Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Harlan Ellison

The best of youth

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At some point, as I was preparing for last week’s World Science Fiction Convention, I realized that there was a good chance that I would run out of books. This wasn’t a problem that I ever expected to have. Astounding isn’t due to come out for another two months, and the hardcovers aren’t available yet, but in the meantime, my publisher printed up a bunch of advance copies, or galleys, which we’ve been sending to reviewers, media outlets, and everyone else we might want to reach. The number of galleys is relatively large, but not unlimited, and about a month ago, I began to hear rumblings that we were coming up short. (One issue is that we sent a hundred copies to Comic-Con, which sounds awesome in theory, although I wish that we’d saved them for Worldcon, which is much closer to this book’s target audience.) After scrambling to get copies from various departments, I ended up with two dozen galleys that could be spared for San Jose, which I supplemented with a stack from my stash at home. Some of these ended up being handed out at a booth run by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, while I set aside ten others for attendees at my roundtable and for a few special recipients. As a result, I was left with just six copies to give away at my reading, which drew a sizable turnout. Since I couldn’t give a copy to everyone, I had to think of ways to distribute the ones that I had, and it occurred to me to give a book to the youngest person in the room. Toward the end, I looked out at the audience and said, “Raise your hand if you’re under thirty.” And in a crowd of over one hundred people, exactly two hands shot up.

I had much the same experience at my other events, at which I saw perhaps half a dozen people who were under thirty years old. In nearly every case, I was among the youngest people in the room. (As far as I know, I attracted just one audience member across the entire week who was under twenty. He showed up to my second event, and I didn’t get his name, but if he’s reading this now, I’d like to hear from him. I think he deserves a copy, too.) Two years ago, after MidAmeriCon II in Kansas City, I wrote a blog post noting that I kept seeing the same fifty faces at my panels. I was aware that the average age at Worldcon has long been higher than that at similar gatherings, but it still felt as if I were spending the weekend at a convention within the convention—an enclave in which a vibrant but graying crowd was gathering to celebrate writers, stories, and a shared history that the larger community was beginning to forget. Now that more time has passed, it feels even more true today. Fandom is inexorably growing older. We’ve recently lost important personalities, such as Gardner Dozois and Harlan Ellison, who had embodied much of its institutional memory. And it isn’t clear whether new voices are emerging to replace the old ones. While I was in San Jose, I made time to meet up with a few younger writers whom I happen to know, and I saw a few familiar faces in the hallways, but for the most part, I spent the week at a slight remove from the authors and fans who looked like me, or who come from approximately the same generation. And as I’ve noted before, I occasionally have trouble making the case that they should take an interest in a book about these four writers.

But I’m not going to talk about that problem here, or lament the generational divide, if one even exists, within science fiction. Instead, I wanted to raise two points that I’ve only gradually been able to admit to myself, but which seem relevant to talking about this book and how it happened to emerge. The first is that I’m naturally more comfortable among older writers than I am among those my own age. I could explain this by saying that my interests tend to skew older anyway, which is true enough, but that isn’t the real reason. If I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that it’s a defense mechanism—I feel so competitive around other writers my age that I can never fully relax around them, particularly if we’re at a similar point in our careers. It’s an aspect of my personality that I don’t love, and I’ve tried to get past it, but in the meantime, I tend to have a better time with writers who are at a different stage than I am, even if they’ve accomplished more than I ever will. The other key point is that I like being among the younger people in the room, and there’s a part of me that wants to extend that feeling for as long as possible. My choice of subject wasn’t consciously motivated by this, but I can’t rule it out. I’m often asked why someone my age would take an interest in this period, and I never get tired of the question, because the number of fields at which I can come across as a wunderkind is rapidly diminishing. If I were publishing my first novel, any interviews or profiles would make a point of describing me as a late bloomer, and if I were trying to break into screenwriting, I might actively lie about my age. I’m not even particularly young when it comes to literary nonfiction. But the golden age of science fiction offers a kind of optical illusion that makes me seem like more of a prodigy than I really am.

My point, I guess, is that a writer’s choice of subject is necessarily motivated by personal ambition, even by vanity, as well as by what the market will bear. (When people ask why I wrote a book about John W. Campbell, I respond, honestly enough, that he fascinates me—but I was also ambitious enough to grab a huge unexplored subject as soon as I saw that it might be possible for me to lay claim to it.) I may look out of place at these events, but that’s how I like it. Like many writers, I’m an outsider who longs in secret to be an insider, while still proclaiming my own difference, and I happened to stumble into a subject where this was still possible. Fortunately, I think that it also resulted in a good book, and one that nobody else could have written in quite the same way. From a marketing perspective, it doesn’t hurt that I look slightly different from its four central subjects, and the fact that I came at it from the outside allowed me to approach in ways that wouldn’t be possible for a lifelong fan. I’m obviously far from an unbiased critic of the result, but I do believe that this book benefited from being written from a place of detachment. Yet it was also born of my desire to find a big topic to tackle, as well as to earn a place in that room. Scratch the surface of any book, or a creative project of any kind, and you’ll find similar motivations. I might not have conceived of this project at all if I were the kind of writer who could feel at home anywhere else, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it again. But if there’s one thing that I took away from Worldcon this year, it’s that the room where I seemed most out of place is also the only one in which I wanted to belong.

Written by nevalalee

August 21, 2018 at 8:56 am

A potent force of disintegration

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As part of the production process these days, most nonfiction books from the major publishing houses get an automatic legal read—a review by a lawyer that is intended to check for anything potentially libelous about any living person. We can’t stop anyone from suing us, but we can make sure that we haven’t gone out of our way to invite it, and while most of the figures in Astounding have long since passed on, there are a handful who are still with us. As a result, I recently spent some time going over the relevant sections with a lawyer on the phone. The person on whom we ended up focusing the most, perhaps not surprisingly, was Harlan Ellison, who had a deserved reputation for being litigious, although he also liked to point out that he usually came out ahead. (After suing America Online for not promptly removing some of his stories that had been uploaded to a newsgroup on Usenet, Ellison explained in an interview that it was really about “slovenliness of thinking on the web” and the “slacker” philosophy that everything in life should be free: “If a professional gets published, well, any thief can steal it, and post it, and the thug feels abused if you whack him for it.” Ellison eventually received a settlement.) Mindful of this, we slowly went over the manuscript, checking each statement against its primary sources. Toward the end, the lawyer asked me if we had reasonable grounds for the sentence that described Ellison as “combative.” I replied: “Yes.”

Ellison died yesterday, and I never met or even corresponded with him, which is perhaps my greatest regret from the writing of Astounding. Two years ago, when I was just getting started, I wrote to him explaining the project and asking if I could interview him, but I never heard back. I don’t know if he ever saw the letter, and a mutual acquaintance told me that he was already too ill to respond to most of his mail. Ellison persists in the book as a kind of wraith in the background, appearing unexpectedly at various points in the narrative while trying to force his way into others. In an interview from the late seventies, he even claimed to have been in the room on the evening that L. Ron Hubbard came up with dianetics:

We were sitting around one night…who else was there? Alfred Bester, and Cyril Kornbluth, and Lester del Rey, and Ron Hubbard, who was making a penny a word, and had been for years…And somebody said, “Why don’t you invent a new religion? They’re always big.” We were clowning! You know, “Become Elmer Gantry! You’ll make a fortune!” He says, “I’m going to do it.” Sat down, stole a little bit from Freud, stole a little bit from Jung, a little bit from Adler…threw it all together, invented a few new words, because he was a science fiction writer, you know, “engrams” and “regression,” all that bullshit.

At the point at which this alleged event would have taken place, Ellison was a teenage kid living in Ohio. As another science fiction writer said to me: “Sometimes Harlan operates out of his own reality, which is always interesting but not necessarily identical to anybody else’s.”

Ellison may have never met Hubbard, but he interacted to one extent or another with the other subjects of my book, who often seemed bewildered by him—and I think it’s fair to say that he was the only science fiction writer of his generation who could plausibly seem like their match. He was very close to Asimov, while his relationship with Heinlein was cordial but distant, and John W. Campbell seems to viewed him mostly as an irritant. On April 15, 1958, Ellison, who was twenty-four, wrote in a letter to Campbell: “From the relatively—doubly—safe position of being eight hundred miles removed from your grasp and logic, and being fairly certain I’ll never sell to you anyhow, I wish to make a comment…lost in the wilderness.” After complaining about a story by Murray Leinster, which he described as a blatant example of “Campbell push-buttoning,” he continued:

Now writing to Campbell is not bad. It has been the policy of Astounding since I was in rompers, and anything that produces the kind of stuff ASF does, must have merit. But I look with sincere alarm at the ridiculous trend in the magazine currently: writing stories with the psi factor used when plotting or solving the problem becomes too wearying. Leinster has done it. Several others have done it also. I note this for your information. You may crucify me at will, Greeley.

Ellison, who was stationed at the time in Fort Knox, Kentucky, signed the letter “with respect and friendliness.” No response from Campbell survives.

Ellison had a point about the direction in which Campbell was taking the magazine, and he never had any reason to revise his opinion. Nearly a decade later, in the groundbreaking anthology Dangerous Visions, he mocked the editor’s circle of subservient writers and spoke of “John W. Campbell, Jr., who used to edit a magazine that ran science fiction, called Astounding, and who now edits a magazine that runs a lot of schematic drawings, called Analog.” He did sell one story to Campbell, “Brillo,” a collaboration with Ben Bova that was supposed to be sent using a pseudonym, but was accidentally submitted under both of their names. But the editor’s feelings about Ellison were never particularly warm. Campbell once wrote to a correspondent: “In my terms, Ellison seems more of the Hitler-Genghis Khan type genius—he’s destructive, rather than constructive. The language lacks an adequate term for this type of entity; he’s not a hero, but an antihero means something more on the order of a hopeless, helpless slob than a potent force of disintegration.” He wrote elsewhere that Ellison needed “a muzzle more than a platform,” and another letter includes the amazing—but not atypical—lines: “I don’t know whether it’s the hyper-defensive attitude of the undersize or what, but [Ellison’s] an insulting little squirt with a nasty tongue. He’s one of the type that earned the appellation ‘kike’; as Einstein, Disraeli, and thousands of others have demonstrated, it ain’t racial—it’s personal.” Ellison never saw these letters, and as I transcribed them for the book, I wondered what he would think. There’s no way of knowing now. But I suspect that he would have liked it.

The bedtime story

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Earlier this morning, I finally got my hands on the companion book to James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction, which is airing this month on AMC. Naturally, I immediately looked for references to the four main subjects of Astounding, and the passage that caught my eye first was an exchange between Cameron and Steven Spielberg:

Spielberg: The working title of E.T. was Watch the Skies. Which is sort of the last line from The Thing. I just remember looking at the sky because of the influence of my father, and saying, only good should come from that. If it ain’t an ICBM coming from the Soviet Union, only good should come from beyond our gravitational hold…He was a visionary about that, yet he read all the Analog. Those paperbacks? And Amazing Stories, the paperbacks of that. I used to read that along with him. Sometimes, he’d read those books to me, those little tabloids to me at night.

Cameron: Asimov, Heinlein, all those guys were all published in those pulp magazines.

Spielberg: They were all published in those magazines, and a lot of them were optimists. They weren’t always calculating our doom. They were finding ways to open up our imagination and get us to dream and get us to discover and get us to contribute to the greater good.

The discussion quickly moves on to other subjects, but not before hinting at the solution to a mystery that I’ve been trying to figure out for years, which is why the influence of Astounding and its authors can be so hard to discern in the work of someone like Spielberg. In part, it’s a matter of timing. Spielberg was born in 1946, which means that he would have been thirteen when John W. Campbell announced that that his magazine was changing its title to Analog. As a result, at a point at which he should have been primed to devour science fiction, Spielberg doesn’t seem to have found its current incarnation all that interesting, for which you can hardly blame him. Instead, his emotional associations with the pulps were evidently passed down through his father, Arnold Spielberg, an electrical engineer who worked for General Electric and RCA. The elder Spielberg, remarkably, is still active at the age of 101, and just two months ago, he said in an interview with GE Reports:

I was also influenced by science fiction. There were twins in our neighborhood who read one of the first sci-fi magazines, called Astounding Stories of Science and Fact. They gave me one copy, and when I brought it home, I was hooked. The magazine is now called Analog Science Fiction and Fact, and I still get it.

And while I don’t think that there’s any way of verifying it, if Arnold Spielberg—the father of Steven Spielberg—isn’t the oldest living subscriber to Analog, he must be close.

This sheds light on his son’s career, although perhaps not in the way that you might think. Spielberg is such a massively important figure that his very existence realigns the history of the genre, and when he speaks of his influences, we need to be wary of the shadow cast by his inescapable personality. But there’s no denying the power—and truth—of the image of Arnold Spielberg reading from the pulps aloud to his son. It feels like an image from one of Spielberg’s own movies, which has been shaped from the beginning by the tradition of oral storytelling. (It’s worth noting, though, that the father might recall things differently than the son. In his biography of the director, Joseph McBride quotes Arnold Spielberg: “I’ve been reading science fiction since I was seven years old, all the way back to the earliest Amazing Stories. Amazing, Astounding, Analog—I still subscribe. I still read ’em. My kids used to complain, ‘Dad’s in the bathroom with a science-fiction magazine. We can’t get in.'”) For Spielberg, the stories seem inextricably linked with the memory of being taken outside by his father to look at the stars:

My father was the one that introduced me to the cosmos. He’s the one who built—from a big cardboard roll that you roll rugs on—a two-inch reflecting telescope with an Edmund Scientific kit that he had sent away for. [He] put this telescope together, and then I saw the moons of Jupiter. It was the first thing he pointed out to me. I saw the rings of Saturn around Saturn. I’m six, seven years old when this all happened.

Spielberg concludes: “Those were the stories, and just looking up at the sky, that got me to realize, if I ever get a chance to make a science fiction movie, I want those guys to come in peace.”

But it also testifies to the ways in which a strong personality will take exactly what it needs from its source material. Elsewhere in the interview, there’s another intriguing reference:

Spielberg: I always go for the heart first. Of course, sometimes I go for the heart so much I get a little bit accused of sentimentality, which I’m fine [with] because…sometimes I need to push it a little further to reach a little deeper into a society that is a little less sentimental than they were when I was a young filmmaker.

Cameron: You pushed it in the same way that John W. Campbell pushed science fiction [forward] from the hard-tech nerdy guys who had to put PhD after their name to write science fiction. It was all just about the equations and the math and the physics [and evolved to become much more] human stories [about] the human heart.

I see what Cameron is trying to say here, but if you’ve read enough of the magazine that turned into Analog, this isn’t exactly the impression that it leaves. It’s true that Campbell put a greater emphasis than most of his predecessors on characterization, at least in theory, but the number of stories that were about “the human heart” can be counted on two hands, and none were exactly Spielbergian—although they might seem that way when filtered through the memory of his father’s voice. And toward the end, the nerds took over again. In Dangerous Visions, which was published in 1967, Harlan Ellison wrote of “John W. Campbell, Jr., who used to edit a magazine that ran science fiction, called Astounding, and who now edits a magazine that runs a lot of schematic drawings, called Analog.” It was the latter version of the magazine that Spielberg would have seen as a boy—which may be why, when the time came, he made a television show called Amazing Stories.

The men who sold the movies

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Yesterday, I noted that although Isaac Asimov achieved worldwide fame as a science fiction writer, his stories have inspired surprisingly few cinematic adaptations, despite the endless attempts to do something with the Foundation series. But there’s a more general point to be made here, which is the relative dearth of movies based on the works of the four writers whom I discuss in Astounding. Asimov has a cheap version of Nightfall, Bicentennial Man, and I, Robot. John W. Campbell has three versions of The Thing and nothing else. L. Ron Hubbard, who admittedly is a special case, just has Battlefield Earth, while Robert A. Heinlein has The Puppet Masters, Starship Troopers and its sequels, and the recent Predestination. Obviously, this isn’t bad, and most writers, even successful ones, never see their work onscreen at all. But when you look at someone like Philip K. Dick, whose stories have been adapted into something like three television series and ten feature films, this scarcity starts to seem odd, even when you account for other factors. Hubbard is presumably off the table, and the value of Campbell’s estate, to be honest, consists entirely of “Who Goes There?” It’s also possible that much of Asimov’s work just isn’t very cinematic. But if you’re a Heinlein fan, it’s easy to imagine an alternate reality in which we can watch adaptations of “If This Goes On—,” “The Roads Must Roll,” “Universe,” “Gulf,” Tunnel in the Sky, Have Space Suit—Will Travel, Glory Road, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and three different versions of Stranger in a Strange Land—the corny one from the seventies, the slick but empty remake from the late nineties, and the prestige television adaptation that at least looked great on Netflix.

That isn’t how it turned out, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Various works by Heinlein and Asimov have been continuously under option for decades, and three out of these four authors made repeated efforts to break into movies or television. Hubbard, notably, was the first, with a sale to Columbia Pictures of a unpublished story that he adapted into the serial The Secret of Treasure Island in 1938. He spent ten weeks on the studio lot, doing uncredited rewrites on the likes of The Adventures of the Mysterious Pilot and The Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, and he would later claim, without any evidence, that he had worked on the scripts for Stagecoach, Dive Bomber, and The Plainsman. Decades later, Hubbard actively shopped around the screenplay for Revolt in the Stars, an obvious Star Wars knockoff, and among his last works were the scripts Ai! Pedrito! and A Very Strange Trip. Campbell, in turn, hosted the radio series Exploring Tomorrow; corresponded with the producer Clement Fuller about the television series The Unknown, with an eye to adapting his own stories or writing originals; and worked briefly as a freelance story editor for the syndicated radio series The Planet Man. Heinlein had by far the most success—he wrote Rocket Ship Galileo with one eye toward the movies, and he developed a related project with Fritz Lang before partnering with George Pal on Destination Moon. As I mentioned last week, he worked on the film Project Moon Base and an unproduced teleplay for a television show called Century XXII, and he even had the dubious privilege of suing Roger Corman for plagiarism over The Brain Eaters. And Asimov seethed with jealousy:

[Destination Moon] was the first motion picture involving one of us, and while I said not a word, I was secretly unhappy. Bob had left our group and become famous in the land of the infidels…I don’t know whether I simply mourned his loss, because I thought that now he would never come back to us; or whether I was simply and greenly envious. All I knew was that I felt more and more uncomfortable. It was like having a stomachache in the mind, and it seemed to spoil all my fun in being a science fiction writer.

But Asimov remained outwardly uninterested in the movies, writing of one mildly unpleasant experience: “It showed me again what Hollywood was like and how fortunate I was to steer as clear of it as possible.” It’s also hard to imagine him moving to Los Angeles. Yet he was at least open to the possibility of writing a story for Paul McCartney, and his work was often in development. In Nat Segaloff’s recent biography A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison, we learn that the television producer John Mantley had held an option on I, Robot “for some twenty years” when Ellison was brought on board in 1978. (This isn’t exactly right—Asimov states in his memoirs that Mantley first contacted him on August 11, 1967, and it took a while for a contract to be signed. But it was still a long time.) Asimov expressed hope that the adaptation would be “the first really adult, complex, worthwhile science fiction movie ever made,” which incidentally sheds light on his opinion of 2001, but it wasn’t meant to be. As Segaloff writes:

For a year from December 1977 Ellison was, as he has put it, “consumed with the project.” He used Asimov’s framework of a reporter, Robert Bratenahl, doing a story about Susan Calvin’s former lover, Stephen Byerly, and presented four of Calvin’s stories as flashbacks, making her the central figure, even in events that she could not have witnessed. It was a bold and admittedly expensive adaptation…When no response was forthcoming, Ellison arranged an in-person meeting with [Warner executive Bob] Shapiro on October 25, 1978, during which he realized that the executive had not read the script.

Ellison allegedly told Shapiro: “You’ve got the intellectual capacity of an artichoke.” He was fired from the project a few months later.

And the case of I, Robot hints at why these authors have had only limited success in Hollywood. As Segaloff notes, the burst of interest in such properties was due mostly to the success of Star Wars, and after Ellison left, a few familiar names showed up:

Around June 1980, director Irvin Kershner, who had made a success with The Empire Strikes Back, expressed interest, but when he was told that Ellison would not be rehired to make changes, according to Ellison his interest vanished…In 1985, Gary Kurtz, who produced the Star Wars films, made inquiries but was told that the project would cost too much to shoot, both because of its actual budget and the past expenses that had been charged against it.

At various points, in other words, many of the same pieces were lined up for I, Robot that had been there just a few years earlier for Star Wars. (It’s worth noting that less time separates Star Wars from these abortive attempts than lies between us and Inception, which testifies to how vivid its impact still was.) But it didn’t happen a second time, and I can think of at least one good reason. In conceiving his masterpiece, George Lucas effectively skipped the golden age entirely to go back to an earlier pulp era, which spoke more urgently to him and his contemporaries—which may be why we had a television show called Amazing Stories and not Astounding. Science fiction in the movies often comes down to an attempt to recreate Star Wars, and if that’s your objective, these writers might as well not exist.

The cosmic engineers

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On May 18, 1966, the novelist C.P. Snow delivered a talk titled “The Status of Doctors” before the Royal Society of Medicine in London. Snow—who had studied physics and chemistry at the University of Leicester and Cambridge—spent much of his speech comparing the fields of engineering and medicine, noting that doctors enjoyed a more exalted social status than engineers, perhaps because their work was easier to understand: “Doctors have a higher place in the popular imagination and I think also in the more esoteric imagination. A novelist can bring a doctor into a novel without any trouble at all, people know who he is; but try bringing an engineer into a novel and it is terribly difficult—they have not got recognition symbols in the way the medical profession has.” He continued:

I do not think doctors suffer from the other great weakness of engineers, that is, their complete lack of verbalism. Engineers can often be extremely clever but they cannot spell and they cannot speak. The doctors I have known are extremely articulate. I suspect the descriptive processes they have to go through, both themselves and presumably with their patients, are extremely good verbal training, and I do not think it is an accident that the one thing the medical profession has done, apart from producing doctors, is to produce writers. I do not think it is an accident that there are almost no engineering writers, and very few from the scientific professions. On the other hand, the medical profession has produced some really good writers in the last hundred years.

Snow would presumably have been mortified by the idea of a magazine that published nothing but stories written by and for engineers, but by the time that he gave his talk, Astounding Science Fiction—which had changed its name several years earlier to Analog—had been in that business for decades. In practice, science fiction writers came from a wide range of professional backgrounds, but there was no doubt that John W. Campbell’s ideal author was a working engineer who wrote for his own pleasure on the side. In an editorial in the February 1941 issue, the editor delivered a pitch to them directly:

Most of Astounding’s authors are, in the professional sense, amateur authors, spare-time writers who earn their bread and butter in one field of work, and use their writing ability as a source of the jam supply…”Jam” in the above sense is useful. Briefly, it amounts to the equivalent of a couple of new suits, or a suit and overcoat, for a short story, a new radio with, say, FM tuning for a novelette, and a new car or so for a novel.

He also made no secret of what kind of professional he was hoping to find. By the end of the decade, a survey indicated that fully fifteen percent of the magazine’s readers were engineers themselves. As Damon Knight wrote in In Search of Wonder: “[Campbell] deliberately built up a readership among practicing scientists and technicians.” And he expected to source most of his writers directly from that existing audience.

But his reasons for looking for engineers were more complicated than they might seem. When Campbell took over Astounding in 1937, the submissions that he received tended to fall into one of two categories. Some were from professional pulp writers who wrote for multiple genres; others were written by younger fans who had grown up with science fiction, loved it, and desperately wanted to break into the magazine. Neither was the kind of writer whom Campbell secretly wanted. Working authors had to write quickly to make a living at a penny a word, and they were usually content to stick to the tricks and formulas that they knew best. They certainly weren’t interested in repeated revisions, which meant that they weren’t likely to be receptive to the notes that Campbell was planning to give. (Some writers, like Edmond Hamilton, bowed out entirely because they didn’t feel like changing.) The fans were even worse. They had only emerged as a force in their own right within the last few years, and you couldn’t tell them anything—they treated science fiction as their personal property, which made it hard to give them any feedback. What Campbell wanted was a legion of successful engineers who wrote science fiction because they liked it, didn’t take it so personally that they would push back against his suggestions, and had the time and leisure to rework a story to his specifications. These men were understandably hard to find, and few of the major writers of the golden age fit that profile completely. It wasn’t until after the war that the figure of the engineer who wrote science fiction as a hobby really began to emerge.

