Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Isaac Asimov

The planetary chauvinists

with 6 comments

In a profile in the latest issue of Wired, the journalist Steven Levy speaks at length with Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, about his dream of sending humans permanently into space. Levy was offered a rare glimpse into the operations of the Amazon founder’s spaceflight company, Blue Origin, but it came with one condition: “I had to promise that, before I interviewed [Bezos] about his long-term plans, I would watch a newly unearthed 1975 PBS program.” He continues:

So one afternoon, I opened my laptop and clicked on the link Bezos had sent me. Suddenly I was thrust back into the predigital world, where viewers had more fingers than channels and remote shopping hadn’t advanced past the Sears catalog. In lo-res monochrome, a host in suit and tie interviews the writer Isaac Asimov and physicist Gerard O’Neill, wearing a cool, wide-lapeled blazer and white turtleneck. To the amusement of the host, O’Neill describes a future where some ninety percent of humans live in space stations in distant orbits of the blue planet. For most of us, Earth would be our homeland but not our home. We’d use it for R&R, visiting it as we would a national park. Then we’d return to the cosmos, where humanity would be thriving like never before. Asimov, agreeing entirely, called resistance to the concept “planetary chauvinism.”

The discussion, which was conducted by Harold Hayes, was evidently lost for years before being dug up in a storage locker by the Space Studies Institute, the organization that O’Neill founded in the late seventies. You can view the entire program here, and it’s well worth watching. At one point, Asimov, whom Hayes describes as “our favorite jack of all sciences,” alludes briefly to my favorite science fiction concept, the gravity gauge: “Well once you land on the moon, you know the moon is a lot easier to get away from than the earth is. The earth has a gravity six times as strong as that of the moon at the surface.” (Asimov must have known all of this without having to think twice, but I’d like to believe that he was also reminded of it by The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.) And in response to the question of whether he had ever written about space colonies in his own fiction, Asimov gives his “legendary” response:

Nobody did, really, because we’ve all been planet chauvinists. We’ve all believed people should live on the surface of a planet, of a world. I’ve had colonies on the moon—so have a hundred other science fiction writers. The closest I came to a manufactured world in free space was to suggest that we go out to the asteroid belt and hollow out the asteroids, and make ships out of them [in the novelette “The Martian Way”]. It never occurred to me to bring the material from the asteroids in towards the earth, where conditions are pleasanter, and build the worlds there.

Of course, it isn’t entirely accurate that science fiction writers had “all” been planet chauvinists—Heinlein had explored similar concepts in such stories as “Waldo” and “Delilah and the Space Rigger,” and I’m sure there are other examples. (Asimov had even discussed the idea ten years earlier in the essay “There’s No Place Like Spome,” which he later described as “an anticipation, in a fumbling sort of way, of Gerard O’Neill’s concept of space settlements.”) And while there’s no doubt that O’Neill’s notion of a permanent settlement in space was genuinely revolutionary, there’s also a sense in which Asimov was the last writer you’d expect to come up with it. Asimov was a notorious acrophobe and claustrophile who hated flying and suffered a panic attack on the roller coaster at Coney Island. When he was younger, he loved enclosed spaces, like the kitchen at the back of his father’s candy store, and he daydreamed about running a newsstand on the subway, where he could put up the shutters and just read magazines. Years later, he refused to go out onto the balcony of his apartment, which overlooked Central Park, because of his fear of heights, and he was always happiest while typing away in his office. And his personal preferences were visible in the stories that he wrote. The theme of an enclosed or underground city appears in such stories as The Caves of Steel, while The Naked Sun is basically a novel about agoraphobia. In his interview with Hayes, Asimov speculates that space colonies will attract people looking for an escape from earth: “Once you do realize that you have a kind of life there which represents a security and a pleasantness that you no longer have on earth, the difficulty will be not in getting people to go but in making them line up in orderly fashion.” But he never would have gone there voluntarily.

Yet this is a revealing point in itself. Unlike Heinlein, who dreamed of buying a commercial ticket to the moon, Asimov never wanted to go into space. He just wanted to write about it, and he was better—or at least more successful—at this than just about anybody else. (In his memoirs, Asimov recalls taping the show with O’Neill on January 7, 1975, adding that he was “a little restless” because he was worried about being late for dinner with Lester and Judy-Lynn del Rey. After he was done, he hailed a cab. On the road, as they were making the usual small talk, the driver revealed that he had once wanted to be a writer. Asimov, who hadn’t mentioned his name, told him consolingly that no one could make a living as writer anyway. The driver responded: “Isaac Asimov does.”) And the comparison with Bezos is an enlightening one. Bezos obviously built his career on books, and he was a voracious reader of science fiction in his youth, as Levy notes: “[Bezos’s] grandfather—a former top Defense Department official—introduced him to the extensive collection of science fiction at the town library. He devoured the books, gravitating especially to Robert Heinlein and other classic writers who explored the cosmos in their tales.” With his unimaginable wealth, Bezos is in a position remarkably close to that of the protagonist in such stories, with the ability to “painlessly siphon off a billion dollars every year to fund his boyhood dream.” But the ideas that he has the money to put into practice were originated by writers and other thinkers whose minds went in unusual directions precisely because they didn’t have the resources, financial or otherwise, to do it personally. Vast wealth can generate a chauvinism of its own, and the really innovative ideas tend to come from unexpected places. This was true of Asimov, as well as O’Neill, whose work was affiliated in fascinating ways with the world of Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog. I’ll have more to say about O’Neill—and Bezos—tomorrow.

