Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘John W. Campbell

The passion of the pulps

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Note: I’m heading out early this morning to speak to a class at McCormick Theological Seminary, followed by a reading tonight at 57th Street Books in Chicago. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 12, 2017.

Last year, I happened to read an essay by a distinguished but elderly science fiction writer who did his best to explain the absence of women in the pulp stories of the late thirties and early forties. See if you can spot the flaw in his reasoning:

Prior to public recognition in the United States that babies are not brought by the stork, there was simply no sex in the science fiction magazines. This was not a matter of taste, it was a matter of custom that had the force of law. In most places, non-recognition of the existence of sex was treated as though it was the law, and for all I know, maybe it was indeed local law. In any case, words or actions that could bring a blush to the leathery cheek of the local censor were clearly out.

But if there’s no sex, what do you do with female characters? They can’t have passions and feelings. They can’t participate on equal terms with male characters because that would introduce too many complications where some sort of sex might creep in. The best thing to do was to keep them around in the background, allowing them to scream in terror, to be caught and rescued, and, at the end, to smile prettily at the hero. (It can be done safely then because The End is the universal rescue.)

The man who wrote this, I’m sorry to say, was Isaac Asimov. It appeared in his essay “Women and Science Fiction,” which was published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1983 and later reprinted in the posthumous collection Gold. And it might be the least convincing explanation that the man whom Carl Sagan called “the greatest explainer of the age” ever gave about anything.

Before I dig into the argument itself, I should probably review Asimov’s earlier statements about women in science fiction, which go back half a century. In the late thirties, before he became a published writer, he was a regular contributor to the letters column in Astounding. As I’ve noted here before, he had reason to later regret some of his comments, as when he 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.” And he wasn’t kidding. In “Women and Science Fiction,” Asimov acknowledged:

No doubt there were a number of tough young men and girl-chasing young men who read science fiction [in those days], but by and large, I suspect it was the stereotypical “skinny intellectual” who wrote letters to the magazines and denounced any intrusion of femininity. I know. I wrote such letters myself. And in the days when I was reading and rating every science fiction story written, I routinely deducted many points for any intrusion of romance, however sanitized it might be.

To be fair, Asimov later outgrew these feelings, and while women rarely figured in his fiction, there were a few notable exceptions. Later in the same essay, he derided the science fiction magazines for showing “no guts whatsoever” in dealing with the absence of women in its pages, in large part because of its heavily masculine audience, and in his memoir In Joy Still Felt, he simply wrote: “I am a feminist.” (His actual track record on the subject has been discussed elsewhere by other writers, notably Cat Rambo, and I talk about his horrendous treatment of women at length in Astounding.)

So what do we do with the statement that I quoted above, which was made with a straight face toward the end of Asimov’s career? It’s factually correct on exactly one level, which is that the pulps had to be mindful of obscenity laws, and any explicit sexual content would place the entire magazine at risk. John W. Campbell—along with his assistant editor Kay Tarrant, whom he used as a scapegoat for writers who complained about being censored—had a reputation for prudery, and in the period in question, even a more adventurous editor wouldn’t have much of a choice. This is all true enough. But to argue that women couldn’t be depicted “on equal terms” with men because sex would inevitably enter the equation, as if the writer had no control over his characters, is so flimsy a justification that it reflects poorly on a writer who needed so badly to think of himself as rational. In its implication that sexual entanglements would naturally follow from the “passions and feelings” of women who work alongside men, it uncomfortably recalls similar arguments about women in the military and the sciences. It isn’t just wrong, but dumb, and it feels for all the world like a living fossil of an opinion that was somehow planted in Asimov’s brain in the thirties and then casually transmitted, fifty years later, to the readers of his magazine. And we don’t need to look far to find counterexamples. In the May 1940 issue of Super Science Stories, for instance, a short story appeared titled “Let There Be Light,” credited to Lyle Monroe. It was basically a Campbellian gadget yarn, and its basic plot—about two inventors who develop a free source of electricity and are targeted by the power companies—recalled a story that Campbell himself had written seven years earlier called “The Battery of Hate.” But one of the inventors was a woman. (The story does end with her male colleague literally dragging her to the courthouse to get married, but I suppose you can’t have everything.)

