Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Jack Williamson

The soul of a new machine

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Over the weekend, I took part in a panel at Windycon titled “Evil Computers: Why Didn’t We Just Pull the Plug?” Naturally, my mind turned to the most famous evil computer in all of fiction, so I’ve been thinking a lot about HAL, which made me all the more sorry to learn yesterday of the death of voice actor Douglas Rain. (Stan Lee also passed away, of course, which is a subject for a later post.) I knew that Rain had been hired to record the part after Stanley Kubrick was dissatisfied by an earlier attempt by Martin Balsam, but I wasn’t aware that the director had a particular model in mind for the elusive quality that he was trying to evoke, as Kate McQuiston reveals in the book We’ll Meet Again:

Would-be HALs included Alistair Cooke and Martin Balsam, who read for the part but was deemed too emotional. Kubrick set assistant Benn Reyes to the task of finding the right actor, and expressly not a narrator, to supply the voice. He wrote, “I would describe the quality as being sincere, intelligent, disarming, the intelligent friend next door, the Winston Hibler/Walt Disney approach. The voice is neither patronizing, nor is it intimidating, nor is it pompous, overly dramatic, or actorish. Despite this, it is interesting. Enough said, see what you can do.” Even Kubrick’s U.S. lawyer, Louis Blau, was among those making suggestions, which included Richard Basehart, José Ferrer, Van Heflin, Walter Pigeon, and Jason Robards. In Douglas Rain, who had experience both as an actor and a narrator, Kubrick found just what he was looking for: “I have found a narrator…I think he’s perfect, he’s got just the right amount of the Winston Hibler, the intelligent friend next door quality, with a great deal of sincerity, and yet, I think, an arresting quality.”

Who was Winston Hibler? He was the producer and narrator for Disney who provided voiceovers for such short nature documentaries as Seal Island, In Beaver Valley, and White Wilderness, and the fact that Kubrick used him as a touchstone is enormously revealing. On one level, the initial characterization of HAL as a reassuring, friendly voice of information has obvious dramatic value, particularly as the situation deteriorates. (It’s the same tactic that led Richard Kiley to figure in both the novel and movie versions of Jurassic Park. And I have to wonder whether Kubrick ever weighed the possibility of hiring Hibler himself, since in other ways, he clearly spared no expense.) But something more sinister is also at play. As I’ve mentioned before, Disney and its aesthetic feels weirdly central to the problem of modernity, with its collision between the sentimental and the calculated, and the way in which its manufactured feeling can lead to real memories and emotion. Kubrick, a famously meticulous director who looked everywhere for insights into craft, seems to have understood this. And I can’t resist pointing out that Hibler did the voiceover for White Wilderness, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short, but also included a scene in which the filmmakers deliberately herded lemmings off a cliff into the water in a staged mass suicide. As Hibler smoothly narrates in the original version: “A kind of compulsion seizes each tiny rodent and, carried along by an unreasoning hysteria, each falls into step for a march that will take them to a strange destiny. That destiny is to jump into the ocean. They’ve become victims of an obsession—a one-track thought: ‘Move on! Move on!’ This is the last chance to turn back, yet over they go, casting themselves out bodily into space.”

And I think that Kubrick’s fixation on Hibler’s voice, along with the version later embodied by Rain, gets at something important about our feelings toward computers and their role in our lives. In 2001, the astronauts are placed in an artificial environment in which their survival depends on the outwardly benevolent HAL, and one of the central themes of science fiction is what happens when this situation expands to encompass an entire civilization. It’s there at the very beginning of the genre’s modern era, in John W. Campbell’s “Twilight,” which depicts a world seven million years in the future in which “perfect machines” provide for our every need, robbing the human race of all initiative. (Campbell would explore this idea further in “The Machine,” and he even offered an early version of the singularity—in which robots learn to build better versions of themselves—in “The Last Evolution.”) Years later, Campbell and Asimov put that relationship at the heart of the Three Laws of Robotics, the first of which states: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” This sounds straightforward enough, but as writers realized almost right away, it hinges on the definition of certain terms, including “human being” and “harm,” that are slipperier than they might seem. Its ultimate expression was Jack Williamson’s story “With Folded Hands,” which carried the First Law to its terrifying conclusion. His superior robots believe that their Prime Directive is to prevent all forms of unhappiness, which prompts them to drug or lobotomize any human beings who seem less than content. As Williamson said much later in an interview with Larry McCaffery: “The notion I was consciously working on specifically came out of a fragment of a story I had worked on for a while about an astronaut in space who is accompanied by a robot obviously superior to him physically…Just looking at the fragment gave me the sense of how inferior humanity is in many ways to mechanical creations.”

Which brings us back to the singularity. Its central assumption was vividly expressed by the mathematician I.J. Good, who also served as a consultant on 2001:

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.

That last clause is a killer, but even if we accept that such a machine would be “docile,” it also embodies the fear, which Campbell was already exploring in the early thirties, of a benevolent dictatorship of machines. And the very Campbellian notion of “the last invention” should be frightening in itself. The prospect of immortality may be enticing, but not if it emerges through a technological singularity that leaves us unprepared to deal with the social consequences, rather than through incremental scientific and medical progress—and the public debate that it ought to inspire—that human beings have earned for themselves. I can’t imagine anything more nightmarish than a world in which we can all live forever without having gone through the necessary ethical, political, and ecological stages to make such a situation sustainable. (When I contemplate living through the equivalent of the last two years over the course of millennia, the notion of eternal life becomes considerably less attractive.) Our fear of computers taking over our lives, whether on a spacecraft or in society as a whole, is really about the surrender of control, even in the benevolent form embodied by Disney. And when I think of the singularity now, I seem to hear it speaking with Winston Hibler’s voice: “Move on! Move on!”

The Men Who Saw Tomorrow, Part 1

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If there’s a single theme that runs throughout my book Astounding, it’s the two sides of the editor John W. Campbell. These days, Campbell tends to be associated with highly technical “hard” science fiction with an emphasis on physics and engineering, but he had an equally dominant mystical side, and from the beginning, you often see the same basic impulses deployed in both directions. (After the memory of his career had faded, much of this history was quietly revised, as Algis Burdrys notes in Benchmarks Revisited: “The strong mystical bent displayed among even the coarsest cigar-chewing technists is conveniently overlooked, and Campbell’s subsequent preoccupation with psionics is seen as an inexplicable deviation from a life of hitherto unswerving straight devotion to what we all agree is reasonability.”) As an undergraduate at M.I.T. and Duke, Campbell was drawn successively to Norbert Wiener, the founder of cybernetics, and Joseph Rhine, the psychologist best known for his statistical studies of telepathy. Both professors fed into his fascination with a possible science of the mind, but along strikingly different lines, and he later pursued both dianetics, which he originally saw as a kind of practical cybernetics, and explorations of psychic powers. Much the same holds true of his other great obsession—the problem of foreseeing the future. As I discuss today in an essay in the New York Times, its most famous manifestation was the notion of psychohistory, the fictional science of prediction in Asimov’s Foundation series. But at a time of global uncertainty, it wasn’t the method of forecasting that counted, but the accuracy of the results, and even as Campbell was collaborating with Asimov, his interest in prophecy was taking him to even stranger places.

The vehicle for the editor’s more mystical explorations was Unknown, the landmark fantasy pulp that briefly channeled these inclinations away from the pages of Astounding. (In my book, I argue that the simultaneous existence of these two titles purified science fiction at a crucial moment, and that the entire genre might have evolved in altogether different ways if Campbell had been forced to express all sides of his personality in a single magazine.) As I noted here the other day, in an attempt to attract a wider audience, Campbell removed the cover paintings from Unknown, hoping to make it look like a more mainstream publication. The first issue with the revised design was dated July 1940, and in his editor’s note, Campbell explicitly addressed the “new discoverers” who were reading the magazine for the first time. He grandly asserted that fantasy represented “a completely untrammeled literary medium,” and as an illustration of the kinds of subjects that he intended to explore in his stories, he offered a revealing example:

Until somebody satisfactorily explains away the unquestionable masses of evidence showing that people do have visions of things yet to come, or of things occurring at far-distant points—until someone explains how Nostradamus, the prophet, predicted things centuries before they happened with such minute detail (as to names of people not to be born for half a dozen generations or so!) that no vague “Oh, vague generalities—things are always happening that can be twisted to fit!” can possibly explain them away—until the time those are docketed and labeled and nearly filed—they belong to The Unknown.

It was Campbell’s first mention in print of Nostradamus, the sixteenth-century French prophet, but it wouldn’t be the last. A few months later, Campbell alluded in another editorial to the Moberly-Jourdain incident, in which two women claimed to have traveled over a century back in time on a visit to the Palace of Versailles. The editor continued: “If it happens one way—how about the other? How about someone slipping from the past to the future? It is known—and don’t condemn till you’ve read a fair analysis of the old man’s works—that Nostradamus, the famous French prophet, did not guess at what might happen; he recorded what did happen—before it happened. His accuracy of prophecy runs considerably better, actually, than the United States government crop forecasts, in percentage, and the latter are certainly used as a basis for business.” Campbell then drew a revealing connection between Nostradamus and the war in Europe:

Incidentally, to avoid disappointment, Nostradamus did not go into much detail about this period. He was writing several hundred years ago, for people of that time—and principally for Parisians. He predicted in some detail the French Revolution, predicted several destructions of Paris—which have come off on schedule, to date—and did not predict destruction of Paris for 1940. He did, however, for 1999—by a “rain of fire from the East.” Presumably he didn’t have any adequate terms for airplane bombs, so that may mean thermite incendiaries. But the present period, too many centuries from his own times, would be of minor interest to him, and details are sketchy. The prophecy goes up to about the thirty-fifth century.

And the timing was highly significant. Earlier that year, Campbell had published the nonfiction piece “The Science of Whithering” by L. Sprague de Camp in Astounding, shortly after German troops marched into Paris. De Camp’s article, which discussed the work of such cyclical historians as Spengler and Toynbee, represented the academic or scientific approach the problem of forecasting, and it would soon find its fictional expression in such stories as Jack Williamson’s “Breakdown” and Asimov’s “Foundation.” As usual, however, Campbell was playing both sides, and he was about to pursue a parallel train of thought in Unknown that has largely been forgotten. Instead of attempting to explain Nostradamus in rational terms, Campbell ventured a theory that was even more fantastic than the idea of clairvoyance:

Occasionally a man—vanishes…And somehow, he falls into another time. Sometimes future—sometimes past. And sometimes he comes back, sometimes he doesn’t. If he does come back, there’d be a tendency, and a smart one, to shut up; it’s mighty hard to prove. Of course, if he’s a scholarly gentlemen, he might spend his unintentional sojourn in the future reading histories of his beloved native land. Then, of course, he ought to be pretty accurate at predicting revolutions and destruction of cities. Even be able to name inconsequential details, as Nostradamus did.

To some extent, this might have been just a game that he was playing for his readers—but not completely. Campbell’s interest in Nostradamus was very real, and just as he had used Williamson and Asimov to explore psychohistory, he deployed another immensely talented surrogate to look into the problem of prophecy. His name was Anthony Boucher. I’ll be exploring this in greater detail tomorrow.

Note: Please join me today at 12:00pm ET for a Twitter AMA to celebrate the release of the fantastic new horror anthology Terror at the Crossroads, which includes my short story “Cryptids.”

The puzzle in the picture

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The wonderful thing about a field like [science fiction] is that there is room for lots of different people and approaches…People can write with varying degrees of literary sophistication and find readers enough to support them. I have always attempted to make my own SF accessible to my readers, to work from the familiar and make it easy for anyone who was interested to get into the story. Maybe because of my own background of writing commercial SF for so many years, I have a great deal of respect for good craftsmanship of the sort that commercial writers must develop. The labels you hear so much of—”commercial,” “serious writer,” “mainstream,” “hack,” “New Wave,” “experimental”—are usually very misleading. No matter how “serious” the intentions of authors are, they can’t communicate anything without craftsmanship…

I am opposed, however, to literary tricks that tend towards obscurity or artificial difficulty, though I can see arguments for that kind of approach. My own experience as a teacher of writing confirms my sense that new authors with artistic ambitions may find themselves scorning too many of the old forms and patterns simply because they blindly associate them with hack work. The point is that these patterns and structures form the basic vocabulary through which all SF writers must speak. That’s one reason I’m not completely sympathetic with contemporary writers like Silverberg and Chip Delany and Tom Disch, who are clearly aiming to get themselves recognized as “serious” or mainstream authors. I still feel that in terms of developing a literary reputation, the odds remain with the writer who is writing for the mass audience, the way Shakespeare or Dickens or Dostoyevsky were.