The Rover Boys in the Air

with 3 comments

On September 3, 1981, a man who had recently turned seventy reminisced in a letter to a librarian about his favorite childhood books, which he had read in his youth in Dixon, Illinois:

I, of course, read all the books that a boy that age would like—The Rover Boys; Frank Merriwell at Yale; Horatio Alger. I discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs and read all the Tarzan books. I am amazed at how few people I meet today know that Burroughs also provided an introduction to science fiction with John Carter of Mars and the other books that he wrote about John Carter and his frequent trips to the strange kingdoms to be found on the planet Mars.

At almost exactly the same time, a boy in Kansas City was working his way through a similar shelf of titles, as described by one of his biographers: “Like all his friends, he read the Rover Boys series and all the Horatio Alger books…[and] Edgar Rice Burroughs’s wonderful and exotic Mars books.” And a slightly younger member of the same generation would read many of the same novels while growing up in Brooklyn, as he recalled in his memoirs: “Most important of all, at least to me, were The Rover Boys. There were three of them—Dick, Tom, and Sam—with Tom, the middle one, always described as ‘fun-loving.’”

The first youngster in question was Ronald Reagan; the second was Robert A. Heinlein; and the third was Isaac Asimov. There’s no question that all three men grew up reading many of the same adventure stories as their contemporaries, and Reagan’s apparent fondness for science fiction has inspired a fair amount of speculation. In a recent article on Slate, Kevin Bankston retells the famous story of how WarGames inspired the president to ask his advisors about the likelihood of such an incident occurring for real, concluding that it was “just one example of how science fiction influenced his administration and his life.” The Day the Earth Stood Still, which was adapted from a story by Harry Bates that originally appeared in Astounding, allegedly influenced Regan’s interest in the potential effect of extraterrestrial contact on global politics, which he once brought up with Gorbachev. And in the novelistic biography Dutch, Edmund Morris—or his narrative surrogate—ruminates at length on the possible origins of the Strategic Defense Initiative:

Long before that, indeed, [Reagan] could remember the warring empyrean of his favorite boyhood novel, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Princess of Mars. I keep a copy on my desk: just to flick through it is to encounter five-foot-thick polished glass domes over cities, heaven-filling salvos, impregnable walls of carborundum, forts, and “manufactories” that only one man with a key can enter. The book’s last chapter is particularly imaginative, dominated by the magnificent symbol of a civilization dying for lack of air.

For obvious marketing reasons, I’d love to be able to draw a direct line between science fiction and the Reagan administration. Yet it’s also tempting to read a greater significance into these sorts of connections than they actually deserve. The story of science fiction’s role in the Strategic Defense Initiative has been told countless times, but usually by the writers themselves, and it isn’t clear what impact it truly had. (The definitive book on the subject, Way Out There in the Blue by Frances FitzGerald, doesn’t mention any authors at all by name, and it refers only once, in passing, to a group of advisors that included “a science fiction writer.” And I suspect that the most accurate description of their involvement appears in a speech delivered by Greg Bear: “Science fiction writers helped the rocket scientists elucidate their vision and clarified it.”) Reagan’s interest in science fiction seems less like a fundamental part of his personality than like a single aspect of a vision that was shaped profoundly by the popular culture of his young adulthood. The fact that Reagan, Heinlein, and Asimov devoured many of the same books only tells me that this was what a lot of kids were reading in the twenties and thirties—although perhaps only the exceptionally imaginative would try to live their lives as an extension of those stories. If these influences were genuinely meaningful, we should also be talking about the Rover Boys, a series “for young Americans” about three brothers at boarding school that has now been almost entirely forgotten. And if we’re more inclined to emphasize the science fiction side for Reagan, it’s because this is the only genre that dares to make such grandiose claims for itself.

