Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘John W. Campbell

The science fiction sieve

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Note: To celebrate the World Science Fiction Convention this week in San Jose, I’m republishing a few of my favorite pieces on various aspects of the genre. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on June 28, 2017.

In a remarkably lucid essay published last year in Nautilus, the mathematician Noson S. Yanofsky elegantly defines the self-imposed limitations of science. Yanofsky points out that scientists deliberately take a subset of phenomena—characterized mostly by how amenable it is to their chosen methods—for their field of study, while leaving the rest to the social sciences or humanities. (As Paul Valéry put it: “Science means simply the aggregate of all the recipes that are always successful. All the rest is literature.”) He visualizes science as a kind of sieve, which lets in some subjects while excluding others:

The reason why we see the structure we do is that scientists act like a sieve and focus only on those phenomena that have structure and are predictable. They do not take into account all phenomena; rather, they select those phenomena they can deal with…Scientists have classified the general textures and heights of different types of clouds, but, in general, are not at all interested in the exact shape of a cloud. Although the shape is a physical phenomenon, scientists don’t even attempt to study it. Science does not study all physical phenomena. Rather, science studies predictable physical phenomena. It is almost a tautology: science predicts predictable phenomena.

Yanofsky groups these criteria under the general heading “symmetry,” and he concludes: “The physicist must be a sieve and study those phenomena that possess symmetry and allow those that do not possess symmetry to slip through her fingers.” I won’t get into the rest of his argument, which draws an ingenious analogy from mathematics, except to say that it’s worth reading in its entirety. But I think his thesis is sound, and it ties into many issues that I’ve discussed here before, particularly about the uncomfortable status of the social sciences.

If you’re trying to catch this process in action, though, the trouble is that the boundaries of science aren’t determined by a general vote, or even by the work of isolated geniuses, but emerge gradually and invisibly from the contributions of countless individuals. But if I were a historian of science, I’d take a close look at the development of science fiction, in which an analogous evolution occurred in plain sight over a relatively short period of time. You can see it clearly in the career of the editor John W. Campbell, who remained skeptical of the social sciences, but whose signal contribution to the genre may have been to put them at its center. And the “sieve” that he ended up using is revealing in itself. A significant turning point was the arrival on his desk of Robert A. Heinlein’s landmark novella “If This Goes On—,” of which Campbell wrote in 1939:

Robert Heinlein, in his “If This Goes On—,” presents a civilization in which mob psychology and propaganda have become sciences. They aren’t, yet…Psychology isn’t a science, so long as a trained psychologist does—and must—say “there’s no telling how an individual man will react to a given stimulus.” Properly developed, psychology could determine that.

As an editor, Campbell began to impose psychological and sociological elements onto stories where they didn’t always fit, much as he would gratuitously insert references to uranium-235 during World War II. He irritated Isaac Asimov, for instance, by asking him to add a section to the story “Homo Sol” about “certain distinctions between the emotional reactions of Africans and Asians as compared with those of Americans and Europeans.” Asimov saw this as an early sign of Campbell’s racial views, and perhaps it was, but it pointed just as convincingly to his interest in mass psychology.

And readers took notice at a surprisingly early stage. In the November 1940 issue of Astounding, a fan named Lynn Bridges presciently wrote:

The Astounding Science Fiction of the past year has brought forth a new type of story, best described, perhaps, as “sociological” science fiction. The spaceships…are still present, but more emphasis has been placed on the one item which will have more to do with shaping the future than anything else, that strange race of bipeds known as man…Both Asimov [in “Homo Sol”] and Heinlein [in “If This Goes On—”] treat psychology as an exact science, usable in formulas, certain in results. I feel called upon to protest. Its very nature prevents psychology from achieving the exactness of mathematics…The moment men stop varying and the psychologist can say definitely that all men are alike psychologically, progress stops and the world becomes a very boring Utopia.

Campbell responded: “Psychology could improve a lot, though, without becoming dangerously oppressive!” Just two months later, in a letter in the January 1941 issue, Asimov referred to the prospect of “mathematical psychology”: “If we can understand Einstein and Hitler down to the mathematical whys and wherefores, we might try to boost along a few Einsteins and cut down on a few Hitlers, and progress might really get going.” Campbell replied much as before: “Psychology isn’t an exact science—but it can be.” Implicit in the whole discussion was the question of whether psychology could be tackled using the same hard-headed engineering approach that had worked for the genre before. And as I’ve written elsewhere, the evolution of Campbellian science fiction is largely one of writers who were so good at lecturing us about engineering that we barely even noticed when they moved on to sociology.