By 1967, a year after C.P. Snow delivered his talk, however, it was possible for Harlan Ellison to refer in the anthology Dangerous Visions to “John W. Campbell, Jr., who used to edit a magazine that ran science fiction, called Astounding, and who now edits a magazine that runs a lot of schematic drawings, called Analog.” And there’s little doubt that it was exactly the magazine that Campbell wanted. His control over it was even more complete than it had been in the thirties and forties, largely because of the type of writer he had selected for it, as Damon Knight pointed out: “He deliberately cultivated technically oriented writers with marginal writing skills…Campbell was building a new stable he knew he could keep.” And this side of his legacy persists even today. In Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, Janet Malcolm writes:

Soon after the Big Bang of Freud’s major discoveries…the historian of psychoanalysis notes a fork in the road. One path leads outward into the general culture, widening to become the grand boulevard of psychoanalytic influence…The other is the narrow, inward-turning path of psychoanalytic therapy: a hidden, almost secret byway travelled by few.

Replace “Freud” with “Campbell” and “psychoanalysis” with “science fiction,” and you have a decent picture of what happened with Analog. Science fiction took over the world, while Campbell’s old magazine continued to pursue his private vision, and its writers fit that profile now more than ever. It’s no longer possible to write short fiction for a living, which makes it very attractive for engineers who write on the side. I love Analog—it changed my life. But if you ever wonder why it looks so different from even the rest of the genre, it’s because it was engineered that way.

The holy chore

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A lesson any writer can use. Don’t be afraid. That simple; don’t let them scare you. There’s nothing they can do to you. If they kick you out of films, do TV. If they kick you out of TV, write novels. If they won’t buy your novels, sell short stories. Can’t do that, then take a job as a bricklayer. A writer always writes. That’s what he’s for. And if they won’t let you write one kind of thing, if they chop you off at the pockets in the marketplace, then go to another marketplace. And if they close off all the bazaars, then by God go and work with your hands until you can write, because the talent is always there. But the first time you say, “Oh, Christ, they’ll kill me!” then you’re done. Because the chief commodity a writer has to sell is his courage. And if he has none, he is more than a coward. He is a sellout and a fink and a heretic, because writing is a holy chore.

Harlan Ellison, Dangerous Visions

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January 27, 2018 at 7:30 am

The vision thing

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A few days ago, I was struck by the fact that a mere thirty-one years separated The Thing From Another World from John Carpenter’s The Thing. The former was released on April 21, 1951, the latter on June 25, 1982, and another remake, which I haven’t yet seen, arrived right on schedule in 2011. Three decades might have once seemed like a long time to me, but now, it feels like the blink of an eye. It’s the equivalent of the upcoming remake of David Cronenberg’s The Fly, which was itself a reimagining of a movie that had been around for about the same amount of time. I picked these examples at random, and while there isn’t anything magical about a thirty-year cycle, it isn’t hard to understand. It’s enough time for a new generation of viewers to come of age, but not quite long enough for the memory of the earlier movie to fade entirely. (From my perspective, the films of the eighties seem psychologically far closer than those of the seventies, and not just for reasons of style.) It’s also long enough for the original reaction to a movie to be largely forgotten, so that it settles at what feels like its natural level. When The Thing From Another World first premiered, Isaac Asimov thought that it was one of the worst movies ever made. John W. Campbell, on whose original story it was based, was more generous, writing of the filmmakers: “I think they may be right in feeling that the proposition in ‘Who Goes There?’ is a little strong if presented literally in the screen.” Elsewhere, he noted:

I have an impression that the original version directed and acted with equal restraint would have sent some ten percent of the average movie audience into genuine, no-kidding, semi-permanent hysterical screaming meemies…You think that [story] wouldn’t tip an insipid paranoid psychotic right off the edge if it were presented skillfully?