In fact, the real story here isn’t about science fiction, but about Reagan’s gift for appropriating the language of mainstream culture in general. He was equally happy to quote Dirty Harry or Back to the Future, and he may not even have bothered to distinguish between his sources. In Way Out There in the Blue, FitzGerald brilliantly unpacks a set of unscripted remarks that Reagan made to reporters on March 24, 1983, in which he spoke of the need of rendering nuclear weapons “obsolete”:

There is a part of a line from the movie Torn Curtain about making missiles “obsolete.” What many inferred from the phrase was that Reagan believed what he had once seen in a science fiction movie. But to look at the explanation as a whole is to see that he was following a train of thought—or simply a trail of applause lines—from one reassuring speech to another and then appropriating a dramatic phrase, whose origin he may or may not have remembered, for his peroration.

Take out the world “reassuring,” and we have a frightening approximation of our current president, whose inner life is shaped in real time by what he sees on television. But we might feel differently if those roving imaginations had been channeled by chance along different lines—like a serious engagement with climate change. It might just as well have gone that way, but it didn’t, and we’re still dealing with the consequences. As Greg Bear asks: “Do you want your presidents to be smart? Do you want them to be dreamers? Or do you want them to be lucky?”

The Machine of Lagado

with one comment

Yesterday, my wife wrote to me in a text message: “Psychohistory could not predict that Elon [Musk] would gin up a fraudulent stock buyback price based on a pot joke and then get punished by the SEC.” This might lead you to wonder about our texting habits, but more to the point, she was right. Psychohistory—the fictional science of forecasting the future developed by Isaac Asimov and John W. Campbell in the Foundation series—is based on the assumption that the world will change in the future more or less as it has in the past. Like all systems of prediction, it’s unable to foresee black swans, like the Mule or Donald Trump, that make nonsense of our previous assumptions, and it’s useless for predicting events on a small scale. Asimov liked to compare it to the kinetic theory of gases, “where the individual molecules in the gas remain as unpredictable as ever, but the average person is completely predictable.” This means that you need a sufficiently large number of people, such as the population of the galaxy, for it to work, and it also means that it grows correspondingly less useful as it becomes more specific. On the individual level, human behavior is as unforeseeable as the motion of particular molecules, and the shape of any particular life is impossible to predict, even if we like to believe otherwise. The same is true of events. Just as a monkey or a dartboard might do an equally good job of picking stocks as a qualified investment advisor, the news these days often seems to have been generated by a bot, like the Subreddit Simulator, that automatically cranks out random combinations of keywords and trending terms. (My favorite recent example is an actual headline from the Washington Post: “Border Patrol agent admits to starting wildfire during gender-reveal party.”)

And the satirical notion that combining ideas at random might lead to useful insights or predictions is a very old one. In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift describes an encounter with a fictional machine—located in the academy of Lagado, the capital city of the island of Balnibarbi—by which “the most ignorant person, at a reasonable charge, and with a little bodily labour, might write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, laws, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study.” The narrator continues:

[The professor] then led me to the frame, about the sides, whereof all his pupils stood in ranks. It was twenty feet square, placed in the middle of the room. The superfices was composed of several bits of wood, about the bigness of a die, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender wires. These bits of wood were covered, on every square, with paper pasted on them; and on these papers were written all the words of their language, in their several moods, tenses, and declensions; but without any order…The pupils, at his command, took each of them hold of an iron handle, whereof there were forty fixed round the edges of the frame; and giving them a sudden turn, the whole disposition of the words was entirely changed.  He then commanded six-and-thirty of the lads, to read the several lines softly, as they appeared upon the frame; and where they found three or four words together that might make part of a sentence, they dictated to the four remaining boys, who were scribes.

And Gulliver concludes: “Six hours a day the young students were employed in this labour; and the professor showed me several volumes in large folio, already collected, of broken sentences, which he intended to piece together, and out of those rich materials, to give the world a complete body of all arts and sciences.”

Two and a half centuries later, an updated version of this machine figured in Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum, which is where I first encountered it. The book’s three protagonists, who work as editors for a publishing company in Milan, are playing in the early eighties with their new desktop computer, which they’ve nicknamed Abulafia, after the medieval cabalist. One speaks proudly of Abulafia’s usefulness in generating random combinations: “All that’s needed is the data and the desire. Take, for example, poetry. The program asks you how many lines you want in the poem, and you decide: ten, twenty, a hundred. Then the program randomizes the line numbers. In other words, a new arrangement each time. With ten lines you can make thousands and thousands of random poems.” This gives the narrator an idea:

What if, instead, you fed it a few dozen notions taken from the works of [occult writers]—for example, the Templars fled to Scotland, or the Corpus Hermeticum arrived in Florence in 1460—and threw in a few connective phrases like “It’s obvious that” and “This proves that?” We might end up with something revelatory. Then we fill in the gaps, call the repetitions prophecies, and—voila—a hitherto unpublished chapter of the history of magic, at the very least!