And even Asimov noticed. On May 4, 1940, he wrote a letter to his friend Frederik Pohl, the editor of Super Science Stories, that began: “I’m going to have to take up a new role today. At least it looks as if I’m under the painful necessity of defending the love interest in a story which is being attacked by other readers on that account.” He continued:

As official anti-love-interest-spouter of science fiction, I should have been the first to howl, but, strangely enough, I liked “Let There Be Light” a lot…There’s no denying that Lyle Monroe gave the story a liberal dash of femininity and I certainly can’t deny that several spots of the story called for raised eyebrows…However, Monroe was not obscene, or anything faintly approaching it. He was witty, I think, and humorous and the—shall we say—daring style of the humor is not too out of place in this good year 1940. Let’s not be prudes, ladies and gentlemen and—don’t look now—Queen Victoria died in 1902.

Asimov concluded: “The name may be a pseudonym for someone—I don’t know—but one thing! It is not a pseudonym for Isaac Asimov, in case someone wants to be funny.” The notion that anyone could think that Asimov could have written it was funny in itself, but in any case, it was a pen name—for Robert A. Heinlein. He had submitted the story to Campbell, who rejected it with a letter that hinted at the real reason why female characters so rarely appeared. There were “passions and feelings” involved, all right, but they didn’t belong to the women. The words are Campbell’s, but the italics are mine:

Your work is good. Even this is good, despite the fact that it’s bouncing. Main reason: the femme is too good. The science fiction readers have shown a consistent distaste for…feminine scenery in science fiction stories. She’s much more nicely handled than the average woman in science fiction, but I’m still afraid of her.

The creeps of the cosmos

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Note: I’m taking the day off, so I’m republishing a piece from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on August 16, 2017.

“Of course Scientology attracts all the creeps of the cosmos,” the novelist William S. Burroughs wrote to the poet Allen Ginsberg on October 30, 1959. “You see it works.” Burroughs had just been introduced to the ideas of L. Ron Hubbard through the mystics John and Mary Cooke, whom he had met through their mutual friend Brion Gysin in Tangiers. Gysin, who is probably best remembered today for his development of the cut-up technique, had recently built the Dream Machine, a flicker gadget made of a light bulb placed on a record turntable. The device, which Gysin assembled with the help of an electronics engineer named Ian Sommerville, was designed to stimulate the brain’s alpha rhythms when viewed with the eyes closed. It was inspired by a discussion of “the flicker effect” in W. Grey Walter’s book The Living Brain, and it hints at the remarkable extent to which the counterculture was venturing into territory that science fiction had previously colonized. John W. Campbell had utilized a similar setup while working with Hubbard himself to access his buried memories in 1949, and after reading Walter’s book, he built what he described as a “panic generator” with a fluorescent bulb in his basement. And the fact that Hubbard’s work was circulating among the Beats at the same time reflects how both communities—which seemed so different on the surface—were looking for new approaches to the mind. (Science fiction, like Scientology or beatnik culture, has a way of attracting “all the creeps of cosmos,” and for similar reasons.)

I’m not an expert on Burroughs, so I can’t speak directly about the influence of Scientology on his work, but there’s no question that he remained actively interested in Hubbard’s ideas for the better part of a decade, even as he came to question and finally reject the authoritarian tendencies of the church itself. (This article from io9 is the best discussion I’ve found of the subject online, although it makes one factual misstatement, which I’ll mention in a moment.) In a letter to Ginsberg dated shortly before the one quoted above, Burroughs explained: “The method of directed recall is the method of Scientology. You will recall I wrote urging you to contact [a] local chapter and find an auditor. They do the job without hypnosis or drugs, simply run the tape back and forth until the trauma is wiped off. It works. I have used the method—partially responsible for recent changes.” And soon afterward: “I have a new method of writing and do not want to publish anything that has not been inspected and processed. I cannot explain this method to you until you have necessary training. So once again and most urgently…I tell you: ‘Find a Scientology auditor and have yourself run.’” Burroughs’s letters over the next twelve years, which have been collected in the volume Rub Out the Words, are liberally sprinkled with terms drawn from Hubbard’s writings, and when you read them all in one sitting, as I once did, you can’t help but be struck by how long Burroughs circled around Scientology, alternately intrigued and repulsed by the man of whom he insightfully wrote: “I would not expect Mr. Hubbard’s system to crack mazes the existence of which it does not allow.”

