Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Isaac Asimov

The science fiction sieve

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Note: To celebrate the World Science Fiction Convention this week in San Jose, I’m republishing a few of my favorite pieces on various aspects of the genre. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on June 28, 2017.

In a remarkably lucid essay published last year 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.

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August 15, 2018 at 9:00 am

The dianetics epidemic

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Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health

Note: To celebrate the World Science Fiction Convention this week in San Jose, I’m republishing a few of my favorite pieces on various aspects of the genre. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on March 2, 2017.

In his bestselling book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell devotes several pages to discussing the breakout success of Rebecca Wells’s 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 a true 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 [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.

And 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, in a dramatic spread and decline that 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 J 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.”

In all epidemics, geography plays a pivotal 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, crucially, 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, which makes me wonder 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.

The index fund

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When the time comes to prepare the index for a nonfiction book, there are basically two schools of thought on how to proceed. One is that the author is the only person qualified to perform this particular task. You see this view expressed at its most eloquent by Douglas R. Hofstadter, who reveals in a long endnote in Le Ton Beau de Marot that completing the index for that book required him to work fifteen hours a day for an entire month. He explains:

My feeling is that only the author (and certainly not a computer program) can do this job well. Only the author, looking at a given page, sees all the way to the bottom of the pool of ideas of which the words are the mere surface, and only the author can answer the question, “What am I really talking about here, in this paragraph, this page, this section, this chapter?” To answer those questions takes total understanding of the book.

Hofstadter adds that going through the book one last time awakened him to deeper themes and concepts that he hadn’t known were there, including “conflation,” “colliding cultures,” and “Chopin.” He concludes: “Once the index was essentially done…I found it interesting to flip through it and, by comparing the sheer sizes of various entries, to get new perceptions of what my book is most centrally about.” At a point at which a writer might be expected to have looked at a manuscript from every angle, an index can be a fund of new insights.

Another vote in favor of the author comes from Isaac Asimov. For his first nonfiction book, the textbook Biochemistry and Human Metabolism, he unquestioningly prepared the index himself, despite having only “a vague idea of how it should be done.” He enjoyed the job—which consisted mostly of preparing a mountain of index cards, alphabetizing them, and typing up the result—and was annoyed by what he saw as a “more cavalier attitude toward indexing” among his collaborators. For the rest of the career, he aways insisted on doing his own indexes, and when A Short History of Biology was indexed without his knowledge, he wasn’t pleased:

I looked over the index, which had, presumably, been professionally prepared, to see if I could learn lessons in technique. I quickly found that the only lesson I could learn would be on the method of preparing a thoroughly inadequate index. Half the names in the book were not included. A number of subjects were not mentioned.

Asimov concluded that the index was “insupportable,” and after that, he was careful to make his preferences known to his editors: “It added just one more time-wasting task to the list. I had to see it that no publisher, either through ignorance or through forgetfulness, ever allowed a “professional” to prepare my indexes.”

Of course, there’s also a strong case to be made for the opposite point of view, which Asimov recalled hearing from Dick DeHaan, one of his editors at Basic Books: “I tried to explain that I liked indexing, but he kept saying that no writer could approach his own book with sufficient detachment to do a good index.” Asimov eventually acquiesced for The New Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science, and the outcome left him predictably outraged:

It was dreadful; simply dreadful. It left out a great variety of things that should have been put in. It was the slapdash job of someone working for money instead of for his own book, and never again was I fooled by any talk of expertise in indexing. When I later discovered that I had been charged five hundred dollars against royalties for the privilege of having that rotten index made, I was ready to choke DeHaan.

Yet you could also argue that this detachment is necessary, a perspective most famously expressed by Kurt Vonnegut in Cat’s Cradle, which includes a chapter titled “Never Index Your Own Book.” It features a former professional indexer who informs the narrator that “indexing was a thing that only the most amateurish author undertook to do for his own book.” She continues: “I’m always embarrassed when I see an index an author has made of his own work…It’s a revealing thing, an author’s index of his own work. It’s a shameless exhibition—to the trained eye.”

