Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘John W. Campbell

The creeps of the cosmos

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“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 striking 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 called “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 Beat 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 from a few days before the one that I quoted above, Burroughs wrote: “The method of directed recall is the method of Scientology. You will recall I wrote urging you to contact 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 shortly 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 recently 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 underwent 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 at least OT III, or The Wall of Fire, which is when 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, and it’s hard to imagine how Burroughs would have avoided paying it in full. And he 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.”

Bester of both worlds

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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 11, 2017 at 9:33 am

Optimizing the future

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On Saturday, an online firestorm erupted over a ten-page memo written by James Damore, a twenty-eight-year-old software engineer at Google. Titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” it led to its author being fired a few days later, and the furor is far from over—I have the uncomfortable feeling that it’s just getting started. (Damore has said that he intends to sue, and his case has already become a cause célèbre in exactly the circles that you’d expect.) In his memo, Damore essentially argues that the acknowledged gender gap in management and engineering roles at tech firms isn’t due to bias, but to “the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women in part due to biological causes.” In women, these differences include “openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas,” “extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness,” “higher agreeableness,” and “neuroticism,” while men have a “higher drive for status” that leads them to take positions demanding “long, stressful hours that may not be worth it if you want a balanced and fulfilling life.” He summarizes:

I’m not saying that all men differ from women in the following ways or that these differences are “just.” I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership. Many of these differences are small and there’s significant overlap between men and women, so you can’t say anything about an individual given these population level distributions.

Damore quotes a decade-old research paper, which I suspect that he first encountered through the libertarian site Quillette, stating that as “society becomes more prosperous and more egalitarian, innate dispositional differences between men and women have more space to develop and the gap that exists between men and women in their personality becomes wider.” And he concludes: “We need to stop assuming that gender gaps imply sexism.”

I wasn’t even going to write about this here, but it rang a bell. Back in 1968, a science fiction fan named Ron Stoloff attended the World Science Fiction Convention in Berkeley, where he was disturbed both by the lack of diversity and by the presence of at least one fan costumed as Lt. Uhura in blackface. He wrote up his thoughts in an essay titled “The Negro and Science Fiction,” which was published the following year in the fanzine The Vorpal Sword. (I haven’t been able to track down the full issue, but you can find the first page of his article here.) On May 1, 1969, the editor John W. Campbell wrote Stoloff a long letter objecting to the argument and to the way that he had been characterized. It’s a fascinating document that I wish I could quote in full, but the most revealing section comes after Campbell asks rhetorically: “Look guy—do some thinking about this. How many Negro authors are there in science fiction?” He then answers his own question:

Now consider what effect a biased, anti-Negro editor could have on that. Manuscripts come in by mail from all over the world…I haven’t the foggiest notion what most of the authors look like—and I never yet heard of an editor who demanded a photograph of an author before he’d print his work! Nor demanded a notarized document proving he was write.

If Negro authors are extremely few—it’s solely because extremely few Negroes both wish to, and can, write in open competition. There isn’t any possible field of endeavor where race, religion, and sex make less difference. If there aren’t any individuals of a particular group in the authors’ column—it’s because either they didn’t want to, or weren’t able to. It’s got to be unbiased by the very nature of the process of submission.

Campbell’s argument is fundamentally the same as Damore’s. It states that the lack of black writers in the pages of Analog, like the underrepresentation of women in engineering roles at Google, isn’t due to bias, but because “either they didn’t want to, or weren’t able to.” (Campbell, like Damore, makes a point of insisting elsewhere that he’s speaking of the statistical description of the group as a whole, not of individuals, which strikes him as a meaningful distinction.) Earlier in the letter, however, Campbell inadvertently suggests another explanation for why “Negro authors are extremely few,” and it doesn’t have anything to do with ability:

Think about it a bit, and you’ll realize why there is so little mention of blacks in science fiction; we see no reason to go saying “Lookee lookee lookee! We’re using blacks in our stories! See the Black Man! See him in a spaceship!”

It is my strongly held opinion that any Black should be thrown out of any story, spaceship, or any other place—unless he’s a black man. That he’s got no business there just because he’s black, but every right there if he’s a man. (And the masculine embraces the feminine; Lt. Uhura is portrayed as no clinging vine, and not given to the whimper, whinny, and whine type behavior. She earned her place by competence—not by having a black skin.)

There are two implications here. The first is that all protagonists should be white males by default, a stance that Campbell might not even have seen as problematic—and it’s worth noting that even if race wasn’t made explicit in the story, the magazine’s illustrations overwhelmingly depicted its characters as white. There’s also the clear sense that black heroes have to “earn” their presence in the magazine, which, given the hundreds of cardboard “competent men” that Campbell cheerfully featured over the years, is laughable in itself. In fiction, as in life, if you’re black, you’ve evidently got to be twice as good to justify yourself.

It never seems to have occurred to Campbell that the dearth of minority writers in the genre might have been caused by a lack of characters who looked like them, as well as by similar issues in the fandom, and he never believed that he had the ability or the obligation to address the situation as an editor. (Elsewhere in the same letter, he writes: “What I am against—and what has been misinterpreted by a number of people—is the idea that any member of any group has any right to preferential treatment because he is a member.”) Left to itself, the scarcity of minority voices and characters was a self-perpetuating cycle that made it easy to argue that interest and ability were to blame. The hard part about encouraging diversity in science fiction, or anywhere else, is that it doesn’t happen by accident. It requires systematic, conscious effort, and the payoff might not be visible for years. That’s as hard and apparently unrewarding for a magazine that worries mostly about managing its inventory from one month to the next as it is for a technology company focused on yearly or quarterly returns. If Campbell had really wanted to see more black writers in Analog in the late sixties, he should have put more black characters in the magazine in the early forties. You could excuse this by saying that he had different objectives, and that it’s unfair to judge him in retrospect, but it’s equally true that it was a choice that he could have made, but didn’t. And science fiction was the poorer for it. In his memo, Damore writes:

Philosophically, I don’t think we should do arbitrary social engineering of tech just to make it appealing to equal portions of both men and women. For each of these changes, we need principled reasons for why it helps Google; that is, we should be optimizing for Google—with Google’s diversity being a component of that.

Replace “tech” with “science fiction,” “men and women” with “black and white writers,” and “Google” with “Analog,” and you have a fairly accurate representation of Campbell’s position. He clearly saw his job as the optimization of science fiction. A diverse roster of writers, which would have resulted in far more interesting “analog simulations” of reality of the kind that he loved, would have gone a long way toward improving it. He didn’t make the effort, and the entire genre suffered as a result. Google, to its credit, seems to understand that diversity also offers competitive advantages when you aren’t just writing about the future, but inventing it. And anything else would be suboptimal.

Written by nevalalee

August 10, 2017 at 9:15 am

Children of the Lens

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During World War II, as the use of radar became widespread in battle, the U.S. Navy introduced the Combat Information Center, a shipboard tactical room with maps, consoles, and screens of the kind that we’ve all seen in television and the movies. At the time, though, it was like something out of science fiction, and in fact, back in 1939, E.E. “Doc” Smith had described a very similar display in the serial Gray Lensman:

Red lights are fleets already in motion…Greens are fleets still at their bases. Ambers are the planets the greens took off from…The white star is us, the Directrix. That violet cross way over there is Jalte’s planet, our first objective. The pink comets are our free planets, their tails showing their intrinsic velocities.

After the war, in a letter dated June 11, 1947, the editor John W. Campbell told Smith that the similarity was more than just a coincidence. Claiming to have been approached “unofficially, and in confidence” by a naval officer who played an important role in developing the C.I.C., Campbell said:

The entire setup was taken specifically, directly, and consciously from the Directrix. In your story, you reached the situation the Navy was in—more communications channels than integration techniques to handle it. You proposed such an integrating technique, and proved how advantageous it could be…Sitting in Michigan, some years before Pearl Harbor, you played a large share in the greatest and most decisive naval action of the recent war!

Unfortunately, this wasn’t true. The naval officer in question, Cal Laning, was indeed a science fiction fan—he was close friends with Robert A. Heinlein—but any resemblance to the Directrix was coincidental, or, at best, an instance of convergence as fiction and reality addressed the same set of problems. (An excellent analysis of the situation can be found in Ed Wysocki’s very useful book An Astounding War.)

If Campbell was tempted to overstate Smith’s influence, this isn’t surprising—the editor was disappointed that science fiction hadn’t played the role that he had envisioned for it in the war, and this wasn’t the first or last time that he would gently exaggerate it. Fifteen years later, however, Smith’s fiction had a profound impact on a very different field. In 1962, Steve Russell of M.I.T. developed Spacewar, the first video game to be played on more than one computer, with two spaceships dueling with torpedoes in the gravity well of a star. In an article for Rolling Stone written by my hero Stewart Brand, Russell recalled:

We had this brand new PDP-1…It was the first minicomputer, ridiculously inexpensive for its time. And it was just sitting there. It had a console typewriter that worked right, which was rare, and a paper tape reader and a cathode ray tube display…Somebody had built some little pattern-generating programs which made interesting patterns like a kaleidoscope. Not a very good demonstration. Here was this display that could do all sorts of good things! So we started talking about it, figuring what would be interesting displays. We decided that probably you could make a two-dimensional maneuvering sort of thing, and decided that naturally the obvious thing to do was spaceships…

I had just finished reading Doc Smith’s Lensman series. He was some sort of scientist but he wrote this really dashing brand of science fiction. The details were very good and it had an excellent pace. His heroes had a strong tendency to get pursued by the villain across the galaxy and have to invent their way out of their problem while they were being pursued. That sort of action was the thing that suggested Spacewar. He had some very glowing descriptions of spaceship encounters and space fleet maneuvers.

The “somebody” whom he mentions was Marvin Minsky, another science fiction fan, and Russell’s collaborator Martin Graetz elsewhere cited Smith’s earlier Skylark series as an influence on the game.

But the really strange thing is that Campbell, who had been eager to claim credit for Smith when it came to the C.I.C., never made this connection in print, at least not as far as I know, although he was hugely interested in Spacewar. In the July 1971 issue of Analog, he published an article on the game by Albert W. Kuhfeld, who had developed a variation of it at the University of Minnesota. Campbell wrote in his introductory note:

For nearly a dozen years I’ve been trying to get an article on the remarkable educational game invented at M.I.T. It’s a great game, involving genuine skill in solving velocity and angular relation problems—but I’m afraid it will never be widely popular. The playing “board” costs about a quarter of a megabuck!

Taken literally, the statement “nearly a dozen years” implies that the editor heard about Spacewar before it existed, but the evidence legitimately implies that he learned of it almost at once. Kuhfeld writes: “Although it uses a computer to handle orbital mechanics, physicists and mathematicians have no great playing advantage—John Campbell’s seventeen-year-old daughter beat her M.I.T. student-instructor on her third try—and thereafter.” Campbell’s daughter was born in 1945, which squares nicely with a visit around the time of the game’s first appearance. It isn’t implausible that Campbell would have seen and heard about it immediately—he had been close to the computer labs at Harvard and M.I.T. since the early fifties, and he made a point of dropping by once a year. If the Lensman series, the last three installments of which he published, had really been an influence on Spacewar, it seems inconceivable that nobody would have told him. For some reason, however, Campbell, who cheerfully promoted the genre’s impact on everything from the atomic bomb to the moon landing, didn’t seize the opportunity to do the same for video games, in an article that he badly wanted to publish. (In a letter to the manufacturers of the PDP-1, whom he had approached unsuccessfully for a writeup, he wrote: “I’ve tried for years to get a story on Spacewar, and I’ve repeatedly had people promise one…and not deliver.”)

So why didn’t he talk about it? The obvious answer is that he didn’t realize that Spacewar, which he thought would “never be widely popular,” was anything more than a curiosity, and if he had lived for another decade—he died just a few months after the article came out—he would have pushed the genre’s connection to video games as insistently as he did anything else. But there might have been another factor at play. For clues, we can turn to the article in Rolling Stone, in which Brand visited the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory with Annie Leibovitz, which is something that I wish I could have seen. Brand opens with the statement that computers are coming to the people, and he adds: “That’s good news, maybe the best since psychedelics.” It’s a revealing comparison, and it indicates the extent to which the computing movement was moving away from everything that Campbell represented. A description of the group’s offices at Stanford includes a detail that, if Campbell had read it, would only have added insult to injury:

Posters and announcements against the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon, computer printout photos of girlfriends…and signs on every door in Tolkien’s elvish Fëanorian script—the director’s office is Imladris, the coffee room The Prancing Pony, the computer room Mordor. There’s a lot of hair on those technicians, and nobody seems to be telling them where to scurry.

In the decade since the editor first encountered Spacewar, a lot had changed, and Campbell might have been reluctant to take much credit for it. The Analog article, which Brand mentions, saw the game as a way to teach people about orbital mechanics; Rolling Stone recognized it as a leading indicator of a development that was about to change the world. And even if he had lived, there might not have been room for Campbell. As Brand concludes:

Spacewar as a parable is almost too pat. It was the illegitimate child of the marrying of computers and graphic displays. It was part of no one’s grand scheme. It served no grand theory. It was the enthusiasm of irresponsible youngsters. It was disreputably competitive…It was an administrative headache. It was merely delightful.

The search for the zone

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Note: This post discusses plot points from Twin Peaks.

Last night’s episode of Twin Peaks featured the surprise return of Bill Hastings, the high school principal in Buckhorn, South Dakota who is somehow connected to the headless body of Major Garland Briggs. We hadn’t seen Hastings, played by Matthew Lillard, since the season premiere, and his reappearance marked one of the first times that the show has gone back to revisit an earlier subplot. Hastings, we’re told, maintained a blog called The Search for the Zone, in which he chronicled his attempts to contact other planes of reality, and the site really exists, of course, in the obligatory manner of such online ephemera as Save Walter White and the defunct What Badgers Eat. It’s a marketing impulse that seems closer to Mark Frost than David Lynch—if either of them were even involved—and I normally wouldn’t even mention it at all. Along with its fake banner ads and retro graphics, however, the page includes a section titled “Heinlein Links,” with a picture of Robert A. Heinlein and a list of a few real sites, including my friends over at The Heinlein Society. As “Hastings” writes: “Science Fiction has been a source of enjoyment for me since I was ten years old, when I read Orphans of the Sky.” Frankly, this already feels like a dead end, and, like the references to L. Ron Hubbard and Jack Parsons in The Secret History of Twin Peaks, it recalls some of the show’s least intriguing byways. (Major Briggs and the villainous Windom Earle, you might recall, were involved in Project Blue Book, the study of unidentified flying objects conducted by the Air Force, but the thread didn’t really lead anywhere, except perhaps to set off a train of thought for Chris Carter.) I enjoyed last night’s episode, but it was the most routine installment of the season so far, and this attempt at virality might be the most conventional touch of all. But since this might represent the only time in which my love of Twin Peaks will overlap with my professional interests, I should probably dig into it.

Orphans of the Sky, which was originally published as the two novellas “Universe” and “Common Sense” in Astounding Science Fiction in 1941, is arguably the most famous treatment of one of the loveliest ideas in science fiction—the generation starship, a spacecraft designed to travel for centuries or millennia until it reaches its destination. (Extra points if the passengers forget that they’re on a spaceship at all.) It’s also one of the few stories by Heinlein that can be definitively traced back to an idea provided by the editor John W. Campbell. On September 20, 1940, Campbell wrote to Heinlein with a detailed outline of the premise:

Sometime along about 3763, an expedition is finally launched from Earth to outer space—and I mean outer space…[The ship is] five miles in diameter, intended for about two thousand inhabitants, and equipped with gardens, pasturage, etc., for animals. It’s a self-sustaining economy…They’re bound for Alpha Centauri at a gradually building speed…The instruments somehow develop a systematic error, due to imperfect compensation for the rotation; they miss Centauri, plunging past it too rapidly and too far away to make landing. A brief revolt leads to the death of the few men aboard fully competent to make the necessary changes of mechanism for changing course and backtracking to Centauri. The ship can only plunge on.

But the story would be laid somewhere about 1430 After the Beginning. The characters are the remote descendants of those who took off, centuries before, from Earth. And they’re savages. The High Chiefs are the priest-engineers, who handle the small amount of non-automatic machinery…There are princes and nobles—and dull peasants. There are monsters, too, who are usually killed at birth, since every woman giving birth is required to present her baby before an inspector. That’s because of mutations, some of which are unspeakably hideous. One of which might, however, be a superman, and the hero of the story.

If you’ve read “Universe,” you can see that Campbell laid out most of it here, and that Heinlein used nearly all of it, down to the smallest details, although he later played down the extent of Campbell’s influence. (Decades later, in the collection Expanded Universe, Heinlein flatly, and falsely, stated that the unrelated serial Sixth Column “was the only story of mine ever influenced to any marked degree by John W. Campbell, Jr.”) But the two men also chose to emphasize different aspects of the narrative, in ways that reflected their interests and personalities. Most of Campbell’s letter, when it wasn’t talking about the design of the spacecraft itself, was devoted to the idea of the “scientisthood,” or a religion founded on a misinterpretation of science:

They’ve lost science, save for the priest class, who study it as a religion, and horribly misunderstand it because they learn from books written by and for people who dwelt on a planet near a sun. Here, the laws of gravity are meaningless, astronomy senseless, most of science purely superstition from a forgotten time. Naturally, there was a religious schism, a building-up of a new bastard science-religion that based itself on a weird and unnatural blending of the basic laws of science and the basic facts of their own experience…Anything is possible, and might be darned interesting. Particularly the queer, fascinating system of science-religion and so forth they’d have to live by.

The idea of a religion based on a misreading of the textbook Basic Modern Physics is a cute inversion of one of Campbell’s favorite plot devices—a fake religion deliberately dreamed up by scientists, which we see in such stories as the aforementioned Sixth Column, Isaac Asimov’s “Bridle and Saddle,” and Fritz Leiber, Jr.’s Gather, Darkness. In “Universe,” Heinlein touches on this briefly, but he was far more interested in the jarring perceptual and conceptual shift that the premise implied, which tied back into his interest in Alfred Korzybski and General Semantics: how do you come to terms with the realization that the only world you’ve ever known is really a small part of an incomprehensibly vaster reality?

“Universe” is an acknowledged landmark of the genre, although its sequel, “Common Sense,” feels more like work for hire. It isn’t hard to relate it to Hastings, whose last blog post reads in part:

We will have to reconcile with the question that if someone from outside our familiar world gains access to our plane of existence, what ramifications will that entail? There might be forces at work from deep dimensional space, or from the future…or are these one in [sic] the same?

But I’d hesitate to take the Heinlein connection too far. Twin Peaks—and most of David Lynch’s other work—has always asked us to look past the surface of things to an underlying pattern that is stranger than we can imagine, but it has little in common with the kind of cold, slightly dogmatic rationalism that we tend to see in Campbell and early Heinlein. Both men, like Korzybski or even Ayn Rand, claimed that they were only trying to get readers to think for themselves, but in practice, they were markedly impatient of anyone who disagreed with their answers. Lynch and Mark Frost’s brand of transcendence is looser, more dreamlike, and more intuitive, and its insights are more likely to be triggered by a song, the taste of coffee, or a pair of red high heels than by logical analysis. (When the show tries to lay out the pieces in a more systematic fashion, as it did last night, it doesn’t always work.) But there’s something to be said for the idea that beyond our familiar world, there’s an objective reality that would be blindingly obvious if we only managed to see it. With all the pop cultural baggage carried by Twin Peaks, it’s easy to forget that it’s also from the director and star of Dune, which took the opposite approach, with a unified past and future visible to the superhuman Kwisatz Haderach. Yet Lynch’s own mystical inclinations are more modest and humane, and neither Heinlein nor Frank Herbert have much in common with the man whose favorite psychoactive substances have always been coffee and cigarettes. And I’d rather believe in a world in which the owls are not what they seem than one in which nothing at all is what it seems. But there’s one line from “Universe” that can serve as a quiet undertone to much of Lynch’s career, and I’d prefer to leave it there: “He knew, subconsciously, that, having seen the stars, he would never be happy again.”

The saucer people

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Seventy years ago this week, a newspaper report in the Roswell Daily Record stated that the Air Force had captured a flying saucer on a ranch in New Mexico. For most of the next three decades, however, if you had mentioned this incident to your average science fiction fan, you probably would have gotten a blank stare. Roswell didn’t become a cultural touchstone until the late seventies, and it was overshadowed that same year by a more famous sighting by the pilot Kenneth Arnold, who claimed to have seen nine flying objects near Mount Rainier on June 24, 1947. Arnold’s account was so widely covered that the editor John W. Campbell felt obliged to write about it in Astounding Science Fiction. His editorial on the subject, which appeared in the October 1947 issue, ruled out the possibility of a secret government project—“They’d have been test-flown off some small Pacific island, where none but a few selected personnel, plus a few thousand fish, would have been around to report”—and speculated idly that flying saucers might be a form of surveillance. If we wanted to study another planet without being seen by the natives, he noted, we would take much the same approach:

For several months, our investigation would be conducted by non-contact observation; until we know much more about the people, we’ll do well to stay clear of them…A stealthy raid might kidnap a few inhabitants for general questioning and investigation…Investigation of local animals can give all the necessary basic biological science for the preliminary understanding of the local race…After several months of watching, listening, and picking up radio broadcasts, plus investigation of kidnapees, there would be a lot of material to digest. Captured books, particularly children’s books, would give adequate keys to the languages. At that point, we would be smart to clear out for at least a year of concentrated study of the material at hand…It might be a year or five years before any further steps were taken.

Years later, Isaac Asimov, who had a horror of unidentified flying objects, would list “flying saucers” among the causes on which Campbell became increasingly irrational, along with psionics and dianetics. In reality, Campbell wasn’t particularly interested in the subject, and he only covered it in the magazine when outside events obliged him to weigh in. Arnold’s sighting was one such incident, and the McMinnville photographs, which caused a sensation, prompted him to treat it again in the October 1950 issue, at a time when he was far more interested in other matters. Campbell said that flying saucers represented a problem of “no data,” and he compared such sightings to the “background count” picked up by a radiation detector—most of it was just noise. But there were some intriguing patterns:

Some type of real artifact, referred to as flying saucers, appears to exist; the incidence of reports far exceeds any reasonable level of “background count.” Too many observers—too many places—too many simultaneous observations of the same unknown. Something real exists; that we can file as real, valid data…But—this is an important datum—the planet-wide reports do not noticeably exceed the normal level of what we have called here the “background count”…It has been suggested that the flying saucers are interplanetary visitors. But the frequency of occurrence does not show an even planetary distribution; there is a background-count level around the world, with a high peak level in the United States.

He pointed out that most of the sightings took place in the Pacific Northwest, but not in adjacent regions of Canada or Mexico, and he concluded: “It’s a remarkable interplanetary visitor that shows such keen awareness of political boundaries.”

In a reversal of his earlier stance, Campbell hinted strongly that he thought that it was some kind of military program, which he confirmed in another editorial in January 1953: “Their marked tendency to confine their operations to the western United States was, in fact, a factor which made me feel, for a long time, that they were a United States military secret weapon. I was at a loss to explain why an alien, an extraterrestrial, would show such marked preference for that particular geographic area.” (As editor of the magazine Air Trails, he implied to a friend that he had seen a “flying disc,” although he wasn’t able to talk about it.) Campbell then playfully suggested another possible reason why such sightings tended to take place over “the square states,” proposing that aliens were telepathically sensitive, and that they would avoid big cities—where the psychic tension was high—in favor of less inhabited areas that showed a high degree of technological development. For the most part, however, his attitude remained cautious. At the end of the decade, in the April 1959 issue, he wrote:

To date, despite reams of argument and statements, the only sure, positive statement about UFOs that can be made is, “There is a phenomenon. Its nature and cause are totally indeterminable from the data and the technical understanding available to us at the time.” They might be scout ships of interstellar visitors…and they might be giant plasmids of ionized gases of our own atmosphere. They are not the result of any phenomenon adequately known to modern science.

Campbell, who had featured a crashed spacecraft in “Who Goes There?”, was also reluctant to publish fiction on the subject, writing in a rejection letter in 1952: “I’m afraid I can’t touch this one; the flying saucers scare me. Essentially, the point is this: science fiction is speculation based on science. That’s sane, sensible, and helpful. The flying saucers aren’t science; they’re speculation. Now speculation built on speculation is not sane, sensible, and helpful—it’s wild-blue-yonder stuff. It’s insane, and confuses the issue.”

