Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Isaac Asimov

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.

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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

Falls the Shadow

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Over the last year or so, I’ve found myself repeatedly struck by the parallels between the careers of John W. Campbell and Orson Welles. At first, the connection might seem tenuous. Campbell and Welles didn’t look anything alike, although they were about the same height, and their politics couldn’t have been more different—Welles was a staunch progressive and defender of civil rights, while Campbell, to put it mildly, wasn’t. Welles was a wanderer, while Campbell spent most of his life within driving distance of his birthplace in New Jersey. But they’re inextricably linked in my imagination. Welles was five years younger than Campbell, but they flourished at exactly the same time, with their careers peaking roughly between 1937 and 1942. Both owed significant creative breakthroughs to the work of H.G. Wells, who inspired Campbell’s story “Twilight” and Welles’s Mercury Theater adaptation of The War of the Worlds. In 1938, Campbell saw Welles’s famous modern-dress production of Julius Caesar with the writer L. Sprague de Camp, of which he wrote in a letter:

It represented, in a way, what I’m trying to do in the magazine. Those humans of two thousand years ago thought and acted as we do—even if they did dress differently. Removing the funny clothes made them more real and understandable. I’m trying to get away from funny clothes and funny-looking people in the pictures of the magazine. And have more humans.

And I suspect that the performance started a train of thought in both men’s minds that led to de Camp’s novel Lest Darkness Fall, which is about a man from the present who ends up in ancient Rome.

Campbell was less pleased by Welles’s most notable venture into science fiction, which he must have seen as an incursion on his turf. He wrote to his friend Robert Swisher: “So far as sponsoring that War of [the] Worlds thing—I’m damn glad we didn’t! The thing is going to cost CBS money, what with suits, etc., and we’re better off without it.” In Astounding, he said that the ensuing panic demonstrated the need for “wider appreciation” of science fiction, in order to educate the public about what was and wasn’t real:

I have long been an exponent of the belief that, should interplanetary visitors actually arrive, no one could possibly convince the public of the fact. These stories wherein the fact is suddenly announced and widespread panic immediately ensues have always seemed to me highly improbable, simply because the average man did not seem ready to visualize and believe such a statement.

Undoubtedly, Mr. Orson Welles felt the same way.

Their most significant point of intersection was The Shadow, who was created by an advertising agency for Street & Smith, the publisher of Astounding, as a fictional narrator for the radio series Detective Story Hour. Before long, he became popular enough to star in his own stories. Welles, of course, voiced The Shadow from September 1937 to October 1938, and Campbell plotted some of the magazine installments in collaboration with the writer Walter B. Gibson and the editor John Nanovic, who worked in the office next door. And his identification with the character seems to have run even deeper. In a profile published in the February 1946 issue of Pic magazine, the reporter Dickson Hartwell wrote of Campbell: “You will find him voluble, friendly and personally depressing only in what his friends claim is a startling physical resemblance to The Shadow.”

It isn’t clear if Welles was aware of Campbell, although it would be more surprising if he wasn’t. Welles flitted around science fiction for years, and he occasionally crossed paths with other authors in that circle. To my lasting regret, he never met L. Ron Hubbard, which would have been an epic collision of bullshitters—although Philip Seymour Hoffman claimed that he based his performance in The Master mostly on Welles, and Theodore Sturgeon once said that Welles and Hubbard were the only men he had ever met who could make a room seem crowded simply by walking through the door. In 1946, Isaac Asimov received a call from a lawyer whose client wanted to buy all rights to his robot story “Evidence” for $250. When he asked Campbell for advice, the editor said that he thought it seemed fair, but Asimov’s wife told him to hold out for more. Asimov called back to ask for a thousand dollars, adding that he wouldn’t discuss it further until he found out who the client was. When the lawyer told him that it was Welles, Asimov agreed to the sale, delighted, but nothing ever came of it. (Welles also owned the story in perpetuity, making it impossible for Asimov to sell it elsewhere, a point that Campbell, who took a notoriously casual attitude toward rights, had neglected to raise.) Twenty years later, Welles made inquiries into the rights for Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, which were tied up at the time with Roger Corman, but never followed up. And it’s worth noting that both stories are concerned with the problem of knowing how other people are what they claim to be, which Campbell had brilliantly explored in “Who Goes There?” It’s a theme to which Welles obsessively returned, and it’s fascinating to speculate what he might have done with it if Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby hadn’t gotten there first with The Thing From Another World. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?