Taking random sentences from unpublished manuscripts, they enter such lines as “Who was married at the feast of Cana?” and “Minnie Mouse is Mickey’s fiancee.” When strung together, the result, in one of Eco’s sly jokes, is a conspiracy theory that exactly duplicates the thesis of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which later provided much of the inspiration for The Da Vinci Code. “Nobody would take that seriously,” one of the editors says. The narrator replies: “On the contrary, it would sell a few hundred thousand copies.”

When I first read this as a teenager, I thought it was one of the great things in the world, and part of me still does. I immediately began to look for similar connections between random ideas, which led me to some of my best story ideas, and I still incorporate aspects of randomness into just about everything that I do. Yet there’s also a pathological element to this form of play that I haven’t always acknowledged. What makes it dangerous, as Eco understood, is the inclusion of such seemingly innocent expressions as “it’s obvious that” and “this proves that,” which instantly transforms a scenario into an argument. (On the back cover of the paperback edition of Foucault’s Pendulum, the promotional copy describes Abulafia as “an incredible computer capable of inventing connections between all their entires,” which is both a great example of hyping a difficult book and a reflection of how credulous we can be when it comes to such practices in real life.) We may not be able to rule out any particular combination of events, but not every explanatory system is equally valid, even if all it takes is a modicum of ingenuity to turn it into something convincing. I used to see the creation of conspiracy theories as a diverting game, or as a commentary on how we interpret the world around us, and I devoted an entire novel to exorcising my fascination with this idea. More recently, I’ve realized that this attitude was founded on the assumption that it was still possible to come to some kind of cultural consensus about the truth. In the era of InfoWars, Pizzagate, and QAnon, it no longer seems harmless. Not all patterns are real, and many of the horrors of the last century were perpetuated by conspiracy theorists who arbitrarily seized on one arrangement of the facts—and then acted on it accordingly. Reality itself can seem randomly generated, but our thoughts and actions don’t need to be.

Written by nevalalee

October 2, 2018 at 9:36 am

Forward the foundation

leave a comment »

On February 6, which already seems like a lifetime ago, the private company SpaceX conducted a successful launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket, which some enthusiasts hope will eventually serve as the vehicle for a manned mission to Mars. Its dummy payload consisted of Elon Musk’s personal Tesla Roadster, permanently mounted to the second stage, which is currently orbiting the sun. A mannequin dressed as an astronaut, “Starman,” sits in the driver’s seat, and its stereo system was set to continuously play David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” Even at the time, it struck me as a resplendently tacky gesture—which may have been the whole point—and in retrospect, it feels like a transitional moment for Musk, who would never again be able to take his uncritical press coverage for granted. Of all the comments that it inspired, the most prescient may have been from the space archaeologist Alice Gorman, who wrote on The Conversation:

The sports car in orbit symbolizes both life and death. Through the body of the car, Musk is immortalized in the vacuum of space. The car is also an armor against dying, a talisman that quells a profound fear of mortality…The red sports car symbolizes masculinity—power, wealth and speed—but also how fragile masculinity is. Stereotypically, the red sports car is the accessory of choice in the male midlife crisis, which men use to rebel against perceived domestication.

On another level, the launch also served as a nerd’s version of the gold record on the Voyager spacecraft, loaded with pop culture signifiers that wouldn’t have made it through the approval process at NASA. Apart from the David Bowie song, its cargo included a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the glove compartment, along with a matching towel and a Don’t Panic sign on the dashboard, as well as a secret payload. After the launch, it was revealed that the roadster also included a tiny quartz optical disk, designed to last for billions of years, that could theoretically store every book ever written. In the end, it ended up carrying just three. As Nova Spivack, a founder of the Arch Mission Foundation, explained in a blog post:

Our goal…is to permanently archive human knowledge for thousands to billions of years. We exist to preserve and disseminate humanity’s knowledge across time and space, for the benefit of future generations. To accomplish this we have begun building special Arch libraries (pronounced: “Arks”). Our first Arch libraries are data crystals that last billions of years. We plan to use many media types over time however—whatever material is the best available for the goal. We are very happy to announce that our first Arch library, containing the Isaac Asimov Foundation trilogy, was carried as payload on today’s SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch, en route to permanent orbit around the Sun.

Technically, the survival of Asimov’s work isn’t quite as assured as that of the Voyager gold record—it will be annihilated, along with everything else, when the sun’s red giant phase reaches the orbit of Mars in about seven billion years. (This might seem like a meaningless distinction, but I also suspect that Asimov would have been the first to make it.) Yet it’s still a remarkable tribute, and the way in which the Foundation trilogy ended up in space is instructive in itself. In his post, Spiwack writes:

Asimov’s Foundation series was the inspiration for the Arch Mission Foundation, many years ago when we first conceived of this project. It is a metaphor for what we hope this can become, and it is the perfect cornerstone as our mission begins…The series’ protagonist, Hari Seldon, endeavors to preserve and expand upon all human culture and knowledge through a 30,000 year period of turmoil. We felt this was a very fitting first payload to include in the Arch…This truly can evolve into Asimov’s vision of an Encyclopedia Galactica someday — an encyclopedia containing all the knowledge accumulated by a galaxy-spanning civilization.

