Posts Tagged ‘Frederik Pohl’
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Note: I’ve often discussed my favorite movies on this blog, but I also love films that are relatively overlooked or unappreciated. For the last two weeks, I’ve been looking at some of the neglected gems, problem pictures, and flawed masterpieces that have shaped my inner life, and which might have become part of the standard cinematic canon if the circumstances had been just a little bit different. You can read the previous installments here.
The most striking quality of the movies of Michael Mann—who is probably the strangest living director to be consistently entrusted with enormous budgets by major studios, at least until recently—is their ambivalent relationship with craft. It’s often noted that Mann likes to tell stories about meticulous professionals, almost exclusively men, and that their obsession with the hardware of their chosen trade mirrors the director’s own perfectionism. This is true enough. But it misses the point that for his protagonists, craft on its own is rarely sufficient: a painstaking attention to detail doesn’t save the heroes of Thief or The Insider or Collateral, who either fail spectacularly or succeed only after being forced to improvise, and their objectives in the end aren’t the ones that they had at the beginning. This feels like a more faithful picture of Mann himself, who over the last decade has seemed increasingly preoccupied with side issues and technical problems while allowing the largest elements of the narrative to fend for themselves. It’s often unclear whether the resulting confusion is the result of active indifference, uncompromising vision, or a simple inability to keep a complicated project under control. The outcome can be an unambiguous failure, like Public Enemies, or a film in which Mann’s best and worst tendencies can’t be easily separated, like Blackhat. And the most freakish example of all is Miami Vice, which is either a botched attempt to create a franchise from an eighties cop show or the most advanced movie of the century so far. But as Mayor Quimby says on The Simpsons: “It can be two things.”
I’ve watched Miami Vice with varying degrees of attention perhaps a dozen times, but I’m not sure if I could accurately describe the plot. The script and the dialogue seem to have arisen like an emergent property from the blocky, smudged images onscreen, which often threaten to push the story off the edges of the frame entirely, or to lose it in the massive depth of field. Frederik Pohl liked to describe certain writers as fiddler crabs, in whom a single aspect of their work became hypertrophied, like a grotesquely overdeveloped claw, and that indisputably applies to Mann. These days, he seems interested in nothing but texture: visual, aural, thematic. Digital video, which allows him to lovingly capture the rippling muscles on Jamie Foxx’s back or the rumpled cloth of Colin Farrell’s jacket so that you feel like you could reach out and touch it, was the medium that he had been awaiting for his entire career, and he makes such insane overuse of it here that it leaves room for almost nothing else. The film unfolds only on the night side of the city in which it supposedly takes place, just as it appears to have shot roughly half of a usable script. (This isn’t necessarily Mann’s fault: Foxx abruptly departed toward the end of production, which is why the last scene feels like a bridge to nowhere.) As with The Night of the Hunter and Blue Velvet, Miami Vice is one of those movies in which it can be hard to tell the difference between unintentional awkwardness and radical experimentation—which is inevitable when you’re forging a new grammar of film. It looked like a failed blockbuster, and it was. But you could also build an entire art form out of its shattered pieces.
When you read a lot of stories from the golden age of science fiction, which stretched roughly from the late thirties through the early fifties, one of the first things you notice is that everybody is smoking on spaceships. In Skylark of Space by E.E. Smith and Lee Hawkins Garby, arguably the first great work of the space opera or superscience genre, the splendid villain Marc DuQuesne accidentally sends himself and two hostages six quadrillion miles from the solar system, and as he tries to figure out how to get back home, he remains “self-possessed, smoking innumerable cigarettes.” A few years later, in Smith’s masterpiece Galactic Patrol, which I’ll be discussing at greater length tomorrow, three whole paragraphs of the first chapter are devoted to the favorite smokes of the futuristic law enforcement officers of the Lensmen, and an entire plot point hinges on the thriving market for Alsakanite cigarettes. Most of these authors were perfectly aware of the difficulties that smoking would present in the closed environment of a spacecraft, but this only meant that they had to work around the problem, since cigarettes were such an essential component of the concentrated thinking around which such stories revolve. John W. Campbell, a lifelong smoker himself, says as much in his short story “The Irrelevant,” which is also set aboard a spaceship: “Cigarettes were very precious, because oxygen was. It was surprising, though, how they aided thought.”
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the men—and the handful of women—who wrote pulp fiction for a living would regard cigarettes as an indispensable prerequisite for a civilized existence, even if you were halfway across the galaxy. As Frederik Pohl writes in his memoir The Way the Future Was: “If you want to think of a successful pulp writer in the late thirties, imagine a man with a forty-dollar typewriter on a kitchen table. By his right hand is an ashtray with a cigarette burning in it and a cup of coffee or bottle of beer within easy reach.” In the first issue of Astounding Stories of Super-Science, the advertisement on the back cover is for Camels, which happened to be Campbell’s brand of choice for decades. (In their letters, we read of John and his remarkable wife Doña working side by side on a pair of typewriters, smoking all the while.) The debut edition of Astounding also included several small ads on its inside pages on how to quit smoking, although the health risks, to put it mildly, weren’t fully appreciated at the time. In R. DeWitt Miller’s excellent novelette “The Master Shall Not Die,” which was published in March 1938, the characters in the far future are constantly smoking, and there’s an offhand reference to a year long past in which “increased intensity of cosmic rays caused mutations in tobacco plants.” The italics are emphatically mine:
One of the products of these mutations was a hybrid which, although it looked and smoked like ordinary tobacco, secreted a vegetable alkaloid which caused a great increase of death from certain types of heart disease. You never heard of it apparently.
The idea that smoking might be dangerous, in other words, was a form of science fiction in itself, and it isn’t hard to see the irony. “The Master Shall Not Die” appeared in the first issue of Astounding edited primarily by Campbell, who is described as constantly gesturing in his office with a Camel in a black cigarette holder. Thirty years later, he was told by his doctor that he had to stop smoking or die, so he began to limit himself to two cigarettes per day, one in the morning, the other in the early afternoon. (He died suddenly, and apparently without pain, of a massive aortic aneurysm at the age of sixty-one, while watching professional wrestling on television.) In the late seventies, Robert A. Heinlein suffered a precursor to a stroke. William H. Patterson, his authorized biographer, writes of his visit to his doctor: “He had an unlit cigarette in his hand at this exact moment: he had smoked for nearly sixty years—since the very first Armistice Day, in fact, November 11, 1918. He put the cigarette back in its pack and never smoked again.” Heinlein ultimately died of emphysema, in combination with heart failure. L. Ron Hubbard, who had once touted dianetics as a way to stop smoking, was rarely seen without an unfiltered Kool in his hand, and toward the end of his life, he had a rotating team of nubile young assistants who were tasked with lighting his cigarettes and catching his ashes as they fell. At the relatively advanced age of seventy-four, he died of a stroke, or, in the words of the Church of Scientology, he decided to “drop his body.”
In an editorial in Analog, shortly after the release of the landmark surgeon general’s report on smoking, Campbell wrote: “Tobacco is not habit-forming, and discontinuation causes no withdrawal symptoms whatsoever.” But if we’ve learned anything since, it’s that the only habit harder to break than smoking is an attachment to a cherished assumption. Campbell and his writers were able to conceive of hyperspace travel and intelligent vegetables, but largely unable to imagine a world in which astronauts wouldn’t be smoking on the job. (Isaac Asimov, it should be noted, never smoked at all, and he hated being around people who did. And many of the Mercury and Gemini astronauts were smokers, although never, to my knowledge, in the space capsule itself) And the point here isn’t that these writers weren’t prescient about the risks of smoking, but that the stories they wrote—and they futures they conceived—were naturally rooted in the times in which they lived. Their feelings about smoking are manifestly dated; attitudes toward race, gender, and other subjects can be harder to spot. This might seem like an obvious point, but it bears repeating, especially because we can’t exclude ourselves. The futures that we imagine today are colored in ways that we can’t see by the world in which we live, and there are undoubtedly going to be elements in the stories we’re writing now that will seem just as incongruous in fifty years. And we’ve got to be mindful of this as we construct our own visions of the future, even if the smoking gun isn’t as clear.