But their true affinities were spiritual ones. Both Campbell and Welles were child prodigies who reinvented an art form largely by being superb organizers of other people’s talents—although Campbell always downplayed his own contributions, while Welles appears to have done the opposite. Each had a spectacular early success followed by what was perceived as decades of decline, which they seem to have seen coming. (David Thomson writes: “As if Welles knew that Kane would hang over his own future, regularly being used to denigrate his later works, the film is shot through with his vast, melancholy nostalgia for self-destructive talent.” And you could say much the same thing about “Twilight.”) Both had a habit of abandoning projects as soon as they realized that they couldn’t control them, and they both managed to seem isolated while occupying the center of attention in any crowd. They enjoyed staking out unreasonable positions in conversation, just to get a rise out of listeners, and they ultimately drove away their most valuable collaborators. What Pauline Kael writes of Welles in “Raising Kane” is equally true of Campbell:

He lost the collaborative partnerships that he needed…He was alone, trying to be “Orson Welles,” though “Orson Welles” had stood for the activities of a group. But he needed the family to hold him together on a project and to take over for him when his energies became scattered. With them, he was a prodigy of accomplishments; without them, he flew apart, became disorderly.

Both men were alone when they died, and both filled their friends, admirers, and biographers with intensely mixed feelings. I’m still coming to terms with Campbell. But I have a hunch that I’ll end up somewhere close to Kael’s ambivalence toward Welles, who, at the end of an essay that was widely seen as puncturing his myth, could only conclude: “In a less confused world, his glory would be greater than his guilt.”

Assisted living

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If you’re a certain kind of writer, whenever you pick up a new book, instead of glancing at the beginning or opening it to a random page, you turn immediately to the acknowledgments. Once you’ve spent any amount of time trying to get published, that short section of fine print starts to read like a gossip column, a wedding announcement, and a high school yearbook all rolled into one. For most writers, it’s also the closest they’ll ever get to an Oscar speech, and many of them treat it that way, with loving tributes and inside jokes attached to every name. It’s a chance to thank their editors and agents—while the unagented reader suppresses a twinge of envy—and to express gratitude to various advisers, colonies, and fellowships. (The most impressive example I’ve seen has to be in The Lisle Letters by Muriel St. Clare Byrne, which pays tribute to the generosity of “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.”) But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from the acknowledgments that I’ve been reading recently, it’s that I deserve an assistant. It seems as if half the nonfiction books I see these days thank a whole squadron of researchers, inevitably described as “indefatigable,” who live in libraries, work through archives and microfilm reels, and pass along the results to their grateful employers. If the author is particularly famous, like Bob Woodward or Kurt Eichenwald, the acknowledgment can sound like a letter of recommendation: “I was startled by his quick mind and incomparable work ethic.” Sometimes the assistants are described in such glowing terms that you start to wonder why you aren’t reading their books instead. And when I’m trying to decipher yet another illegible scan of a carbon copy of a letter written fifty years ago on a manual typewriter, I occasionally wish that I could outsource it to an intern.

But there are also good reasons for doing everything yourself, at least at the early stages of a project. In his book The Integrity of the Body, the immunologist Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet says that there’s one piece of advice that he always gives to “ambitious young research workers”: “Do as large a proportion as possible of your experiments with your own hands.” In Discovering, Robert Scott Root-Bernstein expands on this point:

When you climb those neighboring hills make sure you do your own observing. Many scientists assign all experimental work to lab techs and postdocs. But…only the prepared mind will note and attach significance to an anomaly. Each individual possesses a specific blend of personality, codified science, science in the making, and cultural biases that will match particular observations. If you don’t do your own observing, the discovery won’t be made. Never delegate research.

Obviously, there are situations in which you can’t avoid delegating the work to some degree. But I think Root-Bernstein gets at something essential when he frames it in terms of recognizing anomalies. If you don’t sift through the raw material yourself, it’s difficult to know what is unusual or important, and even if you have a bright assistant who will flag any striking items for your attention, it’s hard to put them in perspective. As I’ve noted elsewhere, drudgery can be an indispensable precursor to insight. You’re more likely to come up with worthwhile connections if you’re the one mining the ore.