What’s funny, of course, is that Campbell was perfectly willing to publish “speculation built on speculation” about countless other subjects, such as psionics. In October 1953, in the editorial “Unwise Knowledge,” he even made the case that science fiction was the best possible place to talk about such strange matters, since speculation for the purposes of entertainment had a purely positive value. (It’s also worth noting that he didn’t avoid the topic entirely. In the March 1961 issue of Analog, he published a very odd piece by Arthur W. Orton titled “The Four-Faced Visitors of Ezekiel,” which made the case that the vision of the merkabah was really a visit from ancient astronauts. The article generated a lot of attention, and even Asimov liked it, writing a complimentary letter that was printed a few issues later.) Yet Campbell was mostly uninterested in flying saucers, despite the fact that he was naturally sympathetic to such accounts—as a college student at Duke, he had seen a display of ball lightning at his house in Durham, North Carolina, only to have it dismissed by one of his old professors, and he later suggested that a similar phenomenon might lie behind UFO sightings. So why did he steer clear? One reason is that the territory had already been aggressively claimed by Raymond A. Palmer, the former editor of Amazing, who wrote The Coming of the Saucers with Kenneth Arnold and even founded an entire magazine devoted to it. Campbell may have figured that there wasn’t room for two editors. But there was also a more important consideration. In 1954, he wrote to a correspondent:

The flying saucers aren’t facts; they’re Somethings. They may be optical illusions, interstellar travelers, St. Elmo’s Fire, weather balloons…who knows what. To speculate on something so vague and unsure itself is the essence of insane thinking. Quite literally, it would be dangerous for a mind to speculate on unknown-somethings…I don’t know what causes “flying saucer” reports. As soon as sound data as to what it is that causes the reports is available, I’ll be willing to discuss the implications!

The italics are mine. Campbell liked data, even if it came from questionable sources, which was why he was so enthusiastic about such devices as the Hieronymus Machine. He wanted something that he could control. And when it came to flying saucers, he just couldn’t get on board.

Written by nevalalee

July 7, 2017 at 9:18 am

The ultimate trip

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On Saturday, I was lucky enough to see 2001: A Space Odyssey on the big screen at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago. I’ve seen this movie well over a dozen times, but watching it on a pristine new print from the fourth row allowed me to pick up on tiny details that I’d never noticed before, such as the fact that David Bowman, stranded at the end in his celestial hotel room, ends up wearing a blue velvet robe startlingly like Isabella Rossellini’s. I was also struck by the excellence of the acting, which might sound like a joke, but it isn’t. Its human protagonists have often been dismissed—Roger Ebert, who thought it was one of the greatest films of all time, called it “a bloodless movie with faceless characters”—and none of the actors, aside from Douglas Rain as the voice of HAL, are likely to stick in the memory. (As Noël Coward reputedly said: “Keir Dullea, gone tomorrow.”) But on an objective level, these are nothing less than the most naturalistic performances of any studio movie of the sixties. There isn’t a trace of the affectation or overacting that you see in so much science fiction, and Dullea, Gary Lockwood, and particularly William Sylvester, in his nice dry turn as Heywood Floyd, are utterly believable. You could make a strong case that their work here has held up better than most of the more conventionally acclaimed performances from the same decade. This doesn’t make them any better or worse, but it gives you a sense of what Kubrick, who drew his characters as obsessively as his sets and special effects, was trying to achieve. He wanted realism in his acting, along with everything else, and this is how it looks, even if we aren’t used to seeing it in space.

The result is still the most convincing cinematic vision of space exploration that we have, as well as the most technically ambitious movie ever made, and its impact, like that of all great works of art, appears in surprising places. By coincidence, I went to see 2001 the day after Donald Trump signed an executive order to reinstate the National Space Council, at a very peculiar ceremony that was held with a minimum of fanfare. The event was attended by Buzz Aldrin, who has played scenes across from Homer Simpson and Optimus Prime, and I can’t be sure that this didn’t strike him as the strangest stage he had ever shared. Here are a few of Trump’s remarks, pulled straight from the official transcript:

Security is going to be a very big factor with respect to space and space exploration.  At some point in the future, we’re going to look back and say, how did we do it without space? The Vice President will serve as the council’s chair….Some of the most successful people in the world want to be on this board…Our journey into space will not only make us stronger and more prosperous, but will unite us behind grand ambitions and bring us all closer together. Wouldn’t that be nice? Can you believe that space is going to do that? I thought politics would do that. Well, we’ll have to rely on space instead…We will inspire millions of children to carry on this proud tradition of American space leadership—and they’re excited—and to never stop wondering, hoping, and dreaming about what lies beyond the stars.

Taking a seat, Trump opened the executive order, exclaiming: “I know what this is. Space!” Aldrin then piped up with what was widely reported as a reference to Toy Story: “Infinity and beyond!” Trump seemed pleased: “This is infinity here. It could be infinity. We don’t really don’t know. But it could be. It has to be something—but it could be infinity, right?”

As HAL 9000 once said: “Yes, it’s puzzling.” Aldrin may have been quoting Toy Story, but he might well have been thinking of 2001, too, the last section of which is titled “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.” (As an aside, I should note that the line “To infinity and beyond” makes its first known appearance, as far as I can tell, in John W. Campbell’s 1934 serial The Mightiest Machine.) It’s an evocative but meaningless phrase, with the same problems that led Arthur C. Clarke to express doubts about Kubrick’s working title, Journey Beyond the Stars—which Trump, you’ll notice, also echoed. Its semantic content is nonexistent, which is only fitting for a ceremony that underlined the intellectual bankruptcy of this administration’s approach to space. I don’t think I’m overstating the matter when I say that Trump and Mike Pence have shown nothing but contempt for other forms of science. The science division of the Office of Science and Technology Policy lies empty. Pence has expressed bewilderment at the fact that climate change has emerged, “for some reason,” as an issue on the left. And Trump has proposed significant cuts to science and technology funding agencies. Yet his excitement for space seems unbounded and apparently genuine. He asked eagerly of astronaut Peggy Whitson: “Tell me, Mars, what do you see a timing for actually sending humans to Mars? Is there a schedule and when would you see that happening?” And the reasons behind his enthusiasm are primarily aesthetic and emotional. One of his favorite words is “beautiful,” in such phrases as “big, beautiful wall” and “beautiful military equipment,” and it was much in evidence here: “It is America’s destiny to be at the forefront of humanity’s eternal quest for knowledge and to be the leader amongst nations on our adventure into the great unknown. And I could say the great and very beautiful unknown. Nothing more beautiful.”

But the truly scary thing is that if Trump believes that the promotion of space travel can be divorced from any concern for science itself, he’s absolutely right. As I’ve said here before, in the years when science fiction was basically a subcategory of adventure fiction, with ray guns instead of revolvers, space was less important in itself than as the equivalent of the unexplored frontier of the western: it stood for the unknown, and it was a perfect backdrop for exciting plots. Later, when the genre began to take itself more seriously as a predictive literature, outer space was grandfathered in as a setting, even if it had little to do with any plausible vision of the future. Space exploration seemed like an essential part of our destiny as a species because it happened to be part of the genre already. As a result, you can be excited by the prospect of going to Mars while actively despising or distrusting everything else about science—which may be the only reason that we managed to get to the moon at all. (These impulses may have less to do with science than with religion. The most haunting image from the Apollo 11 mission, all the more so because it wasn’t televised, may be that of Aldrin taking communion on the lunar surface.) Science fiction made it possible, and part of the credit, or blame, falls on Kubrick. Watching 2001, I had tears in my eyes, and I felt myself filled with all my old emotions of longing and awe. As Kubrick himself stated: “If 2001 has stirred your emotions, your subconscious, your mythological yearnings, then it has succeeded.” And it did, all too well, at the price of separating our feelings for space even further from science, and of providing a place for those subconscious urges to settle while leaving us consciously indifferent to problems closer to home. Kubrick might not have faked the moon landing, but he faked a Jupiter mission, and he did it beautifully. And maybe, at least for now, it should save us the expense of doing it for real.

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