In an interview with Mashable, Spiwack adds that he loved the Foundation books as a teenager, and that they were “in the air around MIT” when he did summer research there in college. Sending the disk to space wasn’t originally part of the plan, but, as the article notes, it may have influenced the choice of texts: “[Spiwack had] heard Elon Musk loved the trilogy too, and maybe he’d be able to press one of the five disks into the SpaceX founder’s hands some day.”

I’m in favor of any effort to preserve information in a lasting form for future generations, even if the impulse reflects a midlife crisis that we’re experiencing as a society as a whole—a life stage, which spans decades, in which we’re forced to contemplate the choices that we’ve made as a species. (Arch’s true predecessor isn’t the Voyager record, but the Rosetta Project of the Long Now Foundation, which has developed a nickel disk that can store microscopic etchings of thousands of pages.) And such projects are always about more than they seem. Even in the original story “Foundation,” the Encyclopedia Galactica is nothing but an elaborate mislead, as Hari Seldon himself reveals at the end:

The Encyclopedia Foundation, to begin with, is a fraud, and always has been…It is a fraud in the sense that neither I nor my colleagues care at all whether a single volume of the Encyclopedia is ever published. It has served its purpose, since by it…we attracted the hundred thousand scientists necessary for our scheme, and by it we managed to keep them preoccupied while events shaped themselves, until it was too late for any of them to draw back.

This is very far from what Spivack calls “Asimov’s vision of an Encyclopedia Galactica…containing all the knowledge accumulated by a galaxy-spanning civilization.” But the unconscious motive might well be the same. When you assemble people for this kind of project, the reasoning goes, there might be interesting consequences that you can’t predict in advance—and I confess that I sort of believe this. “We really just did it as a test,” Spivack said of the disk to Mashable. “If we’d known it would go to space, we would have put more stuff on it.”

The short of it

leave a comment »

When I was thirteen, I picked up a used paperback copy of the anthology 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories, edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander, which was first published in 1978. A quarter of a century later, it’s still on my bookshelf, and I’ve just finished reading through it again, solely for my own pleasure. I’ve spoken here before of how my taste in fiction, movies, television, music, and just about everything else in life was shaped by what I happened to stumble across in seventh grade, and this little book may turn out to be as influential as any of the others. It was the first science fiction collection that I ever owned, and with a few caveats, it’s still the one that I’d recommend to anyone who was looking to get into the genre for the first time. None of the selections are longer than five pages or so, and some are a less than a page. A few are little more than shaggy dog stories that hinge on a bad pun at the end—“A niche in time saves Stein”—but others are genuinely funny, scary, or haunting. The best serve as a perfect illustration of the Borges test, which states that many stories should only be as long as it takes to verbally explain the idea to an intelligent listener. And the range of voices presented here still catches me by surprise. When I first read this book, I hadn’t heard of any of them, apart from Asimov, and I didn’t pay much attention to the names of the authors. As a result, when I skim the table of contents, I’m amazed to find that I was reading stories in my early teens by Cyril M. Kornbluth, Joanna Russ, Larry Niven, Damon Knight, Barry N. Malzberg, Alfred Bester, Gregory Benford, and even George R.R. Martin.

And I didn’t read these stories out of obligation, but out of sheer joy. They don’t demand anything from the reader except for a few minutes of his or her attention, but the return on investment is considerable. There are ideas here that I’ve never forgotten, which makes a good case for the power of speculative fiction itself, especially when compared to other genres. I have another anthology on my shelf titled This Week’s Short Short Stories, which collects fifty examples from the Sunday supplement magazine This Week, which at the time—and this isn’t a typo—had a circulation of ten and a half million. Given the size of the audience, none of the stories could be particularly strange or challenging, and few of them have stuck in my mind. The genius of the science fiction short short, by contrast, is that it uses its modest length as an opportunity to go to darker, weirder places than a conventional narrative could sustain. It has often been used as an entry point for new writers, most famously in Astounding’s Probability Zero department, but it also requires a fair amount of skill to pull off, as Asimov points out in his introduction:

As a story grows shorter and shorter, all the fancy embroidery that length makes possible must go. In the short story, there can be no subplots; there is no time for philosophy; what description and character delineation there is must be accomplished with concision…Everything is eliminated but the point. The short short story reduces itself to the point alone and presents that to you like a bare needle fired from a blowgun; a needle that can tickle or sting or leave its effect buried within you for a long time.