And Burroughs went remarkably far. In 1968, he participated in a two-month training session at Saint Hill Manor, the headquarters of Scientology in the United Kingdom, and he appears to have achieved the level of OT III, or The Wall of Fire, in which members pay to learn the story of Xenu. In the article from io9 that I mentioned above, the author writes: “Absent from Burroughs’s writing are any references to body thetans, Xenu, the Galactic Confederacy, Douglas DC-8 airliners, volcanic hydrogen bombs, or other beliefs more recently associated with Scientology.” Another recent book on Burroughs and Scientology calls this material “conspicuously absent” from his writings. In fact, it clearly appears at several points in his correspondence. In a letter to John Cooke on October 25, 1971, for instance, Burroughs wrote:

So leaving aside galactic federations and Zmus [sic] there may be some validity in Hubbard’s procedure and I would be interested to make a systematic test on the E-Meter…Exactly how are these body thetans contacted and run? Are they addressed directly and if so in what terms? Do they have names? Do they have dates? Are they run through the alleged shooting freezing and bombing incidents as if you are an auditor running an internal parasite through these incidents?

These are unquestionably references to the Xenu material, as is a letter that Burroughs wrote to Gysin a few days later, in which he casually refers to “Teegeeack”—Hubbard’s word for earth millions of years ago—and “Teegeeack hitchhikers.”

I don’t know how much the Church of Scientology was charging for this information in 1968, but it must have amounted to hundreds or thousands of dollars. It’s hard to imagine how Burroughs would have avoided paying for it in full, and he evidently believed in aspects of it long after he had become aware of Hubbard’s shortcomings. On October 4, 1967, he wrote to his son:

Point about Scientology is that it works. In fact it works so well as to be highly dangerous in the wrong hands. The curious thing about L. Ron Hubbard who devised this system is that he is very uneven as a writer and a thinker. This tends to put people off. You find very profound and original thinking together with very shallow and banal thinking, so you have to read every word very carefully.

Burroughs was expelled in 1968 after publishing articles that were critical of the church, and he later said of its founder: “Hubbard has the satisfied look of a man who has just sold the widow a fraudulent peach orchard, but he is engaged in something much more pernicious than old style con tricks…His real specialty is spiritual theft.” If Burroughs stuck with it for so long, it was for much the same reason that Campbell once gave to Eric Frank Russell: “Why, for God’s sake, do you think I thought dianetics was so important? Hell, man, because I knew it was, because I tried it, and it helped.” Burroughs might have said much the same thing, even as his suspicions of its methods and origins continued to grow. As he wrote to Barry Miles in 1970: “I feel sure that there is an undisclosed source for this material. Probably science fiction.”

The end of an era

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On July 11, 1971, the science fiction editor John W. Campbell passed away quietly at his home in New Jersey. When he died, he was alone in his living room, watching Mexican wrestling on the local Spanish channel, which was his favorite television show. (I should also note in passing that it was a genre with deep affinities to superhero culture and comic books.) Word of his death quickly spread through fandom. Isaac Asimov was heartbroken at the news, writing later of the man whom he had always seen as his intellectual father: “I had never once thought…that death and he had anything in common, could ever intersect. He was the fixed pole star about which all science fiction revolved, unchangeable, eternal.” For the last decade, Analog had been on the decline, and Campbell was no longer the inescapable figure he had been in the thirties and forties, but it was impossible to deny his importance. In The Engines of the Night, Barry N. Malzberg spends several pages chronicling the late editor’s failings, mistakes, and shortcomings, but he concludes unforgettably:

And yet when I heard of Campbell’s sudden death…and informed Larry Janifer, I trembled at Janifer’s response and knew that it was so: “The field has lost its conscience, its center, the man for whom we were all writing. Now there’s no one to get mad at us anymore.”

Tributes appeared in such magazines as Locus, and Campbell’s obituary ran in the New York Times, but the loss was felt most keenly within the close community of science fiction readers and writers—perhaps because they sensed that it marked an end to the era in which the genre could still be regarded as the property of a small circle of fans.

