Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘John W. Campbell

Astounding Stories #20: “Unwillingly to School”

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Note: With less than half a year to go until the publication of Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’m returning, after a long hiatus, to the series in which I highlight works of science fiction that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

In its broad outlines, “Unwillingly to School” looks pretty much like the kind of novella that you’d expect to find in the January 1958 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, with a premise straight out of a Heinlein juvenile. Its narrator is a stubborn teenager working on a small family farm in a mining colony around the star Excenus. Through a series of unlikely developments, the protagonist goes reluctantly to college on earth, displays a few surprising talents, and ends up studying Cultural Engineering, which is the science of intervening discreetly in the development of immature civilizations—all of which is very Campbellian. The difference is that the main character is a nineteen-year-old girl named Lysistrata “Lizzie” Lee, and she speaks in the first person with the kind of distinct, funny voice that rarely made it into the magazine. For instance, here’s a description of visitors to the farm: “Peoples’ wives from Town come out to board some times, Dad lets them because he thinks they will Mother me. Well mostly I manage to steer them off and no hard feelings, it is my home after all they got to be reasonable about it if they want to stay.” And a little later, when Lizzie still thinks that the plan to send her off to college is part of a convoluted trick to get her out of a jam:

We are to go shopping buying some clothes for me to wear on Earth, it seems to me this is carrying realism too far but I do not want any more time in the hotel with nothing to do…M’Clare is all the time trying to get me to talk, he says for instance Have I ever thought about going to College? I say Sure, I count my blessings now and then.

It’s a tightly imagined, utterly engaging story, and John W. Campbell loved it. In his acceptance letter to the author, Pauline Ashwell, who had originally submitted the story under the pseudonym “Paul Ash,” the editor wrote enthusiastically:

I’m taking “Unwillingly to School”; it’s completely delightful and completely unique. On this one, I really feel you should use your own feminine name; only a woman could have achieved that precise presentation of a girl’s enthusiastic, bubbling-with-life, confused, yet strongly directed thinking…I hope you’ll be able to make the London Science Fiction Convention this September; I’ll be there, and I’d enjoy meeting you.

And in the announcement of the contents of the upcoming issue, Campbell described the novella in terms that would have struck longtime readers as unusually glowing:

The lead novelette will be “Unwillingly to School,” by Pauline Ashwell. She is genuinely, no-kidding, a new author, not an old one in a new disguise. There has never been a science-fiction story like this before; I am hopefully praying, however, that Miss Ashwell can repeat and extend the adventures of Lizzie Lee, who must be read to be believed. Lizzie is a teenage girl that I am extremely glad I never met, and delighted to have read about; she’s a menace, and in the course of “Unwillingly to School” she breaks every rule of English grammar, punctuation, and composition I ever heard about, and I think invents a few in order to rebel against them, too. Lizzie is this year’s Christmas present to the readers, from Astounding Science Fiction.

In the end, the response from readers was underwhelming. “Unwillingly to School” ranked third in the monthly Analytical Laboratory poll, behind “All the King’s Horses” by Robert Silverberg and Randall Garrett, a story that was much more typical of what Campbell was publishing in the late fifties. (Both Ashwell and her story did receive Hugo nominations the following year, which wouldn’t be the last time that the tastes of the readers diverged from those of the major awards.) Almost two years later, there was a sequel, “The Lost Kafoozalum,” a likable story that gave up much of Lizzie’s voice—it was basically a Competent Man story with a female lead, which shouldn’t understate how unusual this was. It also ranked third. And on March 25, 1962, Campbell felt obliged to write to Robert A. Heinlein in his rejection of the story that became Podkayne of Mars:

The last yarn we ran which had a teenage girl as the central character was “Unwillingly To School”; it was written by an expert on teenage girls (she had been one; she taught at a girl’s school; she was a biologist-anthropologist—and she could write and had a magnificent sense of humor). It didn’t go over so hot—our readers appear to be less than enthusiastic about the peculiarities of teenage girl’s thinking. That seems to be a reasonable attitude; teenage girls don’t like teenage girls’ thinking either—including their own. They’re inherently frustrated, squeezed thereby into an inferiority complex type of apparent self-satisfaction, are immensely erratic, and utterly undependable.

It’s a shame, because Lizzie was, frankly, a more interesting character than Poddy, and while Ashwell later wrote two more installments in the series in the eighties, which I haven’t read, it would have been nice to see more of her in the sixties.