And the best way to get a sense of the form’s possibilities is to pick up a copy of a collection like 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories and dive right in. (For some reason, I was never quite as entranced by its companion volume, 100 Great Fantasy Short Short Stories, maybe because it seemed too much like playing tennis without the net. There’s also an earlier anthology, Fifty Short Science Fiction Tales, edited by Asimov and Groff Conklin, which is equally worthwhile, and some of the stories that I recommend here appear there instead.) My personal favorites include “The Figure” by Edward Grendon, a time travel story that saves an unforgettably sick twist for the very last word; “Tiger by the Tail” by Alan E. Nourse, about a mysterious pocketbook that leads to a parallel universe; “Shall the Dust Praise Thee?” by Damon Knight, which first appeared in Harlan Ellison’s anthology Dangerous Visions; and “Mimic” by Donald A. Wollheim, which was loosely adapted into the Guillermo del Toro movie of the same name. Other strong selections from the Asimov/Greenberg/Olander anthology, plucked essentially at random, include “Punch” by Frederik Pohl, “Upstart” by Steven Utley, “Safe at Any Speed” by Larry Niven, “Innocence” by Joanna Russ, and “Synchronicity” by James E. Thompson. Many of them end at the moment that a more conventional work might begin, with the core premise turned into a closing twist rather than an inciting incident, and when I look back, I see that many of my earliest attempts at writing fiction grew from a seed that one of these stories had planted.

Of course, not every short short story is worth reading. As Asimov points out, the form leaves the writer with nowhere to hide, and the whole effort stands or falls on the originality of its core idea. That’s part of the reason why I’ve never tried it myself, although I’m currently working on a story—an adaptation of my audio script “Retention”—that might technically qualify. And the low barriers to entry imply that there’s more forgettable work produced in this form than any other. As Stewart Beach, the fiction editor of This Week, writes in the anthology that I mentioned above: “Nothing loses interest quite as quickly a short-short which isn’t going anywhere except to a so-called surprise ending with ‘surprise, surprise’ telegraphed so hard through a lifeless middle that the reader either throws the story aside in disgust or skips forward to the ‘surprise’ he has been warned to expect.” That’s as true of science fiction as anything else, and my praise of the form is skewed by the fact that I know it best from anthologies of published stories, which have already gone through two levels of selection. (These days, we’re more likely to use the term flash fiction, which carries the unfortunate implication, at least to me, that they should be written quickly.) But even when you come across a clunker, you’ve only wasted a few minutes of your time, and I can’t think of a better way to rapidly familiarize yourself with the style and themes of a wide range of writers. An ambitious anthology by a good editor, covering the forty years since 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories was released, is a book that I would buy in a second. And I don’t think I’m alone.

The happy golden years

with 4 comments

A few months ago, the American Library Association announced that it was renaming the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, which has been awarded annually for over six decades for merit in children’s literature. (The decision was reached at the association’s summer conference in New Orleans, which I attended, although I was only vaguely aware of the discussion at the time.) In a joint statement explaining the move, which was primarily motivated by the “anti-Native and anti-Black sentiments in [Wilder’s] work,” the presidents of the ALA and the Association for Library Service to Children were careful to distinguish between the value of her legacy and the message sent by institutionalizing it in this particular form:

Although Wilder’s work holds a significant place in the history of children’s literature and continues to be read today, ALSC has had to grapple with the inconsistency between Wilder’s legacy and its core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness through an award that bears Wilder’s name…This change should not be viewed as a call for readers to change their personal relationship with or feelings about Wilder’s books. Updating the award’s name should not be construed as censorship, as we are not demanding that anyone stop reading Wilder’s books, talking about them, or making them available to children. We hope adults think critically about Wilder’s books and the discussions that can take place around them.

This seems reasonable enough, although Wilder’s biographer, Caroline Fraser, argues in an opinion piece for the Washington Post that the decision evokes “the anodyne view of literature” that the ALA has elsewhere tried to overcome. Fraser concludes: “Whether we love Wilder or hate her, we should know her. “

For reasons of my own, I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot recently. Last week at Worldcon, a critic who had recently finished reading Astounding commented that he wasn’t sure he would have wanted to meet any of its subjects, and I know what he means. (If I had the chance to spend time with a single person from the book, I might well choose Doña Campbell, or possibly Leslyn Heinlein, if only because I’d learn more from them than I would from any of the others.) I didn’t go into this project with any preexisting agenda in mind, but I emerged with a picture of these four writers that is often highly critical. John W. Campbell’s importance to the history of science fiction is indisputable, and I wrote this biography largely to bring his achievements to the attention of a wider audience. He also expressed views that were unforgivably racist, both in private conversation and in print, and he bears part of the blame for limiting the genre’s diversity, which is an issue that we’re still struggling to address today. I think that Robert A. Heinlein is the best and most significant writer that the genre ever produced, but I’m not sure I would have wanted to be the the same room with him for very long. Hubbard, obviously, is a special case. And perhaps the most difficult reckoning involves Isaac Asimov, a writer who meant a lot to me—and to countless others—growing up, but whose treatment of women looks increasingly awful over time. It was hard for me to write about this, and I expect that it will be hard for many others to read it. It’s safe to say that many fans made up their minds about Heinlein and Hubbard years ago, while this book will introduce Campbell to a larger readership for the first time in what I hope will be his full complexity. With Asimov, however, I suspect that many readers will need to revise their understanding of a man they admired and thought they knew, and that might be the hardest part of all.