I thought of this earlier this week, when the death of Stan Lee inspired what seemed like a national day of mourning. For much of the afternoon, he all but took over the front page of Reddit, which is an achievement that no other nonagenarian could conceivably have managed. And it’s easy to draw a contrast between Lee and Campbell, both in their cultural impact and in the way in which they were perceived by the public. Here’s how Lee is described in the book Men of Tomorrow:

His great talent, in both writing and life, was to win people’s affection. He was raised to be lovable by a mother who worshipped him. “I used to come home from school,” said Stan, “and she’d grab me and fuss over me and say, ‘You’re home already? I was sure today was the day a movie scout would discover you and take you away from me!’” She told Stan that he was the most handsome, most talented, most remarkable boy who’d ever lived. “And I believed her!” Stan said. “I didn’t know any better!” Stan attacked the world with a crooked grin and a line of killer patter. No one else in comics ever wanted to badly to be liked or became so good at it. He was known as a soft touch on advances, deadlines, and extra assignments. Even people who didn’t take him seriously as an editor or writer had to admit that Stan truly was a nice guy.

This couldn’t be less like Campbell, who also had a famous story about coming home from school to see his mother—only to be confronted by her identical twin, his aunt, who hated him. He claimed that this memory inspired the novella that became The Thing. And while I’m not exactly a Freudian biographer, it isn’t hard to draw a few simple conclusions about how these two boys might have grown up to see the world.

Yet they also had a surprising amount in common, to the point that I often used Lee as a point of comparison when I was pitching Astounding. Lee was over a decade younger than Campbell, which made him nearly the same age as Isaac Asimov and Frederik Pohl—which testifies both to his longevity and to how relatively young Campbell and Asimov were when they died. Lee’s first job in publishing was as an assistant in the comics division of the pulp publisher Martin Goodman, presumably just a few steps away from Uncanny Tales, which suggests that he could just as easily have wound up in one as well as the other. He became the interim comics editor at the age of nineteen, or the same age as Pohl when he landed his first editing job. (I’m not aware of Lee crossing paths with any of my book’s major figures during this period, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they moved in the same circles in New York.) Like Campbell, Lee’s legacy is conventionally thought to consist of moving the genre toward greater realism, better writing, and more believable characters, although the degree to which each man was responsible for these developments has been disputed. Both also cultivated a distinct voice in their editorials and letters columns, which became a forum for open discussion with fans, although they differed drastically in their tones, political beliefs, and ambitions. Campbell openly wanted to make a discovery that would change the world, while Lee seemed content to make his mark on the entertainment industry, which he did with mixed success for decades. It can be hard to remember now, but there was a long period when Lee seemed lost in the wilderness, with a sketchy production company that filed for bankruptcy and pursued various dubious projects. If he had died in his seventies, or just after his cameo in Mallrats, he might well have been mourned, like Campbell, mostly by diehard fans.

Instead, he lived long enough to see the movie versions of X-Men and Spider-Man, followed by the apotheosis of the Marvel Universe. And it’s easy to see the difference between Campbell and Lee as partially a matter of longevity. If Campbell had lived to be the same age, he would have died in 2005, which is a truly staggering thought. I have trouble imagining what science fiction would have been like if he had stuck around for three more decades, even from the sidelines. (It isn’t hard to believe that he might have remained a fixture at conventions. The writer and scholar James Gunn—not to be confused with the director of Guardians of the Galaxy—is almost exactly Stan Lee’s age, and I sat down to chat with him at Worldcon two years ago.) Of course, Campbell was already estranged from many writers and fans at the time of his death, and unlike Lee, he was more than willing to alienate a lot of his readers. It seems unlikely that he would have been forgiven for his mistakes, as Lee was, simply out of the affection in which he was held. If anything, his death may have postponed the reckoning with his racism, and its impact on the genre, that otherwise might have taken place during his lifetime. But the differences also run deeper. When you look at the world in which we live today, it might seem obvious that Lee’s comics won out over Campbell’s stories, at least when measured by their box office and cultural impact. The final installment in E.E. Smith’s Galactic Patrol was published just a few months before the debut of a character created by the science fiction fans Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, but you still see kids dressed up as Superman, not the Gray Lensman. That may seem inevitable now, but it could easily have gone the other way. The story of how this happened is a complicated one, and Lee played a huge part in it, along with many others. His death, like Campbell’s, marks the end of an era. And it may only be now that we can start to figure out what it all really meant.