For once, Campbell, whose predictions were only rarely on the mark, was entirely prescient. By the time John Carpenter’s The Thing came out, The Thing From Another World was seen as classic, and the remake, which tracked the original novella much more closely, struck many viewers as an assault on its legacy. One of its most vocal detractors, curiously, was Harlan Ellison, who certainly couldn’t be accused of squeamishness. In a column for L.A. Weekly, Ellison wrote that Carpenter “showed some stuff with Halloween,” but dismissed his later movies as “a swan dive into the potty.” He continued:

The Thing…[is a] depredation [Carpenter] attempts to validate by saying he wanted to pull out of the original John W. Campbell story those treasures undiscovered by the original creators…One should not eat before seeing it…and one cannot eat after having seen it.

If the treasures Carpenter sought to unearth are contained in the special effects lunacy of mannequins made to look like men, splitting open to disgorge sentient lasagna that slaughters for no conceivable reason, then John Carpenter is a raider of the lost ark of Art who ought to be sentenced to a lifetime of watching Neil Simon plays and films.

The Thing did not need to be remade, if the best this fearfully limited director could bring forth was a ripoff of Alien in the frozen tundra, this pointless, dehumanized freeway smashup of grisly special effects dreck, flensed of all characterization, philosophy, subtext, or rationality.

Thirty years later, the cycle of pop culture has come full circle, and it’s fair to say that Carpenter’s movie has eclipsed not just Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby, but even Campbell himself. (Having spent the last year trying to explain what I’m doing to people who aren’t science fiction fans, I can testify that if Campbell’s name resonates with them at all, it’s thanks solely to the 1982 version of The Thing.) Yet the two movies also share surprising affinities, and not simply because Carpenter idolized Hawks. Both seem interested in Campbell’s premise mostly for the visual possibilities that it suggests. In the late forties, the rights to “Who Goes There?” were purchased by RKO at the urging of Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, the latter of whom wrote the script, with uncredited contributions from Hecht and Hawks. The direction was credited to Nyby, Hawks’s protégé, but Hawks was always on the set and later claimed most of the director’s fee, leading to much disagreement over who was responsible for the result. In the end, it threw out nearly all of Campbell’s story, keeping only the basic premise of an alien spacecraft discovered by researchers in an icy environment, while shifting the setting from Antarctica to Alaska. The filmmakers were clearly more drawn to the idea of a group of men facing danger in isolation, one of Hawks’s favorite themes, and they lavished greater attention on the stock types that they understood—the pilot, the journalist, the girl—than on the scientists, who were reduced to thankless foils. David Thomson has noted that the central principle of Hawks’s work is that “men are more expressive rolling a cigarette than saving the world,” and the contrast has never been more evident than it is here.

And while Hawks isn’t usually remembered as a visual director, The Thing From Another World exists almost entirely as a series of images: the opening titles burning through the screen, the crew standing in a circle on the ice to reveal the shape of the flying saucer underneath, the shock reveal of the alien itself in the doorway. When you account for the passage of time, Carpenter’s version rests on similar foundations. His characters and dialogue are less distinct than Hawks’s, but he also seems to have regarded Campbell’s story primarily as a source of visual problems and solutions. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that the images that are burned into my brain from The Thing probably add up to a total of about five minutes: the limits of its technology mean that we only see it in action for a few seconds at a time. But those images, most of which were the work of the special effects prodigy Rob Bottin, are still the best practical effects I’ve ever seen. (It also includes the single best jump scare in the movies, which is taken all but intact from Campbell.) Even after thirty years, its shock moments are so unforgettable that they have a way of overpowering the rest, as they did for Ellison, and neither version ever really approximates the clean narrative momentum of “Who Goes There?” But maybe that’s how it should be. Campbell, for all his gifts, wasn’t primarily a visual writer, and the movies are a visual medium, particularly in horror and science fiction. Both of the classic versions of The Thing are translations from one kind of storytelling to another, and they stick in the imagination precisely to the extent that they depart from the original. They’re works for the eye, not the mind, which may be why the only memorable line in either movie is the final warning in Hawks’s version, broadcast over the airwaves to the world, telling us to watch the skies.

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