This is why the great biographers and historians often seem like monsters of energy. I never get tired of quoting the advice that Alan Hathaway gave to the young Robert Caro at Newsday: “Turn every goddamn page.” Caro took this to heart, noting proudly of one of the archives he consulted: “The number [of pages] may be in the area of forty thousand. I don’t know how many of these pages I’ve read, but I’ve read a lot of them.” And it applies to more than just what you read, as we learn from a famous story about Caro and his editor Robert Gottlieb:

Gott­lieb likes to point to a passage fairly early in The Power Broker describing Moses’ parents one morning in their lodge at Camp Madison, a fresh-air charity they established for poor city kids, picking up the Times and reading that their son had been fined $22,000 for improprieties in a land takeover. “Oh, he never earned a dollar in his life, and now we’ll have to pay this,” Bella Moses says.

“How do you know that?” Gottlieb asked Caro. Caro explained that he tried to talk to all of the social workers who had worked at Camp Madison, and in the process he found one who had delivered the Moseses’ paper. “It was as if I had asked him, ‘How do you know it’s raining out?’”

This is the kind of thing that you’d normally ask your assistant to do, if it occurred to you at all, and it’s noteworthy that Caro has kept at it long after he could have hired an army of researchers. Instead, he relies entirely on his wife Ina, whom he calls “the only person besides myself who has done research on the four volumes of The Years of Lyndon Johnson or on the biography of Robert Moses that preceded them, the only person I would ever trust to do so.” And perhaps a trusted spouse is the best assistant you could ever have.

Of course, there are times when an assistant is necessary, especially if, unlike Caro, you’re hoping to finish your project in fewer than forty years. But it’s often the assistant who benefits. As one of them recalled:

I was working for [Professor] Bernhard J. Stern…and since he was writing a book on social resistance to technological change, he had me reading a great many books that might conceivably be of use to him. My orders were to take note of any passages that dealt with the subject and to copy them down.

It was a liberal education for me and I was particularly struck by a whole series of articles by astronomer Simon Newcomb, which I read at Stern’s direction. Newcomb advanced arguments that demonstrated the impossibility of heavier-than-air flying machines, and maintained that one could not be built that would carry a man. While these articles were appearing, the Wright brothers flew their plane. Newcomb countered with an article that said, essentially, “Very well, one man, but not two.”

Every significant social advance roused opposition on the part of many, it seemed. Well, then, shouldn’t space flight, which involved technological advances, arouse opposition too?

The assistant in question was Isaac Asimov, who used this idea as the basis for his short story “Trends,” which became his first sale to John W. Campbell. It launched his career, and the rest is history. And that’s part of the reason why, when I think of my own book, I say to myself: “Very well, one man, but not two.”

From Sputnik to WikiLeaks

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In Toy Story 2, there’s a moment in which Woody discovers that his old television series, Woody’s Roundup, was abruptly yanked off the air toward the end of the fifties. He asks: “That was a great show. Why cancel it?” The Prospector replies bitterly: “Two words: Sput-nik. Once the astronauts went up, children only wanted to play with space toys.” And while I wouldn’t dream of questioning the credibility of a man known as Stinky Pete, I feel obliged to point out that his version of events isn’t entirely accurate. The space craze among kids really began more than half a decade earlier, with the premiere of Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, and the impact of Sputnik on science fiction was far from a positive one. Here’s what John W. Campbell wrote about it in the first issue of Astounding to be printed after the satellite’s launch:

Well, we lost that race; Russian technology achieved an important milestone in human history—one that the United States tried for, talked about a lot, and didn’t make…One of the things Americans have long been proud of—and with sound reason—is our ability to convert theoretical science into practical, working engineering…This time we’re faced with the uncomfortable realization that the Russians have beaten us in our own special field; they solved a problem of engineering technology faster and better than we did.

And while much of the resulting “Sputnik crisis” was founded on legitimate concerns—Sputnik was as much a triumph of ballistic rocketry as it was of satellite technology—it also arose from the notion that the United States had been beaten at its own game. As Arthur C. Clarke is alleged to have said, America had become “a second-rate power.”

Campbell knew right away that he had reason to worry. Lester del Rey writes in The World of Science Fiction:

Sputnik simply convinced John Campbell that he’d better watch his covers and begin cutting back on space scenes. (He never did, but the art director of the magazine and others were involved in that decision.) We agreed in our first conversation after the satellite went up that people were going to react by deciding science had caught up with science fiction, and with a measure of initial fear. They did. Rather than helping science fiction, Sputnik made it seem outmoded.