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 ethereal phase

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Like many readers, I first encountered the concept of the singularity—the idea that artificial intelligence will eventually lead to an era of exponential technological change—through the work of the futurist Ray Kurzweil. Fifteen years ago, I was browsing in a bookstore when I came across a copy of his book The Singularity is Near, which I bought on the spot. Kurzweil’s thesis is a powerful one, and, to a point, it remains completely convincing:

What, then, is the Singularity? It’s a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed…The key idea underlying the impending Singularity is that the pace of change of our human-created technology is accelerating and its powers are expanding at an exponential pace. Exponential growth is deceptive. It starts out almost imperceptibly and then explodes with unexpected fury—unexpected, that is, if one does not take care to follow its trajectory.

Kurzweil seems particularly enthusiastic about one purported consequence of this development: “We will gain power over our fates. Our mortality will be in our own hands. We will be able to live as long as we want (a subtly different statement from saying we will live forever).” And he suggests that the turning point will occur “before the middle of this century.”

This line of thinking, which was much more novel back then than it is today, was enough to briefly turn me into a transhumanist, or at least into the approximation of one. But I’m more skeptical now. As I noted here recently, one of Kurzweil’s core arguments—that incremental advances in medical technology will lead to functional immortality to those who can hang around for long enough—was advanced by John W. Campbell as far back as 1949. (Writing in Astounding Science Fiction, Campbell muses that a child will be born one day who never has to do die, and he concludes: “I wonder if that point has been passed? And my own guess is—it has.” There’s no proof yet that he was wrong, but I have my doubts.) And the notion of accelerating change is even older. The historian Henry Adams explores the possibility in an essay published in 1904, and a few years later, in the book Degradation of the Democratic Dogma, he writes of the pace of technological progress:

As each newly appropriated force increased the attraction between the sum of nature’s forces and the volume of human mind, by the usual law of squares, the acceleration hurried society towards the critical point that marked the passage into a new phase as though it were heat impelling water to explode as steam…The curve resembles that of the vaporization of water. The resemblance is too close to be disregarded, for nature loves the logarithm, and perpetually recurs to her inverse square. For convenience, if only as a momentary refuge, the physicist-historian will probably have to try the experiment of taking the law of inverse squares as his standard of social acceleration for the nineteenth century, and consequently for the whole phase, which obliges him to accept it experimentally as a general law of history.

Adams thought that the point of no return would occur around 1917, while Buckminster Fuller, writing over a generation later, speculated that technological change would lead to a post-scarcity society sometime in the late seventies. Such futurists tend to place the pivotal moment at a far enough remove to be plausible, while still potentially within their own lifetimes, which hints at the element of wishful thinking involved. (It’s worth noting that the same amount of time has passed since the publication of The Singularity is Near as elapsed between Adams’s first essay on the subject and the date that he posited for what he liked to call the Ethereal Phase.) And unlike other prophets, they benefit from their ability to frame such speculations in the language of science—and especially of physics and mathematics. Writing from the point of view of a historian, in fact, Adams arrives at something that sounds remarkably like psychohistory:

If values can be given to these attractions, a physical theory of history is a mere matter of physical formula, no more complicated than the formulas of Willard Gibbs or Clerk Maxwell; but the task of framing the formula and assigning the values belongs to the physicist, not to the historian…If the physicist-historian is satisfied with neither of the known laws of mass, astronomical or electric, and cannot arrange his variables in any combination that will conform with a phase-sequence, no resource seems to remain but that of waiting until his physical problems shall be solved, and he shall be able to explain what Force is…Probably the solution of any one of the problems will give the solution for them all.

And each of these men sees exactly what he wants to find in this phenomenon, which amounts to a kind of Rorschach test for futurists. On my bookshelf, I have a book titled The 10% Solution to a Healthy Life, which outlines a health plan based largely on the work of Nathan Pritikin, whose thoughts on diet—and longevity—have turned out to be surprisingly influential. Its author says of his decision to write a book: “Being a scientist and a trained skeptic, I was always turned off by people with strong singular agendas. People out to save my soul or even just my health or well-being were strongly suspect. I felt very uncomfortable, therefore, in this role myself, telling people how they should eat or live.” The author was Ray Kurzweil. He makes no mention of the singularity here, but after another decade, he had moved on to such titles as Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever and Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever. Immortality clearly matters a lot to him, which naturally affects how he views the prospect of accelerating change. By contrast, Adams was most attracted by the possibility of refining the theory of history into a science, as Campbell and Asimov later were, while Fuller saw it as the means to an ecological utopia, which had less to do with environmental awareness than with his desire to free the world’s population to do whatever it wanted with its time. Kurzweil, in turn, sees it as a way for us to live for as long as we want, which is an interest that predated his public association with the singularity, and this is reason enough to be skeptical of everything that he says. Kurzweil is a genius, but he’s also just about the last person we should trust to be objective when it comes to the consequences of accelerating change. I’ll be talking about this more tomorrow.