And the episode gets at something important about Campbell. As an editor, he never had much of an interest in diversifying his writers or characters, at least when it came to race, but he would have been happy to have had more women. His readers, who were overwhelmingly male, weren’t particularly interested, and when such efforts as “Unwillingly to School” failed to make an impression, he dropped it. On some level, this reflects the role that he claimed to see for himself, writing decades earlier: “A magazine is not an autocracy, as readers tend to believe, ruled arbitrarily by an editor’s opinions. It is a democracy by readers’ votes, the editor serving as election board official. The authors are the candidates, their style and stories the platform.” And there’s no question that he listened seriously to feedback from his readers as a whole. On another level, though, it only tells us which battles he was willing to fight. Campbell was more than glad to take on issues that he thought were important, like psionics, and persistently force them onto his audience in the absence of any conceivable demand. He could have chosen to invest the same energy into issues of representation, which could only have elevated the quality of the fiction that he was publishing, but when the readers pushed back, he didn’t press it. That’s more revealing than anything else, and it represents a real loss. Campbell published important work by such authors as Leigh Brackett, Catherine L. Moore, Judith Merril, and Anne McCaffrey, but the magazine mostly lacked straightforward stories like “The Lost Kafoozalum,” in which women appeared without comment as the heroes of the stock gadget and engineering stories that filled the pages of Astounding and Analog. As a result, the migration of women into hard science fiction never really took place, at least not under Campbell’s watch. He wanted it to happen. But not quite badly enough.

The unique continent

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Early in 1939, the science fiction editor John W. Campbell wrote to Lester del Rey to propose a story idea. As Del Rey recalled years later: “The idea was that maybe [Neanderthals weren’t] killed off fighting Cro-Magnon, but rather died of frustration from meeting a race with a superior culture. I didn’t exactly accept it as good anthropology, but the story took shape easily.” The result, “The Day is Done,” appeared in the May 1939 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, and it moved Isaac Asimov so much that he wept as he read it on the subway. To a modern reader, the most striking thing about it is probably the unsigned editorial note—clearly written by Campbell—that followed the story on its original publication. The magazine didn’t usually provide this kind of extended commentary on specific works of fiction, so many readers must have read it closely, including the following passage:

Anthropologists believe today that, as Lester del Rey has here portrayed, the Neanderthal man died out due to heartbreak…Incredible? Senseless to attribute such feelings to them? We have on earth today an exact and frightening duplication of that cosmic tragedy. The Bushmen of Tasmania are gone; the aboriginal race of Australia are going, become useless beggars without self-respect hanging on the fringes of the white man’s civilization, unable to reach understanding of man’s higher intelligence, and paralyzed to hopelessness thereby. Those who have not contacted white men continue in their own ways, but any missionary, any government protector sent to them—brings death by hopelessness! There is no help for them, for help is death.

I was reminded of these lines after Susan Goldberg, the editor of National Geographic, published a remarkable essay headlined “For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist.” The magazine has taken a commendable first step—although not the last—to coming to grips with its legacy, and Goldberg outlines its history of reinforcing or creating racial stereotypes in devastating detail. As an example of the ideas that were quietly passed along to its readers, Goldberg cites an article about Australia from 1916, in which pictures of two Aboriginal people carry the stark caption: “South Australian Blackfellows: These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.” And when you examine the article itself, which is available elsewhere online, you find language that is so reminiscent of Campbell that I wonder if he might not have read it:

The blackfellow is not a “degraded savage,” but rather a primitive man placed in an unfavorable environment. When food and water are abundant the aboriginal is kind to the infirm, and even shows traits of generosity and gratitude. When the struggle for existence is severe he becomes an animal searching for its pretty. Mentally he is a weak child, with uncontrolled feelings, without initiative or sense of responsibility. In many respects he is intelligent and profits by education, but abstract ideas are apparently beyond his reach. His ignorance, superstition, and fear, rather than viciousness and evil intentions, make him dangerous to strangers.

And as an excellent article by Gavin Evans of The Guardian recently pointed out, this kind of “race science” has never disappeared—it just evolved with the times.

Goldberg doesn’t identify the author of “Lonely Australia: The Unique Continent,” but his background might be the most notable point of all. His name was Herbert E. Gregory, and he was nothing less than the director of the geology department at Yale University. He was an expert on the geography of “the Navajo country” of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah; he extensively documented his studies of “the Indians and geology of Peru”; and shortly after the article was published, he became the director of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, the home of the largest collection of Polynesian artifacts in the world. Gregory, in other words, was “interested in Indians,” to use Paul Chaat Smith’s devastating phrase, but he was also a distinguished scholar whose career amounted to a guided tour of the areas where contact between native and colonizing peoples took place. In a government publication titled The Navajo Country, which appeared the same year as his piece for National Geographic, Gregory wrote:

To my mind the period of direct contact with nature is the true “heroic age” of human history, an age in which heroic accomplishment and heroic endurance are parts of the daily routine. The activities of people on this stage of progress deserve a place among the cherished traditions of the human race. I believe also that the sanest missionary effort includes an endeavor to assist the uncivilized man in his adjustment to natural laws…This country is also the home of the vigorous and promising Navajos—a tribe in remarkably close adjustment to their physical surroundings. To improve the condition of this long-neglected but capable race, to render their life more intelligently wholesome by applying scientific knowledge, gives pleasures in no degree less than that obtained by the study of the interesting geologic problems which this country affords.

There’s a lot to unpack here, and I know only as much about Gregory as I’ve been able to find in a morning of research. But I know something about Campbell, and I feel justified in pointing out a common pattern. Both Campbell and Gregory were intelligent, educated men in positions of authority who were trusted by their readers to provide information about how the world worked. Astounding was the news of the future, while National Geographic, in the minds of many subscribers, represented the past, and you could probably perform a similar analysis of the magazines on which people relied for their understanding of the present. For all their accomplishments, both men had unexamined ideas about race that quietly undermined the stated goals of the publications in which their work appeared. Campbell undeniably did a great deal for science fiction, but by failing to see that his views were excluding voices that could have elevated the entire genre, he arguably did just as much to hold it back. Try to imagine an editor in the thirties who believed that he had the ability and the obligation to develop a diverse range of writers, and you end up with a revolution in science fiction that would have dwarfed everything that Campbell actually accomplished. And this isn’t a matter of projecting our own values onto an earlier time—Campbell actively conceived of himself as an innovator, and he deserves to be judged by his own high standards. The same holds true for the National Geographic Society, which was founded “to increase and diffuse geographic knowledge,” but often settled for received notions, even if it expanded the horizons of its audience in other ways. Goldberg quotes John Edwin Mason, a professor at the University of Virginia: “It’s possible to say that a magazine can open people’s eyes at the same time it closes them.” This was equally true of Astounding, which defined itself and its readers in ways that we have yet to overcome. And these definitions still matter. As the tagline once read on all of the ads in National Geographic: “Mention the Geographic—it identifies you.”

Looking at “The Spires,” Part 2

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Note: Over the next three days, I’ll be discussing the origins of my novelette “The Spires,” the lead story for the March/April 2018 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. You can purchase a copy and read a long excerpt of it here.  

A few months before I began working on “The Spires,” I briefly spoke with the science fiction writer Gregory Benford at the World Science Fiction Convention in Kansas City, Missouri. At the Campbell Awards, Benford shared an anecdote about a conversation with John W. Campbell that was so striking that I knew at once that it would end up in my book, mostly because of the editor’s comments about race, which is a subject for another post. For now, I’ll only say that the intended purpose of their encounter, which took place at the Worldcon in Berkeley in 1968, was to discuss a potential article about tachyons, or hypothetical particles that travel faster than light. Benford had written a paper on the subject—with the uncredited collaboration of Edward Teller—that he hoped to turn into a piece for Analog, and he tracked Campbell down at the hotel bar to pitch it to him in person. Campbell had written dismissively of tachyons in the magazine before, and when Benford tried to discuss it further, he was dismayed to find that the editor didn’t seem to fully grasp the physics involved. In the end, Campbell passed on the proposed article, and Benford later used tachyons as a plot point in his novel Timescape, in which they serve as a means of sending a message from the future into the past. I don’t actually mention tachyons in “The Spires,” because, frankly, I don’t fully understand the physics involved, at least not to the point that I would feel comfortable presenting it to the picky readers of Analog. (And I should confess that when Benford asked me if I knew what tachyons were, I may have said something like: “Only from Star Trek.”) But if I was thinking about particles traveling backward in time at all, it was probably thanks to that conversation with Benford.

The central premise of “The Spires,” which I still think is pretty neat, is that a mirage could work in time as well as space, with an image from the future traveling backward through the kind of atmospheric duct that produces such optical illusions as the Fata Morgana. (If this sounds confusing here, it hopefully makes more sense in the story itself.) Since the story was set in Alaska in the thirties, it occurred to me that a research facility in the present day might produce such an image by accident, casting a shadow of itself on the past without anyone even knowing about it. All I had to do was find an appropriate source of spooky radiation in Alaska, and after about ten seconds of online searching, I did. Unfortunately, it was the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program—and if the name doesn’t ring a bell, maybe you should count yourself lucky. There are times when I wish I’d never heard of it. Here’s how a recent article in Nature describes the project:

HAARP is the most powerful ionospheric heater in the world. At its heart is a phased-array radar that emits radio waves that are partially absorbed between 100 kilometers and 350 kilometers in altitude, accelerating electrons there and “heating” the ionosphere…The facility…is perhaps the only research facility that has had to justify itself as being neither a death beam aimed at Russia nor a mind-control device. So prevalent are the conspiracy theories that HAARP has even been referred to in a Tom Clancy novel, in which a fictional facility is used to induce mass psychosis in a Chinese village.

In other words, it’s the last thing that you should put at the center of a serious science fiction story, precisely because it appeals to an audience of adolescent conspiracy theorists. I should know, because I used to be one of them. In college, I spent the better part of a summer researching a novel that revolved around exactly this kind of mind control program, and I seem to have read such books as Angels Don’t Play This HAARP and HAARP: The Ultimate Weapon of the Conspiracy. In my defense, I was nineteen years old at the time, and this was a few years before the episode of The X-Files, written by Vince Gilligan, in which a similar array causes Brian Cranston’s head to explode. (On the bright side, this means that we also have it to thank for Breaking Bad.) Almost two decades later, for my sins, I found myself trying to build a story around it, and I almost gave it up as unworkable. At one point, I definitely decided not to use it at all. The trouble was that not only did I fail to find anything better, but I wasn’t sure that I ever could. HAARP was just too perfect. Its famous antenna array looked a lot like the city of spires that witnesses described in the sky above Alaska—a phenomenon that probably has more to do with atmospheric turbulence, but which was hard to resist for purposes of this story. Even better, or worse, was the matter of location. The “silent city” is said to appear over Mount Fairweather when viewed from the southern tip of Willoughby Island, and given those coordinates and some basic facts about mirages, it’s easy to draw a line on the map that would indicate where the “real” city would be. And one of the towns within that narrow slice of land happens to be Gakona, where the HAARP facility is located.

Ultimately, I decided to use it in the story after all, and I’m still not sure that it wasn’t a mistake. I decided to deal with it using two narrative tricks, neither of which was altogether satisfying in itself. One was to present the “solution” to the mystery entirely through quotations from primary sources, which would serve as a kind of rhetorical sleight of hand to disguise how contrived it all was. I wound up using quotes from Fort’s New Lands as epigraphs for the novelette’s three sections, followed by three passages at the end from the Alaska Dispatch, Popular Science, and Wired, which bring the story up to the present day. (It’s a conceit that also requires me to drop the human story, which is a sacrifice that may not have been worth it.) My other strategy was to make the paranoid mindset an explicit theme of the story itself. This wasn’t exactly a stretch, given the connection to Fort, and I gave a speech on the subject to one of my characters, who argues that some degree of paranoia within the larger population is justified, because it occasionally turns out to be right. As far as such themes go, it isn’t bad, but it’s there entirely to make the closing connection with HAARP slightly more palatable. Both tactics, you’ll notice, are about ironizing the narrative. The use of quotations situates the puzzle’s resolution outside the main body of the story, so that crucial information is given to the reader, not the characters—which is the textbook definition of irony. Meanwhile, the material about paranoia is my way of anticipating or deflecting any criticism of the story’s more ludicrous elements. It’s very different from my usual approach, but I think that it sort of worked. The greater problem was combining it with a story about characters who were supposed to be basically realistic. Tomorrow, I’ll describe how I dealt with that challenge, and why I’m still not completely satisfied with the result.

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March 13, 2018 at 9:27 am

Exploring “The Proving Ground,” Part 2

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The Seasteading Institute

Note: My novella “The Proving Ground,” which was first published in the January/February 2017 issue of Analog, is being reprinted this month in Lightspeed Magazine. It will also be appearing in the upcoming edition of The Year’s Best Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois, and is a finalist for the Analytical Laboratory award for Best Novella. This post on the story’s conception and writing originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on January 10, 2017. 

The editor John W. Campbell once pointed out that an industrial safety manual is really the perfect handbook for a saboteur—if you just do the opposite of whatever it says. You see the same mindset in a lot of science fiction, which is often founded on constructing an elaborate futuristic scenario and then figuring out all the things that could possibly go wrong. This is central to most forms of storytelling, of course, but it takes on an added resonance in a genre that purports to tell us how the future will look, and at times, it can be hard to distinguish between the author’s own feelings on the subject and the conflict required for a good story. If dystopias seem more common than utopias, this may be less a prediction than a shrewd narrative choice, and it frequently leads to a streak of what looks like technophobia even in writers who seem otherwise inclined to celebrate all that technology can accomplish. (This is especially true when you start out with the intention of writing a thriller. In the case of someone like Michael Crichton, it can be difficult to tell where his instincts as a novelist leave off and his genuine pessimism begins. Nothing goes right in Jurassic Park, but this has less to do with chaos theory than with the conventions of suspense.) When I started work on “The Proving Ground,” I had a wealth of information at my disposal from the seasteading movement, much of which was devoted to arguing that an ocean colony would be viable and safe. But it also provided me with a list of story ideas, as soon as I began to read it with an eye to the worst that could happen.

For instance, in an online book about seasteading by Patri Friedman, the former executive director of Peter Thiel’s Seasteading Institute, we read: “The ocean is a dangerous environment. There are massive waves, hurricanes, and even pirates.” Taken out of context, this is either an argument for risk mitigation or a line from a pitch to Jerry Bruckheimer. And while I didn’t think much about the possibility of pirates—although for the life of me I can’t remember why—I spent a long time looking into waves and hurricanes. A hurricane or typhoon seemed like a better prospect, mostly because it provided more of a natural buildup than a wave, and it would be easier to structure a story around it. I even read The Perfect Storm from cover to cover to see if it would spark any ideas. What I ultimately concluded was that there was probably a good story to be told about a seastead that was hit by a hurricane, and that if I could work out the logistics, it would be pretty exciting. But it felt more like a disaster movie, and so did most of the other possibilities that I explored for damaging or destroying my seastead. (Looking back at my notes, it seems that I also briefly considered building a plot around a sabotage attempt, which seems a little lazy.) The trouble was that all of these crises were imposed from the outside, and none seemed to emerge naturally from the premise of climate change in the Marshall Islands. So after almost a week of pursuing the hurricane angle, I gave it up, which is a long time to devote to a wrong turn.

Tippi Hedren in The Birds

I was saved by an idea that came from an altogether different direction. One of the first things I had to decide was when the story would be set, both in the chronology of the seastead itself and in the world as a whole. Was the seastead under construction, or had it been occupied for years or decades? Were we talking about a scenario in which the threat of rising sea levels was still a distant one, or had it already happened? And what was taking place elsewhere? I spent a while looking into the various proposals that have been floated for the technological mitigation of global warming, such as the idea of releasing sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight back into space. (Even if it wasn’t central to the story, it seemed like it might make a good ironic counterpoint to the plot. The Marshall Islands probably won’t survive, no matter what else we do in the meantime.) I was especially interested in iron fertilization, in which tiny pellets of iron are released into the oceans to encourage the growth of plankton that can suck up carbon dioxide. It’s unclear how well this works, however and there are other potential issues, as I found in a paper with the unpromising title “Iron enrichment stimulates toxic diatom production in high-nitrate, low-chlorophyll areas.” In particular, it can lead to high levels of pseudonitzschia, a plankton species that produces the poison domoic acid, which accumulates in fish and squid. And it turned out that the Marshall Islands leased its offshore waters in the nineties to a private company to conduct iron fertilization on a limited scale, before it was outlawed as a form of illegal dumping.

At this point, I presumably had a vague idea that it might be possible to build a story around iron fertilization in the Marshall Islands and an ensuing outbreak of domoic acid poisoning, which can cause seizures and death. But then I came across a paper that proposed that a similar outbreak might have been responsible for the unexplained incident on August 18, 1961, in which the towns of Capitola and Santa Cruz in California were attacked by mobs of seabirds—an event that also caught the eye of Alfred Hitchcock. Which meant that I knew the following facts:

  1. The Marshall Islands once contracted with a company to perform a series of iron fertilization experiments.
  2. Iron fertilization has been linked to increased levels of pseudonitzschia, which produces domoic acid.
  3. Domoic acid can cause brain damage in seabirds that eat contaminated fish and squid, and it may have been responsible for the attack that inspired The Birds.

Needless to say, I immediately forgot all about my hurricane. If there’s one thing I love about being a writer, it’s when a long process of shapeless research and daydreaming suddenly crystalizes into a form that seems inevitable, and this felt about as inevitable as it gets. Somebody was going to write this story eventually, and I figured that it might as well be me. Tomorrow, I’ll describe how I brought The Birds to the Marshall Islands, and why I ended up combining it with the ghosts of Bikini Atoll.

Written by nevalalee

March 6, 2018 at 8:32 am

The cosmic engineers

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On May 18, 1966, the novelist C.P. Snow delivered a talk titled “The Status of Doctors” before the Royal Society of Medicine in London. Snow—who had studied physics and chemistry at the University of Leicester and Cambridge—spent much of his speech comparing the fields of engineering and medicine, noting that doctors enjoyed a more exalted social status than engineers, perhaps because their work was easier to understand: “Doctors have a higher place in the popular imagination and I think also in the more esoteric imagination. A novelist can bring a doctor into a novel without any trouble at all, people know who he is; but try bringing an engineer into a novel and it is terribly difficult—they have not got recognition symbols in the way the medical profession has.” He continued:

I do not think doctors suffer from the other great weakness of engineers, that is, their complete lack of verbalism. Engineers can often be extremely clever but they cannot spell and they cannot speak. The doctors I have known are extremely articulate. I suspect the descriptive processes they have to go through, both themselves and presumably with their patients, are extremely good verbal training, and I do not think it is an accident that the one thing the medical profession has done, apart from producing doctors, is to produce writers. I do not think it is an accident that there are almost no engineering writers, and very few from the scientific professions. On the other hand, the medical profession has produced some really good writers in the last hundred years.

Snow would presumably have been mortified by the idea of a magazine that published nothing but stories written by and for engineers, but by the time that he gave his talk, Astounding Science Fiction—which had changed its name several years earlier to Analog—had been in that business for decades. In practice, science fiction writers came from a wide range of professional backgrounds, but there was no doubt that John W. Campbell’s ideal author was a working engineer who wrote for his own pleasure on the side. In an editorial in the February 1941 issue, the editor delivered a pitch to them directly:

Most of Astounding’s authors are, in the professional sense, amateur authors, spare-time writers who earn their bread and butter in one field of work, and use their writing ability as a source of the jam supply…”Jam” in the above sense is useful. Briefly, it amounts to the equivalent of a couple of new suits, or a suit and overcoat, for a short story, a new radio with, say, FM tuning for a novelette, and a new car or so for a novel.

He also made no secret of what kind of professional he was hoping to find. By the end of the decade, a survey indicated that fully fifteen percent of the magazine’s readers were engineers themselves. As Damon Knight wrote in In Search of Wonder: “[Campbell] deliberately built up a readership among practicing scientists and technicians.” And he expected to source most of his writers directly from that existing audience.

But his reasons for looking for engineers were more complicated than they might seem. When Campbell took over Astounding in 1937, the submissions that he received tended to fall into one of two categories. Some were from professional pulp writers who wrote for multiple genres; others were written by younger fans who had grown up with science fiction, loved it, and desperately wanted to break into the magazine. Neither was the kind of writer whom Campbell secretly wanted. Working authors had to write quickly to make a living at a penny a word, and they were usually content to stick to the tricks and formulas that they knew best. They certainly weren’t interested in repeated revisions, which meant that they weren’t likely to be receptive to the notes that Campbell was planning to give. (Some writers, like Edmond Hamilton, bowed out entirely because they didn’t feel like changing.) The fans were even worse. They had only emerged as a force in their own right within the last few years, and you couldn’t tell them anything—they treated science fiction as their personal property, which made it hard to give them any feedback. What Campbell wanted was a legion of successful engineers who wrote science fiction because they liked it, didn’t take it so personally that they would push back against his suggestions, and had the time and leisure to rework a story to his specifications. These men were understandably hard to find, and few of the major writers of the golden age fit that profile completely. It wasn’t until after the war that the figure of the engineer who wrote science fiction as a hobby really began to emerge.

By 1967, a year after C.P. Snow delivered his talk, however, it was possible for Harlan Ellison to refer in the anthology Dangerous Visions to “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.” And there’s little doubt that it was exactly the magazine that Campbell wanted. His control over it was even more complete than it had been in the thirties and forties, largely because of the type of writer he had selected for it, as Damon Knight pointed out: “He deliberately cultivated technically oriented writers with marginal writing skills…Campbell was building a new stable he knew he could keep.” And this side of his legacy persists even today. In Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, Janet Malcolm writes:

Soon after the Big Bang of Freud’s major discoveries…the historian of psychoanalysis notes a fork in the road. One path leads outward into the general culture, widening to become the grand boulevard of psychoanalytic influence…The other is the narrow, inward-turning path of psychoanalytic therapy: a hidden, almost secret byway travelled by few.

Replace “Freud” with “Campbell” and “psychoanalysis” with “science fiction,” and you have a decent picture of what happened with Analog. Science fiction took over the world, while Campbell’s old magazine continued to pursue his private vision, and its writers fit that profile now more than ever. It’s no longer possible to write short fiction for a living, which makes it very attractive for engineers who write on the side. I love Analog—it changed my life. But if you ever wonder why it looks so different from even the rest of the genre, it’s because it was engineered that way.

Going with the flow

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On July 13, 1963, New York University welcomed a hundred attendees to an event called the Conference on Education for Creativity in the Sciences. The gathering, which lasted for three days, was inspired by the work of Dr. Myron A. Coler, the director of the school’s Creative Science Program. There isn’t a lot of information available online about Coler, who was trained as an electrical engineer, and the best source I’ve found is an unsigned Talk of the Town piece that ran earlier that week in The New Yorker. It presents Coler as a scholar who was interested in the problem of scientific creativity long before it became fashionable: “What is it, how does it happen, how is it fostered—can it be isolated, measured, nurtured, predicted, directed, and so on…By enhancing it, you produce more from what you have of other resources. The ability to exploit a resource is in itself a resource.” He conducted monthly meetings for years with a select group of scientists, writing down everything that they had to say on the subject, including a lot of wild guesses about how to identify creative or productive people. Here’s my favorite:

One analyst claims that one of the best ways that he knows to test an individual is to take him out to dinner where lobster or crab is served. If the person uses his hands freely and seems to enjoy himself at the meal, he is probably well adjusted. If, on the other hand, he has trouble in eating the crab, he probably will have trouble in his relations with people also.

The conference was overseen by Jerome B. Wiesner, another former electrical engineer, who was appointed by John F. Kennedy to chair the President’s Science Advisory Committee. Wiesner’s interest lay in education, and particularly in identifying and training children who showed an early aptitude for science. In an article that was published a few years later in the journal Daedalus, Wiesner listed some of the attributes that were often seen in such individuals, based on the work of the pioneering clinical psychologist Anne Roe:

A childhood environment in which knowledge and intellectual effort were so highly valued for themselves than an addiction to reading and study was firmly established at an early age; an unusual degree of independence which, among other things, led them to discover early that they could satisfy their curiosity by personal efforts; an early dependence on personal resources, and on the necessity to think for oneself; an intense drive that generated concentrated, persistent, time-ignoring efforts in their studies and work; a secondary-school training that tended to emphasize science rather than the humanities; and high, but not necessarily remarkably high, intelligence.

But Wiesner also closed on a note of caution: “We do not now have useful techniques for predicting with comfortable reliability which individuals will turn out to be creative in the sciences or in any other field, no matter how great an investment we make in their education. Nor does it appear likely that such techniques will be developed in the immediate future.”

As it happened, one of the attendees at the conference was Isaac Asimov, who took the bus down to New York from Boston. Years afterward, he said that he couldn’t remember much about the experience—he was more concerned by the fact that he lost the wad of two hundred dollars that he had brought as emergency cash—and that his contributions to the discussion weren’t taken seriously. When the question came up of how to identify potentially creative individuals at a young age, he said without hesitation: “Keep an eye peeled for science-fiction readers.” No one else paid much attention, but Asimov didn’t forget the idea, and he wrote it up later that year in his essay “The Sword of Achilles,” which was published by The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. His views on the subject were undoubtedly shaped by his personal preferences, but he was also probably right. (He certainly met most of the criteria listed by Weisner, aside from “an unusual degree of independence,” since he was tied down for most of his adolescence to his father’s candy store.) And science fiction had more in common with Coler and Wiesner’s efforts than they might have appreciated. The editor John W. Campbell had always seen the genre as a kind of training program that taught its readers how to survive in the future, and Weisner described “tomorrow’s world” in terms that might have been pulled straight from Astounding: “That world will be more complex than it is today, will be changing more rapidly than now, and it will have jobs only for the well trained.” Weisner closed with a quotation from the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead:

In the conditions of modern life, the rule is absolute, the race which does not value trained intelligence is doomed…Today we maintain ourselves. Tomorrow science will have moved forward one more step, and there will be no appeal from the judgment which will then be pronounced on the uneducated.

These issues tend to come to the forefront during times of national anxiety, and it’s no surprise that we’re seeing a resurgence in them today. In last week’s issue of The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik rounded up a few recent titles on education and child prodigies, which reflect “the sense that American parents have gone radically wrong, making themselves and their kids miserable in the process, by hovering over them like helicopters instead of observing them from a watchtower, at a safe distance.” The catch is that while the current wisdom says that we should maximize our children’s independence, most child prodigies were the result of intensive parental involvement, which implies that the real secret to creative achievement lies somewhere else. And the answer may be right in front of us. As Gopnik writes of the author Ann Hulbert’s account of of the piano prodigy Lang Lang:

Lang Lang admits to the brutal pressures placed on him by his father…He was saved because he had, as Hulbert writes, “carved out space for a version of the ‘autotelic experience’—absorption in an activity purely for its own sake, a specialty of childhood.” Following the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Hulbert maintains that it was being caught in “the flow,” the feeling of the sudden loss of oneself in an activity, that preserved Lang Lang’s sanity: “The prize always beckoned, but Lang was finding ways to get lost in the process.”

This is very close to the “concentrated, persistent, time-ignoring efforts” that Weisner described fifty years ago, as well as his characterization of learning as “an addiction.” Gopnik concludes: “Accomplishment, the feeling of absorption in the flow, of mastery for its own sake, of knowing how to do this thing, is what keeps all of us doing what we do, if we like what we do at all.” And it seems to have been this sense of flow, above all else, that led Asimov to write more than four hundred books. He was addicted to it. As he once wrote to Robert A. Heinlein: “I like it in the attic room with the wallpaper. I’ve been all over the galaxy. What’s left to see?”

To be or not to be

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The Structural Differential

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on October 11, 2016.

If you’re familiar with the science fiction of the golden age, you’ve probably come across the name of Alfred Korzybski, the Polish philosopher whose ideas, known as general semantics, enjoyed a brief but intense vogue with writers and fans in the late thirties and early forties. Korzybski’s work provided the backdrop for A.E. van Vogt’s The World of Null-A and its sequels; Robert A. Heinlein mentions him by name in “Coventry” and “Gulf”; and he pops up in such stories as “The Helping Hand” by Poul Anderson and “Day of the Moron” by H. Beam Piper. He was also an important influence on L. Ron Hubbard and John W. Campbell, although both of them would have denied this. (Campbell liked to say that he was never able to get through Korzybski’s most famous book, Science and Sanity, and it’s likely that Hubbard never did, either.) And it isn’t hard to appreciate why the science fiction community found him so intriguing. General semantics was pitched as a kind of mental training program that would enhance the brain’s performance, allowing practitioners to think more clearly and move past the mental blocks that prevent us from accurately perceiving the world around us. Yet Korzybski remains relatively unknown today. Part of this is because Science and Sanity itself is such a daunting work: it’s long, repetitive, sometimes obscure, and often deeply weird. But there’s also a lot there that remains valuable to creative thinkers, if you’re willing to unearth it, and with certain qualifications, it’s still worth seeking out.

We can start with Korzybski’s most famous pronouncement, which a lot of people, including me, have quoted without fully understanding it: “The map is not the territory.” What he’s really talking about is language, which is the mental map that we use to orient ourselves as we make our way through the world. The trouble, he believes, is that the map we’ve inherited offers a flawed picture of reality. Language was developed when mankind was still in its infancy, and the inaccurate ideas that early humans had about the world are preserved in the way that we talk about it. We confuse words with their underlying objects; we take objects in isolation, when in fact they have meaning only in their relationships with others and in their place within an overall structure; we think in categories, when we’re invariably dealing with unique individuals; and we depend on preconceived ideas, rather than experience, to make our decisions. The primary culprit, Korzybski argued, was the word “is,” which always involves either a tautology or a falsehood. When we say that A is B, we’re either saying that it’s equivalent to itself, which doesn’t yield any useful information, or we’re falling prey to one of several fallacies. Either we’re saying that one unique object is identical to another; that an object is the same thing as the label we’ve given it, or to the overall class to which it belongs; or that it can be described in terms that can be agreed upon by all observers. And a moment’s reflection reveals that none of this is true.

Alfred Korzybski

Most of us, I think, will grant these points. What set Korzybski apart is that he attempted to train himself and others to systematically overcome these misconceptions, using a few misleadingly simple tricks. He advised his readers to be skeptical of any form of the verb “to be,” and that whenever they were told that something was the same as something else, they should reflexively respond: “This is not that.” The goal, he said, was “consciousness of abstracting,” or a constant, everyday awareness of how we think using different orders of abstractions. Words are not objects; objects are distinct from the inferences that we make about them; and the gap between the general and the particular means that no statement can be entirely true or false, but only probable in various degrees. To underline these points, Korzybski liked to use a model called the Structural Differential, a teaching aid fashioned out of wooden pegboards and lengths of string that were supposed to symbolize the abstracting process of the human nervous system. Students were told to study and handle it in silence, which would nonverbally remind them of the difference between an event, an object, a label, and the levels of abstraction above it. If this all sounds like an unwieldy way of seeing the world, if not a vaguely Duchampian joke, well, it is. But it’s also in service of what seems to me like a worthwhile goal: to insert a mental pause, or what Korzybski calls “the neurological delay,” before we unthinkingly respond to a statement or situation.

If we think of general semantics as an elaborate system for training us to pause to question our assumptions, it becomes a lot more comprehensible. It’s also worth noting that Korzbyski wasn’t opposed to abstraction, which he saw as a necessary tool and shortcut, but to its misuse. The ability for one generation to build on the abstractions developed by its predecessors, which he calls “time-binding,” is what separates human beings from the animals—but only if we’re good at it. Conventional language, which Korzybski associated with the followers of Aristotle, just makes it harder to pass along useful information; his non-Aristotelean approach was pitched as a more accurate reflection of reality, as well as a practical tool for generating and conveying ideas. And it’s probably worth a try. (If you don’t feel like plowing through all eight hundred pages of Science and Sanity, Korzybski advises readers to start with the shorter, self-contained section “The Mechanism of Time-Binding,” which includes most of the book’s practical advice.) Pausing before you think, interrogating your assumptions, and being conscious of your abstractions are all worthwhile goals, but they’re easier said than done: one of Korzybski’s followers later estimated that “about thirty” people had mastered it. You could argue that Korzybski overstated his case, that he exaggerated the benefits of his approach, and that he cloaked it in a lot of unnecessary pseudoscience. But he was right about the basic problem. And it’s easy to wish that we lived in a society in which we responded to all disagreements by pausing, smiling, and asking sincerely: “What do you mean?”

Written by nevalalee

January 18, 2018 at 9:00 am

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