Speaking from a position of minimal experience, I’d suggest that the best approach is to split the difference, and to have an outside indexer make the first pass, after which the author is given the chance to make modest additions and corrections. I’m currently in the process of doing this for Astounding, and it certainly satisfies me. (I once planned to do it all on my own, like Asimov, but I decided to let somebody else handle it, despite the fact that the cost would be taken out of my advance. This was partially because I liked the idea of a third party going through the book with an objective eye, and also because nobody at my publisher seemed to have even considered the possibility that I would want to do it myself.) The index that they’ve provided is a nice piece of work, and although I’ve caught a few errors and omissions, I’m glad that I left it to a professional. This is the last major task that remains in the writing of a book that has taken up three years of my life, and seeing it through the eyes of an ideally attentive reader—which is what an indexer should be—allows me to engage for hours on end in what Hofstadter calls “a very curious activity, and perhaps overly introspective in some people’s eyes, but irresistible for at least a little while.” It’s as close as I’ll ever get to reading this book for the first time, and although my engagement with this index wasn’t as intensive or prolonged as his was, I can only echo Hofstadter’s conclusion: “Doing this index, painful though it was, afforded me one last pass back through the text, tying things together for a final time, saying goodbye to a work created out of love, and with love, for words, ideas, people.”

A potent force of disintegration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Designing the future

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Over the last half century or so, our culture has increasingly turned to film and television, rather than to the written word, as its primary reference point when we talk about the future. This is partially because more people are likely to have seen a blockbuster movie than to have read even the most successful novel, but the visual arts might also be more useful when it comes to certain kinds of speculation. As I browsed recently through the book Speculative Everything, I was repeatedly struck by the thought that dealing with physical materials can lead to insights that can’t be reached through words alone. In his classic New Yorker profile of Stanley Kubrick, the science writer Jeremy Bernstein provided a portrait of one such master at work:

In the film [2001], the astronauts will wear space suits when they are working outside their ships, and Kubrick was very anxious that they should look like the space suits of thirty-five years from now…They were studying a vast array of samples of cloth to find one that would look right and photograph well. While this was going on, people were constantly dropping into the office with drawings, models, letters, cables, and various props, such as a model of a lens for one of the telescopes in a spaceship. (Kubrick rejected it because it looked too crude.) At the end of the day, when my head was beginning to spin, someone came by with a wristwatch that the astronauts were going to use on their Jupiter voyage (which Kubrick rejected) and a plastic drinking glass for the moon hotel (which Kubrick thought looked fine).

This is a level of detail that most writers would lack the patience or ability to develop, and even if it were possible, there’s a huge difference between describing such objects at length on the page, which is rightly discouraged, and showing it to the viewer without comment. It can also lead to new ideas or discoveries that can feed into the story itself. I never tire of quoting a piece of advice from Shamus Culhane’s Animation: From Script to Screen, in which he recommends using a list of props to generate plot points and bits of business for a short cartoon:

One good method of developing a story is to make a list of details. For example [for a cartoon about elves as clock cleaners in a cathedral], what architectural features come to mind—steeples, bells, windows, gargoyles? What props would the elves use—brushes, pails, mops, sponges…what else? Keep on compiling lists without stopping to think about them. Let your mind flow effortlessly, and don’t try to be neat or orderly. Scribble as fast as you can until you run out of ideas.

In animation—or in a medium like comics or the graphic novel—this kind of brainstorming requires nothing more than a pencil and piece of paper. Kubrick’s great achievement in 2001 was to spend the same amount of time and attention, as well as considerably more money, on solving design problems in tangible form, and in the process, he set a standard for this kind of speculation that both filmmakers and other artists have done their best to meet ever since.

In Speculative Everything, Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby suggest that the function of a prop in a movie might limit the range of possibilities that it can explore, since it has “to be legible and support plot development.” But this might also be a hidden strength. I don’t think it’s an accident that Minority Report is both the most influential piece of futurology in recent memory and one of the few science fiction films that manages to construct a truly ingenious mystery. And in another masterpiece from the same period, Children of Men, you can clearly see the prop maker’s pragmatism at work. Dunne and Raby quote the director Alfonso Cuarón, who says in one of the special features on the DVD:

Rule number one in the film was recognizability. We didn’t want to do Blade Runner. Actually, we thought about being the anti-Blade Runner in the sense of how we were approaching reality, and that was kind of difficult for the art department, because I would say, “I don’t want inventiveness. I want reference. Don’t show me the great idea, show me the reference in real life. And more importantly, I would like—as much as possible—references of contemporary iconography that is already engraved in human consciousness.”