Astounding Stories #22: None But Lucifer

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Note: This is the latest entry in a series in which I highlight works of speculative fiction that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

None But Lucifer, a short novel by H.L. Gold and L. Sprague de Camp that appeared in the September 1939 issue of Unknown, opens with its lead character figuring out a foolproof way of getting whatever he wants—and it isn’t a fantasy. The story begins with its protagonist, Hale, living in deliberate poverty in a tenement in New York, and within the space of a few pages, merely as an experiment, he talks his way into a lucrative job, a beautiful apartment, and a luxurious lifestyle, mostly just to prove that he can. Hale’s system depends on aiming absurdly high while showing as much apparent contempt for his true goal as possible. As he explains to an incredulous listener:

I can get anything I want any time I want it…Moreover, anybody can use my system…I go after what I want obliquely, by seeming to aim at something else, but grabbing sideways at what I really want…I can be aiming at money, fame, love, an easy life, or influence—but I wouldn’t show which one I really wanted. You’d have to guess…The main thing is to keep your mouth shut about what you really want. The next most important thing is to get out of your social class. You can depend on your own class or the one just above it to defeat you…But if you break out of your class, the one you’re crashing isn’t sure of your aims, and can’t crush you so effectively.

He concludes: “If you’re trying to get a job as a clerk, your objective is pathetically simple to figure out. You want to eat. But if you go after a hundred-thousand-a-year position, with a crack at the boss’s daughter, it gets tougher to analyze your goal.” And that’s particularly true if you manage to break through the barriers that your social class has imposed.

As a list of commandments for con artists and other hustlers—you keep your motives hidden, avoid your own social class, and show as much contempt for possible for what you really want—this approach is as valid as ever, and there are times when it reminds me queasily of Neil Strauss’s The Game. But Gold and de Camp have larger ambitions of their own. The man to whom Hale is describing his strategy isn’t an ordinary human being at all. It’s Lucifier himself, who has been quietly running the world for thousands of years in the guise of an unassuming businessman named Mr. Johnson. Hale has figured out the sinister truth, which is that our world is Hell, and we’re all being punished without our knowledge for sins that we committed in a previous lifetime. (Hale’s first clue came from a line from the novelist Arnold Bennett: “Of all the inhabitants of the inferno, none but Lucifer knows that hell is hell.” Or as Eleanor Shellstrop memorably realized: This is the Bad Place!”) With this information in hand, Hale approaches Lucifer with an ultimatum. He wants to be an equal partner in the management of Hell, or he’ll tell the world about his system for getting whatever you want, which will upset the delicate balance of suffering. Lucifer agrees, and he takes Hale under his wing. And while we reasonably suspect that there’s more to the deal than meets the eye, for the moment, we’re more interested in hearing Lucifer expound on his methods of keeping mankind in an ideal state of misery. For instance:

Running Hell on an efficient basis happens to be my business, and I run it the same as any other businessman runs his business, by practical, common-sense methods…I’m immortal, of course. Hence I can control the world’s money simply by investing a little and waiting for the interest charges to pile up. Outside of that, I can run the world merely by a magnificent system of obtaining information, an understanding of men’s desires, and a knowledge of how to use pivot men. And, of course, the ability to start and stop the flow of money. In most cases the last can be done without a penny.

This is a terrific premise for a story, although None But Lucifer—which de Camp rewrote from Gold’s initial draft, with uncredited contributions from John W. Campbell—doesn’t quite live up to its opening. The middle sags a bit, and it doesn’t follow through completely on its promise. But it’s deliciously quotable throughout, and I can hardly imagine the effect that it must have had on the impressionable teenagers who bought it for twenty cents in 1939. Here, for example, is Lucifer on the efficiency of his strategies for causing pain, which don’t involve tracking every last person on earth, but just a few crucial people: “It’s enough to keep track of trade and production and social, political, and economic movements, with the key figures in each category, their influence, their motives and objectives, and what effect certain…uh…stimuli will have on their own categories and on society in general…No black magic—just detailed information and a knowledge of human nature.” A few pages later, Lucifer explains his attitude toward war:

Except in unusual cases, I never concentrate on tormenting a single person. That would be inefficient…The chronic state of crisis, never quite reaching war, which I have labored incessantly to create, is kept simmering. The world was growing apathetic, but now there is a very gratifying turmoil. Millions of people have been made afraid and unhappy. Others have had their hopes raised. At the proper moment those hopes will be dashed, and they, too, will be unhappy.