I once listened to an artist from Taos who deliberately painted puzzles into his pictures because he thought that if people would stand and look at them, trying to understand them, he would have a longer time to work on their emotions; whereas, if they understood everything at a glance, they would go on to the next picture. To some extent, the same sort of thing can happen in literature. If you can create the kinds of puzzles that will draw readers into your work rather than making them move on to the next one, this can be a legitimate approach. On the other hand, I’ve always preferred the artist who paints a canvas whose beauty is more or less obvious at first glance—but which keeps drawing you back for another look.

Jack Williamson, in an interview with Larry McCaffery in Science Fiction Studies

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August 22, 2018 at 9:18 am

The Heirs of Sputnik

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Earlier this morning, it was announced that the Nobel Peace Prize had been awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, in recognition of “its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its groundbreaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons.” The award also happens to coincide with the sixtieth anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, which occurred earlier this week. I haven’t seen any attempt yet to draw a connection between these two events, but there was a time in which they would have been seen as inextricably entwined. These days, we tend to think of Sputnik, in the words of The Onion, as a “bleeping two-foot tin ball,” but it was regarded by its contemporaries, and not without reason, as a sinister development. On October 9, 1957, Robert A. Heinlein wrote to his friend Buddy Scoles:

I am very shook up…On the basis of payload and performance…it appeared that [the Russians] had solved the problem of precision positioning and that it must be assumed that we were sitting ducks…Everybody from the president on down was caught flat-footed by a degree of Russian engineering achievement we had not suspected they were capable of.

Heinlein had been called earlier that day by a local paper looking for a comment. He didn’t pull any punches: “I told the press that if the Russians could put that payload in that orbit then it seemed extremely likely that they could hit us anywhere they wanted to with warheads—and any time, depending on whether they had the hardware on the shelf or had to stop to build it.”

Almost exactly six months later, on April 5, 1958, Heinlein was shaken awake by his wife Ginny, who showed him a newspaper advertisement calling for a unilateral halt to nuclear testing. (It was placed by the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, which was founded by the editors Lenore Marshall and Norman Cousins and counted Martin Luther King, Jr. among its supporters.) Heinlein, who didn’t trust the Soviet Union to participate in any treaty in good faith, wrote his own ad in response, titling it “Who Are the Heirs of Patrick Henry?” He strongly hinted that the ban’s proponents, including Eleanor Roosevelt and the psychiatrist Erich Fromm, were serving as instruments, knowingly or otherwise, of communist propaganda:

The Communists are again using our own people to try to shame or scare us into throwing our weapons away…Those who have signed this manifesto have made their choice; consciously or unconsciously they prefer enslavement to death. Such is their right and we do not argue with them—we speak to you who are still free in your souls.

Ginny warned him: “You do realize, if we run this ad, we’re going to lose half our friends in town?” Heinlein went ahead and sent copies to everyone he knew, but the response was lukewarm. John W. Campbell was skeptical of the effort, expressing his reasoning in characteristic terms: “Your newspaper ads aren’t going to do much good, Bob, because the Common Man is in control…and he’s quite incapable of understanding the complexities of the systems he’s controlling.” One of the few positive responses came from Edward Teller, who wrote of their gesture of support: “Yours is the first one. Yours is the only one.”

Isaac Asimov, who later called Teller “my idea of a scientific villain,” was in favor of the ban. A few years earlier, in 1955, he had written an article titled “The Radioactivity of the Human Body” for the Journal of Chemical Education, which described—for the first time in print—the risks of exposure to the radioactive isotope carbon-14. In his memoir In Joy Still Felt, he recalled its surprising afterlife:

Nearly four years later, Linus Pauling published a paper in the November 14, 1958 Science that discussed the dangers of carbon-14 in a careful and systematic way. I’m sure Pauling’s article played its part in the eventual agreement on the part of the three chief nuclear powers to suspend atmospheric testing, for Pauling was one of the most prominent and influential critics of such tests, and he used the production of carbon-14 in such tests as one of its chief long-term dangers.

Asimov didn’t want to get into a dispute with Pauling over priority, but he sent him a reprint of the original article with a note attached. Pauling thanked him and replied: “I now remember that I had read the paper when it appeared…but I had forgotten about it, except that without doubt the principal argument remained in my mind.” Asimov concluded in his autobiography: “I don’t want to arrogate to myself too much importance, of course, but I think it is fair to say that I may indeed have influenced Professor Pauling, and that through him I therefore played a very small part in bringing about the nuclear test ban—and I’m delighted.” And as far as I can tell, he never discussed the issue with Heinlein.

The Patrick Henry campaign managed to put only five hundred signatures on President Eisenhower’s desk, at a cost of two dollars for every name, and its most lasting legacy was to harden Heinlein’s feelings toward what he perceived as leftist resistance to national security. (Of the hundreds of writers and editors to whom he sent letters, most never responded, and only a few, including Jack Williamson, expressed their support. And the most obvious result was the novel Starship Troopers, which Heinlein seems to have written in part as a deliberate provocation to his critics.) In retrospect, it’s easy to say that Heinlein was on the wrong side of history, but it was far from obvious at the time. At the start of the campaign, Heinlein wrote to Blassingame:

I don’t really expect World War III. I think we are going to go under through capitulations, the way Czechoslovakia did. I think we will suspend nuclear weapons testing, in response to “World Opinion,” after this present series this summer—and I don’t think we will ever set off another nuclear explosion. Then, after some years of apparent peace and good will, when we have effectively disarmed, something will happen…which will really annoy us. When we object, we will be handed an ultimatum—and it will turn out that we no longer have the potential to win. And we will surrender.