Consciously or otherwise, Cuarón is echoing one of my favorite pieces of writing advice from David Mamet, who had exactly one rule when it came to designing props: You’ve got to be able to recognize it.” And the need to emphasize clarity and readability in unfamiliar contexts can push production designers in directions that they never would have taken otherwise.

Yet there’s also a case to be made for engaging in visual or sculptural thinking for its own sake, which is what makes speculative design such an interesting avenue of exploration. Dunne and Raby focus on more recent examples, but there’s a surprisingly long history of futurology in pictures. (For instance, a series of French postcards dating from the late nineteenth century imagined life a hundred years in the future, which Isaac Asimov discusses in his book Futuredays, and the book and exhibition Yesterday’s Tomorrows collects many other vintage examples of artwork about the future of America.) Some of these efforts lack the discipline that a narrative imposes, but the physical constraints of the materials can lead to a similar kind of ingenuity, and the result is a distinct tradition that draws on a different set of skills than the ones that writers tend to use. But the best solution might be one that combines both words and images at a reasonable cost. The science fiction of the golden age can sometimes seem curiously lacking in visual description—it can be hard to figure out how anything is supposed to look in Asimov’s stories—and such magazines as Astounding leaned hard on its artists to fill in the blanks. And this might have been a reasonable division of labor. The fans don’t seem to have made any distinction between the stories and their illustrations, and both played a crucial role in defining the genre. Movies and television may be our current touchstones for the future, but the literary and visual arts have been conspiring to imagine the world of tomorrow for longer than we tend to remember. As Speculative Everything demonstrates, each medium can come up with remarkable things when allowed to work on its own. But they have even more power when they join forces.

The Big One

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In a heartfelt appreciation of the novelist Philip Roth, who died earlier this week, the New York Times critic Dwight Garner describes him as “the last front-rank survivor of a generation of fecund and authoritative and, yes, white and male novelists…[that] included John Updike, Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow.” These four names seem fated to be linked together for as long as any of them is still read and remembered, and they’ve played varying roles in my own life. I was drawn first to Mailer, who for much of my adolescence was my ideal of what a writer should be, less because of his actual fiction than thanks to my repeated readings of the juiciest parts of Peter Manso’s oral biography. (If you squint hard and think generously, you can even see Mailer’s influence in the way I’ve tried to move between fiction and nonfiction, although in both cases it was more a question of survival.) Updike, my favorite, was a writer I discovered after college. I agree with Garner that he probably had the most “sheer talent” of them all, and he represents my current model, much more than Mailer, of an author who could apparently do anything. Bellow has circled in and out of my awareness over the years, and it’s only recently that I’ve started to figure out what he means to me, in part because of his ambiguous status as a subject of biography. And Roth was the one I knew least. I’d read Portnoy’s Complaint and one or two of the Zuckerman novels, but I always felt guilty over having never gotten around to such late masterpieces as American Pastoral—although the one that I should probably check out first these days is The Plot Against America.

Yet I’ve been thinking about Roth for about as long as I’ve wanted to be a writer, largely because he came as close as anyone ever could to having the perfect career, apart from the lack of the Nobel Prize. He won the National Book Award for his debut at the age of twenty-six; he had a huge bestseller at an age when he was properly equipped to enjoy it; and he closed out his oeuvre with a run of major novels that critics seemed to agree were among the best that he, or anyone, had ever written. (As Garner nicely puts it: “He turned on the afterburners.”) But he never seemed satisfied by his achievement, which you can take as an artist’s proper stance toward his work, a reflection of the fleeting nature of such rewards, a commentary on the inherent bitterness of the writer’s life, or all of the above. Toward the end of his career, Roth actively advised young writers not to become novelists, and in his retirement announcement, which he delivered almost casually to a French magazine, he quoted Joe Louis: “I did the best I could with what I had.” A month later, in an interview with Charles McGrath of the New York Times, he expanded on his reasoning:

I know I’m not going to write as well as I used to. I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration—it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time…I can’t face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away. I can’t do that anymore…I knew I wasn’t going to get another good idea, or if I did, I’d have to slave over it.