And that’s more or less exactly what happened. There was a brief spike in sales, followed by a precipitous fall as mainstream readers abandoned the genre. I haven’t been able to find specific numbers for this period, but one source, the Australian fan Wynne Whitford, states that the circulation of Astounding fell by half after Sputnik—which seems high, but probably reflects a real decline. In a letter written decades later, Campbell said of Sputnik: “Far from encouraging the sales of science fiction magazines—half the magazines being published lost circulation so drastically they went out of business!” An unscientific glance at a list of titles appears to support this. In 1958, the magazines Imagination, Imaginative Tales, Infinity Science Fiction, Phantom, Saturn, Science Fiction Adventures, Science Fiction Quarterly, Star Science Fiction, and Vanguard Science Fiction all ceased publication, followed by three more over the next twelve months. The year before, just four magazines had folded. There was a bubble, and after Sputnik, it burst.

At first, this might seem like a sort of psychological self-care, of the same kind that motivated me to scale back my news consumption after the election. Americans were simply depressed, and they didn’t need any reminders of the situation they were in. But it also seems to have affected the public’s appetite for science fiction in particular, rather than science as a whole. In fact, the demand for nonfiction science writing actually increased. As Isaac Asimov writes in his memoir In Joy Still Felt:

The United States went into a dreadful crisis of confidence over the fact that the Soviet Union had gotten there first and berated itself for not being interested enough in science. And I berated myself for spending too much time on science fiction when I had the talent to be a great science writer…Sputnik also served to increase the importance of any known public speaker who could talk on science and, particularly, on space, and that meant me.

What made science fiction painful to read, I think, was its implicit assumption of American superiority, which had been disproven so spectacularly. Campbell later compared it to the reaction after the bomb fell, claiming that it was the moment when people realized that science fiction wasn’t a form of escapism, but a warning:

The reactions to Sputnik have been more rapid, and, therefore, more readily perceptible and correlatable. There was, again, a sudden rise in interest in science fiction…and there is, now, an even more marked dropping of the science-fiction interest. A number of the magazines have been very heavily hit…I think the people of the United States thought we were kidding.

And while Campbell seemed to believe that readers had simply misinterpreted science fiction’s intentions, the conventions of the genre itself clearly bore part of the blame.

In his first editorials after Sputnik, Campbell drew a contrast between the American approach to engineering, which proceeded logically and with vast technological resources, and the quick and dirty Soviet program, which was based on rules of thumb, trial and error, and the ability to bull its way through on one particular point of attack. It reminds me a little of the election. Like the space race, last year’s presidential campaign could be seen as a kind of proxy war between the American and Russian administrations, and regardless of what you believe about the Trump camp’s involvement, which I suspect was probably a tacit one, there’s no question as to which side Putin favored. On one hand, you had a large, well-funded political machine, and on the other, one that often seemed comically inept. Yet it was the quick and dirty approach that triumphed. “The essence of ingenuity is the ability to get precision results without precision equipment,” Campbell wrote, and that’s pretty much what occurred. A few applications of brute force in the right place made all the difference, and they were aided, to some extent, by a similar complacency. The Americans saw the Soviets as bunglers, and they never seriously considered the possibility that they might be beaten by a bunch of amateurs. As Campbell put it: “We earned what we got—fully, and of our own efforts. The ridicule we’ve collected is our just reward for our consistent efforts.” Sometimes I feel the same way. Right now, we’re entering a period in which the prospect of becoming a second-rate power is far more real than it was when Clarke made his comment. It took a few months for the implications of Sputnik to really sink in. And if history is any indication, we haven’t even gotten to the crisis yet.

The dianetics epidemic

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Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health

In his bestselling book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell devotes several pages to a discussion of the breakout success of the novel Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. After its initial release in 1996, it sold reasonably well in hardcover, receiving “a smattering of reviews,” but it became an explosive phenomenon in paperback, thanks primarily to what Gladwell calls “the critical role that groups play in social epidemics.” He writes:

The first bestseller list on which Ya-Ya Sisterhood appeared was the Northern California Independent Bookseller’s list. Northern California…was where seven hundred and eight hundred people first began showing up at [Rebecca Wells’s] readings. It was where the Ya-Ya epidemic began. Why? Because…the San Francisco area is home to one of the country’s strongest book club cultures, and from the beginning Ya-Ya was what publishers refer to as a “book club book.” It was the kind of emotionally sophisticated, character-driven, multilayered novel that invites reflection and discussion, and book groups were flocking to it. The groups of women who were coming to Wells’s readings were members of reading groups, and they were buying extra copies not just for family and friends but for other members of the group. And because Ya-Ya was being talked about and read in groups, the book itself became that much stickier. It’s easier to remember and appreciate something, after all, if you discuss it for two hours with your best friends. It becomes a social experience, an object of conversation. Ya-Ya’s roots in book group culture tipped it into a larger word-of-mouth epidemic.