Sixty years later, we’re in much the same position, down to the sarcastic quotes around “World Opinion,” even if the names of some of the players have changed. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons was honored for its part in supporting a treaty to ban such weapons that was adopted earlier this year by the United Nations. Not surprisingly, the United States and the world’s other nuclear powers all boycotted the negotiations, with ambassador Nikki Haley saying: “We have to be realistic. Is there anyone who thinks that North Korea would ban nuclear weapons?” Sputnik, let’s not forget, means “traveling companion.” And even after six decades, that bleeping tin ball—and the rockets that launched it—accompanies us wherever we go.

The First Foundation, Part 3

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In the fall of 1941, John W. Campbell of Astounding Science Fiction found himself in an enviable position. Two of his writers—Jack Williamson and Isaac Asimov—had come to him independently with the idea of a series of stories based on the rise and fall of a Galactic Empire, which would provide the perfect background for one of the editor’s pet notions, the development of a true science of history. At first, he seemed happy to let the two of them work on the problem simultaneously. Asimov had once asked him: “How can you bear not to write?” Campbell replied enthusiastically: “I discovered something better, Asimov. I’m an editor…When I was a writer, I could only write one story at a time. Now I can write fifty stories at a time. There are fifty writers out there writing stories they’ve talked with me about. There are fifty stories I’m working on.” As Asimov recalled years later:

That was the way he saw us all. We were extensions of himself; we were his literary clones; each of us doing, in his or her own way, things Campbell felt needed doing; things that he could do but not quite the way we could; things that got done in fifty different varieties of ways.

On another occasion, Campbell clarified his position: “When I give an idea to a writer and it comes back to me exactly the way I gave it to him, I don’t give that writer any more ideas. I don’t want it my way; I can do that myself. I want my idea his way.” And when he set both Asimov and Williamson to work on the theme of the cycles of galactic civilizations, he may have been hoping that each writer would deliver a different take on a premise that could go in any number of directions.

Campbell often farmed out the same idea to multiple writers, both to get a variety of stories and as a kind of insurance policy to increase the odds that at least one author would follow through, and in this case, it turned out to be a shrewd decision. After writing “Breakdown,” which had been conceived as the first installment of a series, Williamson became stuck. As he recounts in his memoir Wonder’s Child:

Encouraged by the way [“Breakdown”] went, I planned a sequel. I called that Star of Empire. It was to carry the same historic theme to a larger scale, picturing the fall of a vast interstellar civilization. By early fall, with pages enough—certainly with content enough—I could see that it was going badly wrong, though the reasons baffled me.

Williamson shared his concerns with Campbell, who responded in an important letter dated October 7, 1941. Noting that the genre was changing rapidly, Campbell advised Williamson—one of the few writers of the old guard to make the transition—to think about rebranding himself, perhaps with the use of a pen name:

If you gave yourself a clean-cut break, became a wholly new personality—your own, present, fully developed personality—your whole psychology of approach would be entirely different…When you write as a different person, you half-consciously throw out elements of your old style…You’re starting now on a completely new type of material…Start a new—your own present—personality to tell it.

Williamson responded that the idea of a pseudonym was “worth thinking over,” and he confessed that he was still having trouble with Star of Empire. Campbell advised him to set it aside for now: “You’ll probably get more and better work done when things begin to stick.” It proved to be good advice. But when you read between the lines, you can see that Campbell was also gently nudging Williamson away from the series that they had discussed. By then, Asimov had already written “Foundation,” which was submitted on September 8 and accepted almost immediately. Asimov had intuitively attacked the theme from a different angle, and in many ways, his approach was more promising. Instead of starting on earth in the near future, as Williamson had done in “Breakdown,” “Foundation” was set tens of thousands of years from now, in an empire with a population in the quadrillions, which provided the necessary mass of humanity for the statistical equations of psychohistory. (It was also an all-human galaxy, with no aliens, which Asimov later attributed to a desire to avoid Campbell’s racially charged attempts to demonstrate mankind’s superiority over extraterrestrials. But it’s equally true that it allowed him to deal only with human psychology, and that adding intelligent aliens to the mix might have made psychohistory, already a tenuous conceit, totally unworkable.) Asimov’s love of puzzles was more suited to the spirit of psychohistory, which was about posing a problem and revealing a solution, while Williamson still thought in the old, vigorous pulp terms. Most of all, Williamson was thirty-three years old, set in his ways, and living in New Mexico, while Asimov was a decade younger, compliant, and conveniently nearby in Brooklyn. If Campbell wanted to affect the course of the series, it was obvious which of these two writers would be the better vehicle.

A decade later, Williamson reworked the sequel to “Breakdown” as The Star Bridge with James Gunn, but the whole incident stands as a notable example of Campbell steering writers in one direction or another, based on where their strengths seemed to lie. (He and Williamson ended up working on three stories about antimatter, with the author writing under the pen name Will Stewart—a nod to Campbell’s old pseudonym Don A. Stuart—and the editor providing the technical background. Unlike the Foundation series, it was a collaboration that could be conducted by mail.) Asimov, in turn, was the best choice imaginable to explore psychohistory, and the stakes were about to become very high. Campbell believed that technology had introduced a new factor into history, as L. Sprague de Camp wrote in the article “The Science of Whithering”:

Societies may have behaved in a cyclic fashion until the Machine introduced such a powerful new linear factor as to start us off on a new course of historical development…There are reasons for believing that machine technology has broken whatever cyclical series existed, largely because people seem to remember and profit by experience in technical development much more than they do in political and social development.

The notion that mankind was entering a new era, characterized by an accelerating rate of change, was central to Campbell’s vision of science fiction, and psychohistory was one way of dealing with the challenges that it presented. Asimov’s motivations were far more personal, and they go a long way toward explaining why he was the right man for the job, even if he never shared his true feelings with Campbell. In an interview with Gunn in 1979, Asimov said: “I’d been living through the Hitler era in the 1930s, where no matter what anyone did, Hitler kept winning victories, and the only way that I could possibly find life bearable at the time was to convince myself that no matter what he did, he was doomed to defeat in the end. That he couldn’t win.” Gunn said: “Psychohistory is against it.” And Asimov responded: “That’s right.”