And on his computer, he posted a note that gave him strength when he looked at it each day: “The struggle with writing is over.”

Roth’s readers, of course, rarely expressed the same disillusionment, and he lives most vividly in my mind as a reference point against which other authors could measure themselves. In an interview with The Telegraph, John Updike made one of the most quietly revealing statements that I’ve ever heard from a writer, when asked if he felt that he and Roth were in competition:

Yes, I can’t help but feel it somewhat. Especially since Philip really has the upper hand in the rivalry as far as I can tell. I think in a list of admirable novelists there was a time when I might have been near the top, just tucked under Bellow. But since Bellow died I think Philip has…he’s certainly written more novels than I have, and seems more dedicated in a way to the act of writing as a means of really reshaping the world to your liking. But he’s been very good to have around as far as goading me to become a better writer.

I think about that “list of admirable novelists” all the time, and it wasn’t just a joke. In an excellent profile in The New Yorker, Claudia Roth Pierpoint memorably sketched in all the ways in which other writers warily circled Roth. When asked if the two of them were friends, Updike said, “Guardedly,” and Bellow seems to have initially held Roth at arm’s length, until his wife convinced him to give the younger writer a chance. Pierpont concludes of the relationship between Roth and Updike: “They were mutual admirers, wary competitors who were thrilled to have each other in the world to up their game: Picasso and Matisse.”

And they also remind me of another circle of writers whom I know somewhat better. If Bellow, Mailer, Updike, and Roth were the Big Four of the literary world, they naturally call to mind the Big Three of science fiction—Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke. In each case, the group’s members were perfectly aware of how exceptional they were, and they carefully guarded their position. (Once, in a conference call with the other two authors, Asimov jokingly suggested that one of them should die to make room for their successors. Heinlein responded: “Fuck the other writers!”) Clarke and Asimov seem to have been genuinely “thrilled to have each other in the world,” but their relationship with the third point of the triangle was more fraught. Toward the end, Asimov started to “avoid” the combative Heinlein, who had a confrontation with Clarke over the Strategic Defense Initiative that effectively ended their friendship. In public, they remained cordial, but you can get a hint of their true feelings in a remarkable passage from the memoir I. Asimov:

[Clarke] and I are now widely known as the Big Two of science fiction. Until early 1988, as I’ve said, people spoke of the Big Three, but then Arthur fashioned a little human figurine of wax and with a long pin— At least, he has told me this. Perhaps he’s trying to warn me. I have made it quite plain to him, however, that if he were to find himself the Big One, he would be very lonely. At the thought of that, he was affected to the point of tears, so I think I’m safe.

As it turned out, Clarke, like Roth, outlived all the rest, and perhaps they felt lonely in the end. Longevity can amount to a kind of victory in itself. But it must be hard to be the Big One.

The doctor’s dilemma

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In 1949, when John W. Campbell and L. Ron Hubbard prepared to reveal dianetics to the world, one of their first orders of business was to recruit their fellow writers to the cause. Numerous authors—most famously Alfred Bester—have provided accounts of their efforts, and occasionally, they worked, most notably in the cases of Theodore Sturgeon and A.E. van Vogt. Another obvious prize was Isaac Asimov, with whom Campbell had perhaps the closest working relationship of any author of the time, although Asimov was arguably the writer least inclined to be sympathetic to Hubbard’s theories. He had written disparagingly in his diary of “Hubbard’s dabblings in amateur psychiatry,” and when he and L. Sprague de Camp finally read the first article on dianetics in Astounding, he was no more convinced than before: “Neither Sprague nor I were in the least impressed. I considered it gibberish.” Yet he remained unwilling to confront his old friend and mentor about it directly. After Campbell made one last attempt at a hard sell, Asimov resisted, leading the editor to complain about his “built-in doubter.” But Asimov never seems to have revealed the full extent of his contempt for dianetics, perhaps because he was afraid of risking a valued friendship, or at least an important market for his fiction. (His fears on that front may not have been justified. After Lester del Rey criticized dianetics openly in print, he was told that he would never be able to sell to the magazine again. He responded by writing up a submission and delivering it to Campbell in person. On his arrival, the editor greeted him warmly: “I guess we’re not going to talk about dianetics, are we?” And he bought the story.)