You could say much the same thing about a very different book that became popular in California nearly five decades earlier. Scientology has exhibited an unexpected degree of staying power among a relatively small number of followers, but Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, the work that that made L. Ron Hubbard famous, was a textbook case of a viral phenomenon. Just three months elapsed between the book’s publication on May 9, 1950 and Hubbard’s climactic rally at the Shrine Auditorium on August 10, and its greatest impact on the wider culture occurred over a period of less than a year. And its dramatic spread and decline had all the hallmarks of virality. In the definitive Hubbard biography Bare-Faced Messiah, Russell Miller writes:

For the first few days after publication of Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, it appeared as if the publisher’s caution about the book’s prospects had been entirely justified. Early indications were that it had aroused little interest; certainly it was ignored by most reviewers. But suddenly, towards the end of May, the line on the sales graph at the New York offices of Hermitage House took a steep upturn.

By midsummer, it was selling a thousand copies a day, and by late fall, over seven hundred dianetics clubs had been established across the country. As Miller writes: “Dianetics became, virtually overnight, a national ‘craze’ somewhat akin to the canasta marathons and pyramid clubs that had briefly flourished in the hysteria of postwar America.”

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

The result was a quintessential social epidemic, and I’m a little surprised that Gladwell, who is so hungry for case studies, has never mentioned it. The book itself was “sticky,” with its promise of a new science of mental health that could be used by anyone and that got results every time. Like Ya-Ya, it took root in an existing group—in this case, the science fiction community, which was the natural audience for its debut in the pages of Astounding. Just as the ideal book club selection is one that inspires conversations, dianetics was a shared experience: in order to be audited, you needed to involve at least one other person. Auditing, as the therapy was originally presented, seemed so easy that anyone could try it, and many saw it as a kind of parlor game. (In his biography of Robert A. Heinlein, William H. Patterson shrewdly compares it to the “Freuding parties” that became popular in Greenwich Village in the twenties.) Even if you didn’t want to be audited yourself, dianetics became such a topic of discussion among fans that summer that you had to read the book to be a part of it. It also benefited from the presence of what Gladwell calls mavens, connectors, and salesmen. John W. Campbell was the ultimate maven, an information broker who, as one of Gladwell’s sources puts it, “wants to solve other people’s problems, generally by solving his own.” The connectors included prominent members of the fan community, notably A.E. van Vogt, who ended up running the Los Angeles foundation, and Forrest Ackerman, Hubbard’s agent and “the number one fan.” And the salesman was Hubbard himself, who threw himself into the book’s promotion on the West Coast. As Campbell wrote admiringly to Heinlein: “When Ron wants to, he can put on a personality that would be a confidence man’s delight—persuasive, gentle, intimately friendly. The perfect bedside manner, actually.”

In all epidemics, geography plays a crucial role, and in the case of dianetics, it had profound consequences on individual careers. One of Campbell’s priorities was to sell the therapy to his top writers, much as the Church of Scientology later reached out to movie stars, and the single greatest predictor of how an author would respond was his proximity to the centers of fan culture. Two of the most important converts were van Vogt, who was in Los Angeles, and Theodore Sturgeon, who lived in New York, where he was audited by Campbell himself. Isaac Asimov, by contrast, had moved from Manhattan to Boston just the year before, and Heinlein, fascinatingly, had left Hollywood, where he had been working on the film Destination Moon, in February of 1950. Heinlein was intrigued by dianetics, but because he was in Colorado Springs with his wife Ginny, who refused to have anything to do with it, he was unable to find an auditing partner. And it’s worth wondering what might have ensued if he had remained in Southern California for another six months. (Such accidents of place and time can have significant aftereffects. Van Vogt had moved from the Ottawa area to Los Angeles in 1944, and his involvement with dianetics took him out of writing for the better part of a decade, at the very moment when science fiction was breaking into the culture as a whole. His absence during this critical period, which made celebrities out of Heinlein and Asimov, feels like a big part of the reason why van Vogt has mostly disappeared from the popular consciousness. And it might never have happened if he had stayed in Canada.) The following year, dianetics as a movement fizzled out, due largely to Hubbard’s own behavior—although he might also have sensed that it wouldn’t last. But it soon mutated into another form. And before long, Hubbard would begin to spread a few divine secrets of his own.

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