The First Foundation, Part 2

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

—Private Willis, Iolanthe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The First Foundation, Part 1

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On April 16, 1941, a highly regarded science fiction author wrote a letter to the editor John W. Campbell. “Besides some shorter material, I should like to do another serial for Astounding,” the writer said, and he described what he had in mind in considerable detail:

I’m interested in theories of the growth and decay of cultures…It would be interesting, I think, to show the logical culmination of that process in an interstellar civilization. Super-perfect transportation enables the human race to concentrate in a single megalopolis—“The Ultimate City,” or “N.” It is a tremendous artificial structure, larger than a planet. Its rulers enjoy sophistication and splendor…The story would deal with a group of characters during the fall of N. Reflections of Salammbô, the fall of Rome, the Reformation, the French and American Revolutions. The battle of a few individuals to find independence, to found a new world…I don’t know as much as I would like of the philosophy of culture-cycles. Perhaps I’ll dip a little further into Spengler—if the available libraries turn out to have Decline of the West.

You might reasonably think that this writer was Isaac Asimov, whose story “Foundation” appeared in the magazine the following May—but it wasn’t. It was Jack Williamson, whose letter crossed Campbell’s desk months before Asimov made his own pitch. Williamson’s interest in “the growth and decay of cultures” led to a pair of stories, “Backlash” and “Breakdown,” that anticipated the Foundation series, but which have been almost totally forgotten. And question of why we’re still talking about Asimov’s version, while Williamson’s efforts quickly fell into relative obscurity, amounts to one of the most intriguing problems from the whole history of the golden age.

We can begin by observing that the concept of psychohistory—or a psychological science that can accurately predict future events on a mass scale—was one that Campbell had been developing for a long time. The year before, he had published an article by L. Sprague de Camp titled “The Science of Whithering,” which ran in two parts starting in the July 1940 issue of Astounding. De Camp provided an overview of such philosophers of history as Hegel, Marx, Spengler, and Toynbee, and he also outlined the ideal attributes of such a science:

If there were such a science, what would it be like? It would have a body of observable facts, and would overlap with history, anthropology, sociology, economics, vital statistics, and perhaps one or two other sciences. Students of the science should be able to observe uniformities among these facts, deduce laws from these uniformities, and from the laws make predictions that are later borne out by observation.

De Camp concluded: “Let us encourage the fascinating study of whithering, in the hope that it will grow up from its present embryonic state into a big, healthy science.” A few months earlier, Heinlein had proposed a science of propaganda in his landmark novella “If This Goes On—,” which, combined with Asimov’s “Homo Sol,” prompted a fan named Lynn Bridges to presciently identify a trend toward “sociological science fiction.” Campbell and his authors were also taking an interest in “mathematical psychology,” which applied such methods on an individual scale. Asimov described the use of elaborate equations to predict behavior in the short story “The Imaginary,” which Campbell rejected, and he wrote in a letter to the magazine: “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.” And Campbell responded: “Psychology isn’t an exact science—but it can be.”

Fusing these two concepts together into a single story was the next logical step, and while Williamson wasn’t the earliest writer to allude to such ideas, he may have been the first to explicitly pitch a serial around it. He said in an interview years later:

I had read Spengler’s Decline of the West and several volumes of Toynbee’s study of history. Toynbee appealed to me because of his “challenge and response” notion, derived from the stimulus response theory of psychology, which enabled him to make his cultures or civilizations into entities that had regular, predictable lifetimes. This was plausible to him and to a lot of people studying history at the time. It created the possibility that one might be able to get a kind of handle on the future—an idea I could see could be applied as a means of forecasting a future history. So I based “Breakdown” on Spengler and Toynbee, and I wrote a drama of the decline and fall of a future civilization. It seemed obvious that since people seem so endlessly fascinated with the eclipse of Greece and the fall of Rome, the notion of our own civilization falling into ruin would naturally have a similarly strong emotional appeal.

Before “Breakdown,” Williamson wrote and sold “Backlash,” a routine time travel story that reveals traces of the same train of thought. As one character says: “Years ago, when we saw the totalitarian storm sweeping the world, we planned the Pantechnicon to protect one seed of civilization…It’s hidden here. A scientific Shangri-La, to be a lamp of culture through the dark age ahead.” This sounds a lot like Asimov’s Foundation. In his autobiography Wonder’s Child, Williamson dismisses the story as “undistinguished,” and its familiar notion of changing the present by targeting a “node” in the past—which Williamson himself had explored in “The Legion of Time”—is far less interesting than the idea of forecasting the future. But it was still on newsstands on August 1, 1941, when Asimov came to Campbell with his proposal for a story about the decline and fall of a Galactic Empire, and it’s hard not to believe that it was on both men’s minds.

Williamson’s novelette “Breakdown,” which appeared at the end of the year in the January 1942 issue, is even more noteworthy. As the earth is consumed by the flames of revolution, a character named Melkart, a more sinister Hari Seldon, grimly tells the ruler of all mankind: “You have made the solar system into a laboratory for the test of my politicotechnic theories.” And when asked if he understands what is taking place, Melkart responds:

I’ve known for thirty years…Old Giovanni Vico had a glimmer of it, with his “law of cycles,” back in the seventeen hundreds. Spengler and Toynbee glimpsed it. Sprague, later, saw farther. But it remained to me to reduce the laws of the rise and fall of human cultures to the exact science that I call destiny.

Melkart, notably, is unable to change the course of history—he can only predict it. “Breakdown” ends with the ruler escaping the planet to found “a tiny seed of civilization” among the stars, of which Williamson writes in Wonder’s Child:

The story sprang from my fascination that Arnold Toynbee’s notion that civilizations are super-organisms with lifespans of centuries. As I adapted the idea, the life of every culture is its own historic purpose…In my story, that vitalizing purpose had been the human conquest of the solar system; with the conquest complete, its destiny fulfilled, the space empire breaks down. I felt a sense of truth in that, and enjoyed the sense of tragic drama. Encouraged by the way it went, I planned a sequel.

But the sequel was never published, at least not in Astounding, and in the meantime, Asimov’s “Foundation” had appeared. Tomorrow, I’ll delve further into the issue of why one man’s vision was eclipsed by the other, and the surprising light that this sheds on the tangled origins of psychohistory.

Fear of a female planet

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The Legion of Time

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

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

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

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

"The Door into Summer" by Robert A. Heinlein

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

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

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

The science fiction election

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Donald Trump

On July 18, 2015, Nate Cohn of The New York Times published a blog post titled “The Trump Campaign’s Turning Point.” Here are the first three paragraphs, which I suspect Cohn himself might prefer we forget:

Donald Trump’s surge in the polls has followed the classic pattern of a media-driven surge. Now it will most likely follow the classic pattern of a party-backed decline.

Mr. Trump’s candidacy probably reached an inflection point on Saturday after he essentially criticized John McCain for being captured during the Vietnam War. Republican campaigns and elites quickly moved to condemn his comments—a shift that will probably mark the moment when Trump’s candidacy went from boom to bust.

His support will erode as the tone of coverage shifts from publicizing his anti-establishment and anti-immigration views, which have some resonance in the party, to reflecting the chorus of Republican criticism of his most outrageous comments and the more liberal elements of his record.

Needless to say, Cohn was slightly off here, and he recently wrote a long mea culpa that attempted to explain why he got it so wrong. But I remember being surprised by the tone of the post even at the time. Statements like “Mr. Trump’s candidacy probably reached an inflection point” and “his support will erode as the tone of coverage shifts” seemed weirdly overconfident in advance of any hard numbers, particularly for a blog that was openly designed to mimic the data-driven approach pioneered by Nate Silver. The phrase “inflection point,” in particular, seemed odd: Cohn was describing a graph that didn’t exist, as if the curve were already before his eyes. But I also understand the impulse. The desire to predict the future is central to all political coverage, even if it’s unstated: the twists and turns of a campaign inevitably come down to the outcome of a few binary moments, and whenever a journalist reports on an incident, the implication is that it matters in ways that will translate into real votes—otherwise, why bother? Unfortunately, amid the noise of the primary and general elections, it can be hard to figure out which events are truly significant. If there’s one thing that we’ve learned this year, it’s that the issues, controversies, and personality traits that the media thought would have an impact ended up not mattering much at all. But the fact that so many journalists—who have a huge incentive to at least appear to be right—were so mistaken about Trump won’t stop them from continuing to make predictions. It certainly hasn’t so far.

The Simpsons episode "Citizen Kang"

Yet there’s another, equally strong inclination that serves, at least in theory, to counterbalance the incentive to predict: the need to create a compelling narrative. A few days ago, David Roberts of Vox wrote a depressing but, I think, fundamentally accurate piece on how media coverage of the upcoming election is likely to unfold. Here are his main points:

There will be a push to lift Donald Trump up and bring Hillary Clinton down, until they are at least something approximating two equivalent choices. It’s not a conspiracy; it won’t be coordinated. It doesn’t need to be. It’s just a process of institutions, centers of power and influence, responding to the incentive structure that’s evolved around them. The U.S. political ecosystem needs this election to be competitive…

The campaign press requires, for its ongoing health and advertising revenue, a real race. It needs controversies. “Donald Trump is not fit to be president” may be the accurate answer to pretty much every relevant question about the race, but it’s not an interesting answer. It’s too final, too settled. No one wants to click on it.

I think he’s right, and that there’s going to be significant pressure in the media to turn this election into a case of Kang vs. Kodos. But it’s also worth pointing out that the two impulses we’re discussing here—to predict the future with apparent accuracy and to create a narrative of equivalency where none exists—are fundamentally incompatible. So how can a journalist who needs to crank out a story on a daily basis for the next six months possibly manage to do both?

As it happens, there’s a literary genre that depends on writers being able to navigate that very contradiction. Science fiction has always prided itself on its predictive abilities, and with as little justification as most political pundits: when it’s right about the future, it’s usually by accident. But the need to seem prescient is still there, if only as a narrative strategy. The genre also needs to tell engaging stories, however, and you’ll often find cases in which one impulse, excuse me, trumps the other, as Jack Williamson notes in an observation that I never tire of quoting:

The average author is more stage magician, a creator of convincing illusions, than scientist or serious prophet. In practice, once you’re into the process of actually writing a work of fiction, the story itself gets to be more important than futurology. You become more involved in following the fictional logic you’ve invented for your characters, the atmosphere, the rush of action; meanwhile, developing real possibilities recedes. You may find yourself even opting for the least probable event rather than the most probable, simply because you want the unexpected.

Replace a few of the relevant nouns, and this is as good a description of political journalism as any I’ve ever seen. In both cases, writers feel obliged to cobble together an implausible but exciting narrative with what seems like predictive accuracy. It’s something that both readers and voters ought to keep in mind over the next year. Because if you think that this election already seems like science fiction, you’re even more right than you know.

Written by nevalalee

May 10, 2016 at 8:40 am

Astounding Stories #3: “The Legion of Time”

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The Legion of Time

Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

When we talk about the golden age of anything, it’s always tempting to give it a definitive beginning and end. You often hear, for instance, that the golden age of science fiction officially commenced with the July 1939 issue of Astounding, which included debut stories from A.E. van Vogt and Isaac Asimov and was followed a month later by the first appearance in print of Robert A. Heinlein. Similarly, it’s convenient to say that it ended in May 1950, with the publication in the same magazine of L. Ron Hubbard’s article “Dianetics: The Evolution of a Science.” These are neat, plausible boundaries, but you could easily make the case that the beginning, the ending, or both deserve to be placed somewhere else. It’s equally reasonable to state that the real turning point wasn’t the debut of any particular author, but the promotion of John W. Campbell to a position of true editorial control, which occurred sometime around March 1938. Others have claimed that the golden age abruptly ended with the entry of the United States into World War II, which scattered the magazine’s core group of writers far and wide. Robert Silverberg, among others, has convincingly argued that the fifties were the actual golden age, and that the years from 1939 onward were “more like a false dawn.” And while such divisions are always a little arbitrary, they’re a valuable way of organizing our thinking about how the genre has grown and changed.

My own views on the subject are still evolving, but I’m ready to make one statement: any definition of the golden age that doesn’t include “The Legion of Time” by Jack Williamson is necessarily incomplete. It was initially published as a three-part serial starting in May 1938, so it falls outside the window mentioned above, but it’s such a transformative story that part of me believes that it inaugurated the golden age all on its own. And Campbell himself sensed this at the time. We first hear about it in an editorial note in March, in which Campbell, clearly excited, says that Williamson has submitted an outline for a story then called “The Legion of Probability” that he expects will be sensational. In the following issue, he announces that the novella is as just as good as he had hoped, and that it will stand as the first of a series of “mutant” stories in Astounding that will push the whole genre into new directions. What sets it apart, in his eyes, is a novel conception of time travel: the idea that two or more alternate futures might exist simultaneously, based on the outcome of a single pivotal moment in the past, and that these opposing universes—which can’t interact with each other directly—could engage in a struggle for existence by seeking to influence events in our present. It’s a great premise, and as Campbell observes, it could generate hundreds of different plots.

Jack Williamson

But what really sets “The Legion of Time” apart is the sheer energy and inventiveness of the story it tells. It opens with Dennis Lanning, a man from our own time, being contacted by two beautiful women, Lethonee and Sorainya, from alternate futures in which the existence of one depends on the destruction of the other. In some unknown way, the actions that Lanning will take—we aren’t told how—will determine which of the two will survive. We soon learn that Lethonee’s civilization is basically good, while Sorainya’s is basically evil, but Lanning remains powerfully attracted to both. This might sound like a case of Betty and Veronica on a cosmic scale, but Williamson cleverly plays with Lanning’s dilemma, which persists even after he realizes that Sorainya is really the warrior queen of a kingdom of gigantic ants. And what I love about the result is how vigorously Williamson exploits the conventions of pulp science fiction in service of his unforgettable premise. He gives us such narrative delights as a team of heroes, plucked out of our reality at the moment of death, helming a ghost ship called the Chronion across oceans of time; an epic, gory siege on a palace in which an army of ant men is mowed down in a hail of machine-gun fire; an escape from a dungeon that involves carving a key from the skeleton of its previous occupant; and the moment in which we learn that the future of humanity depends on whether or not a young boy in the Ozarks notices a tiny object lying in the grass.

And “The Legion of Time” feels like a hinge point in itself. It’s squarely in the tradition of the adventure stories that Astounding had been publishing up to that point, and it gives us all the pulpy pleasures and more that the magazine had led fans to expect, but in its attention to character, its wealth of ideas, and its emotional charge, it represents a high point that the genre wouldn’t touch again until Heinlein’s “If This Goes On—” appeared almost two years later. When Lanning, his mission accomplished, returns at last to the future he has created and discovers that Lethonee and Sorainya have been mysteriously fused into the same woman, the effect is unbelievably satisfying. And “The Legion of Time” itself reads like the superimposition of two possible futures for science fiction, one of which pushed deeper into the hairbreadth escapes and pitched space battles that had typified the whole genre, often gloriously, while the other developed a new respect for atmosphere, character, and visionary ideas. Either one might have been wonderful, and in fact, Astounding would continue to pursue both ideals for years to come. But in “The Legion of Time,” the seeds of both are visible, and the clues it provided to Campbell and his circle of writers would yield dividends over the next decade. There may never be a consensus over where the golden age begins or ends, and there probably shouldn’t be. But I think it starts here.

The space between us

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Elizabeth Kolbert

Last year, Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker published a skeptical article about the various proposals to put human beings on Mars. Kolbert, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her excellent book The Sixth Extinction, is inclined—as many of us are—to regard such projects as Mars One as the province of hucksters and crackpots, but she’s also doubtful of the entire idea of planetary colonization itself. Taking note of the Fermi Paradox, which asks why we haven’t seen any evidence of the alien life that logic says should be all around us, Kolbert suggests that the lack of visible signs of intelligent activity isn’t due to some unavoidable cataclysm that swallows up all civilizations or a mysterious resolve to remain invisible, but the result of a sensible focus elsewhere: “Perhaps the reason we haven’t met any alien beings is that those which survive aren’t the type to go zipping around the galaxy. Maybe they’ve stayed quietly at home, tending their own gardens.” Kolbert concludes that the idea of sending people to Mars “is either fantastically far-fetched or deeply depressing.” When I read those words six months ago, something in me rebelled against them on a fundamental level: I wasn’t ready to give up on that dream. But at some point in recent days, I realized that I’d changed my mind, and that I now agree with Kolbert. I no longer think that we have any business going to Mars. At least not yet.

And I’ve arrived at this conclusion not despite my background in science fiction, but because of it. One of the smartest observations ever made about the genre comes courtesy of the great Jack Williamson, who once said:

The average [science fiction] author is more stage magician, a creator of convincing illusions, than scientist or serious prophet. In practice, once you’re into the process of actually writing a work of fiction, the story itself gets to be more important than futurology. You become more involved in following the fictional logic you’ve invented for your characters, the atmosphere, the rush of action; meanwhile, developing real possibilities recedes. You may find yourself even opting for the least probable event rather than the most probable, simply because you want the unexpected.

This certainly squares with my own experience as a writer. And that last sentence applies not just to the plots of individual stories but to the conventions of science fiction as a whole. When we think of science fiction, we tend to think first of manned space flight, which means that it’s also inextricably tied up with our vision of our “real” future. But when you look at that assumption more closely, it falls apart. Why, exactly, should we assume that space will be an integral part of our destiny as a species? And why did science fiction try so hard to convince us that it would be?

Jack Williamson

The real answer lies in Williamson’s shrewd observation: “The story itself gets to be more important than futurology.” When science fiction reemerged as a viable genre in the late twenties and early thirties, it was essentially a subcategory of men’s adventure fiction, with ray guns substituted for revolvers. Many of the stories it told could easily have been translated into earthly terms, and space was less important in itself than as the equivalent of the unexplored frontier of the western: it stood for the unknown, and it was a perfect backdrop for exciting plots. Later, however, under the guidance of editors like F. Orlin Tremaine and John W. Campbell of Astounding Science Fiction, the genre began to take itself more seriously as futurology—but with outer space grandfathered in as a setting, even if it had little to do with any plausible vision of things to come. Space exploration began to seem like an essential part of our shared future because it happened to be part of the genre already, for reasons that had less to do with serious speculation than with a writer’s need to keep the pages turning. And it takes a real effort of the imagination, now that science fiction seems so inevitable, to see how arbitrary that emphasis really was, and how so much of it depends on what Campbell, in particular, happened to find interesting. (As Bruce Sterling put it: “There has never been another editor of [Campbell’s] stature who would sort of come in and say, ‘All right, you guys are going to do it my way—and here is like a series of things we’re going to write about: robots, psi, space travel. And here’s a bunch of stuff we’re not going to write about: women, black people, drugs.'”)

And trying to shape our future based on decisions made by an army of pulp writers, no matter how talented, strikes me now as quixotic, in the original sense of the term. As Umberto Eco says in Foucault’s Pendulum: “People don’t get the idea of going back to burn Troy just because they read Homer.” In reality, our future is already taking a very different form: grounded on this planet, founded on information, and mindful of the fragility of our predicament right here. And it’s time that we grudgingly recognized this. This doesn’t mean that we need to give up on the dream of putting a person on Mars: only that we detach it, gently but firmly, from the idea of our collective destiny, and restore it to its proper place as a kind of interesting side project. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter if we do it in the next fifty years or the next five hundred, especially when there are so many other problems that require our attention right now. (The longing to see it happen in our own lifetimes is understandable, but also a little selfish.) Our efforts to explore and understand space itself are vital and elevating, as the recent flurry of excitement over a potential Planet Nine reminds us, but devoting billions of dollars to placing a human being on a spacecraft—simply because a few good writers seized our imagination decades ago—seems misguided at best, irresponsible at worst. If we really want to explore the unknown for the sake of our souls, there’s always the deep sea, or Antarctica, which would confer the same spiritual benefits at far less of a cost. And while there may not be life on Mars, now or ever, we can still allow ourselves to hope for a life beyond it.

A choice of futures

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Jack Williamson

A plausible impossibility is always preferable to an improbable possibility.


Yesterday, I was reading an interview with the legendary science fiction author Jack Williamson when I came across a statement that struck a nerve. When asked about the genre’s supposed ability to predict the future, Williamson replied:

The average [science fiction] author is more stage magician, a creator of convincing illusions, than scientist or serious prophet. In practice, once you’re into the process of actually writing a work of fiction, the story itself gets to be more important than futurology. You become more involved in following the fictional logic you’ve invented for your characters, the atmosphere, the rush of action; meanwhile, developing real possibilities recedes. You may find yourself even opting for the least probable event rather than the most probable, simply because you want the unexpected.

This resonated with me, because I often feel the same way about my own fiction. I’m not all that interested in extrapolating future trends for their own sake, mostly because I feel that other writers are better at it: instead, I’m more drawn to stories that put known facts into surprising juxtapositions that lend themselves to a final twist. And in practice, this often means that the plot turns on a highly unlikely combination of factors that I needed to make that particular story possible. (See “The Boneless One,” “Kawataro,” and just about everything else I’ve ever written.)

Obviously, I try to conceal any underlying improbabilities from the reader, mostly by following what I’ve called the anthropic principle of fiction, in which a story’s setting and basic premises are chosen to enable the twist, rather than the other way around. There’s no denying that there’s an element of sleight of hand involved, and you could even argue that it could be dangerous, especially when the requirements of an entertaining plot are confused with science fiction’s reputation for accurate predictions. As the great semanticist S.I. Hayakawa wrote in an early review of L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics:

I have long felt that there are dangers to the writer as well as to the reader in pulp fiction. It did not occur to me until I read Dianetics to try to analyze the special dangers entailed in the profession of science-fiction writing. The art consists in concealing from the reader, for novelistic purposes, the distinctions between established scientific facts, almost-established scientific hypotheses, scientific conjectures, and imaginative extrapolations far beyond what has even been conjectured. The danger of this technique lies in the fact that, if the writer of science-fiction writes too much of it too fast and too glibly and is not endowed from the beginning with a high degree of semantic self-insight…he may eventually succeed in concealing the distinction between his facts and his imaginings from himself.

Tom Cruise in Minority Report

But we aren’t worried that an author of mystery novels, say, will become so enamored of his account of a perfect crime that he’ll feel obliged to carry it out himself. Science fiction, at least of the hard variety, differs from similar genres in that much of its appeal arises from its apparent foundation in fact. As a result, it’s easier to imagine an author failing to distinguish between reality and his own speculations, even as he elides that boundary in his fiction for the sake of a good story. In the interview quoted above, Jack Williamson talks about “the popular myth of [science fiction’s] futurological accuracy,” which is still a major aspect of the field’s reputation, and a reason why many writers are drawn to it in the first place—even though science fiction has a mixed track record at nailing down the details. If a story does happen to get something right, it’s often by accident, and incidental to the main thrust of the story. When we talk about movies that do a good job of predicting how the future might look, one of the first to come up is Minority Report, which makes some remarkably shrewd guesses about facial recognition, driverless cars, and gesture interfaces. What’s funny, of course, is that few of these gadgets have anything to do with the plot itself, which is based less on science than on fantasy: they have more to do with art direction than storytelling, and don’t have much to do at all with the original story by Philip K. Dick, who was far more interested in mood, theme, and paradox than in forecasting how we’d interact with our screens.

Yet that’s exactly as it should be, and it’s something that both readers and writers of science fiction should keep in mind whenever they think about the choice of futures that a story makes. Frederik Pohl once said: “The mistake you must never make about science fiction is in thinking that, because it is about the future, it is necessarily about the future.” Stanley Schmidt, the former editor of Analog, recently quoted Pohl’s reminder and followed it up with an observation of his own: “Writers in this field are seldom trying to predict what the future will be, but rather to imagine a wide range of ways it could be—and how each of them, if it came to pass, would affect our lives.” This is perfectly correct, but it’s also worth remembering why we do it. The novelist Georges Simenon stated that the goal of his fiction was to find situations that would oblige his characters “to go to their limit,” and that’s true of most good science fiction as well, with the difference that the inciting incident is something rooted, however tenuously, in scientific extrapolation. When choosing between futures, or between the consequences of a particular idea, we’re often less interested in what we think could actually happen than in what will put the most pressure on our characters, and, by extension, our readers. (This also explains why dystopian futures are so prevalent in fiction these days—they’re more immediately promising as a source of narrative material.) On its highest level, science fiction is about the possible, but in the trenches where readable stories are made, it’s often more about Aristotle’s plausible impossibilities. And if that weren’t true, these stories probably wouldn’t exist at all.

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