Recently, I came across a fascinating piece of evidence about Asimov’s state of mind at the time, in the form of an actual review that he wrote of the book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. (The exact provenance of this article remains a mystery to me, and I’m happy to throw it out to any readers here for help. I found the original manuscript in the Asimov collection at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, dated June 19, 1950, and a clipping of the piece is available online. Unfortunately, neither source indicates where the item first appeared, apart from the fact that it was evidently a newspaper in New York. As far as I can tell, Asimov doesn’t mention it in his memoirs, and I haven’t seen it in bibliographies of his work. My very rudimentary attempts to track it down haven’t gone anywhere, and I’ll try again when I have time, but anyone out there who cares is welcome to give it a shot.) It was published after Asimov claimed to have already dismissed Hubbard’s work as “gibberish,” but anyone looking for a similar takedown here will be disappointed. Here’s how it opens:

L. Ron Hubbard is an optimist. He believes the human being to be essentially sane and good, and the human mind to be, potentially, a perfect thinking machine. Furthermore, he proposes a new technique of mental therapy which, he claims, is so simple that it can be supervised by almost anyone who reads the book and so effective that, properly handled, it can eradicate all neuroses and most diseases.

Asimov continues with a concise but accurate description of Hubbard’s ideas, including the assertion that the patient’s memory can be brought back to “a pre-natal state,” and his treatment of it leaves little doubt that he read the book carefully.

Yet in stark contrast to his private statements and his later characterization of his response in his memoirs, Asimov bends over backward to avoid criticizing the book in any meaningful way. After a brief summary, he writes:

That the book is startling is evident, I believe, even from the short description of its contents here. It might even be dismissed out of hand as incredible were it not for the fact that Freud’s theories (to say nothing of Einstein’s and Galileo’s) must have seemed equally startling and even incredible to their contemporaries…What can one say…except that these days it is a brave man indeed who would dismiss any theory as unbelievable. The author invites investigation of his claims by psychiatrists and medical men, and it would be interesting to see what they say.

Asimov is careful to hedge his language—the article is full of phrases like “he believes,” “he proposes,” “he claims”—but the overall tone is one of studied neutrality. Every now and then, there’s a hint of his underlying skepticism, although you have to look hard to see it:

Of course, if what Hubbard claims for dianetics is true, there will be no stopping it. One man will “clear” another, until within the lifetime of those living today, all the world will be free or almost free of disease, insanity, and evil. On the other hand, if Hubbard is mistaken, we are led to the melancholy conclusion that the world will continue as is.

At first, it doesn’t seem hard to understand why Asimov was reluctant to come out against dianetics in print. He knew that Campbell was all but certain to see the review, and he appears to have written it with precisely one reader in mind. Yet there’s also a deeper tension here. The year before, Asimov had accepted a position as an instructor at the medical school at Boston University, and he would spend much of the next decade worried about his job security, as well as how his work in science fiction would be perceived. (When the dust jacket of his first novel, Pebble in the Sky, mentioned the school by name, he was nervous enough about it to speak to the dean, James Faulkner. Faulkner asked if it was a good book, and when Asimov said that his publishers thought so, the dean responded: “In that case, the medical school will be glad to be identified with it.”) Yet even at this delicate moment, he allowed his byline to appear on a review in which an instructor in biochemistry failed to express any reservations over such elements as “memories at the cellular level.” The only possible conclusion is that Asimov, remarkably, was still more concerned about what Campbell would think than about his colleagues in Boston, and it led him to remain neutral at a time in which such writers as Lester del Rey were publicly attacking dianetics. Frankly, I’m surprised that he even agreed to write the review, which could hardly have benefited him in any meaningful way. To the best of my knowledge, Asimov never explained his reasoning, or even mentioned writing it at all. For obvious reasons, it was never reprinted, and Asimov clearly preferred to forget about it. But its last lines were undeniably prescient: “It will be interesting to wait and see. It shouldn’t take more than a few years to check up on dianetics.”

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