Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘John W. Campbell

The men who sold the moonshot

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When you ask Google whether we should build houses on the ocean, it gives you a bunch of results like these. If you ask Google X, the subsidiary within the company responsible for investigating “moonshot” projects like self-driving cars and space elevators, the answer that you get is rather different, as Derek Thompson reports in the cover story for this month’s issue of The Atlantic:

Like a think-tank panel with the instincts of an improv troupe, the group sprang into an interrogative frenzy. “What are the specific economic benefits of increasing housing supply?” the liquid-crystals guy asked. “Isn’t the real problem that transportation infrastructure is so expensive?” the balloon scientist said. “How sure are we that living in densely built cities makes us happier?” the extradimensional physicist wondered. Over the course of an hour, the conversation turned to the ergonomics of Tokyo’s high-speed trains and then to Americans’ cultural preference for suburbs. Members of the team discussed commonsense solutions to urban density, such as more money for transit, and eccentric ideas, such as acoustic technology to make apartments soundproof and self-driving housing units that could park on top of one another in a city center. At one point, teleportation enjoyed a brief hearing.

Thompson writes a little later: “I’d expected the team at X to sketch some floating houses on a whiteboard, or discuss ways to connect an ocean suburb to a city center, or just inform me that the idea was terrible. I was wrong. The table never once mentioned the words floating or ocean. My pitch merely inspired an inquiry into the purpose of housing and the shortfalls of U.S. infrastructure. It was my first lesson in radical creativity. Moonshots don’t begin with brainstorming clever answers. They start with the hard work of finding the right questions.”

I don’t know why Thompson decided to ask about “oceanic residences,” but I read this section of the article with particular interest, because about two years ago, I spent a month thinking about the subject intensively for my novella “The Proving Ground.” As I’ve described elsewhere, I knew early on in the process that it was going to be a story about the construction of a seastead in the Marshall Islands, which was pretty specific. There was plenty of background material available, ranging from general treatments of the idea in books like The Millennial Project by Marshall T. Savage—which had been sitting unread on my shelf for years—to detailed proposals for seasteads in the real world. The obvious source was The Seasteading Institute, a libertarian pipe dream funded by Peter Thiel that generated a lot of useful plans along the way, as long as you saw it as the legwork for a science fiction story, rather than as a project on which you were planning to actually spend fifty billion dollars. The difference between most of these proposals and the brainstorming session that Thompson describes is that they start with a floating city and then look for reasons to justify it. Seasteading is a solution in search of a problem. In other words, it’s science fiction, which often starts with a premise or setting that seems like it would lead to an exciting story and then searches for the necessary rationalizations. (The more invisible the process, the better.) And this can lead us to troubling places. As I’ve noted before, Thiel blames many of this country’s problems on “a failure of imagination,” and his nostalgia for vintage science fiction is rooted in a longing for the grand gestures that it embodied: the flying car, the seastead, the space colony. As he famously said six years ago to The New Yorker: “The anthology of the top twenty-five sci-fi stories in 1970 was, like, ‘Me and my friend the robot went for a walk on the moon,’ and in 2008 it was, like, ‘The galaxy is run by a fundamentalist Islamic confederacy, and there are people who are hunting planets and killing them for fun.'”

Google X isn’t immune to this tendency—Google Glass was, if anything, a solution in search of a problem—and some degree of science-fictional thinking is probably inherent to any such enterprise. In his article, Thompson doesn’t mention science fiction by name, but the whole division is clearly reminiscent of and inspired by the genre, down to the term “moonshot” and that mysterious letter at the end of its name. (Company lore claims that the “X” was chosen as “a purposeful placeholder,” but it’s hard not to think that it was motivated by the same impulse that gave us Dimension X, X Minus 1, Rocketship X-M, and even The X-Files.) In fact, an earlier article for The Atlantic looked at this connection in depth, and its conclusions weren’t altogether positive. Three years ago, in the same publication, Robinson Meyer quoted a passage from an article in Fast Company about the kinds of projects favored by Google X, but he drew a more ambivalent conclusion:

A lot of people might read that [description] and think: Wow, cool, Google is trying to make the future! But “science fiction” provides but a tiny porthole onto the vast strangeness of the future. When we imagine a “science fiction”-like future, I think we tend to picture completed worlds, flying cars, the shiny, floating towers of midcentury dreams. We tend, in other words, to imagine future technological systems as readymade, holistic products that people will choose to adopt, rather than as the assembled work of countless different actors, which they’ve always really been. The futurist Scott Smith calls these “flat-pack futures,” and they infect “science fictional” thinking.