At the convention, I conducted what I saw as a trial run for discussing these issues in public, and the results were often enlightening. (Among other things, I found that whenever I brought up Asimov’s behavior, many fans would start to silently nod. It’s common knowledge within fandom—it just hasn’t been extensively discussed in print.) At my roundtable, an attendee raised the question of how we can separate an artist’s life from the work, which prompted someone else to respond: “Well, we choose to separate it.” And third person nervously hoped that no one was suggesting that we stop reading these authors altogether. On the individual level, this is clearly a matter of conscience, as long as we each take the trouble of engaging with it honestly. Collectively speaking, it isn’t always clear. Occasionally, the community will reach a consensus without too much trouble, as it did with Hubbard, which is about as easy as this sort of decision gets. More often, it’s closer to what we’ve seen with Wilder. As Fraser notes: “While the answer to racism is not to impose purity retroactively or to disappear titles from shelves, no eight-year-old Dakota child should have to listen to an uncritical reading of Little House on the Prairie. But no white American should be able to avoid the history it has to tell.” In a New York Times article on the controversy, the scholar Debbie Reese makes a similar point more forcefully: “People are trying to use [these books] and say, ‘Well, we can explain them,’ and I say: ‘Okay, you’re trying to explain racism to white people. Good for those white kids.’ But what about the Native and the black kids in the classroom who have to bear with the moment when they’re being denigrated for the benefit of the white kids?” If nothing else, renaming the award sends a clear message that this conversation needs to take place. It’s manifestly the first step, not the last.

Which brings me to John W. Campbell. In 1973, two years after the editor’s death, the Campbell Award for Best New Writer—which is given out annually at the Hugo Awards—was inaugurated by the World Science Fiction Society, along with the Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel by the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas. I don’t know how this biography will be received, but it wouldn’t entirely surprise me if it led to a wider debate about Campbell, his views on race, and whether his name ought to be attached to an award whose list of recent recipients stands as a testament to the genre’s range of voices. For now, I’ll only say that if Laura Ingalls Wilder can inspire this sort of discussion, then Campbell absolutely should. If it happens, I don’t know what the outcome will be. But I will say that while Campbell absolutely deserves to be remembered, it may not need to be in this sort of institutionalized form. In the Post, Fraser writes:

If the books are to be read and taught today—and it’s hard to escape them given their popularity—then teachers, librarians and parents are going to have to proceed armed with facts and sensitivity…I’d like to think that what would matter to Wilder in this debate would be not the institutionalized glory of an award bearing her name but the needs of children. “I cannot bear to disappoint a child,” she once said.

Campbell, to be frank, might well have welcomed the “institutionalized glory” of such an award. But he also wanted to be taken seriously. As Fraser says about Wilder, we can love or hate him, but we should know him. And a discussion about the future of the Campbell Award may well end up being the price that has to be paid for restoring him—and the entire golden age—to something more than just a name.

The final blackout

leave a comment »

When a reader sees the title of my upcoming book, Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, the first question is often what Hubbard is doing there. I’ve even seen or heard comments wondering whether I included Hubbard in the subtitle in order to sell more copies—which isn’t exactly wrong, although it gets at only part of the reason. When I initially pitched this project to publishers, it was solely as a biography of Campbell, although the other three writers would obviously have played an important role in the story. Campbell isn’t widely known outside the genre, however, and my editor brilliantly suggested that I expand the scope to encompass a few other writers with greater recognition among mainstream readers. Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard were the first names that came to mind, mostly because they were the closest to Campbell, which meant that there was an abundance of narrative material that I could organically include. (Campbell was always my central figure, which meant that I couldn’t devote as much space as I might have liked to such influential writers as Leigh Brackett, Ray Bradbury, or Arthur C. Clarke, who didn’t have as much interaction with him on a personal level.) There’s no doubt in my mind that including Hubbard has vastly expanded the potential audience for this book. Yet it’s also true that his appearance on the cover seems slightly incongruous. It seems to make a claim about his importance and interest, perhaps even his ultimate value, and it may even raise suspicions about my motives. A glance at the contents of the book itself should make it clear that I’m no apologist for Hubbard, but even then, we’re left with two big questions. Does Hubbard deserve to appear in such exalted company? And was he any good as a writer?

