Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘In Memory Yet Green

The mystical vision

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If I have one regret about Astounding, which is generally a book that I’m proud to have written, it’s that it doesn’t talk much about the illustrators who played such an important role in the development of modern science fiction. If I had to justify this omission, I would offer three excuses, none of which is particularly convincing on its own. The first is that it’s impossible to discuss this subject at any length without a lot of pictures, preferably in color. My budget for images—both for obtaining rights and for the physical process of printing—was extremely constrained, and there are plenty of existing books out there that are filled with beautiful reproductions. The second is that this was primarily a story about John W. Campbell and his circle of writers, and there just wasn’t as much narrative material for the artists. (As Frank Kelly Freas once said: “There are fewer tales about [Campbell’s] artists only because there have been fewer artists—it took a certain amount of resiliency in an artist to keep from being worn down to a mere nub on the grinding wheel of the Campbell brilliance.”) And the third is that this was already a big book that had to include biographies of four complex individuals and the people in their lives, a critical look at their work, and a history of science fiction for the period as a whole. I was building up much of this expertise from scratch, and even in the finished product, there are times when the various strands barely manage to hold together. Something had to give along the way, and without a lot of conscious thought, I suspect that I made the call to pass lightly over the artists, just for the sake of keeping this book within reasonable bounds.

Yet it also leaves a real gap in the story, and I’m keenly aware of its absence. If nothing else, the artwork of the classic pulps—particularly their painted covers—played a huge role in attracting readers, including many who went on to become authors themselves. In his memoir In Memory Yet Green, Isaac Asimov recounts how the sight of the magazines in his family’s candy store filled him with longing, and how the illustrations played a significant role in his fateful effort to secure his father’s permission to read them:

I picked up [Science Wonder Stories] and, not without considerable qualms, approached my formidable sire…I spoke rapidly, pointed out the word “science,” showed him the paintings of futuristic machines inside as an indication of how advanced it was, and (I believe) made it plain that if he said “No,” I had every intention of mounting a rebellion.

The italics are mine. From the very beginning, the visual element of science fiction has served as a priceless form of free advertising, both for individual fans and for the culture as a whole. These images shaped our collective notion of the genre as much as the words did, if not more, and it’s a large part of the reason why Amazing Stories, not Astounding, became the primary reference point for the likes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. You can still browse through those covers with pleasure, and I honestly dare you to do the same with a randomly selected story. And if Amazing still inspires some of our most extravagant dreams, it isn’t because of the words.

You could also argue that the collaboration between artists and writers—which usually took place without the two sides ever interacting—was more responsible for what science fiction became than either half could be on its own. (This is a decent reason, by the way, for seeking out reproductions of the original magazine pages whenever possible. In practice, the stories tend to be anthologized in one place, while the illustrations are collected in another, which presents a fragmented picture of how fans experienced the genre in real time.) In the earliest period, the connection between text and image was extremely close, to the point that many of the illustrations had captions to let you know exactly what moment was being depicted. As Brian Aldiss writes in the lavish book Science Fiction Art:

[Artist Frank R. Paul] appears rather pedestrian in his approach; his objective seems to be merely to translate as literally as possible the words of the writer into pictures, as if he were translating from one language into another. Moreover, in the Gernsback magazines, he was often anchored to the literal text, a line or two of which would be appended under the illustration in an old-fashioned way.

Yet it only takes a second to realize that this is only part of the story. Paul may have been translating words into images, but he was also expanding, elaborating, and improving on his raw material. As Aldiss continues: “[Paul’s] creed, one might suspect, was utilitarian. Yet an almost mystical vision shines forth from his best covers.” And it certainly wasn’t there in most stories.

“Paul made amends for the inadequacies of the writers,” Aldiss concludes, and it’s hard not to agree. In One Hundred Years of Science Fiction Illustration, Anthony Frewin elaborates:

Paul had little or no precedent from which to gain inspiration and it is a fitting tribute to his incredible imagination that his vision and stylization of SF would characterize all similar work for the next forty years. Paul, when illustrating a story, created these monstrous galactic cities, alien landscapes, and mechanical behemoths entirely himself—the descriptions contained in the stories were never ever much more specific than, for example, something like “shimmering towers rising into the clouds from a crystal-like terrain.” He had a bias for the epic conception and many of his best covers depict vast vistas with vanishing point perspective which, nonetheless, still had a painstaking and elaborate attention to the smallest detail that one could equate with the work of John Martin.

And what was especially true of Paul was true of science fiction illustration in general. So much of what we associate with the genre—its scale, its galactic expanses, its sense of wonder—was best expressed in pictures. (It’s even possible that a writer like Asimov could get away with barely sketching in the visual aspects of his stories because he knew that Hubert Rogers would take it from there.) “Many of us began reading SF ‘because of the pictures,’” Aldiss writes, and in the end, its pictures may be its most lasting legacy. Over the next few days, I’ll be taking a closer look at what this means.

Note: I’ll be holding a Reddit AMA today at 12:30pm ET on /r/books to talk about Astounding and the golden age of science fiction. I hope that some of you can make it! 

To the stars

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In a few hours, if all goes according to plan, I’ll be delivering the contracted draft of Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction to my publisher. Last night, I had trouble sleeping, and I found myself remembering a passage from an essay by Algis Budrys that I read at the beginning of this project:

It’s becoming increasingly obvious that we need a long, objective look at John W. Campbell, Jr. But we’re not likely to get one…Obviously, no one who knew him well enough to work for him at any length could have retained an objective view of him; the most we can hope for from that quarter would be a series of memoirs which, taken all together and read by some ideally situated observer, might distill down into some single resultant—which all its parents would disown…But, obviously, no one who failed to feel his effect, or who rebelled against his effect, or lost interest in his effect, is apt to understand matters well enough to tell us exactly what he did and how he did it. At best, we’ll hear he had feet of clay. How those feet are described by each expositor may eventually produce some sort of resultant.

Budrys wrote these words more than forty years ago, and while I can’t say that I’ve always managed to be an “ideally situated observer,” I’d like to think that I’ve occasionally come close, thanks largely to the help that I’ve received from the friends of this book, who collectively—and often individually—know far more about the subject than I ever will.

Along the way, there have also been moments when the central figures seemed to reach out and speak to me directly. In a footnote in In Memory Yet Green, the first volume of his gargantuan memoir, which I still manage to enjoy even after immersing myself in it for most of the last two years, Isaac Asimov writes:

You wouldn’t think that with this autobiography out there’d be any need for a biography, but undoubtedly there’ll be someone who will consider this record of mine so biased, so self-serving, so ridiculous that there will be need for a scholarly, objective biography to set the record straight. Well, I wish him luck.

And in a letter to Syracuse University, Campbell wrote: “Sorry, but any scholarly would-be biographers are going to have a tough time finding any useful documentation on me! I just didn’t keep the records!” (Luckily for me, he was wrong.) Heinlein probably wouldn’t have cared for this project, either. As he said of a proposed study of his career by Alexei Panshin: “I preferred not to have my total corpus of work evaluated in print until after I was dead…but in any case, I did not want a book published about me written by a kid less than half my age and one who had never written a novel himself—and especially one who had tried to pick a fight with me in the past.” And we’re not even going to talk about Hubbard yet. For now, I’m going to treat myself to a short break, wait for notes, and take a few tentative steps toward figuring out what comes next. In the meantime, I can only echo what Martin Amis wrote over three decades ago: “I knew more about Isaac Asimov than I knew about anyone else alive. What could there be left to add?”

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December 4, 2017 at 9:06 am

The First Foundation, Part 2

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Though never nurtured in the lap
Of luxury, yet I admonish you,
I am an intellectual chap,
And think of things that would astonish you.

—Private Willis, Iolanthe

It’s tempting to think that if Isaac Asimov hadn’t taken the subway to John W. Campbell’s office on August 1, 1941, the history of science fiction would have been very different. Here’s how Asimov, who was twenty-one at the time, describes the incident in his autobiography:

On the way down I racked my brain for a story idea. Failing, I tried a device I sometimes used. I opened a book at random and then tried free association, beginning with whatever I saw. The book I had with me was a collection of the Gilbert and Sullivan plays. I opened it to Iolanthe—to the picture of the Fairy Queen throwing herself at the feet of Private Willis, the sentry. Thinking of sentries, I thought of soldiers, of military empires, of the Roman Empire—of the Galactic Empire—aha!

Asimov had always wanted to write a “future-historical” story, and he was still smarting over the rejection of his novelette “Pilgrimage,” which had been bounced seven times by three different editors. He thought to himself: “Why shouldn’t I write of the fall of the Galactic Empire and the return of feudalism, written from the viewpoint of someone in the secure days of the Second Empire? I thought I knew how to do it for I had read Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire from first page to last at least twice, and I had only to make use of that.” When he got to the office, he pitched it to the editor, who was immediately interested in the idea. Or as Asimov put it: “Campbell blazed up as I had never seen him do.”

If you’ve read my post from yesterday, you know that Campbell “blazed up” in large part because he had been thinking along those lines already. But what really happened at that meeting? We only have Asimov’s side of the story—although a third witness was almost certainly in the room where it happened—and there aren’t any contemporaneous letters that recount it. But there are a few tantalizing hints. In his essay “The Story Behind the Foundation,” Asimov writes that “over the course of an hour” the two of them arrived at a scheme for a series informed by the science of psychohistory, “which Campbell and I thrashed out between us.” Asimov had envisioned it as a single novelette, but Campbell had bigger plans:

It will have to be an open-ended series of stories…Short stories, novelettes, serials, all fitting into a particular future history, involving the fall of the First Galactic Empire, the period of feudalism that follows, and the rise of the Second Galactic Empire…I want you to write an outline of the future history. Go home and write the outline.

Campbell had recently published the chronology of Heinlein’s Future History, but Asimov wasn’t the kind of writer who could work under such constraints: “I went home, dutifully, and began preparing an outline that got longer and longer and stupider and stupider until I finally tore it up.” (Heinlein, I should note, didn’t just sit down and work out a timeline from scratch, but structured it around stories that he had already written or wanted to write.) Asimov decided to write the series on the fly, making it up as he went along, and Campbell had given him a useful escape hatch. In their first conversation, the editor had advised that he establish the existence of two foundations of psychohistorians, the second of which would be based at some secret location at the other end of the galaxy: “You may need the second one later on.”

But let’s get back to the statement that Campbell and Asimov “thrashed out” psychohistory between them at that initial meeting. In an interview decades later with James Gunn, Asimov offered the fullest account of the conversation that we’re ever likely to get:

Psychohistory originated in a discussion between myself and Campbell, as so many of the things in my early science fiction stories did. And I think Campbell must have been reading about symbolic logic at the time. There is some reference to symbolic logic in the first story, and that was more or less forced on me by John Campbell; it didn’t come naturally to me, because I knew nothing about symbolic logic. And he felt in our discussion that symbolic logic, further developed, would so clear up the mysteries of the human mind as to leave human actions predictable. The reason human beings are so unpredictable was we didn’t really know what they were saying and thinking because language is generally used obscurely. So what we needed was something that would unobscure the language and leave everything clear. Well, this I didn’t believe.

Asimov explained that as a chemist, he was more comfortable with an analogy drawn from the ideal gas law, which predicts behavior in the aggregate that can’t be foreseen on the level of the individual particles. He concluded: “For me, it was the kinetic theory of gases, and that was secondarily imposed, and it was John Campbell who really started it with symbolic logic.” The italics are mine. Asimov openly acknowledged that Campbell was the first one to articulate the Three Laws of Robotics, but he was more possessive when it came to psychohistory, stating elsewhere of his “purpose” in writing the Foundation series: “I wanted to consider essentially the struggle of psychohistory, something I made up myself.” But in his conversation with Gunn, Asimov came as close as he ever did to giving the lion’s share of the credit to Campbell.

And this isn’t hard to believe, when you consider their relationship at the time. Campbell was ten years older than Asimov, who still regarded the editor with awe—which brings us to that third witness. Catherine Tarrant, Campbell’s assistant editor, occupied the desk next to him for decades, and in countless anecdotes from the golden age of science fiction, she was the silent and unacknowledged presence in the room. Asimov doesn’t explicitly say that she was present on August 1, 1941, but there’s no reason to believe that she wasn’t, and in his memoir, he hints at what Tarrant might have seen that day:

Catherine, whom I invariably called Miss Tarrant in those days and for years afterward, was usually in the office when I talked to Campbell, sitting quietly and almost unnoticeably in the background, but not missing a thing. Years afterward, she would enjoy herself by describing those early days to younger writers. Invariably, she would tell them, in detail, how I sat there in adoring admiration of Campbell, drinking in every word he said. I always thought I listened with a cool self-possession, but perhaps that was not how it appeared to others.

As time passed, the two men would interact more as equals, but they weren’t there yet in the early forties. Asimov was emerging as a talent to watch, but it was thanks largely to the robot stories and to “Nightfall,” which owed a great deal to Campbell’s influence, and their dynamic was still that of a mentor and protégé. Asimov’s initial pitch for “Foundation,” if we take his account at face value, didn’t mention psychohistory at all, and he brought it to Campbell at a moment when the editor had been thinking intently about the subject with Jack Williamson, L. Sprague de Camp, and even Heinlein. When those are the initial conditions, it doesn’t take a mathematical psychologist to figure out what might have happened next. But it doesn’t quite explain why Campbell decided to pursue the concept so aggressively with Asimov, rather than with Williamson, who had approached him with a similar idea first. I’ll have more to say about this tomorrow.

Fear of a female planet

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The Legion of Time

In his memoir In Memory Yet Green, Isaac Asimov describes some of the earliest stories that he wrote with an eye to publication, when he was just eighteen years old, and concludes:

There were no girls in [these stories]…But then, women were very much an unknown quantity for me…In 1938, when I was writing my first stories, I had yet to have a formal date with a girl. In short, the circumstances of my life were such that it never occurred to me to put a feminine character in my stories…I eventually had dates, and I eventually learned about women, but the early imprinting had its effect. To this very day, the romantic element in my stories tends to be minor and the sexual element virtually nil.

When you dig a little deeper, however, you find that the absence of women wasn’t just an accidental quality of the young Asimov’s work, but a conscious decision. Or at least that’s how he chose to spin it. In a letter that was published in the September 1938 issue of Astounding—or just as he was making his first serious efforts as a writer—Asimov wrote: “When we want science fiction, we don’t want swooning dames…Come on, men, make yourself heard in favor of less love mixed with our science!” A year later, after his letters had inspired a debate among fans, Asimov doubled down, writing: “The great philosophers and the great religious leaders of the world—the ones who taught truth and virtue, kindliness and justice—were all, all men.”

To be fair, Asimov was only nineteen, and later in his life, he probably would have been embarrassed by the sentiments expressed in those letters. (They feel a lot like a defense mechanism to justify his own shyness with women, both in fiction and in real life.) But the trouble that science fiction has always had with its female characters is so fundamental that you could almost point to it as a defining quality of the genre. The case of Robert A. Heinlein is even more problematic than Asimov’s, in large part because he was a better writer. In an essay published in the memorial volume Requiem, the writer Spider Robinson disputes the accusation that Heinlein was “a male chauvinist,” listing a few dozen female characters who seem to disprove the allegation. “Virtually every one of them,” Robinson concludes, “is a world-class expert in at least one demanding and competitive field.” And there’s no question that Heinlein’s fiction is full of tough, smart, attractive women. The trouble is that they possess these qualities mostly because it’s what the protagonist—invariably male—likes to see in a prospective mate. These strong, intelligent, liberated women become the prize that the hero gets for surviving, and they’re often openly eager to have his babies. They aren’t allowed to drive the story or have an inner life of their own, and even the toughest of them meekly submits to the hero as soon as he takes charge. The only really convincing adult woman in all of Heinlein is Cynthia Randall in “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag,” and I don’t think it’s an accident that she feels so much like a portrait of his wife Leslyn in the years before their marriage fell apart.

"The Door into Summer" by Robert A. Heinlein

I’m being hard on Heinlein precisely because he was the best writer the genre ever produced, which makes his failure here all the harder to forgive. If we judge science fiction’s treatment of women by the extent to which they’re allowed to affect the stories in which they appear, then none of the central figures in Astounding pass even that rudimentary test. On the whole, in fact, science fiction has done better when its women are openly allowed to be sinister. Belle in The Door into Summer, my favorite Heinlein novel, isn’t exactly a positive role model, but as a femme fatale—much of the first half of the book reads oddly like James M. Cain—she’s twice as interesting as the usual pneumatic secretary with a genius IQ whom Heinlein submits for our approval. As far as other writers go, A.E. van Vogt, whose background was in confession stories, is surprisingly good with women, especially when they’re a little menacing. And then there’s Jack Williamson, who was so much better at female villains than at heroines that it became a running joke among his friends. (You can see this most clearly in his masterpiece, “The Legion of Time,” which amounts to a Betty and Veronica story told on a cosmic scale.) In a letter to John W. Campbell, Heinlein writes:

At a recent gathering of the Mañana Literary Society, [Cleve] Cartmill and [Anthony Boucher]…were trying to determine why Jack’s sinister female characters were so solid and convincing and his heroine-like females so cardboard. Someone suggested that it was because Jack was really afraid of women. Jack considered this and said that he thought it might be true. “I may have a subconscious conviction,” avers Jack, “that vaginas are equipped with teeth.”

It’s tempting to blame much of this on the historical circumstances in which pulp science fiction emerged: Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing came out of a community of electronic hobbyists that consisted mostly of young white men, and the fan groups that emerged followed suit. As you see in even a cursory glance at the letters columns from that period, girls were regarded with active suspicion. (Asimov sarcastically observes that there must be “at least twenty” female science fiction fans.) It certainly wasn’t an environment in which most women felt welcome, and it became a cycle that fed on itself, with writers unable to see the contrary examples that were right in front of their faces. Ray Bradbury was mentored by the likes of Catherine Moore and Leslyn Heinlein, but in The Martian Chronicles, he blows much of his goodwill whenever he has to talk about women. There’s the punchline in “The Silent Towns,” for example, in which the last man on Mars goes in search of the last woman, only to be dismayed to find that she’s dumpy and unattractive. And there’s the unforgivable line about the early days of settlement of Mars: “Everyone knew who the first women would be.” It’s a massive blind spot that reminds me of the androids in Westworld, who can’t see anything that conflicts with their programming. Given the times in which they lived, you could argue that it’s unreasonable to wish that these writers had done better. But these were the men we trusted to tell us about the future. If they can’t be held to the highest possible standard, then who can?

Astounding Stories #17: The Thiotimoline Papers

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The Micropsychiatric Applications of Thiotimoline

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

In May of 1947, Isaac Asimov, who was then a graduate student in organic chemistry at Columbia University, was hard at work in the lab. As part of the research he was conducting for his doctorate, he had to dissolve a compound called catechol in an enzyme solution and time the reaction with a stopwatch. As he describes it in his memoir In Memory Yet Green:

Catechol, as it happens, is very readily soluble, especially when it exists as fluffy crystals that present a large surface to the water. The result is that as soon as the catechol touches the surface of the water it dissolves. It just seems to vanish without ever penetrating the water’s skin.

As I watched it one morning I thought idly: What if it dissolves just before it hits the water?

Asimov saw immediately that this would be a good idea for a science fiction story, and he had the additional inspiration to write it up as a spoof article for a scientific journal about this imaginary compound. He was dreading the process of writing his dissertation in a dry academic style, and he thought that composing a parody would allow him to blow off some steam. Asimov proposed the idea to the editor John W. Campbell, who loved it, and the result, “The Endochronic Properties of Resubliminated Thiotimoline,” was published in the March 1948 issue of Astounding Science Fiction.

The article was a big hit with readers, and it remains a minor classic. At a time when many of us dread the unfunny fake press releases that appear on every April Fool’s Day, it can be hard to appreciate the impression that it made. Unlike most stories in the same vein, it keeps a poker face throughout, and it evidently fooled a lot of readers, at least at first glance: Campbell later claimed that the New York Public Library was flooded with requests for the fictitious papers listed in its bibliography. It inspired letters from fans describing their own experiments, including one on “neurotic thiotimoline”—in which the dissolution of thiotimoline activated a mechanism that prevented the water from being added, creating a paradox—and another on a “prediction machine” built from a chain of thiotimoline reactors. (The second letter criticized the first as “a pack of lies,” saying: “I strongly suspect that it was a cheap publicity trick for some sort of new religious cult [the writer] is planning to start which will involve the worship of a thiotimoline god.”) A second gag article along the same lines, “The Aphrodite Project” by Philip Latham, took the form of an abstract of a government report on an unmanned probe to Venus. This one caused a fair amount of bewilderment as well, and Campbell even got a few phone calls about it, prompting him to clarify that it was fictional in an editor’s note, and to warn readers that an upcoming piece, “Progress Report” by John Pomeroy, would have “gags at all levels.” He ultimately instituted an informal editorial policy that such articles could only appear once every eighteen months or so, clearly labeled as “Special Features,” and by that point, much of the fun was gone.

Isaac Asimov

This much of the story, at least, is familiar to many science fiction fans. What isn’t as well known is how the thiotimoline gag complicated Campbell’s plans for a more significant project: the introduction of dianetics. In the December 1949 issue, Campbell wrote: “But the item that most interests me at the moment is an article on the most important subject imaginable. This is not a hoax article. It is an article on the science of the mind, of human thought.” Campbell, in other words, realized that a lot of readers might think that the dianetics article was just another parody, and I suspect that his attempts to flag all spoof articles more explicitly going forward was an attempt to head off any confusion. When the article “Dianetics: The Evolution of a Science” appeared the following year, Dr. Joseph Winter, the endocrinologist who collaborated with Campbell and L. Ron Hubbard on its development, drew the distinction even more emphatically in his introduction:

[Campbell] wanted to make certain that you readers would not confuse dianetics with thiotimoline or any other bit of scientific sporting. This is too important to be misunderstood.

Anecdotally, it seems that more than a few readers did think that the article was a spoof of the language of psychiatry. And while this probably would have happened anyway, it isn’t hard to believe that thiotimoline made it all the more difficult for many people to take it seriously.

But that isn’t quite the end of the story. In 1953, after Campbell had broken away from Hubbard, he published a sequel to the original thiotimoline paper, titled “The Micropsychiatric Applications of Thiotimoline.” In the article, Asimov writes that he has received funding from the American Association for the Advancement of Quantitative Psychiatry, which believes that thiotimoline can be used to quantify mental disorders: “It is the purpose of the present paper, in part, to show that by use of thiotimoline, certain mental disorders can be quantitated and their diagnosis converted from an uncertain art to an exact science.” The time at which thiotimoline dissolves depends on the willpower of the person adding it to the solution, which means that it can provide a benchmark for measuring the strength of the human will, in a new science that Asimov calls “willometry.” Observing that subjects with multiple personalities cause a sample of thiotimoline to dissolve at different times, he uses this fact to establish ten “grades” of deviations, as well as to classify schizophrenics into “levo” and “dextro” varieties. Asimov concludes:

The value of such a subdivision of schizophrenia may well be said to be of incalculable potentialities and, indeed, to found new science of quantitative micropsychiatry. How much more useful is it to say of a patient that he is a vertical schizophrenic, levo variety, Grade 3, than simply to say that he is schizophrenic.

It’s a conscious parody of dianetics, with its tone scale, its elaborate pseudoscientific vocabulary, and its claim to have transformed psychiatry into an exact science. Campbell would have seen this, too—and I’d like to believe that he published it as a small act of revenge on Hubbard, long after their partnership had dissolved.

Astounding Stories #9: “The Mule”

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"The Mule" by Isaac Asimov

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 the four writers who stand at the heart of Astounding, the one who has been the hardest to pin down is Isaac Asimov. This might seem surprising, given that the other three figures are John W. Campbell, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard, all of whom, by any measure, had personalities and private lives of daunting complexity. Asimov, by contrast, seems like a relatively accessible figure: his life was comparatively uneventful in its externals, and he spent much of it in the lab at Boston University, giving speeches, or writing at home. He was also the author of two enormously detailed volumes of autobiography, In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt, that track his life on almost a daily basis, which would make them indispensable primary sources even if they weren’t also a huge pleasure to read. (A third volume, I, Asimov, is less essential, but still a must for fans.) He was also more of a public figure than any other science fiction writer of his time. With his glasses and sideburns, he was instantly recognizable, and I suspect that he might be the novelist, of any era, whom the greatest number of living Americans would be able to identify at sight. Decades after his death, he still has the highest name recognition of any writer in the genre. But separating the persona that he deliberately cultivated from the real man underneath presents undeniable challenges—all the more so because Asimov managed to convince millions of readers that they knew him well, when he really kept so many aspects of himself under close guard.

Asimov’s unique status as a celebrity also encourages a number of misconceptions about his career. He’s often cited as a monstrous fiction-writing machine, as Stephen King did in a recent essay for the New York Times on whether a novelist can be too productive. After evoking the likes of Max Brand and Alexandre Dumas, King continues: “And then there’s Isaac Asimov, who sold his first short story at nineteen, hammered out more than five hundred books, and revolutionized science fiction.” But there’s a big misapprehension here. Asimov was undoubtedly one of the most prolific writers who ever lived, but not on the fiction side. When you add up his novels and short stories, it’s an impressive body of work, but not that much larger than that of many other writers of his generation, and Asimov could go for years without producing much in the way of fiction at all. It was in nonfiction, and particularly in popular science, that he made his greatest mark on the world’s libraries, as well as on the consciousness of the public. For most of his life, Asimov was among the most highly regarded of authors within the closed circle of science fiction readers, but he didn’t have a mainstream bestseller until he returned to the Foundation series toward the end of his career. It was in the sheer volume of his nonfiction—which Asimov was among the first to realize would be newsworthy in itself—that he became famous to a general audience, less because of any one book than thanks to the familiarity of his face and byline.

Portrait of Isaac Asimov by Rowena Morrill

This makes it a little harder to objectively evaluate his fiction. There’s no doubt that he would be regarded as a major writer within the genre, even if he hadn’t become so famous outside of it, but his output is frankly more mixed than that of, say, Heinlein. It took Asimov a while to find his footing—although we should never forget, as King points out, that he was unbelievably young when he sold his first stories, and that he did much of his growing up as an author in full view. His single greatest breakthrough, “Nightfall,” has been voted the best science fiction story of all time on multiple occasions, although Asimov himself felt that it was overrated. The positronic robot stories are an indisputable landmark as a whole, but I’m not sure if any one installment in the series inspires particularly warm feelings in readers, and its most significant element, the Three Laws of Robotics, was really developed by Campbell. And Asimov’s limitations as a writer are more evident than they are in the best of his contemporaries. I’ve come to believe that Heinlein, Sturgeon, and the writing team of C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner, to name only the most obvious examples, could do just about anything, while Asimov seemed more comfortable working within a narrow range: it’s impossible to imagine him writing a story like “Vintage Season” or “Killdozer.” He helped define the genre, but he rarely strayed from a specific subset of it during the golden age, and it wasn’t until later, in stories like “The Last Question,” that he began to push into unexplored regions.

But I don’t want to understate his talent, because many of the stories he wrote during this early period are extraordinary. My personal favorite is “The Red Queen’s Race,” a relatively unheralded work about a professor who tries to change the future by sending physics textbooks back in time to ancient Greece: maybe it’s because of my own classics background, but I think it’s a perfect story. And then there’s the Foundation series, which remains his most lasting achievement, despite what even Asimov, on rereading it after three decades, saw as a decided lack of action or conventional suspense. (“I read it with mounting uneasiness. I kept waiting for something to happen, and nothing ever did.”) Elsewhere, the writer James Gunn notes that “the romance is almost invisible,” which is another way of saying that there are almost no women in sight. Still, it remains a fascinating work, in part because of the appeal of the notion of a secret society of psychohistorians, which had a strange afterlife when Campbell tried to create one for real at the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation in Elizabeth, New Jersey. And it includes one undeniably great novella, “The Mule,” which was Asimov’s own favorite. It benefits from having a significant female character for once, in the form of Bayta Darell, and a stunning twist ending that still works like gangbusters today. Asimov wrote it in response to Campbell’s insistence that the Seldon Plan, the “connecting backbone” of the series, had to be disrupted: “I was horrified. No, I said, no, no, no. But Campbell said: Yes, yes, yes, yes, and I knew I wasn’t going to sell him a no, no.” And as Asimov himself knew well, even the best of plans have a way of going in unexpected directions—and in life as well as in fiction.

Life Itself and the art of the memoir

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Roger Ebert

Over the weekend, I finally picked up a copy of Life Itself, the late Roger Ebert’s extraordinary memoir and valediction for one of the richest of recent American lives. I’m not sure why it took me so long to read it, but I suspect that it had something to do with my own resistance to Ebert’s shifting cultural role in his final years: as someone who grew up on his reviews—and basically learned how to read and think in the process—I liked to think of Ebert as more of a private friend. As the reaction to his illness and death made abundantly clear, though, that’s how he seemed to many of us. He was funny, accessible, unfailingly wise, and the last of the great figures from a golden age of journalism. Not surprisingly, his memoir is a delight, the first book in ages that I’ve been physically unable to put down. Ebert’s personality always came through in his reviews and essays, which amount to a disguised autobiography delivered over five decades, but here he speaks more candidly about the subjects he couldn’t discuss before: his alcoholism, his love life, his struggles with weight, and the curious business of being both a critic and a public figure with greater name recognition than many of the filmmakers he covered.

Life Itself is organized thematically, which allows me to skip from chapter to chapter in search of whatever tidbits I feel like reading about at the moment. There are juicy sections devoted to Ebert’s friendships and interactions with such directors as Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, and Russ Meyer, and an especially memorable chapter on Gene Siskel, all crammed with anecdotes, jokes, and memories. Ebert’s closing mediations on sickness, silence, and mortality are all the more moving because of the crowded eventfulness of the life that preceded it. And the way the memoir moves from one subject to the next, allowing the reader to browse with ease, creates a curious impression: it feels less like a book than a conversation, or even like the man himself, as if we’ve all been given the chance to hear Ebert’s voice on whatever we feel like talking about one last time. As far back as Montaigne, who concealed his autobiography beneath a series of seemingly disconnected reflections, readers and writers alike have known that an author lives most fully within a structure that makes that kind of interaction possible, allowing us to open happily to the middle and dive in—which, after all, is the way we experience the lives and minds of those around us.

Vladimir Nabokov

When I look at the memoirs and autobiographies I’ve enjoyed and revisited the most, I find that most of them have this kind of thematic structure, so that the life becomes less a dry series of dates and events than a set of perspectives that allow us to regard the author from every angle. As Borges writes:

A history of a man’s dreams is not inconceivable; another, of all the organs of his body; another, on the mistakes he made; another, of all the moments when he thought about the Pyramids; another, of his dealings with the night and with the dawn.

Such a book, with each chapter devoted to a different inner history, would be much more readable than the staid chronological scheme favored by most biographers. (Borges continues: “One life of Poe consists of seven hundred octavo pages; the author, fascinated by changes of residence, barely manages one parenthesis for the Malestrom or the cosmogony of ‘Eureka.'”) And while this book can only be written by one person—its subject—that’s all the more reason to wish that more writers would take this approach when the time came to set down something meaningful about their lives.

My own short list of favorite memoirs, for instance, consists almost entirely of works with this sort of arrangement: Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov, Self-Consciousness by John Updike, I, Asimov by you know who. (Curiously, one of my favorite autobiographies of all, Asimov’s earlier volumes In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt, takes the opposite approach, treating each minor event in the author’s life as if he had no knowledge of what was coming next. The fact that Asimov gets away with it—especially given that most of his life was spent at a writing desk—only speaks to his talents.) It’s perhaps no accident that all these books, like Ebert’s, are obsessed by the idea of mortality, as expressed in Nabokov’s opening lines: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” Writing one’s memoirs, like writing of any kind, is an attempt to cheat death, or of ensuring that some fragment of our thoughts or personalities will survive us when we’re gone. And if you want to outlive yourself, the best way is to tell us what you thought about a few important things, as Douglas Hofstadter writes of his late friend Randy Read: “Perhaps these musings, dancing and sparking in the neurons of a few thousand readers out there, will keep alive, in scattered form, a tiny piece of his soul.”

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