When Lucifer poses the problem of what should be done as humanity proceeds toward an inevitable global conflict, Hale gives the correct answer: “I guess I’d try to prevent war…To keep the world frightened for as long as possible.” Lucifer praises his insight, but he adds a reminder: “Even though the war crisis is our most absorbing problem at the moment, we must never cease using the smaller torments.”

None But Lucifer was written before the outbreak of war in Europe, and it was on newsstands when Hitler invaded Poland. Typically, in a later issue, Campbell was quick to play up the coincidence: “None But Lucifer was begun last spring, worked out in detail last summer, bought and started on the process of being set in type late last summer. And it was on the stands at the time Europe was busily proving for the world that Lucifer does rule this planet.” Yet there are few points in history when its insights wouldn’t seem relevant. Reading it over recently, I was most struck by the passage in which Hale marvels at the universal state of suffering:

Millions out of work; increase in the relief budget attacked by the economy lobby—and effectively, since they were now so powerful; hunger marches, riots, strikes, lockouts, freezing of credit. Out of all that torment and strife there should have been a little happiness. The isolationists and the economizers should have felt jubilant. But actually they were as frightened as the rest of the country…It seemed that people were unhappy no matter what you did.

Throughout the story, Hale wonders what the world’s inhabitants could possibly have done in a previous life to deserve such torment, and he never really finds out. In a closing twist, however, he finds that the very worst sinners are given the darkest punishment of all—in the next life, they’re doomed to become Lucifer himself. “Evidently we—those of us who are doomed, from time to time, to the supreme torment of indeterminate immortality as manager of Hell—committed the most unspeakable crimes in some other existence,” Lucifer explains before handing over the reins to the newly reluctant Hale. “While Hell would no doubt supply plenty of torment without our help, a manager is evidently required to assure the most efficient and economical distribution of misery.”

I’ll be appearing tonight at the Tuesday Funk reading series at Hopleaf Bar at 5148 N. Clark St. in Chicago at 7:30pm. Hope to see some of you there!

The Men Who Saw Tomorrow, Part 3

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By now, it might seem obvious that the best way to approach Nostradamus is to see it as a kind of game, as Anthony Boucher describes it in the June 1942 issue of Unknown Worlds: “A fascinating game, to be sure, with a one-in-a-million chance of hitting an astounding bullseye. But still a game, and a game that has to be played according to the rules. And those rules are, above all things else, even above historical knowledge and ingenuity of interpretation, accuracy and impartiality.” Boucher’s work inspired several spirited rebukes in print from L. Sprague de Camp, who granted the rules of the game but disagreed about its harmlessness. In a book review signed “J. Wellington Wells”—and please do keep an eye on that last name—de Camp noted that Nostradamus was “conjured out of his grave” whenever there was a war:

And wonder of wonders, it always transpires that a considerable portion of his several fat volumes of prophetic quatrains refer to the particular war—out of the twenty-odd major conflicts that have occurred since Dr. Nostradamus’s time—or other disturbance now taking place; and moreover that they prophesy inevitable victory for our side—whichever that happens to be. A wonderful man, Nostradamus.

Their affectionate battle culminated in a nonsense limerick that de Camp published in the December 1942 version of Esquire, claiming that if it was still in print after four hundred years, it would have been proven just as true as any of Nostradamus’s prophecies. Boucher responded in Astounding with the short story “Pelagic Spark,” an early piece of fanfic in which de Camp’s great-grandson uses the “prophecy” to inspire a rebellion in the far future against the sinister Hitler XVI.

This is all just good fun, but not everyone sees it as a game, and Nostradamus—like other forms of vaguely apocalyptic prophecy—tends to return at exactly the point when such impulses become the most dangerous. This was the core of de Camp’s objection, and Boucher himself issued a similar warning:

At this point there enters a sinister economic factor. Books will be published only when there is popular demand for them. The ideal attempt to interpret the as yet unfulfilled quatrains of Nostradamus would be made in an ivory tower when all the world was at peace. But books on Nostradamus sell only in times of terrible crisis, when the public wants no quiet and reasoned analysis, but an impassioned assurance that We are going to lick the blazes out of Them because look, it says so right here. And in times of terrible crisis, rules are apt to get lost.

Boucher observes that one of the best books on the subject, Charles A. Ward’s Oracles of Nostradamus, was reissued with a dust jacket emblazoned with such questions as “Will America Enter the War?” and “Will the British Fleet Be Destroyed?” You still see this sort of thing today, and it isn’t just the books that benefit. In 1981, the producer David L. Wolper released a documentary on the prophecies of Nostradamus, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, that saw subsequent spikes in interest during the Gulf War—a revised version for television was hosted by Charlton Heston—and after the September 11 attacks, when there was a run on the cassette at Blockbuster. And the attention that it periodically inspires reflects the same emotional factors that led to psychohistory, as the host of the original version said to the audience: “Do we really want to know about the future? Maybe so—if we can change it.”

The speaker, of course, was Orson Welles. I had always known that The Man Who Saw Tomorrow was narrated by Welles, but it wasn’t until I watched it recently that I realized that he hosted it onscreen as well, in one of my favorite incarnations of any human being—bearded, gigantic, cigar in hand, vaguely contemptuous of his surroundings and collaborators, but still willing to infuse the proceedings with something of the velvet and gold braid. Keith Phipps of The A.V. Club once described the documentary as “a brain-damaged sequel” to Welles’s lovely F for Fake, which is very generous. The entire project is manifestly ridiculous and exploitative, with uncut footage from the Zapruder film mingling with a xenophobic fantasy of a war of the West against Islam. Yet there are also moments that are oddly transporting, as when Welles turns to the camera and says:

Before continuing, let me warn you now that the predictions of the future are not at all comforting. I might also add that these predictions of the past, these warnings of the future are not the opinions of the producers of the film. They’re certainly not my opinions. They’re interpretations of the quatrains as made by scores of independent scholars of Nostradamus’ work.

In the sly reading of “my opinions,” you can still hear a trace of Harry Lime, or even of Gregory Arkadin, who invited his guests to drink to the story of the scorpion and the frog. And the entire movie is full of strange echoes of Welles’s career. Footage is repurposed from Waterloo, in which he played Louis XVIII, and it glances at the fall of the Shah of Iran, whose brother-in-law funded Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind, which was impounded by the revolutionary government that Nostradamus allegedly foresaw.

Welles later expressed contempt for the whole affair, allegedly telling Merv Griffin that you could get equally useful prophecies by reading at random out of the phone book. Yet it’s worth remembering, as the critic David Thomson notes, that Welles turned all of his talk show interlocutors into versions of the reporter from Citizen Kane, or even into the Hal to his Falstaff, and it’s never clear where the game ended. His presence infuses The Man Who Saw Tomorrow with an unearned loveliness, despite the its many awful aspects, such as the presence of the “psychic” Jeane Dixon. (Dixon’s fame rested on her alleged prediction of the Kennedy assassination, based on a statement—made in Parade magazine in 1960—that the winner of the upcoming presidential election would be “assassinated or die in office though not necessarily in his first term.” Oddly enough, no one seems to remember an equally impressive prediction by the astrologer Joseph F. Goodavage, who wrote in Analog in September 1962: “It is coincidental that each American president in office at the time of these conjunctions [of Jupiter and Saturn in an earth sign] either died or was assassinated before leaving the presidency…John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960 at the time of a Jupiter and Saturn conjunction in Capricorn.”) And it’s hard for me to watch this movie without falling into reveries about Welles, who was like John W. Campbell in so many other ways. Welles may have been the most intriguing cultural figure of the twentieth century, but he never seemed to know what would come next, and his later career was one long improvisation. It might not be too much to hear a certain wistfulness when he speaks of the man who could see tomorrow, much as Campbell’s fascination with psychohistory stood in stark contrast to the confusion of the second half of his life. When The Man Who Saw Tomorrow was released, Welles had finished editing about forty minutes of his unfinished masterpiece The Other Side of the Wind, and for decades after his death, it seemed that it would never be seen. Instead, it’s available today on Netflix. And I don’t think that anybody could have seen that coming.

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