But what interests me now is the form it took in Astounding, which looks a lot like the sieve that Yanofsky describes. Campbell may have hoped that psychology would learn how to predict “how an individual man will react to a given stimulus,” but he seems to have sensed that this wouldn’t be credible or interesting in fiction. Instead, he turned to two subsets of psychology that were more suited to the narrative tools at his disposal. One was the treatment of simplified forms of human personality—say, for instance, in a robot. The other was the treatment of large masses of individuals. Crucially, neither was necessarily more possible than predicting the behavior of individuals, but they had the advantage that they could be more plausibly treated in fiction. Campbell’s preferred instrument at the time was Asimov, who was reliable, willing to take instruction, and geographically close enough to talk over ideas in person. As a result, Asimov’s most famous stories can be read as a series of experiments to see how the social sciences could be legitimately explored by the genre. The Three Laws of Robotics, which Campbell was the first to explicitly formulate, are really a simplified model of human behavior: Campbell later wrote that they were essentially “the basic desires of a small child, with the exception that the motivation of desire for love has been properly omitted.” At the other end of the spectrum, psychohistory looks for laws that can be applied on a mass scale, and it’s central not only to the Foundation series but even to “Nightfall,” with its theme of the cyclical rise and fall of civilizations. In science, you could draw a parallel to artificial intelligence and macroeconomics, which represent two extremes at which qualities of symmetry and predicability seem to enter the realm of psychology. In between, there’s a vast terrain of human experience that Campbell was never quite able to tackle, and that impulse ended up being channeled into dianetics. But much as science can be defined as everything that makes it through the sieve of symmetry, Campbell had a sieve of his own, and the result was the science fiction of the golden age.

Written by nevalalee

August 15, 2018 at 9:00 am

The fault in our stars

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Earlier this week, the writer Eric Vilas-Boas wrote an emotional essay for TV Guide about a personal crisis that was recently catalyzed by an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. In “Far Beyond the Stars,” Commander Benjamin Sisko—played, as always, by Avery Brooks, who also directs—hallucinates that he’s really Benny Russell, a black science writer living in New York in the fifties. The story aired for the first time on February 11, 1998, but even after over twenty years, its themes are still uncomfortably close to home, as Vilas-Boas observes: “The halls of magazines and newspapers remain difficult to break into without (white, often male) contacts or mentors. Just from my experience alone, that’s often meant policing my own behavior to appear more ‘white’ and less threatening: straightening my hair, cutting my hair, or holding my tongue in meetings when I’ve heard something unquestionably offensive.” And after quoting the extraordinary speech that Russell delivers toward the end, in a single unbroken take that amounts to some of the best work of Brooks’s career, Vilas-Boas writes:

I can’t think about that last line [“You can pulp a story but you cannot destroy an idea. Don’t you understand? That’s ancient knowledge.”] without crying. I can’t think about it without thinking about what ancient knowledge has been destroyed in the systemic abuse of marginalized peoples. I can’t watch that episode without thinking about the times I felt most worthless and undeserving of my jobs as a writer and editor in white-dominant workplaces. I can’t watch Russell’s plaintive bargaining with his editor over his stories without thinking about times I’ve policed myself in the process to appear less aggressive, less brown, less assertive, and less likely to cause problems, because of what I perceived as a clear power imbalance…That’s not an uncommon story, if you care to pay attention, but for people of color or other marginalized groups, it’s unavoidable.

Until yesterday, I had never seen “Far Beyond the Stars.” What prompted me to check it out last night, apart from the power of Vilas-Boas’s article, was a screen shot of René Auberjonois as Douglas Pabst, the editor of the fictional magazine Incredible Tales. The episode’s supporting characters are played by members of the show’s regular cast, many of whom are allowed to wear their real faces on camera for the first time—but Auberjonois is clearly made up and costumed to resemble John W. Campbell, down to the browline glasses. And the teleplay by Ira Steven Behr and Hans Beimler, based on a story by Marc Scott Zicree, is filled with affectionate nods to the pulps, along with a few forgivable inaccuracies. (Incredible is implausibly depicted as occupying a spacious, beautiful newsroom, with writers on salary typing up stories at their own desks. In reality, Campbell spent most of his career sharing a single tiny office with his assistant editor, Kay Tarrant, and there was little more than a spare chair for visitors. But it’s Sisko’s dream, after all, and it certainly looks great on television.) But Pabst’s response to Russell’s desire to write a story with a black protagonist rings all too true:

Look, Benny, I’m a magazine editor, I am not a crusader. I am not here to change the world, I’m here to put out a magazine. Now, that’s my job. That means I have to answer to the publisher, the national distributors, the wholesalers and none of them are going to want to put this story on the newsstand. For all we know, it could cause a race riot…The way I see it, you can either burn it or you can stick it in a drawer for fifty years or however long it takes the human race to become color-blind.

Earlier in the episode, Pabst expresses himself even more bluntly: “The average reader’s not going to spend his hard-earned cash on stories written by Negroes.”

And unfortunately, this isn’t much of an exaggeration. Russell inevitably reminds many viewers of Samuel R. Delany, and remarkably enough, the episode aired six months before the publication of Delany’s landmark essay “Racism and Science Fiction,” in which he shared a very similar anecdote from 1967:

I submitted Nova for serialization to the famous SF editor of Analog magazine, John W. Campbell, Jr. Campbell rejected it, with a note and phone call to my agent explaining that he didn’t feel his readership would be able to relate to a black main character. That was one of my first direct encounters, as a professional writer, with the slippery and always commercialized form of liberal American prejudice: Campbell had nothing against my being black, you understand…In the phone call Campbell made it fairly clear that this was his only reason for rejecting the book. Otherwise, he rather liked it.

In fact, Campbell was willing to print stories with black protagonists, notably Mack Reynolds’s “Black Man’s Burden” and its sequels—as long as all of its characters sounded just like John W. Campbell. Otherwise, he had minimal interest in diversifying the magazine. On May 1, 1969, he wrote to the fan Ron Stoloff: “If Negro authors are extremely few—it’s solely because extremely few Negroes both wish to, and can, write in open competition.” In the same letter, Campbell extended his views to the characters as well: “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.”

As I’ve noted here before, 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 even if race wasn’t made explicit, the magazine’s illustrations overwhelmingly depicted its characters as white. There’s also a 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. Science fiction has come a long way in the last half century, but it still has room to grow, and you could even argue that the discussion about race within fan culture has degenerated since the first airing of “Far Beyond the Stars.” (The ongoing debate over programming at the upcoming World Science Fiction Convention only points to how fraught such issues remain.) Sisko’s closing monologue, in which he wonders if his entire world might exist only in Benny Russell’s imagination, is a little on the nose, but it’s a reminder that all of these stories emerged in response to similar hopes and fears. And at its best, science fiction can provide solace—or outrage—that we can put to use in our own lives. As Vilas-Boas concludes:

Six months later, I see a therapist regularly, largely to talk about my feelings, something that sounds like a cliché but is really a product of how much I’ve bottled up and held in every day of my life. I’ve had panic attacks since then, but I handle them better. In its own way, “Far Beyond the Stars” helped me set a rubric for them, to know that they have a prior trigger in my life, to recognize the world’s problems are not inextricably linked to my reactions to them. No matter how big or small, it would be Captain Sisko’s job to keep his cool and get his crew out of danger…And in the end, there’s no hiding. There’s only one thing I can do, in the words of Sisko: “Stay here and finish the job I started.”

The immortality factor

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If you’ve done any reading over the last few years about the transhumanist movement, you’re probably aware that there are people among us who are pretty sure that they aren’t going to die. This expectation might seem ludicrously farfetched, but to hear some of them talk, immortality is mostly a matter of good timing. Here’s how one writer explains the underlying logic:

At some point in the history of the world and the history of medical science, a point will be reached such that a child born at that time can, if he chooses—and has reasonable luck so far as mechanical damage goes—live practically forever. This point in time will be some forty or more years before the perfection of the full requirements for continuous life—and this point may already have passed without our knowing it…The first advance of thirty years [of lifespan] would be no “eternal youth” treatment. But—science tends to advance exponentially. That thirty-year reprieve might give just the time needed for research to extend your life another forty years. And that forty years might—

The author continues: “Somewhere in history there must come a point such that a child born then will be just passing maturity when the life-extension techniques will reach the necessary point. They will grant him a series of little extensions—each just sufficient to reach the next—until the final result is achieved.” And he closes on an optimistic note: “I wonder if that point has been passed? And my own guess is—it has.”

The logic here isn’t inherently unreasonable, and it gains much of its power from one particular point—the allegedly “exponential” growth of science and technology, which implies that if we manage to hang on for long enough, we have a shot at reaching the breakthrough that leads to unlimited life extension. Another highly intelligent proponent of transhumanism begins by repeating the argument made above:

For every ten or twenty scientists who will admit they believe in possible longevity, there is only one who will go so far as to speak of physical immortality. Nonetheless, every breakthrough in life extension means that some of us will live long enough to be around for the next breakthrough, and the next, until immortality is actually achieved…I am…confident that something will come of this kind of research “in fifteen years maximum.”

In support of this viewpoint, he cites “the acceleration of scientific breakthroughs,” adding later: “Many things in technology are advancing exponentially, and the one general tendency is clearly that there will be more basic breakthroughs (both in scientific theory and in technological applications) in each generation than in any previous generation.” And he concludes with a familiar statement to the reader: “Some of the readers of this book—the more determined ones—may never die at all.”

More recently, the conversation about technological acceleration has come to focus on the concept of the singularity—the moment at which artificial intelligence advances to the point where it becomes capable of building on itself, leading to the standard exponential curve. It isn’t hard to think of plenty of unpleasant scenarios that might follow this development, but for your average transhumanist, it only provides another path forward. Another prominent advocate has consistently argued for years that we’re on the verge of three major revolutions—in genetics, technology, and robotics—that will culminate in the singularity, which he expects to live long enough to see. As he puts it: “How long does a house last? The answer obviously depends on how well you take care of it…If you proactively take care of the structure, repair all damage, confront all dangers, and rebuild or renovate parts from time to time using new materials and technologies, the life of the house can essentially be extended without limit.” He continues in a reassuring vein: “The same holds true for our bodies and brains. The only difference is that, while we fully understand the methods underlying the maintenance of a house, we do not yet fully understand all of the biological principles of life. But with our rapidly increasing comprehension of the biochemical processes and pathways of biology, we are quickly gaining that knowledge.” And his conclusion should ring a bell: “Sufficient information already exists today to slow down disease and aging processes to the point that baby boomers like myself can remain in good health until the full blossoming of the biotechnology revolution, which will itself be a bridge to the nanotechnology revolution.”

By now, you’ve probably figured out the punchline. The first writer whom I quote above is John W. Campbell, writing in an editorial in Astounding Science Fiction in 1949. Campbell died in 1971. The second source is Robert Anton Wilson, who added elsewhere in Cosmic Trigger, which was written in 1977: “Since DNA was discovered in 1944, the biological revolution (including longevity, and possibly immortality) should be peaking in 2004.” Wilson died in 2007. The third quote is from Ray Kurzweil, who published The Singularity is Near twelve years ago. Kurzweil is still around, and as a senior director of engineering at Google, he’s certainly in a better position than his predecessors to devote actual resources to the promised revolution in longevity. And while it may well happen in my lifetime, as the earlier examples indicate, it’s far from certain. A child born when Campbell wrote his editorial would be nearly seventy now, which reminds us that we’ve been hearing these promises for a long time—and it hints at an important distinction between the actual argument and its rhetorical presentation. The assertion that technology advances at an exponential rate is convincing enough, and so is the idea that we’ll eventually reach a point when death can be indefinitely postponed, although your mileage on the latter notion may vary. But the statement that the generation in which the author is writing is the one that will witness this breakthrough is purely a rhetorical device, with nothing in particular to back it up. (On some level, it’s as old as as the Gospel of Matthew: “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”) There may come a time when we’ll be able to live for as long as we like. But it will take more than wishful thinking to get there.

Written by nevalalee

July 23, 2018 at 9:41 am

A potent force of disintegration

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As part of the production process these days, most nonfiction books from the major publishing houses get an automatic legal read—a review by a lawyer that is intended to check for anything potentially libelous about any living person. We can’t stop anyone from suing us, but we can make sure that we haven’t gone out of our way to invite it, and while most of the figures in Astounding have long since passed on, there are a handful who are still with us. As a result, I recently spent some time going over the relevant sections with a lawyer on the phone. The person on whom we ended up focusing the most, perhaps not surprisingly, was Harlan Ellison, who had a deserved reputation for being litigious, although he also liked to point out that he usually came out ahead. (After suing America Online for not promptly removing some of his stories that had been uploaded to a newsgroup on Usenet, Ellison explained in an interview that it was really about “slovenliness of thinking on the web” and the “slacker” philosophy that everything in life should be free: “If a professional gets published, well, any thief can steal it, and post it, and the thug feels abused if you whack him for it.” Ellison eventually received a settlement.) Mindful of this, we slowly went over the manuscript, checking each statement against its primary sources. Toward the end, the lawyer asked me if we had reasonable grounds for the sentence that described Ellison as “combative.” I replied: “Yes.”

Ellison died yesterday, and I never met or even corresponded with him, which is perhaps my greatest regret from the writing of Astounding. Two years ago, when I was just getting started, I wrote to him explaining the project and asking if I could interview him, but I never heard back. I don’t know if he ever saw the letter, and a mutual acquaintance told me that he was already too ill to respond to most of his mail. Ellison persists in the book as a kind of wraith in the background, appearing unexpectedly at various points in the narrative while trying to force his way into others. In an interview from the late seventies, he even claimed to have been in the room on the evening that L. Ron Hubbard came up with dianetics:

We were sitting around one night…who else was there? Alfred Bester, and Cyril Kornbluth, and Lester del Rey, and Ron Hubbard, who was making a penny a word, and had been for years…And somebody said, “Why don’t you invent a new religion? They’re always big.” We were clowning! You know, “Become Elmer Gantry! You’ll make a fortune!” He says, “I’m going to do it.” Sat down, stole a little bit from Freud, stole a little bit from Jung, a little bit from Adler…threw it all together, invented a few new words, because he was a science fiction writer, you know, “engrams” and “regression,” all that bullshit.

At the point at which this alleged event would have taken place, Ellison was a teenage kid living in Ohio. As another science fiction writer said to me: “Sometimes Harlan operates out of his own reality, which is always interesting but not necessarily identical to anybody else’s.”

Ellison may have never met Hubbard, but he interacted to one extent or another with the other subjects of my book, who often seemed bewildered by him—and I think it’s fair to say that he was the only science fiction writer of his generation who could plausibly seem like their match. He was very close to Asimov, while his relationship with Heinlein was cordial but distant, and John W. Campbell seems to viewed him mostly as an irritant. On April 15, 1958, Ellison, who was twenty-four, wrote in a letter to Campbell: “From the relatively—doubly—safe position of being eight hundred miles removed from your grasp and logic, and being fairly certain I’ll never sell to you anyhow, I wish to make a comment…lost in the wilderness.” After complaining about a story by Murray Leinster, which he described as a blatant example of “Campbell push-buttoning,” he continued:

Now writing to Campbell is not bad. It has been the policy of Astounding since I was in rompers, and anything that produces the kind of stuff ASF does, must have merit. But I look with sincere alarm at the ridiculous trend in the magazine currently: writing stories with the psi factor used when plotting or solving the problem becomes too wearying. Leinster has done it. Several others have done it also. I note this for your information. You may crucify me at will, Greeley.

Ellison, who was stationed at the time in Fort Knox, Kentucky, signed the letter “with respect and friendliness.” No response from Campbell survives.

Ellison had a point about the direction in which Campbell was taking the magazine, and he never had any reason to revise his opinion. Nearly a decade later, in the groundbreaking anthology Dangerous Visions, he mocked the editor’s circle of subservient writers and spoke of “John W. Campbell, Jr., who used to edit a magazine that ran science fiction, called Astounding, and who now edits a magazine that runs a lot of schematic drawings, called Analog.” He did sell one story to Campbell, “Brillo,” a collaboration with Ben Bova that was supposed to be sent using a pseudonym, but was accidentally submitted under both of their names. But the editor’s feelings about Ellison were never particularly warm. Campbell once wrote to a correspondent: “In my terms, Ellison seems more of the Hitler-Genghis Khan type genius—he’s destructive, rather than constructive. The language lacks an adequate term for this type of entity; he’s not a hero, but an antihero means something more on the order of a hopeless, helpless slob than a potent force of disintegration.” He wrote elsewhere that Ellison needed “a muzzle more than a platform,” and another letter includes the amazing—but not atypical—lines: “I don’t know whether it’s the hyper-defensive attitude of the undersize or what, but [Ellison’s] an insulting little squirt with a nasty tongue. He’s one of the type that earned the appellation ‘kike’; as Einstein, Disraeli, and thousands of others have demonstrated, it ain’t racial—it’s personal.” Ellison never saw these letters, and as I transcribed them for the book, I wondered what he would think. There’s no way of knowing now. But I suspect that he would have liked it.

A Hawk From a Handsaw, Part 1

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Note: My article “The Campbell Machine,” which describes one of the strangest episodes in the history of Astounding Science Fiction, is now available online and in the July/August issue of Analog. To celebrate its publication, I’m republishing a series about an equally curious point of intersection between science fiction and the paranormal. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on February 15, 2017. 

I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.


In the summer of 1974, the Israeli magician and purported psychic Uri Geller arrived at Birkbeck College in Bloomsbury, London, where the physicist David Bohm planned to subject him to a series of tests. Two of the appointed observers were the authors Arthur Koestler and Arthur C. Clarke, of whom Geller writes in his autobiography:

Arthur Clarke…would be particularly important because he was highly skeptical of anything paranormal. His position was that his books, like 2001 and Childhood’s End, were pure science fiction, and it would be highly unlikely that any of their fantasies would come true, at least in his own lifetime.

He met the group in a conference room, where Koestler was outwardly polite, even as Geller sensed that he “really wasn’t getting through to Arthur C. Clarke.” A demonstration seemed to be in order, so Geller asked Clarke to hold one of his own house keys in one hand, watching closely to make sure that it wasn’t switched, handled, or subjected to any trickery. Soon enough, the key began to bend. Clarke cried out, in what I like to think was an inadvertent echo of his most famous story: “My God, my eyes are seeing it! It’s bending!”

Geller went on to display his talents in a number of other ways, including forcing a Geiger counter to click at an accelerated rate merely by concentrating on it. (The skeptic James Randi has suggested that Geller had a magnet taped to his leg.) “By that time,” Geller writes, “Arthur Clarke seemed to have lost all his skepticism. He said something like, ‘My God! It’s all coming true! This is what I wrote about in Childhood’s End. I can’t believe it.'” Geller continues:

Clarke was not there just to scoff. He had wanted things to happen. He just wanted to be completely convinced that everything was legitimate. When he saw that it was, he told the others: “Look, the magicians and the journalists who are knocking this better put up or shut up now. Unless they can repeat the same things Geller is doing under the same rigidly controlled conditions, they have nothing further to say.”

Clarke also described the plot of Childhood’s End, which Geller evidently hadn’t read: “It involves a UFO that is hovering over the earth and controlling it. He had written the book about twenty years ago. He said that, after being a total skeptic about these things, his mind had really been changed by observing these experiments.”

The Horus Errand

It’s tempting to think that Geller is exaggerating the extent of the author’s astonishment, but here’s what Clarke himself said of it much later:

Although it’s hard to focus on that hectic and confusing day at Birkbeck College in 1974…I suspect that Uri Geller’s account in My Story is all too accurate…In view of the chaos at the hastily arranged Birkbeck encounter, the phrase “rigidly controlled conditions” is hilarious. But that last sentence is right on target, for [the reproduction of Geller’s effects by stage magicians] is precisely what happened…Nevertheless, I must confess a sneaking fondness for Uri; though he left a trail of bent cutlery and fractured reputations round the world, he provided much-needed entertainment at a troubled and unhappy time.

Geller has largely faded from the public consciousness, but Clarke—who continued to believe long afterward that paranormal phenomena “can’t all be nonsense”—wasn’t the only prominent science fiction writer to find him intriguing. Robert Anton Wilson, one of my intellectual heroes, discusses him at length in the book Cosmic Trigger, in which he recounts a strange incident that was experienced by his friend Saul-Paul Sirag. The year before the Birkbeck tests, Sirag allegedly saw Geller’s head turn into that of a “bird of prey,” like a hawk: “His nose became a beak, and his entire head sprouted feathers, down to his neck and shoulders.” (Wilson neglects to mention that Sirag was also taking LSD at the time.) The hawk, Sirag thought, was the form assumed by an alien intelligence that was supposedly in contact with Geller, and he didn’t know that it had appeared in the same shape to two other witnesses, including a psychic named Ray Stanford and another man who nicknamed it “Horus,” after the Egyptian god with a hawk’s head.

And it gets even weirder. A few months later, Sirag saw the January 1974 issue of Analog, which featured the story “The Horus Errand” by William E. Cochrane. The cover illustration depicted a man wearing a hawklike helmet, with the name “Stanford” written over his breast pocket. According to one of Sirag’s friends, the occultist Alan Vaughan, the character in the painting even looked a little like Ray Stanford, and you can judge the resemblance for yourself. Vaughan was interested enough to write to the artist, the legendary Frank Kelly Freas, for more information. (Freas, incidentally, was close friends with John W. Campbell, to the point where Campbell even asked him to serve as the guardian for his daughters if anything ever happened to him or his wife.) Freas replied that he had never met Stanford in person or knew how he looked, but that he had once received a psychic consultation from him by mail, in which Stanford told Freas that he had been “some sort of illustrator in a past life in ancient Egypt.” As a result, Freas began to consciously employ Egyptian imagery in his work, and the design of the helmet on the cover was entirely his own, without any reference to the story. At that point, the whole thing kind of peters out, aside from serving as an example of the kind of absurd coincidence that was so close to Wilson’s heart. But the intersection of Arthur C. Clarke, Uri Geller, and Robert Anton Wilson at that particular moment in time is a striking one, and it points toward an important thread in the history of science fiction that tends to be overlooked or ignored—perhaps because it’s often guarded by ominous hawks. I’ll be digging into this more deeply tomorrow.

Meanwhile at the Pentagon

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On June 9, 1963, or exactly fifty-five years ago last week, newspaper readers were treated to an unusual installment of the comic strip Steve Canyon. It was the one of the first mainstream public depictions of a military war game. As the characters are told in their briefing:

You are persons of importance in your own fields—from which we hope to receive new slants on problems we live with here in the Pentagon every day! You have been divided arbitrarily into blue and red teams. The blues will be the United States and its allies. The reds will pretend to be the command staff of the Red Bloc nations. You will be given a series of hypothetical situations…Each team, in separate rooms, will decide what next to do. You will have all the actual forces of your own group to throw into the mock crisis…Each morning you will cast the die to determine who will be team captain for that day. After each side has made its initial and countermoves, the control team will evaluate the results and make a judgment on the score! We on the control team are umpires! We do not wear uniforms but we are from all branches of the Department of Defense. We will give you true answers to known strengths on both sides—which is one reason these games must be classified as secret—and no documents you use may leave these rooms!

The colonel concludes: “Team evaluations and control evaluations will be sent to the proper authorities each morning. There is no assurance that any of the material will ever be used.” But not all of the participants in the room seem convinced. As one whispers nervously to another: “Ed, do you think they’d act on a request for a quick transfer to Vietnam?”

In fact, Steve Canyon creator Milton Caniff was providing an accurate description of the gaming exercises that had long been conducted by the Joint War Games Group, which had been formed on the recommendation of defense aide Henry Rowen, a former analyst for the RAND Corporation. As the scholar Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi notes in her article “Simulating the Unthinkable,” which she later adapted into a section of her biography of Herman Kahn, these games were viewed with interest by such officials as Robert F. Kennedy, who proposed taking a similar approach to the problem of civil rights. They remained controversial within the Pentagon, however, with some expressing reservations over the government “playing games,” and even their proponents preferred the more respectable term “simulation.” The use of gaming wasn’t technically a secret, but it was rarely publicized, and Caniff’s strip seems to have led to some internal consternation. Ghamari-Tabrizi writes:

Apparently some members of the [Joint Chiefs of Staff] gaming agency sought to create favorable publicity among the armed forces. Because cartoon protagonist Steven Canyon was a gallant Air Force officer, Caniff was quite popular with Air Force personnel. He was regularly briefed about bases and service matters as possible material for his comic strip saga. Sometime in 1963, Caniff was invited to observe one of the Pentagon exercises, which he subsequently featured in his 9 June strip. The JCS were dumbfounded by the unexpected disclosure. While the comic strip did not provoke focused national attention to war-gaming as feared, [MIT professor] Lincoln Bloomfield recalled: “When to their chagrin [Caniff] went public and the strip hit the street, it also hit the fan. The embarrassment (and extensive kidding) they endured in-house caused the folks in the Pentagon basement to vow never again to make the mistake of allowing an uncleared round-bottomed civilian on the premises.”

The circumstances behind the appearance of this information, which Ghamari-Tabrizi states was “leaked,” remain fairly obscure. (In the version of the story published in The Worlds of Herman Kahn, she omits the sentence stating that members of the gaming agency had “sought to create favorable publicity.”) As far as I can determine, the first discussion of the incident in print is in the book War Games by Thomas B. Allen, and there doesn’t seem to be any mention of it at all in Meanwhile…, the massive biography of Caniff by R.C. Harvey. There’s no question that Caniff was on friendly terms with the Air Force, which often provided him with material for the strip—although he maintained that his level of access was no greater than that of any ordinary journalist. And Caniff seems to have been genuinely wary of the possibility of an inadvertent leak. Harvey describes an incident in which Caniff allegedly received unwanted attention from the government in March 1944, in the form of a visit from the FBI:

The two G-men had been civil, even polite, but their unrelenting humorlessness invested the visit with a chilly stiffness that was almost frightening. Nothing Caniff could say brought a smile to the lips of either one of them. They’d come, one of them explained soberly, because the cartoonist had been accused of being a spy, so they were obliged to investigate. The charge had been made by the London Express, and it stemmed from the Terry and the Pirates strip published March 17. In that strip, Flip Corkin is shown briefing his pilots in northern India for an invasion of Burma. On March 18, the news broke: in real-life Burma, Phil Cochran’s First Air Commandos were engaged in exactly such an invasion. [Cochran was Caniff’s childhood friend, and he had served as the model for the character of Flip Corkin.] The coincidence was too much for London editors: since they knew the strip had been drawn weeks before its publication date, Caniff must have known about Cochran’s invasion well in advance. The British newspapermen wanted to know how he found out.

Affording to Harvey, Caniff was worried that he might have gotten Cochran into trouble, and he spent most of the afternoon arguing to the agents that the timing was just a coincidence.

As regular readers of this blog will recognize, this anecdote has striking similarities to the “Deadline” incident, in which a story in Astounding Science Fiction briefly raised the possibility of a leak at the Manhattan Project. If Caniff’s account can be credited, the two “investigations” were unfolding at practically the same time—Cleve Cartmill’s “Deadline” appeared on February 11, 1944, and an agent from the Counterintelligence Corps visited John W. Campbell at his office on March 8, or a week and a half before the alleged visit to Caniff. I’ve learned to be skeptical of such stories, which tend to be embellished across multiple retellings, and I haven’t been able to find any sources apart from Caniff himself. (In Milton Caniff: Conversations, he claims to have received another visit from the FBI after accidentally using the actual code name for an allied radio station.) Yet the war game strip was real enough, which only raises further questions. As Harvey writes:

Over the years, Caniff developed several techniques to protect himself and his sources against inadvertently revealing military secrets…[such as] letting a base photographer develop any photographs he took on a base so that prints of anything classified could be culled out before he could use them. Sometimes he checked plots with the Air Force in advance if he suspected he was treading near classified territory. “I’d go to my neighborhood Air Force information officer and say, Can this be done—?” Caniff said. “And I’d describe what was going to do. If I asked him a direct question about it, I’d be putting him in a position of lying—or not lying—to me, but I didn’t need to ask him directly. I watch the guy’s face, and if he suddenly gets tight under the collar, then I know it’s time to quit my idea and go to lunch.”

Given what we know about Caniff—who, unlike John W. Campbell, was unhesitatingly patriotic—it seems doubtful that he would have included any information in the strip without full assurance that its release had been approved. The most plausible explanation, perhaps, is that one group within the government “leaked” it at the expense of another, with Caniff caught somewhere in the middle. It still happens today. You just don’t tend to see it in the comics.

The uranium in the wine bottle

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In the March 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, readers were treated to the story “Deadline” by Cleve Cartmill, which was set on an alien planet consumed by a war between two factions known as the “Sixa” and the “Seilla.” Its hero was a spy, complete with a prehensile tail, whose mission was to fly into enemy territory and destroy the ultimate weapon before it could be detonated. The story itself was undeniably mediocre, and it would be utterly forgotten today if it weren’t for its description of the weapon in question, an atomic bomb, which Cartmill based almost verbatim on letters from the editor John W. Campbell, who had pitched the idea in the first place. According to the physicist Edward Teller, it was plausible enough to cause “astonishment” at the Manhattan Project, which counted many readers of the magazine among its scientists, and after it was brought to the attention of the Counterintelligence Corps, both Campbell and Cartmill were interviewed to investigate the possibility of a leak. In reality, “Deadline” wasn’t even much of a prediction—Campbell, who was feeling frustrated about his lack of involvement in war research, had a hunch that an atomic bomb was in the works, and he packed the story with technical information that was already in the public domain. He evidently hoped that it would draw official interest that might lead to a real defense role, which failed to materialize. After the war, however, it paid off immensely, and Campbell found himself hailed as a prophet. Cartmill, the credited author, neatly fell out of the picture, and the fact that the story hadn’t predicted much of anything was lost on most readers. Campbell had essentially orchestrated the most famous anecdote of his career, planting “Deadline” in the magazine expressly so that he could point to it later, and across multiple retellings, the details of the ensuing investigation were exaggerated beyond recognition. As the historian Donald Spoto aptly puts it: “[His] calculated image of himself as a prophet does not coincide with the truth; inspired by his sense of publicity, he told a better story than the facts reveal.”

But Spoto isn’t writing about Campbell, but about Alfred Hitchcock, in his classic biography The Dark Side of Genius, and the story here isn’t “Deadline,” but the great romantic thriller Notorious. As legend has it, when Hitchcock had to come up with the MacGuffin, or the plot point that would drive the rest of the movie, he proposed a sample of uranium hidden in a wine bottle by a group of Nazis in Brazil. As he said to François Truffaut in their famous book-length interview:

The producer said, “What in the name of good­ness is that?” I said, “This is uranium; it’s the thing they’re going to make an atom bomb with.” And he asked, “What atom bomb?” This, you must remember, was in 1944, a year before Hiroshima. I had only one clue. A writer friend of mine had told me that scientists were working on a secret project someplace in New Mexico. It was so secret that once they went into the plant, they never emerged again. I was also aware that the Germans were conducting experiments with heavy water in Norway. So these clues brought me to the uranium Mac­Guffin. The producer was skeptical, and he felt it was absurd to use the idea of an atom bomb as the basis for our story. I told him that it wasn’t the basis for the story, but only the MacGuffin, and I explained that there was no need to attach too much importance to it.

In the end, the idea was approved, and Hitchcock and screenwriter Ben Hecht allegedly went to Pasadena to get background information from the physicist Robert A. Millikan. According to Hitchcock, Millikan responded: “You want to have yourselves arrested and have me arrested as well?” After this outburst, Milkian informed them—in something of a non sequitur—that the idea was impossible anyway, although others evidently felt that they had come too close for comfort. As Hitchcock confided in Truffaut: “I learned later that after­ward the FBI had me under surveillance for three months.”

Like many movie buffs, I accepted this story without question for years, but when you encounter it after the “Deadline” incident, it starts to seem too good to be true, which it was. As Spoto writes in The Dark Side of Genius: “The business of the uranium remained a considerable source of publicity for Hitchcock  to the end of his life. To François Truffaut, to this writer, and to many others, he always insisted that he had chosen the device of uranium ore in Nazi experiments quite coincidentally, far in advance of the detonation of the atomic bomb in Japan in August 1945…He always emphasized, in every discussion of Notorious, that he was virtually a prophet.” The truth, Spoto continues, was very different:

By the time Notorious actually began filming, in October 1945, Hitchcock had made yet another trip to London…and he had returned to Los Angeles for final script work in September—after the bombings of Japan, and after he had spent several weeks in New York testing actors, among whom were several famous German refugees he finally cast in the film. On the basis of news from these German contacts, and from the accounts that flooded the world press…Hitchcock and Hecht refined the last addenda to their script just before the first day of production…All the evidence suggests that in truth the uranium was included after the fact.

As for the allegation of government surveillance, it was evidently based on a general directive from the FBI that the producer David O. Selznick received in May, which cautioned that any movie that featured American intelligence would have to be cleared by the State Department. Like Campbell, Hitchcock liked to make people think that he had been given special attention, and over the years, in both cases, the stories only grew.

There are obvious similarities between these two incidents, as well as equally noteworthy differences. With “Deadline,” the description of the bomb is the story’s sole reason for existing, while Notorious would still be a masterpiece even if the MacGuffin had been something else entirely. (As Hitchcock allegedly told his producer: “Look, if you don’t like uranium, let’s make it industrial diamonds, which the Germans need to cut their tools with.” He claimed to have later told a movie executive who had objected to the screenplay on grounds of its implausibility: “You were wrong to attach any importance to the MacGuffin. Notorious was simply the story of a man in love with a girl who, in the course of her official duties, had to go to bed with another man and even had to marry him. That’s the story.” And even if he invented the conversation, his point still stands.) The other difference is the use to which each anecdote was put. For Hitchcock, the uranium incident, and the reputation that it gave him as a “prophet,” was just another way of burnishing his image, and although he enjoyed dining out on it, it was a minor part of his legend. Campbell, by contrast, used it as the basis for his entire postwar career. Just two weeks after Hiroshima, The New Yorker profiled him in a Talk of the Town piece titled “1945 Cassandra,” in which it credulously wrote:

If you want to keep up with, or possibly stay ahead of, the development of secret weapons in time of war, you had better…go to the pulps, preferably Astounding. One reason is that Astounding, which has for the past ten years or so been predicting atomic bombs and using them to liven up its stories, has been permitted to duck some of the security rules that made high-echelon government officials such halting conversationalists in recent months.

And that reputation hinged largely on the myth of “Deadline” and its creation. It bought Campbell tremendous credibility after the war, earned or otherwise, and it played a significant role in science fiction’s big push into the mainstream. Eventually, the editor would stake—and lose—all of that goodwill on dianetics. But for a few years, Campbell, like Hitchcock, got to play his audience like a piano, and both men liked to pretend that they had once been notorious.

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