Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘G. Harry Stine

The flicker effect

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In 1953, the neurologist and roboticist W. Grey Walter published an extraordinary book titled The Living Brain. Among his many other accomplishments, Walter was a pioneer in the use of the electroencephalograph to study the brain’s electrical activity, which was described here for the first time for a wide popular audience, although his book become more famous for the chapter “Revelation by Flicker.” It described how stroboscopic light could produce epileptic seizures and other neurological reactions, including one particularly memorable anecdote: “A man found that when he went to the cinema he would suddenly feel an irresistible impulse to strangle the person next to him.” And when Walter tested the equipment on his own team, he became aware of some unusual effects:

In the biological sciences it is a good principle to be your own rabbit, to experiment on yourself; in electroencephalography the practice is widespread, convenient, and harmless. Whenever a new instrument is to be tested or calibrated, normal subjects from among the laboratory staff are used as “signal generators”…When we started to use high-power electronic stroboscopes to generate flicker, with the aim of testing the hypothesis of resonant synchronization in epilepsy, we took a large number of records from one another while looking at the brilliant flashing light…The tests were entirely satisfactory and in fact gave us much information which will be discussed later, but as well as that we all noticed a peculiar effect. The effect was a vivid illusion of moving patterns whenever one closed one’s eyes and allowed the flicker to shine through the eyelids.

Walter characterized these patterns as “whirling spirals, whirlpools, explosions, Catherine wheels,” quoting an evocative passage from a memoir by Margiad Evans, a poet who suffered from epilepsy:

I lay there holding the green thumbless hand of the leaf while things clicked and machinery came to life, and commands to gasp, to open and shut my eyes, reached me from across the unseen room, as though by wireless. Lights like comets dangled before me, slow at first and then gaining a fury of speed and change, whirling color into color, angle into angle. They were all pure ultra unearthly colors, mental colors, not deep visual ones. There was no glow in them but only activity and revolution.

After investigating further, Walter concluded that the imagery wasn’t an optical illusion caused by the light, but a phenomenon that occurred within the eye or brain itself, and that it involved more than one sensory system. (Walter doesn’t mention this in particular, but after reading his description of “whirling spirals,” I was surprised that it hasn’t been more widely used to explain away the vision of the chariot—with its mysterious “wheel within a wheel”—of the prophet Ezekiel, who has been diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy.) And his work with strobe lights inspired a number of interested readers to try it out for themselves, although to rather different ends, in the fifties equivalent of neurohacking.

One was John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction. After reading The Living Brain, he wrote—but evidently never sent—a long letter to Walter himself, and he also built a “panic generator” with a flickering fluorescent tube in his basement workshop. (The idea of using flickering lights to induce hypnotism was a familiar one in the genre, and it had appeared in stories including Campbell’s short novel The Elder Gods and in L. Sprague de Camp’s “The Exalted.”) When he tried the device on his family, his wife’s throat tightened up, his stepson felt asthmatic, and his daughter’s head hurt, but it bothered Campbell for just ten seconds. He was, he proudly noted, “immune.” Writing to his father, he said that he thought that it might have therapeutic value:

The only way a human being exposed to this device can continue to think coherently is by shifting his method of thinking. He either changes his method—his frequency—or is hopelessly scrambled in panic. The device, however, doesn’t tell him to think; it simply forces him to think in some new manner. The result is that the problems he’s been denying existed, the ideas he’s been refusing to consider—all of these will now come into sight, and he’ll be forced to at least consider them. The one sure and certain thing is that he can not continue to think in the terms he has been!

This insight inspired one of Campbell’s best editorials, “The Value of Panic,” as well as a premise that he gave to G. Harry Stine, who wrote under the pen name Lee Correy. The resulting story, “Design Flaw,” was about an experimental rocket plane plagued by a series of accidents that turn out to be caused by a flashing screen that provides landing data, which accidentally interferes with the pilot’s alpha rhythms.

A few years afterward, Walter’s work had an even more striking afterlife, and it serves as a reminder of the surprising overlap in those decades between science fiction and the counterculture. On September 14, 1960, William S. Burroughs wrote enigmatically to his friend Brion Gysin: “Also will see Grey Walter when he returns from vacation.” He followed up two weeks later: “I heard Grey Walter. Most interesting and will make a flicker date with him in Bristol.” Burroughs also wrote to Walter directly about “possible therapeutic applications in drug addiction” and “the effect of flicker on the creative process,” neatly tying together the two major threads of his career. His interest in the flicker effect emerged from the same impulse that led to his ongoing dalliance with Scientology, and he often mentioned the two in the same breath in his letters. And it led Gysin and his collaborator Ian Sommerville to build the Dream Machine, a rotating cylinder with flashing slits that was viewed with the eyes closed. In an interview, Burroughs vividly described its effects: “Elaborate geometric constructions of incredible intricacy build up from multidimensional mosaic into living fireballs like the mandalas of Eastern mysticism or resolve momentarily into apparently individual images and powerfully dramatic scenes like brightly colored dreams.” And he closed in terms that echoed Margiad Evans, who had spoken of “lights like comets”:

“Flicker” creates a dazzling multiplicity of images in constantly altering relationships which makes the “collages” and “assemblages” of so-called “modern” art appear utterly ineffectual and slow. Art history is no longer being created. Art history as the enumeration of individual images ended with the direct introduction of light as the principal agents in the creation of images which have become infinitely multiple, complex and all-pervading. The comet is Light.

Astounding Stories #19: They’d Rather Be Right

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They'd Rather Be Right

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

They’d Rather Be Right, which was originally serialized in Astounding Science Fiction in 1954, is often called the worst novel ever to win a Hugo Award. Like many stories from those days, it was based on a premise by the editor John W. Campbell, which he shopped around to his stable of writers until he found somebody who was willing to take it. Here’s how he described it in a letter to G. Harry Stine:

Imagine somebody invents a machine—we’ll call it the “psychosomatron”—full of electronic tubes, automatic integrators, chemical analyzers, biochemical agents, and automatic injector contraptions. The psychomatron can take an old, broken-down, feeble man of ninety and, in four one-hour treatments, turn him into a vigorous, active, twenty-five-year-old equivalent. It will take any adult and turn him into his physical-health-maximum.

However, since so much physical deterioration is psychosomatic…the machine also has to realign the individual’s experiences and ideas—has to integrate them, too, into an harmonious system…The result is somewhat disconcerting to people, however…Eternal youth and strength, wisdom, success, happiness—but only at the cost of giving up every prejudice and bias you hold so dear.

Campbell then gives the hypothetical case of a ninety-year-old white supremacist who accepts the treatment, becomes young again—but only at the cost of losing all of his racial prejudices. Another example, which was probably closer to Campbell’s heart, is “the dreamy-eyed idealist [who] hates it because it turned his friend into a vigorous, hard-working, practical individual—who’s getting things done instead of carrying on the dear old, long, long discussions about what somebody ought to do.”

After pitching the idea to the great Eric Frank Russell, who passed, Campbell gave it to Mark Clifton, who ultimately wrote it up as a collaboration with Frank Riley. Campbell was delighted by the result:

It came out exactly as I expected it would—unlike the plots either of us had discussed, because it took off on its own and built itself as it went…It is no more like what I had in mind than it is like what you started with.

In fact, the result is indeed somewhat different from what Campbell had conceived. It focuses on a pair of cyberneticists who have developed a computer, nicknamed Bossy, with a perfect synthetic mind. (Bossy was originally a servomechanism designed as a missile guidance system, which is the first of many references to the work of Norbert Wiener.) In the face of the widespread fear that Bossy will take over people’s jobs, the scientists are forced to flee from an anti-intellectual mob—a theme that would later be explored in greater depth by James Gunn in “Witches Must Burn.” With the aid of Joe, a student with telepathic abilities, they set up a secret workshop in a slum, where they decide to focus on one particular line of research: the complete regeneration of the human body. Their first test subject is Mabel, a faded ex-prostitute with a heart of gold, who is transformed by Bossy into the most beautiful woman anyone has ever seen, with superhuman ethical, intellectual, and psychic abilities. Overnight, public opinion turns in favor of the treatment, but it quickly curdles after it becomes clear that not everyone can benefit from it. Mabel was an ideal patient because she’d long ago given up all her convictions. Individuals with more firmly engrained prejudices, like the older of the two scientists who developed the process, subconsciously resist giving up their cherished preconceptions, and so the therapy fails.

They'd Rather Be Right

Up to this point, the story is readable but not particularly inspired, studded with passages and ideas that might have been drawn straight from Campbell’s letters and editorials. What makes it interesting—and more worthwhile than its reputation implies—is the master plan of the young telepath Joe, who has been secretly running the project all along. Immortality, he reveals, was nothing but bait to convince people to become more enlightened, and it clearly hasn’t worked: Bossy is treated as just another weapon, with the government fighting various private interests for control. The solution, Joe says, is to put Bossy into mass production, “like vacuum cleaners, radios, automobiles,” and make her cheap enough so everybody can have one:

The actual machine, itself, [would] be available to anyone who wanted her…He realized what this would do to the economy of the world; but the changes which Bossy would bring about were only magnifications of the changes which had occurred when the steering wheel replaced the buggy whip…Each man would now hold all the answers he needed to solve his own economic problems—the answers would be limited only by the man’s inability to ask the right questions…There must be intercommunication between all the Bossies.

The italics, of course, are mine. It continues: “The world sat stunned at the announcement that everyone would have Bossy. No one had ever believed that any except a special privileged few would benefit from her.” And in a long closing speech, Joe lays out the rules of the new era in human history: “Bossy is just a tool. Bossy can answer your questions, but only if you ask them…Ladies and gentlemen of the world. There she sits. Bossy is yours.”

That’s how it ends—and I think it’s fair to say that his words have a somewhat different ring today than they did in the early fifties. They’d Rather Be Right might fail to offer a plausible or dramatically satisfying vision of a world faced with the prospect of immortality, but it does a remarkable job of laying out the implications of affordable personal computers and the Internet, a full three decades before it was even conceivable. I’ve noted before how rarely science fiction foresaw what ended up being the most significant technological and cultural development of our time, and Clifton and Riley’s novel is arguably more prescient about our predicament than more famous stories like “A Logic Named Joe.” As Joe the telepath says:

There she sits. She is a tool who will heat your homes, or bring you entertainment, or cook your food, or bathe the baby, or walk the dog, or figure your income tax…She can also give you a tremendous comprehension in time, the nature of which we do not yet even dream. She can give you immortality. But you must rise to her requirements…She is yours. She is not a threat. But she is a challenge. She is perhaps the greatest challenge which mankind has ever been called upon to meet…She is a challenge to your willingness to learn rather than to argue.

When you remove the idea of immortality from the equation, or reframe it properly as an allegory, it becomes obvious that the test that the story describes is one that we’ve all been given, and mostly failed, over the last twenty years. It’s no exaggeration to say that we all have the technological and informational resources to become the best versions of ourselves, at ridiculously low prices, but we generally prefer to use these tools to become more like what we already are. We play out this scenario every time we go online. They’d Rather Be Right has plenty of flaws, but it also came true, which is more than we can say for most of the acknowledged masterpieces of science fiction. Clifton and Riley would probably agree that it wasn’t a great novel. But maybe they’d rather be right.

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