. If the book were simply a satire, it would still be worth reading, but about a third of the way through, it abruptly transforms itself from a futuristic version of Mad Men into a remarkably entertaining and inventive thriller, thanks largely to Kornbluth’s contributions. It’s one of the few really great science fiction page-turners, right up there with Sinister Barrier and The Demolished Man, and if you go into it, as I did, expecting little more than bleak social commentary, you’ll be surprised by how relentlessly the plot accelerates. It’s a reminder of how great ideas benefit from being grounded in an equally compelling story, and it’s one of the first novels I’d recommend to an intelligent reader who was curious about what science fiction can really do.

Along the way, it also sheds fresh light on Campbell’s limitations. The Space Merchants features many of the hallmarks of the science fiction that was being published in Astounding: a subplot about colonizing Venus, an interest in hypnotism and thought control, and a kind of wild momentum in its middle section that recalls A.E. van Vogt, as well as Alfred Bester. But it’s hard to imagine Campbell publishing a story that viewed its subject through this particular lens. Campbell liked to portray himself and his readers as skeptics who questioned all the usual assumptions, but on a social and political level, he was fundamentally conservative, and he had little inclination to attack the corporations that bought most of the ads in his magazine. It’s no accident that both Pohl and Kornbluth were members of the Futurians, whom I’ve described elsewhere, following Damon Knight, as forming a kind of counterculture to Campbell and his circle, and their early flirtations with socialism provided them with the same sort of tool that fringe science later offered to Campbell: a club that could be used against the prevailing orthodoxy, albeit from very different directions. But their choice of weapons was revealing. Campbell felt that the greatest threat was a scientific conformity that prevented the establishment from considering radical new ideas, while Pohl’s primary concern was the concentration of money and power that kept ordinary men and women from thinking any thoughts outside the narrow range prescribed by major corporations. Looking around the world today, it’s obvious which of the two men was closer to the mark. And although I’ve always said that the predictive function of science fiction is overrated, this is one case in which it feels a little too close for comfort.

Return to Dimension X

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Dimension X

Over the last week, I’ve been listening to a lot of classic radio programs from the fifties, including Dimension X, X Minus One, Stroke of Fate, and Exploring Tomorrow. They’re all science fiction shows, and although they suffered from the shifting time slots and unreliable scheduling that always seem to plague the genre, they attracted devoted followings and laid the groundwork for shows like The Twilight Zone. (Stroke of Fate was an alternate history series, and I’ll confess that I couldn’t resist starting with the episode that imagines what would have happened if Aaron Burr, rather than Alexander Hamilton, had died in that duel.) Given the growing popularity of science fiction in podcast form, it’s worth asking what writers and producers can learn from these older shows, many of which are available for streaming, and it turns out that they have a lot in common with modern efforts in the same line. Just as podcasts often benefit from sponsorships from existing media, many of these programs partnered with science fiction magazines, usually Astounding or Galaxy, both as a source of content and to take advantage of a known brand. If I were trying to start a science fiction podcast, I’d do the same thing. An established magazine would serve as a conduit for talent and ideas, and adapting, say, one story per issue could provide another way of building an audience. It couldn’t be done for free, and it can be challenging to adapt science fiction—which can be hard to follow even in print—to a radio format. But it’s because the genre is so hard to pull off that we remember the few shows that have taken the trouble to do it well. And the example of old-time radio provides a few useful guidelines here, too.

For instance, in these classic shows, we rarely hear more than two voices at once. This might seem like too obvious a point to even mention: even on the page, it’s difficult for the reader to keep track of more than two new characters at a time, and without any visual cues, it makes sense to restrict the speakers to a number that the listener can easily follow. This was also a function of budget: many of these shows were limited to casts of three actors per episode, usually two men and one woman, the latter of whom was also pressed into service for any children’s parts. But it’s worth keeping in mind as a basic structural tool, particularly when it comes to adaptations. Dimension X did a very satisfying job of presenting Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles in less than half an hour, focusing on the high points of a few stories—“Rocket Summer,” “Ylla,” “And the Moon Be Still as Bright,” “There Will Come Soft Rains,” “The Off Season,” and “The Million-Year Picnic”—and reworking them as a series of two-handers. (They did much the same in an earlier episode with Bradbury’s “Mars is Heaven!”, which Stephen King later recalled in Danse Macabre as his first encounter with horror.) A scene between two characters, particularly a man and a woman, is immediately more engaging than one in which we have to work hard to follow three male voices. It buys you breathing room that you can use to advance the story, rather than wasting time playing defense. And if I were trying to adapt a story for radio and didn’t know where to begin, I’d start by asking myself if it could be structured as five two-person dialogue scenes, ideally for one actor and one actress.

X Minus One

Another strategy that many of these episodes share is an unapologetic reliance on narration. In the movies, voiceover is often a crutch, and it’s particularly irritating in literary adaptations that read whole chunks of the original prose over the action. But there’s a good case to be made for it in radio. It saves time, for one thing, and it can provide transitional material to bridge the gaps between narrative units. Building on the rule of thumb that I mentioned above, if there’s a piece of important action that can’t be boiled down to a two-person dialogue scene, you might just want to insert some narration and be done with it. It should be used sparingly, and only after the writer has done everything possible to convey this information in some other fashion. But it’s an important part of the radio playwright’s bag of tricks, and it would be pointless to ignore it. There’s a reason why narration plays such a central role in radio journalism and podcasting: as I’ve noted elsewhere, it deliberately usurps the role of the listener’s inner monologue, telling us what the action means so that we’re freed up to pay attention to what comes next. It’s very hard for anyone to follow along on two levels of thought at once, and most of the listener’s attention should rightly be devoted to what is happening at this moment, rather than to figuring out what has happened already. Narration is a great way of doing this, and it doesn’t need to be used throughout the episode. (An excellent example is X Minus One’s adaptation of Frederik Pohl’s “The Tunnel Under the World,” which still works like gangbusters.)

But it’s also possible to take these rules too far. Of all the radio shows I’ve heard, the most frustrating is Exploring Tomorrow, which was hosted for about half a year by none other than John W. Campbell, with stories drawn from the pages of Astounding. Campbell would speak before, during, and after each episode, commenting on the action and providing transitional or expository material, and his role as an identifiable host anticipates the persona that Rod Serling would later assume. Yet the show was a flop. Why? Campbell wasn’t a natural radio presence, which didn’t help, but his narration also detracted far more than it added: it spelled out themes that should have been implicit in the action, and it ended up undermining the drama in the process. A story like “The Cold Equations,” for instance, should have been perfect for the format—it’s already a gripping two-hander with one male and one female character, and it had been adapted successfully by previous shows. Yet the version on Exploring Tomorrow just sort of sits there, because Campbell insists on telling us what has happened and what it means. (He also spoon-feeds us a lot of exposition that should have been conveyed through dialogue, if only because it would have forced the writers to work harder.) In theory, it isn’t so far from Ira Glass’s description of radio as “anecdote then reflection, over and over,” but it doesn’t work here. Campbell was a born lecturer, both in his magazine and in the office, but people didn’t want to invite him into their homes. And if a show can’t manage that, all the craft in the world won’t save it.

Days of Futurians Past

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The Futurians

On July 2, 1939, the First World Science Fiction Convention was held in New York. It was a landmark weekend for many reasons, but it was almost immediately overshadowed by an event that took place before it was even called to order. The preparations had been marked by a conflict between two rival convention committees, with a group called New Fandom, which the fan Sam Moskowitz had cobbled together solely for the purpose of taking over the planning process, ultimately prevailing. On the other side were the Futurians, who were less a formal club than an assortment of aspiring writers who had collected around the brilliant, infuriating Donald A. Wollheim. As the convention was about to begin, Wollheim and a handful of Futurians—including Frederik Pohl and Robert A.W. Lowndes—emerged from the elevator and headed toward the hall. What happened next has long been a matter of disagreement. According to Moskowitz, he was initially willing to let them in, but then he saw the stack of pamphlets that the group was planning to hand out, including one that called the convention committee “a dictatorship.” Thinking that they had come only to cause trouble, he asked each of them to promise to behave, and those who refused, in his words, “chose to remain without.” Wollheim later gave a very different account, claiming that the decision to exclude the Futurians, later known hyperbolically as “The Great Exclusion Act,” had been made months in advance. In any event, Wollheim and his friends left, and although there were some rumblings from the other attendees, the rest of the convention was a notable success.

