Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Futurians

The millennial bug

leave a comment »

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.

Written by nevalalee

September 1, 2016 at 9:00 am

Astounding Stories #15: The Space Merchants

with 5 comments

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.

Days of Futurians Past

with one comment

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.

Back to the Futurians

with 4 comments

New Fandom

The study of social networks—and in particular of how ideas travel from one person to another—can pose infuriating problems, especially if you’re trying to follow along in real time. Entire movements have a way of exploding into existence online and disappearing before you have a chance to react, and their beginnings and endings can fall so close together that it can be hard to see the intermediate stages. From the point of view of sociological analysis, it would be nice if we could find a way to slow it all down. In his excellent book The Art of Game Design, Jesse Schell recommends putting together a paper prototype of a game, even for something like Tetris, both because it’s easy to make and because it naturally decelerates the process, allowing you to study each step. Speaking of a hypothetical paper version of Doom, Schell describes a setup with cardboard pieces and a metronome, then writes:

Configure your metronome to tick once every five seconds, and make a rule that you can move one square of graph paper with every tick…This will give the feeling of playing the whole thing in slow motion, but that can be a good thing, because it gives you time to think about what is working and not working while you are playing the game.

On a similar level, we’d learn a lot about social networks and virality if we could somehow reduce it to paper form. It would slow it down, allowing us to examine the components at our leisure and trace the interactions from one stage to the next, while leaving a paper trail to show us exactly how an idea spread and mutated from its point of origin.

In fact, at least one paper version of a social network does exist: the early science fiction community. I got to thinking about this while reading The Immortal Storm: A History of Science Fiction Fandom by the fan and historian Sam Moskowitz. It’s a book that has a deserved reputation for being unreadable: even Isaac Asimov, who know most of the players firsthand, found it hard to finish. There’s something undeniably amusing about its endless, detailed descriptions of disputes and controversies that occurred within fan clubs with fewer than a dozen teenage members in the late thirties. Really, though, it’s in the same vein as the oral histories of newsgroups, or even individual threads, that have started to appear in recent years, and it gains additional interest from the fact that many of the participants—Asimov, Donald A. Wollheim, Frederik Pohl—went on to become pivotal figures in the genre. The overall beats of the story are familiar to anyone who has experienced fandom’s ability to bring people together and tear them apart in the same breath. (Moskowitz describes one club, with a total of five members, that immediately split into two irreconcilable factions.) But if the patterns are the same, it’s also emphatically a story about paper: magazines, letters, fan publications. As Moskowitz writes:

The early fan publications were not only the pride but the very foundation of the field…History is a systematic record of man’s progress, and we turn to their magazines to discern the story of science fiction fans’ progress—and progress it was.

Fantasy Magazine

And it’s a kind of progress, with frequent moments of regression and implosion, that will immediately ring a bell for anyone with experience of online communities. Science fiction fandom began in the letters columns of pulp magazines like Amazing and Astounding, which provided a forum in which fans could communicate and learn one another’s names and addresses. This wasn’t what the editors had in mind, but much like later platforms like Twitter or Reddit, the user base quickly appropriated the available infrastructure for ends that their creators never intended. (Among the fans who met through through a shared love of Amazing were Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who went on to create Superman.) The letters pages led to private correspondence between fans, followed by meetings in person, at least in cities—Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and above all New York—where the population density was great enough to allow a critical mass of enthusiasts to congregate. The fans in question were almost invariably white males: then as now, communities tend to attract new members who look pretty much like the ones who are already there, although there were a few striking exceptions. Most were teenagers, the equivalent of the youthful early adopters who have driven nearly every successful form of social media. They also took advantage of new technology, notably the mimeograph and the hectograph, to print fanzines and newsletters. Some of the organizations were “sponsored,” after they had already come into existence, by magazines like Wonder Stories, which devoted a few column inches to promoting favored groups like the Science Fiction League. This led, in turn, to accusations that such clubs had sold out, and that the real fans were the ones who were opposed to the establishment. Sound familiar?

The resulting clubs and fanzines were shaped by the many of the same forces that we see online today. Fan magazines began as a place to discuss science fiction, but they quickly became a closed world of their own, with running jokes, insider references, and memes that had the effect of excluding outsiders. An ongoing fake controversy about the use of wire staples by the pulps, for instance, spiraled into a war of letters between groups like the Society for Prevention of Wire Staples in Scientifiction Magazines, or SPWSSTFM, which feels a lot like the labored gags we find today on Reddit. And like any close community of fans—for much of the thirties, there were fewer than fifty active members—it was dominated by a handful of strong personalities, many of whom came to prominence by their frequent appearance in the letters columns, which was the equivalent of being upvoted. Donald A. Wollheim, for example, became a major force in later years as a writer and editor, but in his twenties, he was basically the first known troll. He alienated just about every other fan at one point or another, and his favorite trick was to find a vulnerable club, take it over, and dissolve it. (In response to one controversy, fans passed around what Moskowitz demurely describes as “numerous unsigned drawings [of Wollheim], some of which were quite pornographic.”) And many supposedly ideological conflicts, like the feud between New Fandom and the Futurians, were really about clashes of personality. Tomorrow, I’ll go into more detail about one dispute, which culminated in a confrontation at the First World Science Fiction Convention, and the light that it casts on issues that we’re still seeing today.

Written by nevalalee

July 26, 2016 at 9:41 am

%d bloggers like this: