Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Isaac Asimov

The weight of lumber

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In my discussion yesterday of huge scholarly projects that expanded to take up the lives of their authors, I deliberately left out one name. Arnold J. Toynbee was a British historian and author of the twelve volumes of A Study of History, the most ambitious attempt to date at a universal theory of the rise and fall of civilizations. Toynbee has intrigued me for as long as I can remember, but he’s a little different from such superficially similar figures as Joseph Needham and Donald Knuth. For one thing, he actually finished his magnum opus, and even though it took decades, he more or less stuck to the plan of the work that he published in the first installment, which was an achievement in itself. He also differed from the other two in reaching a wide popular audience. Thousands of sets of his book were sold, and it became a bestseller in its two-volume abridgment by D.C. Somervell. It inspired countless essays and thick tomes of commentary, argument, and response—and then, strangely, it simply went away. Toynbee’s name has all but disappeared from mainstream and academic consideration, maybe because his ideas were too abstruse for one and too grandiose for the other, and if he’s recognized today at all, it’s probably because of the mysterious Toynbee tiles. (One possible successor is the psychohistory of the Foundation series, which has obvious affinities to his work, although Isaac Asimov played down the connection. He read the first half of A Study of History in 1944, borrowing the volumes one at a time from L. Sprague de Camp, and recalled: “There are some people who, on reading my Foundation series, are sure that it was influenced basically by Toynbee. They are only partly right. The first four stories were written before I had read Toynbee. ‘Dead Hand,’ however, was indeed influenced by it.”)

At the Newberry Library Book Fair last week, I hesitated over buying a complete set of Toynbee, and by the time I made up my mind and went back to get it, it was gone—which is the kind of mistake that can haunt me for the rest of my life. As a practical matter, though, I have all the Toynbee I’ll ever need: I already own the introductory volume of A Study of History and the Somervell abridgment, and it’s frankly hard to imagine reading anything else. But I did pick up the twelfth and last volume, Reconsiderations, published seven years after the rest, which might be the most interesting of them all. It’s basically Toynbee’s reply to his critics in over seven hundred pages of small type, in the hardcover equivalent of a writer responding to all the online comments on his work one by one. Toynbee seems to have read every review of his book, and he sets out to engage them all, including a miscellaneous section of over eighty pages simply called Ad Hominem. It’s a prickly, fascinating work that is probably more interesting than the books that inspired it, and one passage in particular caught my eye:

One of my critics has compared earlier volumes of this book to a “palace” in which “the rooms…are over-furnished to the point of resembling a dealer’s warehouse.” This reviewer must also be a thought-reader; for I have often thought of myself as a man moving old furniture about. For centuries these lovely things had been lying neglected in the lumber-rooms and attics. They had been piled in there higgledy-piggledy, in utter disorder, and had been crammed so tight that nobody could even squeeze his way in to look at them and find out whether they were of any value. In the course of ages they had been accumulating there—unwanted rejects from a score of country houses. This unworthy treatment of these precious pieces came to trouble me more and more; for I knew that they were not really junk; I knew that they were heirlooms, and these so rare and fine that they were not just provincial curiosities; they were the common heritage of anyone who had any capacity for appreciating beauty in Man’s handiwork.

In speaking of “lumber-rooms and attics,” Toynbee is harking back to a long literary tradition of comparing the mind itself to a lumber-room, which originally meant a spare room in a house full of unused furniture and other junk. I owe this knowledge to Nicholson Baker’s famous essay “Lumber,” reprinted in his collection The Size of Thoughts, in which he traces the phrase’s rise and fall, in a miniature version of what Toynbee tries to do for entire civilizations. Baker claims to have chosen the word “lumber” essentially at random, writing in his introduction: “Now feels like a good time to pick a word or a phrase, something short, and go after it, using the available equipment of intellectual retrieval, to see where we get…It should be representatively out of the way; it should have seen better days. Once or twice in the past it briefly enjoyed the status of a minor cliché, but now, for one reason or another, it is ignored or forgotten.” This might be a description of A Study of History itself—and yet, remarkably, Baker doesn’t mention the passage that I’ve quoted here. I assume that this is because he wasn’t aware of it, because it fits in beautifully with the rest of his argument. The dread of the mind becoming a lumber-room, crammed with useless odds and ends, is primarily a fear of intellectuals, as expressed by their patron saint Sherlock Holmes:

I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic…It is a mistake to think that this little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent.

Baker explains: “This is a form of the great scholarly worry—a worry which hydroptically book-thirsty poets like Donne, Johnson, Gray, Southey, and Coleridge all felt at times—the fear that too much learning will eventually turn even an original mind into a large, putty-colored regional storage facility of mislabeled and leaking chemical drums.”

Toynbee’s solution to the problem of mental lumber, like that of Needham and Knuth, was simply to pull it out of his brain and put it down on paper, even if it took three decades and twelve volumes. It’s hard not to be stirred by his description of his efforts:

At last I found that I could not bear this shocking situation any longer, so I set my own hand to a back-breaking job. I began to drag out the pieces, one by one, and to arrange them in the hall. I could not pretend to form a final judgement on the order in which they should be placed. Indeed, there never could be a final judgement on this, for a number of attractive different orders could be imagined, each of them the right order from some particular point of view. The first thing to be done was to get as many of the pieces as possible out into the open and to assemble them in some order or other. If once I had them parked down in the hall, I could see how they looked and could shift them and re-shift them at my leisure. Perhaps I should not have the leisure; perhaps the preliminary job of extracting these treasures from the lumber-rooms and attics would turn out to be as much as I could manage with my single pair of hands. If so, this would not matter; for there would be plenty of time afterwards for other people to rearrange the pieces, and, no doubt, they would be doing this again and again as they studied them more closely and came to know more about them than would ever be known by me.

It’s through arrangement and publication that lumber becomes precious again, and from personal experience, I know how hard it can be to relinquish information that has been laboriously brought to light. But part of the process is knowing when to stop. As Baker, a less systematic but equally provocative thinker, concludes:

I have poked through verbal burial mounds, I have overemphasized minor borrowings, I have placed myself deep in the debt of every accessible work of reference, and I have overquoted and overquibbled—of course I have: that is what always happens when you pay a visit to the longbeards’ dusty chamber…All the pages I have flipped and copied and underlined will turn gray again and pull back into the shadows, and have no bearing on one another. Lumber becomes treasure only temporarily, through study, and then it lapses into lumber again. Books open, and then they close.

The saucer people

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Seventy years ago this week, a newspaper report in the Roswell Daily Record stated that the Air Force had captured a flying saucer on a ranch in New Mexico. For most of the next three decades, however, if you had mentioned this incident to your average science fiction fan, you probably would have gotten a blank stare. Roswell didn’t become a cultural touchstone until the late seventies, and it was overshadowed that same year by a more famous sighting by the pilot Kenneth Arnold, who claimed to have seen nine flying objects near Mount Rainier on June 24, 1947. Arnold’s account was so widely covered that the editor John W. Campbell felt obliged to write about it in Astounding Science Fiction. His editorial on the subject, which appeared in the October 1947 issue, ruled out the possibility of a secret government project—“They’d have been test-flown off some small Pacific island, where none but a few selected personnel, plus a few thousand fish, would have been around to report”—and speculated idly that flying saucers might be a form of surveillance. If we wanted to study another planet without being seen by the natives, he noted, we would take much the same approach:

For several months, our investigation would be conducted by non-contact observation; until we know much more about the people, we’ll do well to stay clear of them…A stealthy raid might kidnap a few inhabitants for general questioning and investigation…Investigation of local animals can give all the necessary basic biological science for the preliminary understanding of the local race…After several months of watching, listening, and picking up radio broadcasts, plus investigation of kidnapees, there would be a lot of material to digest. Captured books, particularly children’s books, would give adequate keys to the languages. At that point, we would be smart to clear out for at least a year of concentrated study of the material at hand…It might be a year or five years before any further steps were taken.

Years later, Isaac Asimov, who had a horror of unidentified flying objects, would list “flying saucers” among the causes on which Campbell became increasingly irrational, along with psionics and dianetics. In reality, Campbell wasn’t particularly interested in the subject, and he only covered it in the magazine when outside events obliged him to weigh in. Arnold’s sighting was one such incident, and the McMinnville photographs, which caused a sensation, prompted him to treat it again in the October 1950 issue, at a time when he was far more interested in other matters. Campbell said that flying saucers represented a problem of “no data,” and he compared such sightings to the “background count” picked up by a radiation detector—most of it was just noise. But there were some intriguing patterns:

Some type of real artifact, referred to as flying saucers, appears to exist; the incidence of reports far exceeds any reasonable level of “background count.” Too many observers—too many places—too many simultaneous observations of the same unknown. Something real exists; that we can file as real, valid data…But—this is an important datum—the planet-wide reports do not noticeably exceed the normal level of what we have called here the “background count”…It has been suggested that the flying saucers are interplanetary visitors. But the frequency of occurrence does not show an even planetary distribution; there is a background-count level around the world, with a high peak level in the United States.

He pointed out that most of the sightings took place in the Pacific Northwest, but not in adjacent regions of Canada or Mexico, and he concluded: “It’s a remarkable interplanetary visitor that shows such keen awareness of political boundaries.”

In a reversal of his earlier stance, Campbell hinted strongly that he thought that it was some kind of military program, which he confirmed in another editorial in January 1953: “Their marked tendency to confine their operations to the western United States was, in fact, a factor which made me feel, for a long time, that they were a United States military secret weapon. I was at a loss to explain why an alien, an extraterrestrial, would show such marked preference for that particular geographic area.” (As editor of the magazine Air Trails, he implied to a friend that he had seen a “flying disc,” although he wasn’t able to talk about it.) Campbell then playfully suggested another possible reason why such sightings tended to take place over “the square states,” proposing that aliens were telepathically sensitive, and that they would avoid big cities—where the psychic tension was high—in favor of less inhabited areas that showed a high degree of technological development. For the most part, however, his attitude remained cautious. At the end of the decade, in the April 1959 issue, he wrote:

To date, despite reams of argument and statements, the only sure, positive statement about UFOs that can be made is, “There is a phenomenon. Its nature and cause are totally indeterminable from the data and the technical understanding available to us at the time.” They might be scout ships of interstellar visitors…and they might be giant plasmids of ionized gases of our own atmosphere. They are not the result of any phenomenon adequately known to modern science.

Campbell, who had featured a crashed spacecraft in “Who Goes There?”, was also reluctant to publish fiction on the subject, writing in a rejection letter in 1952: “I’m afraid I can’t touch this one; the flying saucers scare me. Essentially, the point is this: science fiction is speculation based on science. That’s sane, sensible, and helpful. The flying saucers aren’t science; they’re speculation. Now speculation built on speculation is not sane, sensible, and helpful—it’s wild-blue-yonder stuff. It’s insane, and confuses the issue.”

What’s funny, of course, is that Campbell was perfectly willing to publish “speculation built on speculation” about countless other subjects, such as psionics. In October 1953, in the editorial “Unwise Knowledge,” he even made the case that science fiction was the best possible place to talk about such strange matters, since speculation for the purposes of entertainment had a purely positive value. (It’s also worth noting that he didn’t avoid the topic entirely. In the March 1961 issue of Analog, he published a very odd piece by Arthur W. Orton titled “The Four-Faced Visitors of Ezekiel,” which made the case that the vision of the merkabah was really a visit from ancient astronauts. The article generated a lot of attention, and even Asimov liked it, writing a complimentary letter that was printed a few issues later.) Yet Campbell was mostly uninterested in flying saucers, despite the fact that he was naturally sympathetic to such accounts—as a college student at Duke, he had seen a display of ball lightning at his house in Durham, North Carolina, only to have it dismissed by one of his old professors, and he later suggested that a similar phenomenon might lie behind UFO sightings. So why did he steer clear? One reason is that the territory had already been aggressively claimed by Raymond A. Palmer, the former editor of Amazing, who wrote The Coming of the Saucers with Kenneth Arnold and even founded an entire magazine devoted to it. Campbell may have figured that there wasn’t room for two editors. But there was also a more important consideration. In 1954, he wrote to a correspondent:

The flying saucers aren’t facts; they’re Somethings. They may be optical illusions, interstellar travelers, St. Elmo’s Fire, weather balloons…who knows what. To speculate on something so vague and unsure itself is the essence of insane thinking. Quite literally, it would be dangerous for a mind to speculate on unknown-somethings…I don’t know what causes “flying saucer” reports. As soon as sound data as to what it is that causes the reports is available, I’ll be willing to discuss the implications!

The italics are mine. Campbell liked data, even if it came from questionable sources, which was why he was so enthusiastic about such devices as the Hieronymus Machine. He wanted something that he could control. And when it came to flying saucers, he just couldn’t get on board.

Written by nevalalee

July 7, 2017 at 9:18 am

Revenge of the nerds

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“Those cops know who you are,” [Starling] said. “They look at you to see how to act.” She stood steady, shrugged her shoulders, opened her palms. There it was, it was true.

—Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs

Over the last six months, a pattern of behavior within the technology world has been coming into focus. It arguably began with Susan J. Fowler, a software engineer who published a post on her personal blog with the pointedly neutral title “Reflecting on One Very, Very Strange Year at Uber,” which, with its account of sexism, harassment, and the dismissal of her concerns, set off a chain of events that culminated in the resignation of Uber founder Travis Kalanick. More recently, we’ve seen similar reports about the venture capital firm Binary Capital, the investment incubator 500 Startups, and now the electric car company Tesla. Even at a glance, we can draw a few obvious conclusions. The first is that most companies still have no idea how to deal with these accusations. By now, it should be abundantly clear that the only acceptable response to such allegations is to say that you’re taking them seriously. Instead, we get the likes of Binary’s original statement, which said that the partner in question “has in the past occasionally dated or flirted with women he met in a professional capacity.” (The firm quickly reversed itself, and it’s now being rewarded with the possibility that it may simply cease to exist.) Another inference is that the number of cases will only grow, as more women come forward to share their stories. And a third takeaway is that most of these companies have certain qualities in common. They’re founded and run by intelligent, ambitious men who may not have had a lot of romantic success early in life, but who now find themselves in a position of power over women. It’s a dynamic not unlike that of, say, a graduate department in philosophy. And it’s worth wondering if we’re fated to hear similar stories whenever male overachievers with poor social skills become gatekeepers in industries where women are at a numerical disadvantage.   

As it happens, an experiment along those lines has been ongoing for over ninety years, in a closed setting with ample documentation. It’s the science fiction fandom. Most of the evidence is anecdotal, but this doesn’t make it any less compelling. In the anthology The Hugo Winners, which was published in 1962, for instance, Isaac Asimov wrote of Anne McCaffrey: “She’s a woman in a man’s world and it doesn’t bother her a bit.” He explained:

Science fiction is far less a man’s world than it used to be as far as the readers are concerned. Walk into any convention these days and the number of shrill young girls fluttering before you (if you are Harlan Ellison) or backing cautiously away (if you are me) is either frightening or fascinating, depending on your point of view. (I am the fascinated type.)

The writers, however, are still masculine by a heavy majority. What’s more, they are a particularly sticky kind of male, used to dealing with males, and a little perturbed at having to accept a woman on an equal basis.

Asimov concluded: “It’s not so surprising. Science is a heavily masculine activity (in our society, anyway); so science fiction writing is, or should be. Isn’t that the way it goes?” But Anne McCaffrey, with her “Junoesque measurements and utter self-confidence,” was doing just fine. He added: “I have the most disarming way of goggling at Junoesque measurements which convinces any woman possessing them that I have good taste.” As an illustration, he told an amusing story of how McCaffrey beat him in a singing competition, prompting him to point at her chest and protest: “It’s not fair. She has spare lungs!” How could any woman possibly feel out of place?

You could excuse this by saying that Asimov is joking, using the bantering tone that he employs in all of his essays about the fandom, but that’s problematic in itself. Asimov consciously mastered an informal style that made readers feel as if he were confiding in them, telling his publisher, who had expressed doubts about his approach: “They will feel themselves inside the world of science fiction.” And they did. At a time when the genre was rapidly expanding into the mass culture, he made it seem as close and intimate as it had been in the thirties. But he also gave hints to fans about how they were supposed to talk about themselves, and sometimes it wasn’t particularly funny. (It also had a way of excluding anyone who wasn’t in on the joke, as in Asimov’s infamous quip to Samuel R. Delany.) This wasn’t a new development, either. A quarter of a century earlier, as an unknown fan in the letters column of Astounding, Asimov had written: “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.” Later, he doubled down on his position: “Let me point out that women never affected the world directly. They always grabbed hold of some poor, innocent man, worked their insidious wiles on him…and then affected history through him.” He concluded that he should probably stop before he inspired a “vendetta” of all the female fans in the country: “There must be at least twenty of them!” If this was a joke, it persisted for decades, and he wasn’t the only one. When you look back at those letters, their suspicion or bemusement toward women practically oozes off the page, and you get a sense of how hard it must have been for “a female woman”—as one identifies herself in 1931—to enter that world. There was a debate about whether women even belonged, and Asimov cheerfully participated: “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.”

This doesn’t even get to Asimov’s own behavior with women, which deserves a full post in itself, although I’m frankly not ready to tackle that yet. And while I don’t mean to pick on Asimov on particular, maybe, in a way, I do. In The Hugo Winners, Asimov describes himself as “a ‘Women’s Lib’ from long before there was one,” and his political views were unimpeachably progressive. (I’m sure you could say much the same thing about the founders and employees of most of the firms mentioned above.) He was also the most visible ambassador of a subculture that continues to have a troubling track record with women and minorities, in ways both explicit and implicit, and he wasn’t just symptomatic of its attitudes, but one of its shapers. Fans looked to Asimov for cues about how to behave, because he was exactly what they wanted to become—a shy, lonely kid who grew up to be famous and beloved. And we don’t need to look far for parallels. In an internal email sent two days after the termination of the woman who says that she was fired in retaliation for her claims, Elon Musk wrote:

If you are part of a less represented group, you don’t get a free pass on being a jerk yourself. We have had a few cases at Tesla where someone in a less represented group was actually given a job or promoted over more qualified highly represented candidates and then decided to sue Tesla for millions of dollars because they felt they weren’t promoted enough. That is obviously not cool.

It certainly isn’t. And although Tesla has said that “this email in fact did not reference Ms. Vandermeyden or her case,” it doesn’t matter. The assumption that the presence of “jerks” among less represented groups—who allegedly benefit from special treatment “over more highly qualified represented candidates”—is pervasive enough to be singled out like this sends a message in itself. Musk is a hero to many young men inside and outside his company, just as Asimov, whose books he deeply admires, was to his fans. Many are bright but socially confused, and they’re looking to be told how to act. And as Clarice Starling once said under similar circumstances: “It matters, Mr. Crawford.”

The science fiction sieve

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In a remarkably lucid essay published last week in Nautilus, the mathematician Noson S. Yanofsky elegantly defines the self-imposed limitations of science. Yanofsky points out that scientists deliberately take a subset of phenomena—characterized mostly by how amenable it is to their chosen methods—for their field of study, while leaving the rest to the social sciences or humanities. (As Paul Valéry put it: “Science means simply the aggregate of all the recipes that are always successful. All the rest is literature.”) He visualizes science as a kind of sieve, which lets in some subjects while excluding others:

The reason why we see the structure we do is that scientists act like a sieve and focus only on those phenomena that have structure and are predictable. They do not take into account all phenomena; rather, they select those phenomena they can deal with…Scientists have classified the general textures and heights of different types of clouds, but, in general, are not at all interested in the exact shape of a cloud. Although the shape is a physical phenomenon, scientists don’t even attempt to study it. Science does not study all physical phenomena. Rather, science studies predictable physical phenomena. It is almost a tautology: science predicts predictable phenomena.

Yanofsky groups these criteria under the general heading “symmetry,” and he concludes: “The physicist must be a sieve and study those phenomena that possess symmetry and allow those that do not possess symmetry to slip through her fingers.” I won’t get into the rest of his argument, which draws an ingenious analogy from mathematics, except to say that it’s worth reading in its entirety. But I think his thesis is sound, and it ties into many issues that I’ve discussed here before, particularly about the uncomfortable status of the social sciences.

If you’re trying to catch this process in action, though, the trouble is that the boundaries of science aren’t determined by a general vote, or even by the work of isolated geniuses, but emerge gradually and invisibly from the contributions of countless individuals. But if I were a historian of science, I’d take a close look at the development of science fiction, in which an analogous evolution occurred in plain sight over a relatively short period of time. You can see it clearly in the career of the editor John W. Campbell, who remained skeptical of the social sciences, but whose signal contribution to the genre may have been to put them at its center. And the “sieve” that he ended up using is revealing in itself. A significant turning point was the arrival on his desk of Robert A. Heinlein’s landmark novella “If This Goes On—,” of which Campbell wrote in 1939:

Robert Heinlein, in his “If This Goes On—,” presents a civilization in which mob psychology and propaganda have become sciences. They aren’t, yet…Psychology isn’t a science, so long as a trained psychologist does—and must—say “there’s no telling how an individual man will react to a given stimulus.” Properly developed, psychology could determine that.

As an editor, Campbell began to impose psychological and sociological elements onto stories where they didn’t always fit, much as he would gratuitously insert references to uranium-235 during World War II. He irritated Isaac Asimov, for instance, by asking him to add a section to the story “Homo Sol” about “certain distinctions between the emotional reactions of Africans and Asians as compared with those of Americans and Europeans.” Asimov saw this as an early sign of Campbell’s racial views, and perhaps it was, but it pointed just as convincingly to his interest in mass psychology.

And readers took notice at a surprisingly early stage. In the November 1940 issue of Astounding, a fan named Lynn Bridges presciently wrote:

The Astounding Science Fiction of the past year has brought forth a new type of story, best described, perhaps, as “sociological” science fiction. The spaceships…are still present, but more emphasis has been placed on the one item which will have more to do with shaping the future than anything else, that strange race of bipeds known as man…Both Asimov [in “Homo Sol”] and Heinlein [in “If This Goes On—”] treat psychology as an exact science, usable in formulas, certain in results. I feel called upon to protest. Its very nature prevents psychology from achieving the exactness of mathematics…The moment men stop varying and the psychologist can say definitely that all men are alike psychologically, progress stops and the world becomes a very boring Utopia.

Campbell responded: “Psychology could improve a lot, though, without becoming dangerously oppressive!” Just two months later, in a letter in the January 1941 issue, Asimov referred to the prospect of “mathematical psychology”: “If we can understand Einstein and Hitler down to the mathematical whys and wherefores, we might try to boost along a few Einsteins and cut down on a few Hitlers, and progress might really get going.” Campbell replied much as before: “Psychology isn’t an exact science—but it can be.” Implicit in the whole discussion was the question of whether psychology could be tackled using the same hard-headed engineering approach that had worked for the genre before. And as I’ve written elsewhere, the evolution of Campbellian science fiction is largely one of writers who were so good at lecturing us about engineering that we barely even noticed when they moved on to sociology.

But what interests me now is the form it took in Astounding, which looks a lot like the sieve that Yanofsky describes. Campbell may have hoped that psychology would learn how to predict “how an individual man will react to a given stimulus,” but he seems to have sensed that this wouldn’t be credible or interesting in fiction. Instead, he turned to two subsets of psychology that were more suited to the narrative tools at his disposal. One was the treatment of simplified forms of human personality—say, for instance, in a robot. The other was the treatment of large masses of individuals. Crucially, neither was necessarily more possible than predicting the behavior of individuals, but they had the advantage that they could be more plausibly treated in fiction. Campbell’s preferred instrument at the time was Asimov, who was reliable, willing to take instruction, and geographically close enough to talk over ideas in person. As a result, Asimov’s most famous stories can be read as a series of experiments to see how the social sciences could be legitimately explored by the genre. The Three Laws of Robotics, which Campbell was the first to explicitly formulate, are really a simplified model of human behavior: Campbell later wrote that they were essentially “the basic desires of a small child, with the exception that the motivation of desire for love has been properly omitted.” At the other end of the spectrum, psychohistory looks for laws that can be applied on a mass scale, and it’s central not only to the Foundation series but even to “Nightfall,” with its theme of the cyclical rise and fall of civilizations. In science, you could draw a parallel to artificial intelligence and macroeconomics, which represent two extremes at which qualities of symmetry and predicability seem to enter the realm of psychology. In between, there’s a vast terrain of human experience that Campbell was never quite able to tackle, and that impulse ended up being channeled into dianetics. But much as science can be defined as everything that makes it through the sieve of symmetry, Campbell had a sieve of his own, and the result was the science fiction of the golden age.

Written by nevalalee

June 28, 2017 at 9:07 am

Of a Fyre on the Moon

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Along with much of the rest of the world, I spent last weekend looking with a kind of ashamed fascination at the disaster of the Fyre Festival in the Bahamas, which went in the space of about twelve hours from a luxury event in paradise to an apocalyptic implosion of bad food, poor accommodations, and a mad dash back to the mainland. Nobody involved seems to have the slightest idea of what they were doing, but their incompetence was remarkable less in degree than in kind—and in its broad outlines, it isn’t so different from the other failed attempts at entrepreneurship that I discussed here last week. The festival was a marketing scheme destroyed by its inconvenient obligation to follow through on its promises. Like the Unicorn Frappuccino at Starbucks, it was conceived explicitly as an event to be posted on Instagram. It was thrown together by a twenty-five-year-old startup founder whose primary qualifications, to misquote what E.B. White once said about Thoreau, were that he was young, male, and well-connected. (It’s hard not to think of the writer Sarah Hagi’s serenity prayer: “Lord, grant me the confidence of a mediocre white man.”) The primary difference between the Fyre Festival and its precursors is the fact that it wasn’t selling an app or a coffee maker, but an experience on the ground that could be documented live by customers who had shelled out thousands of dollars. Countless technology ventures have wiped out a comparable amount of time, money, and goodwill, but they’re lucky enough to do it incrementally, online, and for a smaller financial loss per user. The Fyre Festival fell apart so publicly that it reminded me of what Goethe said about the downfall of Napoleon:

[It] produces in me an impression like that produced by the Revelation of St. John the Divine. We all feel there must be something more in it, but we do not know what.

If nothing else, it serves as a reminder that pulling off this kind of event is an art in itself, and the ones that succeed tend to be the handiwork of supremely well-organized hippies. As I mentioned in my post on Stewart Brand, it isn’t vision, but sheer competence, that sets such people apart—which is part of the reason why the science fiction community depends so much on professional fans, like the late Sam Moskowitz, who can will conventions into existence. By coincidence, just as the Fyre Festival was unfolding, I was researching a curious episode that provides an interesting counterexample. In 1972, Isaac Asimov was approached by a science promoter named Richard Hoagland, whom he described as “an enthusiastic young man” with “all sorts of plans and projects in mind” and “an eager spirit that was very contagious.” Hoagland delivered an enticing pitch:

He had a new project under way. This was to arrange a cruise on the Queen Elizabeth 2 to Florida to witness the launching of Apollo 17 in December. Apollo 17 was to be the last manned trip to the moon and the only night launch. I was intrigued, even though I shuddered at the thought of going as far afield as Florida. I promised to consider the possibility of going.

In the end, Hoagland and his partner, Dr. Robert Enzmann, weren’t able to land the QE2, settling instead for the ocean liner S.S. Statendam, but they managed to secure an incredible roster of attendees. Arthur C. Clarke and Wernher von Braun bowed out at the last minute, but the panelists included Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Carl Sagan, Ted Sturgeon, Frederik Pohl, Marvin Minsky, Ben Bova, Katherine Anne Porter, and Norman Mailer, with the newscaster Hugh Downs serving as master of ceremonies. The cruise departed from New York on December 4, 1972, and thanks to the presence of Porter, as Asimov noted, “all outsiders felt it incumbent upon them to refer to the cruise as ‘a ship of fools.’

The result wasn’t quite a disaster of Fyre Festival proportions, but it was far from a success. A ticket cost a thousand dollars—or about six thousand dollars in today’s money—and only a hundred paying passengers ended up on a ship with a capacity for six times that number. Also onboard were a pair of stowaways, the underground publishers Rex Weiner and Thomas King Forcade, who simply wandered up the gangplank in hopes of meeting Mailer. As Weiner recalled in an amazing reminiscence for The Paris Review:

Canceled seminars, speaker mix-ups, and a cascade of organizational snafus led to a shipboard free-for-all as the S.S. Statendam steamed southward…Rounding Cape Hatteras, the ship’s cinema was screening 2001: A Space Odyssey. Gale-force winds rose up that evening to buffet the ship, decks tilting crazily, people puking over the railings.

At one point, Asimov and Mailer served on a panel together, where the latter, who had recently published Of a Fire on the Moon, expounded at length on his theory of the thanatosphere, a zone in the upper regions of the earth’s atmosphere populated by the souls of the dead. (You can find priceless video of his speech and the rest of the cruise here.) When Mailer disembarked in the Virgin Islands, the media seemed to lose interest in the whole thing—and it’s a useful reality check for science fiction fans to realize that both the mainstream and the alternative press were far more interested in Mailer than in any of the genre writers on board. When it was time for Heinlein’s presentation, he was asked at the last second to cut it from half an hour to fifteen minutes, forcing him to rewrite it in his head on the way to the podium. Not surprisingly, Heinlein’s talk struck Asimov as “rather wandering.”

If the Statendham had set sail during the era of social media, it seems likely that it would have been dismissed as a debacle before its third day out of port, assuming that its passengers could get reception on their cell phones. It cost Holland America a quarter of a million dollars, which, when you adjust for inflation, puts its losses in the same general range as those of the Fyre Festival. Yet I would have given just about anything in the world to have been there, and I’m still writing about it more than four decades later. (The Fyre Festival, perhaps to the relief of its organizers, seems destined to become another trivia question, along the lines of DashCon, which I followed with equal avidity less than three years ago but barely remember now.) Part of the difference lies in the gap between a cynical marketing scheme and a passionate, if misguided, vision. Richard Hoagland’s career since the cruise has been a peculiar one—he became a NASA conspiracy theorist with an obsession with the Face on Mars—but there’s no questioning his commitment. And it gave us this moment, as chronicled by Weiner, just as the rocket was about to launch:

We fired up a fat joint…“Say, you want to pass some of that over here?” Mailer asked us. The joint was passed around and everyone took a toke. When it reached [Hugh] Downs, the NBC star sucked in a lungful and coughed out a plume of smoke—surely something the Today show audience had never seen.

Asimov recalled: “The rocket slowly rose and the vast red flower at its tail bloomed…We, and the ship, and all the world we could see, were suddenly under the dim copper dome of a sky from which the stars had washed out.” But what stuck with him the most was the reaction of “some young man” behind him, whom I’d like to think, but can’t prove, was either Weiner or Forcade:

“Oh shit,” he said, as his head tiled slowly upward. And then, with his tenor voice rising over all the silent heads on board, he added eloquently, “Oh shi-i-i-it.

And while I suspect that many of the attendees at the Fyre Festival said much the same thing, it was probably for different reasons.

The acid test

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I think drugs are interesting principally as chemical means of altering metabolism and thereby altering what we call reality, which I would define as a more or less constant scanning pattern.

—William S. Burroughs, to The Paris Review

On September 7, 1967, the editor John W. Campbell, who had just returned from the World Science Fiction Convention in New York, wrote to the author Poul Anderson about how fantasy—as typified by the works of J.R.R. Tolkien—seemed to be taking over the fandom. Campbell weighed the various reasons why one genre might be on the rise and the other on the decline, but he was particularly dismissive of one possible factor:

One I do not intend to yield to—the escape-from-harsh-reality motivation that underlies the LSD craze among the younger group in colleges…No need for learning a discipline, no need to recognize that “my opinion” and “truth” are in conflict…Which makes for happy little self-satisfaction. But unfortunately overlooks that the Universe’s opinion has a somewhat special place in that scheme of things.

A few weeks later, in response to a letter from a reader, Campbell agreed with the notion that there was no substitute for “experience” when it came to the effects of LSD, but added: “The statement applies equally, however, to taking heroin, becoming a quadriplegic, or committing suicide.” Campbell proposed that as an alternative to drugs, his correspondent try inducing anoxia, by breathing air from which most of the oxygen had been removed:

In just a minute or two, you’ll discover a vast increase in your mental abilities—a sureness of thought, a breadth of understanding, and a rapidity and sureness of reasoning you never achieved before…Of course your brilliant realizations and mighty discoveries somehow seem to misfire when you come down off that jag, and your judgment faculty gets back on the job. But it’s a great trip while it lasts!

It’s worth noting that while Campbell was pointedly uninterested in exploring drugs in the science fiction that he published, he wasn’t exactly puritanical. In addition to his own habitual use of cigarettes, benzedrine, and occasionally alcohol, he sampled marijuana and even “an African witch doctor drug” that one of his chemist friends was developing. He didn’t much care for pot, which made him “uncomfortable,” but he also had a take on the subject that might strike readers as surprising:

Marijuana serves to demonstrate [to teenagers] that the older generation is stupid, ignorant, hypocritical, and unwilling to learn anything. They do reject learning the simple facts about marijuana, and give violently emotional lectures on the Awful Evils of That Hideous Drug—without knowing the first things about it…Any intelligent teenager who’s experienced the effects of marijuana, and discussed it with friends, knows the average family doctor does not know what he’s talking about…Marijuana is a damn sight less dangerous than alcohol. It’s less addictive, less toxic, and less dangerous for a “high” driver to be high on marijuana than on alcohol. It is not an aphrodisiac, nor does it have alcohol’s tendency to anesthetize the censor mechanisms of the mind.

Campbell believed that the real problem with marijuana is that a teenager who learns to doubt what adults say on the subject is likely to become equally skeptical when it comes to cocaine, heroin, and LSD: “So long as parents and doctors deny the facts about marijuana, and insist on classing it with hard drugs, the kid who knows they’re wrong about marijuana feels they’re wrong about heroin…Marijuana can be legalized—and thus separated, as it must be, from the problem of the hard drugs.”

When it came to LSD, Campbell’s attitudes were more or less in line with those of the three other authors who have been on my mind these days. L. Ron Hubbard warned gravely against its use—LSD and PCP were the only drugs that disqualified potential applicants for the Sea Org—and he described his effects in a bulletin of which one follower recalled: “All the information came from one person who had taken LSD once. That was how he did his research.” Isaac Asimov doesn’t appear to have written on the topic at length, although he refers in passing in More Words of Science to “young people foolishly [beginning] to play games with their minds by taking LSD,” and he writes in his memoirs:

Most people, when I tell them [how I get ideas], are dreadfully disappointed. They would be far readier to believe that I had to use LSD or something like that so that ideas would come to me in an altered state of consciousness. If all one has to do is think, where’s the glamour?

Asimov concludes: “Try thinking. You’ll find it’s a lot harder than taking LSD.” This echoes Robert A. Heinlein, who wrote in a letter in 1967:

LSD and pot? Marijuana has been readily available to anyone who wanted it throughout my lifetime and apparently for centuries before I was born. LSD is new but the hippies didn’t develop it; they simply use it. But it seems to me that the outstanding objective fact about LSD (despite the claims of Leary and others) is that it is as much of a failure as other drugs in producing any results of any value other than to the user—i.e., I know of no work of art, essay, story, discovery, or anything else of value created as a result of LSD. When the acid-droppers start outdistancing the squares in any field, I’ll sit up and take notice. Until that day I’ll regard it just as I do all other euphoric drugs: a sterile, subjective, sensory pleasure holding considerable hazard to the user.

Aside from Hubbard, these writers objected to LSD primarily in its role as a kind of shortcut to enlightenment, leading to subjectively meaningful results that aren’t useful to anyone else. On the other side, you can set the testimony of such writers as Aldous Huxley and Robert Anton Wilson, not to mention Stewart Brand, Douglas Engelbart, and Steve Jobs, who believed that they had emerged from their experiences with valuable insights. I think it’s fairly obvious that both sides have a point, and that you get out of LSD exactly what you put into it. If you lack any creative skills, you aren’t likely to produce anything interesting to others, but if you’ve taken the trouble of cultivating those talents in the usual boring way, it can push you along unexpected lines of development. Whether these directions are different from the ones that you would have taken anyway is a separate question, and probably an unanswerable one. My own hunch is that the connection, for instance, between Silicon Valley and the psychedelic culture was mostly a question of timing: it wasn’t that these drugs produced unusually smart or unconventional people, but that many of the smart, unconventional people of that time and place happened to be taking drugs. Many of them regarded it as a turning point in their lives, but I’m inclined to agree with W.H. Auden said of transformative experiences in childhood:

The so-called traumatic experience is not an accident, but the opportunity for which the child has been patiently waiting—had it not occurred, it would have found another, equally trivial—in order to find a necessity and direction for its existence, in order that its life may become a serious matter.

At a moment of renewed interest in microdosing, at least among young professionals with the resources and security in their own social position to try it, it’s worth remembering that the evidence suggests that drugs pay off in visible ways only for people who have already put in the hard work of figuring out how to make and do interesting things. Norman Mailer compared it to borrowing on the future. And as Heinlein himself might have put it, there’s no such thing as a free Naked Lunch.

Written by nevalalee

April 27, 2017 at 9:11 am

The Mule and the Beaver

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If you wanted to construct the most prolific writer who ever lived, working from first principles, what features would you include? (We’ll assume, for the purposes of this discussion, that he’s a man.) Obviously, he would need to be capable of turning out clean, publishable prose at a fast pace and with a minimum of revision. He would be contented—even happy—within the physical conditions of writing itself, which requires working indoors at a desk alone for hours on end. Ideally, he would operate within a genre, either fiction or nonfiction, that lent itself to producing pages fairly quickly, but with enough variety to prevent burnout, since he’d need to maintain a steady clip every day for years. His most productive period would coincide with an era that gave him steady demand for his work, and he would have a boundless energy that was diverted early on toward the goal of producing more books. If you were particularly clever, you’d even introduce a psychological wrinkle: the act of writing would become his greatest source of satisfaction, as well as an emotional refuge, so that he would end up taking more pleasure in it than almost anything else in life. Finally, you’d provide him with cooperative publishers and an enthusiastic, although not overwhelming, readership, granting him a livelihood that was comfortable but not quite lavish enough to be distracting. Wind him up, let him run unimpeded for three or four decades, and how many books would you get? In the case of Isaac Asimov, the total comes to something like five hundred. Even if it isn’t quite enough to make him the most productive writer of all time, it certainly places him somewhere in the top ten. And it’s a career that followed all but axiomatically from the characteristics that I’ve listed above.

Let’s take these points one at a time. Asimov, like all successful pulp writers, learned how to crank out decent work on deadline, usually limiting himself to a first draft and a clean copy, with very little revision that wasn’t to editorial order. (And he wasn’t alone here. The pulps were an unforgiving school, and they quickly culled authors who weren’t able to write a sentence well enough the first time.) From a young age, Asimov was also drawn to enclosed, windowless spaces, like the kitchen at the back of his father’s candy store, and he had a persistent daydream about running a newsstand in the subway, where he could put up the shutter and read magazines in peace. After he began to write for a living, he was equally content to work in his attic office for up to ten hours a day. Yet it wasn’t fiction that accounted for the bulk of his output—which is a common misconception about his career—but a specific kind of nonfiction. Asimov was a prolific fiction writer, but no more so than many of his contemporaries. It was in nonfiction for general readers that he really shone, initially with such scientific popularizations as The Chemicals of Life and Inside the Atom. At first, his work drew on his academic and professional background in chemistry and biochemistry, but before long, he found that he was equally adept at explaining concepts from the other sciences, as well as such unrelated fields as history and literature. His usual method was to work straight from reference books, dictionaries, and encyclopedias, translating and organizing their concepts for a lay audience. As he once joked to Martin Gardner: “You mean you’re in the same racket I am? You just read books by the professors and rewrite them?”

This kind of writing is harder than it sounds. Asimov noted, correctly, that he added considerable value in arranging and presenting the material, and he was better at it than just about anyone else. (A faculty member at Boston University once observed him at work and exclaimed: “Why, you’re just copying the dictionary!” Asimov, annoyed, handed the dictionary to him and said: “Here. The dictionary is yours. Now go write the book.”) But it also lent itself admirably to turning out a lot of pages in a short period of time. Unlike fiction, it didn’t require him to come up with original ideas from scratch. As soon as he had enough projects in the hopper, he could switch between them freely to avoid becoming bored by any one subject. He could write treatments of the same topic for different audiences and cannibalize unsold material for other venues. In the years after Sputnik, there was plenty of demand for what he had to offer, and he had a ready market for short articles that could be collected into books. And since these were popular treatments of existing information, he could do all of the work from the comfort of his own office. Asimov hated to fly, and he actively avoided assignments that would require him to travel or do research away from home. Before long, his productivity became a selling point in itself, and when his wife told him that life was passing him by, Asimov responded: “If I do manage to publish a hundred books, and if I then die, my last words are likely to be, ‘Only a hundred!’” Writing became a place of security, both from life’s small crises and as an escape from an unhappy marriage, and it was also his greatest source of pleasure. When his daughter asked him what he would do if he had to choose between her and writing, Asimov said: “Why, I would choose you, dear.” But he adds: “But I hesitated—and she noticed that, too.”

Asimov was a complicated man—certainly more so than in the version of himself that he presented to the public—and he can’t be reduced to a neat set of factors. He wasn’t a robot. But those five hundred books represent an achievement so overwhelming that it cries out for explanation, and it wouldn’t exist if certain variables, both external and internal, hadn’t happened to align. In terms of his ability and ambition, Asimov was the equal of Campbell, Heinlein, or Hubbard, but in place of their public entanglements, he channeled his talents into a safer direction, where it grew to gargantuan proportions that only hint at how monstrous that energy and passion really were. (He was also considerably younger than the others, as well as more naturally cautious, and I’d like to believe that he drew a negative lesson from their example.) The result, remarkably, made him the most beloved writer of them all. It was a cultural position, outside the world of science fiction, that was due almost entirely to the body of his nonfiction work as a whole. He never had a bestseller until late in his career, but the volume and quality of his overall output were enough to make him famous. Asimov was the Mule, the unassuming superman of the Foundation series, but he conquered a world from his typewriter. He won the game. And when I think of how his talent, productivity, and love of enclosed spaces combined to produce a fortress made of books, I think of what David Mamet once said to The Paris Review. When asked to explain why he wrote, Mamet replied: “I’ve got to do it anyway. Like beavers, you know. They chop, they eat wood, because if they don’t, their teeth grow too long and they die. And they hate the sound of running water. Drives them crazy. So, if you put those two ideas together, they are going to build dams.”

Written by nevalalee

March 22, 2017 at 9:54 am

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