My response to the first question is that he absolutely belongs here, less as a writer than on account of the earthquake that he caused within the genre by his presence and personality. If there’s one fact that emerges from memoirs and other accounts of the period, it’s that Hubbard made a huge impression on just about every writer he met in the thirties. Campbell, in particular, never got over him, and you could make a strong argument that Hubbard played a greater role in the editor’s inner life than any other writer except for Heinlein—and that includes Asimov. Heinlein was fascinated by him, and although their friendship had its ups and downs, he never ceased to regard Hubbard as anything less than a war hero. (This is especially extraordinary when you consider his own service record. Unlike Campbell, who had never been anywhere close to the military, Heinlein, an Annapolis graduate, wasn’t an easy man to fool, and he might not even have wanted to know the truth. Russell Miller’s biography Bare-Faced Messiah, which did a comprehensive job of debunking Hubbard’s claims about his naval career, was released the year before Heinlein’s death, but according to his widow, Virginia, he never read it.) Asimov was never as close to Hubbard, but he was a fan long before they met, and he was undoubtedly awed by him in person. You could assemble a long list of other writers, from Bradbury to de Camp, who were personally or professionally affected by Hubbard, and the evidence from letters columns and other sources indicate unequivocally that he was popular among fans, particularly in the fantasy magazine Unknown. And this doesn’t even get at the impact of the debut of dianetics, which was arguably the single most significant event in fandom up to that time. It’s frankly impossible to write the story of Campbell and Astounding without devoting significant space to Hubbard’s career.

As for Hubbard’s merits as an author, I’ve written an entire article on the subject, and my conclusions haven’t changed over the last year and a half. (I like to say that I’ve read more of Hubbard’s science fiction and fantasy than anyone who isn’t actually a Scientologist, and I’ve managed to work my way through nearly all of it, with one big exception: I was never able to finish all ten volumes of the Mission Earth dekalogy, and I can’t say that I much regret it.) In discussing his body of work as a fiction writer, I’ve learned to refer to Sturgeon’s Law, which famously states that ninety percent of anything is crud. That’s as true of Hubbard’s work as it is with the rest of the genre, and if anything, his percentage of decent material might even be a little lower. Yet the sheer volume of his output means that a few good stories must exist, and there are a handful that are worth checking out even by casual fans, although I wouldn’t dream of forcing anyone to read them. My personal favorite is Death’s Deputy, a shockingly good fantasy novel from Unknown that, weirdly, remains out of print, even as Galaxy Press cranks out glossy reissues of just about everything else that Hubbard ever wrote. Final Blackout is both historically important and a rare example of Hubbard taking pains with the writing and the plot. Fear hasn’t held up as well, but it remains an influential horror story in the careers of such writers as Bradbury. His fantasy novels and stories are mostly readable and engaging, and even if most of his science fiction is forgettable or worse, he isn’t alone. You could make a pretty strong case that Hubbard was a better pure writer, line for line, than Asimov was before the war. And if the second act of his career had unfolded differently, I suspect that he’d be fondly remembered in the same breath as such writers as van Vogt and de Camp—not quite of the first tier with Heinlein, Asimov, or Sturgeon, but with one or two novels that would still be read with enjoyment by fans today.

And there also seems to be an unsatisfied demand among readers of a certain age to talk about Hubbard’s writing. After my solo event last week in San Jose, I took questions for thirty minutes, and well over half were about Hubbard—and not about the more sordid aspects of his career, but about his writing. Many older fans evidently read him as they might have read, say, Lester del Rey or Eric Frank Russell, and they’ve rarely had a chance to discuss it. I noticed much the same response when I met a few months back with a group of former Scientologists, who were invariably critical of the church itself, but curious to hear my thoughts on Hubbard’s value as a fiction writer. In the past, I’ve pitched panels about Hubbard’s fiction at Worldcon, and I might try again next year in Dublin. (My dream would be to assemble some of the authors who have served as judges for the Writers of the Future competition, which includes a surprisingly large number of prominent names in the field.) I don’t have any interest in rehabilitating Hubbard, or even in returning him into the canon, and as I’ve mentioned before, there are literally dozens of other authors I’d recommend reading first. But his removal from the history of science fiction has left a hole that needs to be filled in order to make sense of how the genre evolved. This blackout is partly the result of embarrassment, or perhaps a reluctance to be mistaken for a supporter of his work in other ways, but it also goes deeper. Because the Church of Scientology persistently overstates Hubbard’s significance, it’s tempting for his critics to go the other way—to insist that he was a con man, a talentless hack, and a failure in human living. Yet he wouldn’t have been able to pull off what he did if he hadn’t managed to impress a lot of people, including Campbell and Heinlein, who weren’t easy to deceive. To make sense of Hubbard at all, it’s necessary to acknowledge and reckon with this uncomfortable fact. But first we need to let him back into the story.

Written by nevalalee

August 23, 2018 at 8:43 am

%d bloggers like this: