Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘John W. Campbell

The slow road to the stars

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In the 1980 edition of The Whole Earth Catalog, which is one of the two or three books that I’d bring with me to a desert island, or to the moon, the editor Stewart Brand devotes three pages toward the beginning to the subject of space colonies. Most of the section is taken up by an essay, “The Sky Starts at Your Feet,” in which Brand relates why he took such an interest in an idea that seemed far removed from the hippie concerns with which his book—fairly or not—had always been associated. And his explanation is a fascinating one:

What got me interested in space colonies a few years ago was a chance remark by a grade school teacher. She said that most of her kids expected to live in space. All their lives they’d been seeing Star Trek and American and Russian space activities and drew the obvious conclusions. Suddenly I felt out of it. A generation that grew up with space, I realized, was going to lead to another generation growing up in space. Where did that leave me?

On the next page, Brand draws an even more explicit connection between space colonization and the rise of science fiction in the mainstream: “Most science fiction readers—there are estimated to be two million avid ones in the U.S.—are between the ages of 12 and 26. The first printing for a set of Star Trek blueprints and space cadet manual was 450,000. A Star Trek convention in Chicago drew 15,000 people, and a second one a few weeks later drew 30,000. They invited NASA officials and jammed their lectures.”

This sense of a growing movement left a huge impression on Brand, whose career as an activist had started with a successful campaign to get NASA to release the first picture of the whole earth taken from space. He concludes: “For these kids there’s been a change in scope. They can hold the oceans of the world comfortably in their minds, like large lakes. Space is the ocean now.” And he clearly understands that his real challenge will be to persuade a slightly older cohort of “liberals and environmentalists”—his own generation—to sign on. In typical fashion, Brand doesn’t stress just the practical side, but the new modes of life and thought that space colonization would require. Here’s my favorite passage:

In deemphasizing the exotic qualities of life in space [Gerard] O’Neill is making a mistake I think. People want to go not because it may be nicer than what they have on earth but because it will be harder. The harshness of space will oblige a life-and-death reliance on each other which is the sort of thing that people romanticize and think about endlessly but seldom get to do. This is where I look for new cultural ideas to emerge. There’s nothing like an impossible task to pare things down to essentials—from which comes originality. You can only start over from basics, and, once there, never quite in the same direction as before.

Brand also argues that the colonization project is “so big and so slow and so engrossing” that it will force the rest of civilization to take everything more deliberately: “If you want to inhabit a moon of Jupiter—that’s a reasonable dream now—one of the skills you must cultivate is patience. It’s not like a TV set or a better job—apparently cajolable from a quick politician. Your access to Jupiter has to be won—at its pace—from a difficult solar system.”

And the seemingly paradoxical notion of slowing down the pace of society is a big part of why Brand was so drawn to O’Neill’s vision of space colonies. Brand had lived through a particularly traumatic period in what the business writer Peter Drucker called “the age of discontinuity,” and he expressed strong reservations about the headlong rush of societal change:

The shocks of this age are the shocks of pace. Change accelerates around us so rapidly that we are strangers to our own pasts and even more to our futures. Gregory Bateson comments, “I think we could have handled the industrial revolution, given five hundred years.” In one hundred years we have assuredly not handled it…I feel serene when I can comfortably encompass two weeks ahead. That’s a pathological condition.

Brand’s misgivings are remarkably similar to what John W. Campbell was writing in Astounding in the late thirties: “The conditions [man] tries to adjust to are going to change, and change so darned fast that he never will actually adjust to a given set of conditions. He’ll have to adjust in a different way: he’ll adjust to an environment of change.” Both Brand and Campbell also believed, in the words of the former, that dealing with this challenge would somehow involve “the move of some of humanity into space.” It would force society as a whole to slow down, in a temporal equivalent of the spatial shift in perspective that environmentalists hoped would emerge from the first photos of the whole earth. Brand speaks of it as a project on the religious scale, and he closes: “Space exploration is grounded firmly on the abyss. Space is so impossible an environment for us soft, moist creatures that even with our vaulting abstractions we will have to move carefully, ponderously into that dazzling vacuum. The stars can’t be rushed. Whew, that’s a relief.”

Four decades later, it seems clear that the movement that Brand envisioned never quite materialized, although it also never really went away. Part of this has to do with the fact that many members of the core audience of The Whole Earth Catalog turned out to be surprisingly hostile to the idea. (Tomorrow, I’ll be taking a look at Space Colonies, a special issue of the magazine CoEvolution Quarterly that captures some of the controversy.) But the argument for space colonization as a means of applying the brakes to the relentless movement of civilization seems worth reviving, simply because it feels so counterintuitive. It certainly doesn’t seem like part of the conversation now. We’ve never gotten rid of the term “space race,” which is more likely to be applied these days to the perceived competition between private companies, as in a recent article in The New Yorker, in which Nicholas Schmidle speaks of Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic as three startups “racing to build and test manned rockets.” When you privatize space, the language that you use to describe it inevitably changes, along with the philosophical challenges that it evokes. A recent book on the subject is titled The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos, which returns to the colonial terminology that early opponents of O’Neill’s ideas found so repellent. The new space race seems unlikely to generate the broader cultural shift that Brand envisioned, largely because we’ve outsourced it to charismatic billionaires who seem unlikely to take anything slowly. But perhaps even the space barons themselves can sense the problem. In the years since he wrote “The Sky Starts at Your Feet,” Brand has moved on to other causes to express the need for mankind to take a longer view. The most elegant and evocative is the Clock of the Long Now, which is designed to keep time for the next ten thousand years. After years of development, it finally seems to be coming together, with millions of dollars of funding from a billionaire who will house it on land that he owns in Texas. His name is Jeff Bezos.

The Machine of Lagado

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by nevalalee

October 2, 2018 at 9:36 am

The electric dream

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There’s no doubt who got me off originally and that was A.E. van Vogt…The basic thing is, how frightened are you of chaos? And how happy are you with order? Van Vogt influenced me so much because he made me appreciate a mysterious chaotic quality in the universe that is not to be feared.

—Philip K. Dick, in an interview with Vertex

I recently finished reading I Am Alive and You Are Dead, the French author Emmanuel Carrère’s novelistic biography of Philip K. Dick. In an article last year about Carrère’s work, James Wood of The New Yorker called it “fantastically engaging,” noting: “There are no references and very few named sources, yet the material appears to rely on the established record, and is clearly built from the same archival labor that a conventional biographer would perform.” It’s very readable, and it’s one of the few such biographies—along with James Tiptree, Jr. by Julie Phillips and a certain upcoming book—aimed at intelligent audience outside the fan community. Dick’s life also feels relevant now in ways that we might not have anticipated two decades ago, when the book was first published in France. He’s never been as central to me as he has for many other readers, mostly because of the accidents of my reading life, and I’ve only read a handful of his novels and stories. I’m frankly more drawn to his acquaintance and occasional correspondent Robert Anton Wilson, who ventured into some of the same dark places and returned with his sanity more or less intact. (One notable difference between the two is that Wilson was a more prolific experimenter with psychedelic drugs, which Dick, apart from one experience with LSD, appears to have avoided.) But no other writer, with one notable exception that I’ll mention below, has done a better job of forcing us to confront the possibility that our understanding of the world might be fatally flawed. And it’s quite possible that he serves as a better guide to the future than any of the more rational writers who populated the pages of Astounding.

What deserves to be remembered about Dick, though, is that he loved the science fiction of the golden age, and he’s part of an unbroken chain of influence that goes back to the earliest days of the pulps. In I Am Alive and You Are Dead, Carrère writes of Dick as a young boy: “He collected illustrated magazines with titles like Astounding and Amazing and Unknown, and these periodicals, in the guise of serious scientific discussion, introduced him to lost continents, haunted pyramids, ships that vanished mysteriously in the Sargasso Sea.” (Carrère, weirdly, puts a superfluous exclamation point at the end of the titles of all these magazines, which I’ve silently removed in these quotations.) Dick continued to collect pulps throughout his life, keeping the most valuable issues in a fireproof safe at his house in San Rafael, California, which was later blown open in a mysterious burglary. Throughout his career, Dick refers casually to classic stories with an easy familiarity that suggests a deep knowledge of the genre, as in a line from his Exegesis, in which he mentions “that C.L. Moore novelette in Astounding about the two alternative futures hinging on which of two girls the guy marries in the present.” But the most revealing connection lies in plain sight. In a section on Dick’s early efforts in science fiction, Carrère writes:

Stories about little green men and flying saucers…were what he was paid to write, and the most they offered in terms of literary recognition was comparison to someone like A.E. van Vogt, a writer with whom Phil had once been photographed at a science fiction convention. The photo appeared in a fanzine above the caption “The Old and the New.”

Carrère persistently dismisses van Vogt as a writer of “space opera,” which might be technically true, though hardly the whole story. Yet he was also the most convincing precursor that Dick ever had. The World of Null-A may be stylistically cruder than Dick at his best, but it also appeared in Astounding in 1945, and it remains so hallucinatory, weird, and undefinable that I still have trouble believing that it was read by twelve-year-olds. (As Dick once said of it in an interview: “All the parts of that book do not add up; all the ingredients did not make a coherency. Now some people are put off by that. They think it’s sloppy and wrong, but the thing that fascinated me so much was that this resembled reality more than anybody else’s writing inside or outside science fiction.”) Once you see the almost apostolic line of succession from van Vogt to Alfred Bester to Dick, the latter seems less like an anomaly within the genre than like an inextricable part of its fabric. Although he only sold one short story, “Impostor,” to John W. Campbell, Dick continued to submit to him for years, before concluding that it wasn’t the best use of his time. As Eric Leif Davin recounts in Partners in Wonder: “[Dick] said he’d rather write several first-draft stories for one cent a word than spend time revising a single story for Campbell, despite the higher pay.” And Dick recalled in his collection The Minority Report:

Horace Gold at Galaxy liked my writing whereas John W. Campbell, Jr. at Astounding considered my writing not only worthless but as he put it, “Nuts.” By and large I liked reading Galaxy because it had the broadest range of ideas, venturing into the soft sciences such as sociology and psychology, at a time when Campbell (as he once wrote me!) considered psionics a necessary premise for science fiction. Also, Campbell said, the psionic character in the story had to be in charge of what was going on.

As a result, the two men never worked closely together, although Dick had surprising affinities with the editor who believed wholeheartedly in psionics, precognition, and genetic memory, and whose magazine never ceased to play a central role in his inner life. In his biography, Carrère provides an embellished version of a recurring dream that Dick had at the age of twelve, “in which he found himself in a bookstore trying to locate an issue of Astounding that would complete his collection.” As Dick describes it in his autobiographical novel VALIS:

In the dream he again was a child, searching dusty used-book stores for rare old science fiction magazines, in particular Astoundings. In the dream he had looked through countless tattered issues, stacks upon stacks, for the priceless serial entitled “The Empire Never Ended.” If he could find it and read it he would know everything; that had been the burden of the dream.

Years later, the phrase “the empire never ended” became central to Dick’s late conviction that we were all living, without our knowledge, in the Rome of the Acts of the Apostles. But the detail that sticks with me the most is that the magazines in the dream were “in particular Astoundings.” The fan Peter Graham famously said that the real golden age of science fiction was twelve, and Dick reached that age at the end of 1940, at the peak of Campbell’s editorship. The timing was perfect for Astounding to rewire his brain forever. When Dick first had his recurring dream, he would have just finished reading a “priceless serial” that had appeared in the previous four issues of the magazine, and I’d like to think that he spent the rest of his life searching for its inconceivable conclusion. It was van Vogt’s Slan.

The happy golden years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The final blackout

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

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

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

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

Written by nevalalee

August 23, 2018 at 8:43 am

The best of youth

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At some point, as I was preparing for last week’s World Science Fiction Convention, I realized that there was a good chance that I would run out of books. This wasn’t a problem that I ever expected to have. Astounding isn’t due to come out for another two months, and the hardcovers aren’t available yet, but in the meantime, my publisher printed up a bunch of advance copies, or galleys, which we’ve been sending to reviewers, media outlets, and everyone else we might want to reach. The number of galleys is relatively large, but not unlimited, and about a month ago, I began to hear rumblings that we were coming up short. (One issue is that we sent a hundred copies to Comic-Con, which sounds awesome in theory, although I wish that we’d saved them for Worldcon, which is much closer to this book’s target audience.) After scrambling to get copies from various departments, I ended up with two dozen galleys that could be spared for San Jose, which I supplemented with a stack from my stash at home. Some of these ended up being handed out at a booth run by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, while I set aside ten others for attendees at my roundtable and for a few special recipients. As a result, I was left with just six copies to give away at my reading, which drew a sizable turnout. Since I couldn’t give a copy to everyone, I had to think of ways to distribute the ones that I had, and it occurred to me to give a book to the youngest person in the room. Toward the end, I looked out at the audience and said, “Raise your hand if you’re under thirty.” And in a crowd of over one hundred people, exactly two hands shot up.

I had much the same experience at my other events, at which I saw perhaps half a dozen people who were under thirty years old. In nearly every case, I was among the youngest people in the room. (As far as I know, I attracted just one audience member across the entire week who was under twenty. He showed up to my second event, and I didn’t get his name, but if he’s reading this now, I’d like to hear from him. I think he deserves a copy, too.) Two years ago, after MidAmeriCon II in Kansas City, I wrote a blog post noting that I kept seeing the same fifty faces at my panels. I was aware that the average age at Worldcon has long been higher than that at similar gatherings, but it still felt as if I were spending the weekend at a convention within the convention—an enclave in which a vibrant but graying crowd was gathering to celebrate writers, stories, and a shared history that the larger community was beginning to forget. Now that more time has passed, it feels even more true today. Fandom is inexorably growing older. We’ve recently lost important personalities, such as Gardner Dozois and Harlan Ellison, who had embodied much of its institutional memory. And it isn’t clear whether new voices are emerging to replace the old ones. While I was in San Jose, I made time to meet up with a few younger writers whom I happen to know, and I saw a few familiar faces in the hallways, but for the most part, I spent the week at a slight remove from the authors and fans who looked like me, or who come from approximately the same generation. And as I’ve noted before, I occasionally have trouble making the case that they should take an interest in a book about these four writers.

But I’m not going to talk about that problem here, or lament the generational divide, if one even exists, within science fiction. Instead, I wanted to raise two points that I’ve only gradually been able to admit to myself, but which seem relevant to talking about this book and how it happened to emerge. The first is that I’m naturally more comfortable among older writers than I am among those my own age. I could explain this by saying that my interests tend to skew older anyway, which is true enough, but that isn’t the real reason. If I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that it’s a defense mechanism—I feel so competitive around other writers my age that I can never fully relax around them, particularly if we’re at a similar point in our careers. It’s an aspect of my personality that I don’t love, and I’ve tried to get past it, but in the meantime, I tend to have a better time with writers who are at a different stage than I am, even if they’ve accomplished more than I ever will. The other key point is that I like being among the younger people in the room, and there’s a part of me that wants to extend that feeling for as long as possible. My choice of subject wasn’t consciously motivated by this, but I can’t rule it out. I’m often asked why someone my age would take an interest in this period, and I never get tired of the question, because the number of fields at which I can come across as a wunderkind is rapidly diminishing. If I were publishing my first novel, any interviews or profiles would make a point of describing me as a late bloomer, and if I were trying to break into screenwriting, I might actively lie about my age. I’m not even particularly young when it comes to literary nonfiction. But the golden age of science fiction offers a kind of optical illusion that makes me seem like more of a prodigy than I really am.

My point, I guess, is that a writer’s choice of subject is necessarily motivated by personal ambition, even by vanity, as well as by what the market will bear. (When people ask why I wrote a book about John W. Campbell, I respond, honestly enough, that he fascinates me—but I was also ambitious enough to grab a huge unexplored subject as soon as I saw that it might be possible for me to lay claim to it.) I may look out of place at these events, but that’s how I like it. Like many writers, I’m an outsider who longs in secret to be an insider, while still proclaiming my own difference, and I happened to stumble into a subject where this was still possible. Fortunately, I think that it also resulted in a good book, and one that nobody else could have written in quite the same way. From a marketing perspective, it doesn’t hurt that I look slightly different from its four central subjects, and the fact that I came at it from the outside allowed me to approach in ways that wouldn’t be possible for a lifelong fan. I’m obviously far from an unbiased critic of the result, but I do believe that this book benefited from being written from a place of detachment. Yet it was also born of my desire to find a big topic to tackle, as well as to earn a place in that room. Scratch the surface of any book, or a creative project of any kind, and you’ll find similar motivations. I might not have conceived of this project at all if I were the kind of writer who could feel at home anywhere else, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it again. But if there’s one thing that I took away from Worldcon this year, it’s that the room where I seemed most out of place is also the only one in which I wanted to belong.

Written by nevalalee

August 21, 2018 at 8:56 am

Bester of both worlds

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Note: To celebrate the World Science Fiction Convention this week in San Jose, I’m republishing a few of my favorite pieces on various aspects of the genre. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on August 11, 2017.