He added: “I fear—especially when we talk about “science fiction”—that we miss the layeredness of the world, that many people worked to build it…Flying through space is awesome, but if technological advocates want not only to make their advances but to hold onto them, we have better learn the virtues of incrementalism.” (The contrast between Meyer’s skepticism and Thompson’s more positive take feels like a matter of access—it’s easier to criticize Google X’s assumptions when it’s being profiled by a rival magazine.)

But Meyer makes a good point, and science fiction’s mixed record at dealing with incrementalism is a natural consequence of its origins in popular fiction. A story demands a protagonist, which encourages writers to see scientific progress in terms of heroic figures. The early fiction of John W. Campbell returns monotonously to the same basic plot, in which a lone genius discovers atomic power and uses it to build a spaceship, drawing on the limitless resources of a wealthy and generous benefactor. As Isaac Asimov noted in his essay “Big, Big, Big”:

The thing about John Campbell is that he liked things big. He liked big men with big ideas working out big applications of their big theories. And he liked it fast. His big men built big weapons within days; weapons that were, moreover, without serious shortcomings, or at least, with no shortcomings that could not be corrected as follows: “Hmm, something’s wrong—oh, I see—of course.” Then, in two hours, something would be jerry-built to fix the jerry-built device.

This works well enough in pulp adventure, but after science fiction began to take itself seriously as prophecy, it fossilized into the notion that all problems can be approached as provinces of engineering and solved by geniuses working alone or in small groups. Elon Musk has been compared to Tony Stark, but he’s really the modern incarnation of a figure as old as The Skylark of Space, and the adulation that he still inspires shades into beliefs that are even less innocuous—like the idea that our politics should be entrusted to similarly big men. Writing of Google X’s Rapid Evaluation team, Thompson uses terms that would have made Campbell salivate: “You might say it’s Rapid Eval’s job to apply a kind of future-perfect analysis to every potential project: If this idea succeeds, what will have been the challenges? If it fails, what will have been the reasons?” Science fiction likes to believe that it’s better than average at this kind of forecasting. But it’s just as likely that it’s worse.

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October 11, 2017 at 9:02 am

The flicker effect

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In 1953, the neurologist and roboticist W. Grey Walter published an extraordinary book titled The Living Brain. Among his many other accomplishments, Walter was a pioneer in the use of the electroencephalograph to study the brain’s electrical activity, which was described here for the first time for a wide popular audience, although his book become more famous for the chapter “Revelation by Flicker.” It described how stroboscopic light could produce epileptic seizures and other neurological reactions, including one particularly memorable anecdote: “A man found that when he went to the cinema he would suddenly feel an irresistible impulse to strangle the person next to him.” And when Walter tested the equipment on his own team, he became aware of some unusual effects:

In the biological sciences it is a good principle to be your own rabbit, to experiment on yourself; in electroencephalography the practice is widespread, convenient, and harmless. Whenever a new instrument is to be tested or calibrated, normal subjects from among the laboratory staff are used as “signal generators”…When we started to use high-power electronic stroboscopes to generate flicker, with the aim of testing the hypothesis of resonant synchronization in epilepsy, we took a large number of records from one another while looking at the brilliant flashing light…The tests were entirely satisfactory and in fact gave us much information which will be discussed later, but as well as that we all noticed a peculiar effect. The effect was a vivid illusion of moving patterns whenever one closed one’s eyes and allowed the flicker to shine through the eyelids.

Walter characterized these patterns as “whirling spirals, whirlpools, explosions, Catherine wheels,” quoting an evocative passage from a memoir by Margiad Evans, a poet who suffered from epilepsy:

I lay there holding the green thumbless hand of the leaf while things clicked and machinery came to life, and commands to gasp, to open and shut my eyes, reached me from across the unseen room, as though by wireless. Lights like comets dangled before me, slow at first and then gaining a fury of speed and change, whirling color into color, angle into angle. They were all pure ultra unearthly colors, mental colors, not deep visual ones. There was no glow in them but only activity and revolution.

After investigating further, Walter concluded that the imagery wasn’t an optical illusion caused by the light, but a phenomenon that occurred within the eye or brain itself, and that it involved more than one sensory system. (Walter doesn’t mention this in particular, but after reading his description of “whirling spirals,” I was surprised that it hasn’t been more widely used to explain away the vision of the chariot—with its mysterious “wheel within a wheel”—of the prophet Ezekiel, who has been diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy.) And his work with strobe lights inspired a number of interested readers to try it out for themselves, although to rather different ends, in the fifties equivalent of neurohacking.

One was John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction. After reading The Living Brain, he wrote—but evidently never sent—a long letter to Walter himself, and he also built a “panic generator” with a flickering fluorescent tube in his basement workshop. (The idea of using flickering lights to induce hypnotism was a familiar one in the genre, and it had appeared in stories including Campbell’s short novel The Elder Gods and in L. Sprague de Camp’s “The Exalted.”) When he tried the device on his family, his wife’s throat tightened up, his stepson felt asthmatic, and his daughter’s head hurt, but it bothered Campbell for just ten seconds. He was, he proudly noted, “immune.” Writing to his father, he said that he thought that it might have therapeutic value:

The only way a human being exposed to this device can continue to think coherently is by shifting his method of thinking. He either changes his method—his frequency—or is hopelessly scrambled in panic. The device, however, doesn’t tell him to think; it simply forces him to think in some new manner. The result is that the problems he’s been denying existed, the ideas he’s been refusing to consider—all of these will now come into sight, and he’ll be forced to at least consider them. The one sure and certain thing is that he can not continue to think in the terms he has been!

This insight inspired one of Campbell’s best editorials, “The Value of Panic,” as well as a premise that he gave to G. Harry Stine, who wrote under the pen name Lee Correy. The resulting story, “Design Flaw,” was about an experimental rocket plane plagued by a series of accidents that turn out to be caused by a flashing screen that provides landing data, which accidentally interferes with the pilot’s alpha rhythms.

A few years afterward, Walter’s work had an even more striking afterlife, and it serves as a reminder of the surprising overlap in those decades between science fiction and the counterculture. On September 14, 1960, William S. Burroughs wrote enigmatically to his friend Brion Gysin: “Also will see Grey Walter when he returns from vacation.” He followed up two weeks later: “I heard Grey Walter. Most interesting and will make a flicker date with him in Bristol.” Burroughs also wrote to Walter directly about “possible therapeutic applications in drug addiction” and “the effect of flicker on the creative process,” neatly tying together the two major threads of his career. His interest in the flicker effect emerged from the same impulse that led to his ongoing dalliance with Scientology, and he often mentioned the two in the same breath in his letters. And it led Gysin and his collaborator Ian Sommerville to build the Dream Machine, a rotating cylinder with flashing slits that was viewed with the eyes closed. In an interview, Burroughs vividly described its effects: “Elaborate geometric constructions of incredible intricacy build up from multidimensional mosaic into living fireballs like the mandalas of Eastern mysticism or resolve momentarily into apparently individual images and powerfully dramatic scenes like brightly colored dreams.” And he closed in terms that echoed Margiad Evans, who had spoken of “lights like comets”:

“Flicker” creates a dazzling multiplicity of images in constantly altering relationships which makes the “collages” and “assemblages” of so-called “modern” art appear utterly ineffectual and slow. Art history is no longer being created. Art history as the enumeration of individual images ended with the direct introduction of light as the principal agents in the creation of images which have become infinitely multiple, complex and all-pervading. The comet is Light.

Sci-Fi and Si

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In 1959, the newspaper magnate Samuel I. Newhouse allegedly asked his wife Mitzi what she wanted for their upcoming wedding anniversary. When she told him that she wanted Vogue, he bought all of Condé Nast. At the time, the publishing firm was already in negotiations to acquire the titles of the aging Street & Smith, and Newhouse, its new owner, inherited this transaction. Here’s how Carol Felsenthal describes the deal in Citizen Newhouse:

For $4 million [Newhouse] bought Charm, Living for Young Homemakers, and Mademoiselle. (Also included were five sports annuals, which he ignored, allowing them to continue to operate with a minimal staff and low-overhead offices—separate from Condé Nast’s—and to earn a small but steady profit.) He ordered that Charm be folded into Glamour. Living for Young Homemakers become House & Garden Guides. Mademoiselle was allowed to survive because its audience was younger and better educated than Glamour’s; Mademoiselle was aimed at the college girl, Glamour at the secretary.

Newhouse’s eldest son, who was known as Si, joined Glamour at the age of thirty-five, and within a few years, he was promoted to oversee all the company’s magazines. When he passed away yesterday, as his obituary in the Times notes, he was a media titan “who as the owner of The New Yorker, Vogue, Vanity Fair, Architectural Digest and other magazines wielded vast influence over American culture, fashion and social taste.”

What this obituary—and all the other biographies that I’ve seen—fails to mention is that when the Newhouses acquired Street & Smith, they also bought Astounding Science Fiction. In the context of two remarkably busy lives, this merits little more than a footnote, but it was a significant event in the career of John W. Campbell and, by extension, the genre as a whole. In practice, Campbell was unaffected by the change in ownership, and he joked that he employed Condé Nast to get his ideas out, rather than the other way around. (Its most visible impact was a brief experiment with a larger format, allowing the magazine to sell ads to technical advertisers that didn’t make smaller printing plates, but the timing was lousy, and it was discontinued after two years.) But it also seems to have filled him with a sense of legitimacy. Campbell, like his father, had an uncritical admiration for businessmen—capitalism was the one orthodoxy that he took at face value—and from his new office in the Graybar Building on Lexington Avenue, he continued to identify with his corporate superiors. When Isaac Asimov tried to pick up a check at lunch, Campbell pinned his hand to the table: “Never argue with a giant corporation, Isaac.” And when a fan told him that he had written a story, but wasn’t sure whether it was right for the magazine, Campbell drew himself up: “And since when does the Condé Nast Publications, Incorporated pay you to make editorial decisions?” In fact, the change in ownership seems to have freed him up to make the title change that he had been contemplating for years. Shortly after the sale, Astounding became Analog, much to the chagrin of longtime fans.

Some readers discerned more sinister forces at work. In the memorial essay collection John W. Campbell: An Australian Tribute, the prominent fan Redd Boggs wrote: “What indulgent publisher is this who puts out and puts up with Campbell’s personal little journal, his fanzine?…One was astounded to see the magazine plunge along as hardily as ever after Condé Nast and Samuel I. Newhouse swallowed up and digested Street & Smith.” He went on to answer his own question:

We are making a mistake when we think of Analog as a science fiction magazine and of John W. Campbell as an editor. The financial backer or backers of Analog obviously do not think that way. They regard Analog first and foremost as a propaganda mill for the right wing, and Campbell as a propagandist of formidable puissance and persuasiveness. The stories, aside from those which echo Campbell’s own ideas, are only incidental to the magazine, the bait that lures the suckers. Analog’s raison d’être is Campbell’s editorials. If Campbell died, retired, or backslid into rationality, the magazine would fold instantly…

Campbell is a precious commodity indeed, a clever and indefatigable propagandist for the right wing, much superior in intelligence and persuasive powers to, say, William F. Buckley, and he works for bargain basement prices at that. And if our masters are as smart as I think they are…I feel sure that they would know how to cherish such heaven-sent gifts, even as I would.

This is an ingenious argument, and I almost want to believe it, if only because it makes science fiction seem as important as it likes to see itself. In reality, it seems likely that Si Newhouse barely thought about Analog at all, which isn’t to say that he wasn’t aware of it. His Times obituary notes: “He claimed to read every one of his magazines—they numbered more than fifteen—from cover to cover.” This conjures up the interesting image of Newhouse reading the first installment of Dune and the latest update on the Dean Drive, although it’s hard to imagine that he cared. Campbell—who must have existed as a wraith in the peripheral vision of Diana Vreeland of Vogue, who worked in the same building for nearly a decade—was allowed to run the magazine on his own, and it was tolerated as along as it remained modestly profitable. Newhouse’s own interests ran less to science fiction than toward what David Remnick describes as “gangster pictures, romantic comedies, film noir, silent comedies, the avant-garde.” (He did acquire Wired, but his most profound impact on our future was one that nobody could have anticipated—it was his idea to publish Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal.) When you love science fiction, it can seem like nothing else matters, but it hardly registers in the life of someone like Newhouse. We don’t know what Campbell thought of him, but I suspect that he wished that they had been closer. Campbell wanted nothing more than to bring his notions, like psionics, to a wider audience, and he spent the last decade of his career with a publishing magnate within view but tantalizingly out of reach—and his name was even “Psi.”

The final problem

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In 1966, Howard L. Applegate, an administrator for the science fiction manuscript collection at Syracuse University, wrote to the editor John W. Campbell to ask if he would be interested in donating his papers. Campbell replied that he no longer possessed most of the original files, and he concluded: “Sorry, but any scholarly would-be biographers are going to have a tough time finding any useful documentation on me! I just didn’t keep the records!” Fortunately for me, this statement wasn’t totally true—I’ve spent the last two years combing through thousands of pages of letters, magazines, and other documents to assemble a picture of Campbell’s life, and if anything, there’s more here than any one person can absorb. I haven’t read it all, but I feel confident that I’ve looked at more of it than anyone else alive, and I often relate to what Robin W. Winks writes in his introduction to the anthology The Historian as Detective:

Historians pose to themselves difficult, even impossibly difficult, questions. Since they are reasonably intelligent and inquiring and since they do not wish to spend their lives upon a single question or line of investigation, they normally impose a time limit upon a given project or book (or the time limit is imposed for them by a “publish or perish” environment). They will invariably encounter numerous unforeseen difficulties because of missing papers, closed collections, new questions, and tangential problems; and the search through the archive, the chase after the single hoped-to-be-vital manuscript, has an excitement of its own, for that dénouement, the discovery, an answer may—one always hopes—lie in the next folio, in the next collection, in the next archive.

My work is more modest in scale than that of most academic historians, but I can understand the importance of a deadline, the hope that the next page that I read will contain a crucial piece of information, and the need for impossible questions. When I first got my hands on the microfilm reels of Campbell’s letters, I felt as if I’d stumbled across a treasure trove, and I found a lot of fascinating material that I never would have discovered otherwise. As I worked my way through the images, one inch at a time, I kept an eye on how much I had left, and as it dwindled, I felt a sinking feeling at the thought that I might never find certain answers. In fact, I never did resolve a few important issues to my satisfaction—although perhaps that wasn’t the right way to approach this particular Nachlass. In his introduction, Winks draws a telling contrast between the American and the European schools of history:

With sufficient diligence American historians can expect to find the answer—or at least an answer—to most factual or non-value questions they may choose to put to themselves. As a result, American researchers tend to begin with the questions they wish to entertain first (Did failed farmers truly move West to begin life anew in the eighteen-forties? Did immigrants reinforce older patterns of life or create new ones?), confident that the data can be found. European historians, on the other hand, are likely to begin with the available source materials first, and then look to see what legitimate questions they might ask of those sources. (Here are the private papers of Joseph Chamberlain, or of Gladstone, or of Disraeli. What do they tell me of British polities? Of Queen Victoria? Of the Jameson Raid? Of the development of British tariff policy? Of Colonial affairs? Of Ireland?)

Winks’s point is that American scholars have the advantage when it comes to sources, since there are vast archives available for every state with materials dating back to their founding. In writing about the history of science fiction, which is its own country of the mind, I’ve found that the situation is closer to what he says about European historiography. I’m far from the first person to explore this material, and I’m astounded by the diligence, depth of experience, and mastery of the facts of the fans I’ve met along the way, who have saved me from countless mistakes. In some areas, I’ve also been fortunate enough to build on the efforts of previous scholars, like Sam Moskowitz, whose book The Immortal Storm was accurately described by the fan historian Harry Warner, Jr.: “If read directly after a history of World War II, it does not seem like an anticlimax.” (I’m similarly grateful for the work of the late William H. Patterson, who did for Heinlein what I’m hoping to do for Campbell, thereby relieving me of much of the necessity of going over the same ground twice.) But there were also times at which I had to start with the available resources and see what they had to offer me. A lot of it was tedious and unrewarding, as detective work undoubtedly is in the real world. As Winks writes:

Much of the historian’s work, then, like that of the insurance investigator, the fingerprint man, or the coroner, may to the outsider seem to consist of deadening routine. Many miles of intellectual shoe leather will be used, for many metaphorical laundry lists, uninformative diaries, blank checkbooks, old telephone directories, and other trivia will stand between the researcher and his answer. Yet the routine must be pursued or the clue may be missed; the apparently false trail must be followed in order to be certain that it is false; the mute witnesses must be asked the reasons for their silence, for the piece of evidence that is missing from where one might reasonably expect to find it is, after all, a form of evidence in itself.

And the real point of asking a question is less the possibility of an answer than the motivation that it provides for you to keep digging. Winks nicely evokes the world in which the historian lives:

Precisely because the historian must turn to all possible witnesses, he is the most bookish of men. For him, no printed statement is without its interest. For him, the destruction of old cookbooks, gazetteers, road maps, Sears Roebuck catalogues, children’s books, railway timetables, or drafts of printed manuscripts, is the loss of potential evidence. Does one wish to know how the mail-order business was operated or how a Nebraska farmer might have dressed in 1930? Look to those catalogues. Does one wish to know whether a man from Washington just might have been in New York on a day in 1861 when it can be proved that he was in the capital on the day before and the day after? The timetables will help tell us of the opportunity.

But it’s only with a specific question in mind that the historian—or biographer—will bother to seek out such arcana at all, and you’re often rewarded with something that has nothing to do with the reasons why you originally looked. (Sometimes you find it on the other side of the page.) Every setback that I’ve encountered in search of a specific piece of information has opened new doors, and a question is simply the story that we tell ourselves to justify the search. The image that I like to use isn’t a private eye, but the anonymous reporter Thompson in Citizen Kane, whose boss, the shadowy Mr. Rawlston, tells him to solve the mystery of Kane’s last words: “See ‘em all! Get in touch with everybody that ever worked for him, whoever loved him, whoever hated his guts. I don’t mean go through the city directory, of course.” But that’s what you wind up doing. And as I near the end of this book, I’m haunted by what Rawlston says just before we cut to the lightning flash that illuminates the face of Susan Alexander: “It’ll probably turn out to be a very simple thing.”

The passion of the pulps

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

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

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

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

Before I dig into the argument itself, I should probably review Asimov’s earlier statements about women in science fiction, which go back half a century. In the late thirties, before he became a published writer, he was a regular contributor to the letters column in Astounding, and as I’ve noted here before, he would have had reason to later regret some of his comments, as when he wrote: “When we want science fiction, we don’t want swooning dames…Come on, men, make yourself heard in favor of less love mixed with our science.” And he wasn’t kidding. In “Women and Science Fiction,” Asimov acknowledged:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The First Foundation, Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The First Foundation, Part 2

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

—Private Willis, Iolanthe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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