So why should we care about a petty squabble that took place nearly eighty years ago, the oldest players in which were barely out of their teens? (One of the few Futurians who made it inside, incidentally, was Isaac Asimov, who wandered nervously into the convention hall, where he received an encouraging shove forward from John W. Campbell.) For me, it’s fascinating primarily because of what happened next. New Fandom won the dispute, leaving it in an undisputed position of power within the fan community. The Futurians retreated to lick their wounds. Yet the names of New Fandom’s leaders—Moskowitz, Will Sykora, and James V. Taurasi—are unlikely to ring any bells, except for those who are already steeped in the history of fandom itself. All of them remained active in fan circles, but only Moskowitz made a greater impression on the field, and that was as a critic and historian. The Futurians, by contrast, included some of the most influential figures in the entire genre. Asimov, the most famous of them all, was a Futurian, although admittedly not a particularly active one. Wollheim and Pohl made enormous contributions as writers and editors. Other names on the roster included Cyril Kornbluth, Judith Merril, James Blish, and Damon Knight, all of whom went on to have important careers. The Great Exclusion Act, in other words, was a turning point, but not the sort that anyone involved would have been able to predict at the time. The Futurians were on their way up, while the heads of New Fandom, while not exactly headed downhill, would stay stuck in the same stratum. They were at the apex of the fan pyramid, but there was yet another level to which they would never quite ascend. Next month, I’ll be taking part in a discussion at the 74th World Science Fiction Convention, which in itself is a monument to the house that New Fandom built. But the panel is called “The Futurians.”

New Fandom

And it’s important to understand why. As the loose offspring of several earlier organizations, New Fandom lacked the sheer closeness of the Futurians, who were joined by mutual affection, rivalry, and a shared awe of Wollheim. Many of them lived together in the Ivory Tower, which was a kind of combination dorm, writer’s colony, and flophouse. They were united by the qualities that turned them into outsiders: many had been sickly children, estranging them from their peers, and they were all wretchedly poor. (In Damon Knight’s The Futurians, Virginia Kidd, who was married to James Blish, describes how the two of them survived for months on a single bag of rice.) More than a few, notably Wollheim and John Michel, were sympathetic to communism, while others took leftist positions mostly because they liked a good fight. And of course, they were all trying—and mostly failing—to make a living by writing science fiction. As Knight shrewdly notes:

This Futurian pattern of mutual help and criticism was part of a counterculture, opposed to the dominant culture of professional science fiction writers centering around John Campbell…The Futurians would have been happy to be part of the Campbell circle, but they couldn’t sell to him; their motto, in effect, was “If you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em.”

Like all countercultures, the Futurian lifestyle was a pragmatic solution to the problem of how to live. None of them was an overnight success. But by banding together, living on the cheap, and pitting themselves against the rest of the world, they were able to muddle along until opportunity knocked.

The difference between New Fandom and the Futurians, then, boils down to this: New Fandom was so good at being a fan organization that its members were content to be nothing but fans. The Futurians weren’t all that good at much of anything, either as fans or writers, so they regrouped and hung on until they got better. (As a result, when a genuine opening appeared, they were in a position to capitalize on it. When Pohl unexpectedly found himself the editor of Astonishing Stories at the age of nineteen, for instance, he could only fill the magazine by stocking it with stories by his Futurian friends, since nobody else was willing to write for half a cent per word.) New Fandom and its successors were machines for producing conventions, while the Futurians just quietly kept generating writers. And their success arose from the very same factors—their poverty, their physical shortcomings, their unfashionable political views, their belligerence—that had estranged them from the mainstream fan community in the first place. It didn’t last long: Wollheim, in typical fashion, blew up his own circle of friends in 1945 by suing the others for libel. But the seeds had been planted, and they would continue to grow for decades. The ones who found it hard to move on after The Great Exclusion Act were the winners. As Wollheim said to Knight:

Years later, about 1953, I got a phone call from William Sykora; he wanted to come over and talk to me…And he said what he wanted to do was get together with Michel and me, and the three of us would reorganize fandom, reorganize the clubs, and go out there and control fandom…And about ten years after that, he turned up at a Lunacon meeting, out of nowhere, with exactly the same plan. And again you had the impression that for him, it was still 1937.

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