In 1963, the editor Robert P. Mills put together an anthology titled The Worlds of Science Fiction, for which fifteen writers—including Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Ray Bradbury—were invited to contribute one of their favorite stories. Mills also approached Alfred Bester, the author of the classic novels The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination, who declined to provide a selection, explaining: “I don’t like any of [my stories]. They’re all disappointments to me. This is why I rarely reread my old manuscripts; they make me sick. And when, occasionally, I come across a touch that pleases me, I’m convinced that I never wrote it—I believe that an editor added it.” When Mills asked if he could pick a story that at least gave him pleasure in the act of writing it, Bester responded:

No. A writer is extremely schizophrenic; he is both author and critic. As an author he may have moments of happiness while he’s creating, but as a critic he is indifferent to his happiness. It cannot influence his merciless appraisal of his work. But there’s an even more important reason. The joy you derive from creating a piece of work has no relationship to the intrinsic value of the work. It’s a truism on Broadway that when an actor particularly enjoys the performance he gives, it’s usually his worst. It’s also true that the story which gives the author the most pain is often his best.

Bester finally obliged with the essay “My Private World of Science Fiction,” which Mills printed as an epilogue. Its centerpiece is a collection of two dozen ideas that Bester plucked from his commonplace book, which he describes as “the heavy leather-bound journal that I’ve been keeping for twenty years.” These scraps and fragments, Bester explains, are his best works, and they inevitably disappoint him when they’re turned into stories. And the bits and pieces that he provides are often dazzling in their suggestiveness: “A circulating brain library in a Womrath’s of the future, where you can rent a brain for any purpose.” “A story about weather smugglers.” “There must be a place where you can go to remember all the things that never happened to you.” And my personal favorite:

The Lefthanded Killer: a tour de force about a murder which (we tell the reader immediately) was committed by a lefthanded killer. But we show, directly or indirectly, that every character is righthanded. The story starts with, “I am the murderer,” and then goes on to relate the mystery, never revealing who the narrator is…The final twist; killer-narrator turns out to be an unborn baby, the survivor of an original pair of twins. The lefthand member killed his righthand brother in the womb. The entire motivation for the strange events that follow is the desire to conceal the crime. The killer is a fantastic and brilliant monster who does not realize that the murder would have gone unnoticed.

Every writer has a collection of story fragments like this—mine takes up a page in a notebook of my own—but few ever publish theirs, and it’s fascinating to wonder at Bester’s motivations for making his unused ideas public. I can think of three possible reasons. The first, and perhaps the most plausible, is that he knew that many of these premises were more interesting in capsule form than when written out as full stories, and so, in acknowledgement of what I’ve called the Borges test, he simply delivered them that way. (He also notes that ideas are cheap: “The idea itself is relatively unimportant; it’s the writer who develops it that makes the big difference…It is only the amateur who worries about ‘his idea being stolen.'”) Another possibility is that he wanted to convey how stray thoughts in a journal like this can mingle and combine in surprising ways, which is one of the high points of any writer’s life:

That’s the wonder of the Commonplace Book; the curious way an incomprehensible note made in 1950 can combine with a vague entry made in 1960 to produce a story in 1970. In A Life in the Day of a Writer, perhaps the most brilliant portrait of an author in action ever painted, Tess Slesinger wrote: “He rediscovered the miracle of something on page twelve tying up with something on page seven which he had not understood when he wrote it…”

Bester concludes of his ideas: “They’ll cross-pollinate, something totally unforeseen will emerge, and then, alas, I’ll have to write the story and destroy it. This is why your best is always what you haven’t written yet.”

Yet the real explanation, I suspect, lies in that line “I’ll have to write the story,” which gets at the heart of Bester’s remarkable career. In reality, Bester is all but unique among major science fiction writers in that he never seemed to “have to write” anything. He contributed short stories to Astounding for a few heady years before World War II, then disappeared for the next decade to do notable work in comic books, radio, and television. Even after he returned, there was a sense that science fiction only occupied part of his attention. He published a mainstream novel, wrote television scripts, and worked as a travel writer and senior editor for the magazine Holiday, and the fact that he had so many ideas that he never used seems to reflect the fact that he only turned to science fiction when he really felt like it. (Bester should have been an ideal writer for John W. Campbell, who, if he could have managed it, would have loved a circle of writers that consisted solely of professional men in other fields who wrote on the side—they were more likely to take his ideas and rewrite to order than either full-time pulp authors or hardcore science fiction fans. And the story of how Campbell alienated Bester over the course of a single meeting is one of the most striking anecdotes from the whole history of the genre.) Most professional writers couldn’t afford to allow their good ideas to go to waste, but Bester was willing to let them go, both because he had other sources of income and because he knew that there was plenty more where that came from. I still think of Heinlein as the genre’s indispensable writer, but Bester might be a better role model, if only because he seemed to understand, rightly, that there were realms to explore beyond the worlds of science fiction.

Written by nevalalee

August 17, 2018 at 9:00 am

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