Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘John W. Campbell

The ethereal phase

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Like many readers, I first encountered the concept of the singularity—the idea that artificial intelligence will eventually lead to an era of exponential technological change—through the work of the futurist Ray Kurzweil. Fifteen years ago, I was browsing in a bookstore when I came across a copy of his book The Singularity is Near, which I bought on the spot. Kurzweil’s thesis is a powerful one, and, to a point, it remains completely convincing:

What, then, is the Singularity? It’s a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed…The key idea underlying the impending Singularity is that the pace of change of our human-created technology is accelerating and its powers are expanding at an exponential pace. Exponential growth is deceptive. It starts out almost imperceptibly and then explodes with unexpected fury—unexpected, that is, if one does not take care to follow its trajectory.

Kurzweil seems particularly enthusiastic about one purported consequence of this development: “We will gain power over our fates. Our mortality will be in our own hands. We will be able to live as long as we want (a subtly different statement from saying we will live forever).” And he suggests that the turning point will occur “before the middle of this century.”

This line of thinking, which was much more novel back then than it is today, was enough to briefly turn me into a transhumanist, or at least into the approximation of one. But I’m more skeptical now. As I noted here recently, one of Kurzweil’s core arguments—that incremental advances in medical technology will lead to functional immortality to those who can hang around for long enough—was advanced by John W. Campbell as far back as 1949. (Writing in Astounding Science Fiction, Campbell muses that a child will be born one day who never has to do die, and he concludes: “I wonder if that point has been passed? And my own guess is—it has.” There’s no proof yet that he was wrong, but I have my doubts.) And the notion of accelerating change is even older. The historian Henry Adams explores the possibility in an essay published in 1904, and a few years later, in the book Degradation of the Democratic Dogma, he writes of the pace of technological progress:

As each newly appropriated force increased the attraction between the sum of nature’s forces and the volume of human mind, by the usual law of squares, the acceleration hurried society towards the critical point that marked the passage into a new phase as though it were heat impelling water to explode as steam…The curve resembles that of the vaporization of water. The resemblance is too close to be disregarded, for nature loves the logarithm, and perpetually recurs to her inverse square. For convenience, if only as a momentary refuge, the physicist-historian will probably have to try the experiment of taking the law of inverse squares as his standard of social acceleration for the nineteenth century, and consequently for the whole phase, which obliges him to accept it experimentally as a general law of history.

Adams thought that the point of no return would occur around 1917, while Buckminster Fuller, writing over a generation later, speculated that technological change would lead to a post-scarcity society sometime in the late seventies. Such futurists tend to place the pivotal moment at a far enough remove to be plausible, while still potentially within their own lifetimes, which hints at the element of wishful thinking involved. (It’s worth noting that the same amount of time has passed since the publication of The Singularity is Near as elapsed between Adams’s first essay on the subject and the date that he posited for what he liked to call the Ethereal Phase.) And unlike other prophets, they benefit from their ability to frame such speculations in the language of science—and especially of physics and mathematics. Writing from the point of view of a historian, in fact, Adams arrives at something that sounds remarkably like psychohistory:

If values can be given to these attractions, a physical theory of history is a mere matter of physical formula, no more complicated than the formulas of Willard Gibbs or Clerk Maxwell; but the task of framing the formula and assigning the values belongs to the physicist, not to the historian…If the physicist-historian is satisfied with neither of the known laws of mass, astronomical or electric, and cannot arrange his variables in any combination that will conform with a phase-sequence, no resource seems to remain but that of waiting until his physical problems shall be solved, and he shall be able to explain what Force is…Probably the solution of any one of the problems will give the solution for them all.

And each of these men sees exactly what he wants to find in this phenomenon, which amounts to a kind of Rorschach test for futurists. On my bookshelf, I have a book titled The 10% Solution to a Healthy Life, which outlines a health plan based largely on the work of Nathan Pritikin, whose thoughts on diet—and longevity—have turned out to be surprisingly influential. Its author says of his decision to write a book: “Being a scientist and a trained skeptic, I was always turned off by people with strong singular agendas. People out to save my soul or even just my health or well-being were strongly suspect. I felt very uncomfortable, therefore, in this role myself, telling people how they should eat or live.” The author was Ray Kurzweil. He makes no mention of the singularity here, but after another decade, he had moved on to such titles as Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever and Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever. Immortality clearly matters a lot to him, which naturally affects how he views the prospect of accelerating change. By contrast, Adams was most attracted by the possibility of refining the theory of history into a science, as Campbell and Asimov later were, while Fuller saw it as the means to an ecological utopia, which had less to do with environmental awareness than with his desire to free the world’s population to do whatever it wanted with its time. Kurzweil, in turn, sees it as a way for us to live for as long as we want, which is an interest that predated his public association with the singularity, and this is reason enough to be skeptical of everything that he says. Kurzweil is a genius, but he’s also just about the last person we should trust to be objective when it comes to the consequences of accelerating change. I’ll be talking about this more tomorrow.

Astounding Stories #22: None But Lucifer

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Note: This is the latest entry in a series in which I highlight works of speculative fiction that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

None But Lucifer, a short novel by H.L. Gold and L. Sprague de Camp that appeared in the September 1939 issue of Unknown, opens with its lead character figuring out a foolproof way of getting whatever he wants—and it isn’t a fantasy. The story begins with its protagonist, Hale, living in deliberate poverty in a tenement in New York, and within the space of a few pages, merely as an experiment, he talks his way into a lucrative job, a beautiful apartment, and a luxurious lifestyle, mostly just to prove that he can. Hale’s system depends on aiming absurdly high while showing as much apparent contempt for his true goal as possible. As he explains to an incredulous listener:

I can get anything I want any time I want it…Moreover, anybody can use my system…I go after what I want obliquely, by seeming to aim at something else, but grabbing sideways at what I really want…I can be aiming at money, fame, love, an easy life, or influence—but I wouldn’t show which one I really wanted. You’d have to guess…The main thing is to keep your mouth shut about what you really want. The next most important thing is to get out of your social class. You can depend on your own class or the one just above it to defeat you…But if you break out of your class, the one you’re crashing isn’t sure of your aims, and can’t crush you so effectively.

He concludes: “If you’re trying to get a job as a clerk, your objective is pathetically simple to figure out. You want to eat. But if you go after a hundred-thousand-a-year position, with a crack at the boss’s daughter, it gets tougher to analyze your goal.” And that’s particularly true if you manage to break through the barriers that your social class has imposed.

As a list of commandments for con artists and other hustlers—you keep your motives hidden, avoid your own social class, and show as much contempt for possible for what you really want—this approach is as valid as ever, and there are times when it reminds me queasily of Neil Strauss’s The Game. But Gold and de Camp have larger ambitions of their own. The man to whom Hale is describing his strategy isn’t an ordinary human being at all. It’s Lucifier himself, who has been quietly running the world for thousands of years in the guise of an unassuming businessman named Mr. Johnson. Hale has figured out the sinister truth, which is that our world is Hell, and we’re all being punished without our knowledge for sins that we committed in a previous lifetime. (Hale’s first clue came from a line from the novelist Arnold Bennett: “Of all the inhabitants of the inferno, none but Lucifer knows that hell is hell.” Or as Eleanor Shellstrop memorably realized: This is the Bad Place!”) With this information in hand, Hale approaches Lucifer with an ultimatum. He wants to be an equal partner in the management of Hell, or he’ll tell the world about his system for getting whatever you want, which will upset the delicate balance of suffering. Lucifer agrees, and he takes Hale under his wing. And while we reasonably suspect that there’s more to the deal than meets the eye, for the moment, we’re more interested in hearing Lucifer expound on his methods of keeping mankind in an ideal state of misery. For instance:

Running Hell on an efficient basis happens to be my business, and I run it the same as any other businessman runs his business, by practical, common-sense methods…I’m immortal, of course. Hence I can control the world’s money simply by investing a little and waiting for the interest charges to pile up. Outside of that, I can run the world merely by a magnificent system of obtaining information, an understanding of men’s desires, and a knowledge of how to use pivot men. And, of course, the ability to start and stop the flow of money. In most cases the last can be done without a penny.

This is a terrific premise for a story, although None But Lucifer—which de Camp rewrote from Gold’s initial draft, with uncredited contributions from John W. Campbell—doesn’t quite live up to its opening. The middle sags a bit, and it doesn’t follow through completely on its promise. But it’s deliciously quotable throughout, and I can hardly imagine the effect that it must have had on the impressionable teenagers who bought it for twenty cents in 1939. Here, for example, is Lucifer on the efficiency of his strategies for causing pain, which don’t involve tracking every last person on earth, but just a few crucial people: “It’s enough to keep track of trade and production and social, political, and economic movements, with the key figures in each category, their influence, their motives and objectives, and what effect certain…uh…stimuli will have on their own categories and on society in general…No black magic—just detailed information and a knowledge of human nature.” A few pages later, Lucifer explains his attitude toward war:

Except in unusual cases, I never concentrate on tormenting a single person. That would be inefficient…The chronic state of crisis, never quite reaching war, which I have labored incessantly to create, is kept simmering. The world was growing apathetic, but now there is a very gratifying turmoil. Millions of people have been made afraid and unhappy. Others have had their hopes raised. At the proper moment those hopes will be dashed, and they, too, will be unhappy.

When Lucifer poses the problem of what should be done as humanity proceeds toward an inevitable global conflict, Hale gives the correct answer: “I guess I’d try to prevent war…To keep the world frightened for as long as possible.” Lucifer praises his insight, but he adds a reminder: “Even though the war crisis is our most absorbing problem at the moment, we must never cease using the smaller torments.”

None But Lucifer was written before the outbreak of war in Europe, and it was on newsstands when Hitler invaded Poland. Typically, in a later issue, Campbell was quick to play up the coincidence: “None But Lucifer was begun last spring, worked out in detail last summer, bought and started on the process of being set in type late last summer. And it was on the stands at the time Europe was busily proving for the world that Lucifer does rule this planet.” Yet there are few points in history when its insights wouldn’t seem relevant. Reading it over recently, I was most struck by the passage in which Hale marvels at the universal state of suffering:

Millions out of work; increase in the relief budget attacked by the economy lobby—and effectively, since they were now so powerful; hunger marches, riots, strikes, lockouts, freezing of credit. Out of all that torment and strife there should have been a little happiness. The isolationists and the economizers should have felt jubilant. But actually they were as frightened as the rest of the country…It seemed that people were unhappy no matter what you did.

Throughout the story, Hale wonders what the world’s inhabitants could possibly have done in a previous life to deserve such torment, and he never really finds out. In a closing twist, however, he finds that the very worst sinners are given the darkest punishment of all—in the next life, they’re doomed to become Lucifer himself. “Evidently we—those of us who are doomed, from time to time, to the supreme torment of indeterminate immortality as manager of Hell—committed the most unspeakable crimes in some other existence,” Lucifer explains before handing over the reins to the newly reluctant Hale. “While Hell would no doubt supply plenty of torment without our help, a manager is evidently required to assure the most efficient and economical distribution of misery.”

I’ll be appearing tonight at the Tuesday Funk reading series at Hopleaf Bar at 5148 N. Clark St. in Chicago at 7:30pm. Hope to see some of you there!

The Men Who Saw Tomorrow, Part 3

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By now, it might seem obvious that the best way to approach Nostradamus is to see it as a kind of game, as Anthony Boucher describes it in the June 1942 issue of Unknown Worlds: “A fascinating game, to be sure, with a one-in-a-million chance of hitting an astounding bullseye. But still a game, and a game that has to be played according to the rules. And those rules are, above all things else, even above historical knowledge and ingenuity of interpretation, accuracy and impartiality.” Boucher’s work inspired several spirited rebukes in print from L. Sprague de Camp, who granted the rules of the game but disagreed about its harmlessness. In a book review signed “J. Wellington Wells”—and please do keep an eye on that last name—de Camp noted that Nostradamus was “conjured out of his grave” whenever there was a war:

And wonder of wonders, it always transpires that a considerable portion of his several fat volumes of prophetic quatrains refer to the particular war—out of the twenty-odd major conflicts that have occurred since Dr. Nostradamus’s time—or other disturbance now taking place; and moreover that they prophesy inevitable victory for our side—whichever that happens to be. A wonderful man, Nostradamus.

Their affectionate battle culminated in a nonsense limerick that de Camp published in the December 1942 version of Esquire, claiming that if it was still in print after four hundred years, it would have been proven just as true as any of Nostradamus’s prophecies. Boucher responded in Astounding with the short story “Pelagic Spark,” an early piece of fanfic in which de Camp’s great-grandson uses the “prophecy” to inspire a rebellion in the far future against the sinister Hitler XVI.

This is all just good fun, but not everyone sees it as a game, and Nostradamus—like other forms of vaguely apocalyptic prophecy—tends to return at exactly the point when such impulses become the most dangerous. This was the core of de Camp’s objection, and Boucher himself issued a similar warning:

At this point there enters a sinister economic factor. Books will be published only when there is popular demand for them. The ideal attempt to interpret the as yet unfulfilled quatrains of Nostradamus would be made in an ivory tower when all the world was at peace. But books on Nostradamus sell only in times of terrible crisis, when the public wants no quiet and reasoned analysis, but an impassioned assurance that We are going to lick the blazes out of Them because look, it says so right here. And in times of terrible crisis, rules are apt to get lost.

Boucher observes that one of the best books on the subject, Charles A. Ward’s Oracles of Nostradamus, was reissued with a dust jacket emblazoned with such questions as “Will America Enter the War?” and “Will the British Fleet Be Destroyed?” You still see this sort of thing today, and it isn’t just the books that benefit. In 1981, the producer David L. Wolper released a documentary on the prophecies of Nostradamus, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, that saw subsequent spikes in interest during the Gulf War—a revised version for television was hosted by Charlton Heston—and after the September 11 attacks, when there was a run on the cassette at Blockbuster. And the attention that it periodically inspires reflects the same emotional factors that led to psychohistory, as the host of the original version said to the audience: “Do we really want to know about the future? Maybe so—if we can change it.”

The speaker, of course, was Orson Welles. I had always known that The Man Who Saw Tomorrow was narrated by Welles, but it wasn’t until I watched it recently that I realized that he hosted it onscreen as well, in one of my favorite incarnations of any human being—bearded, gigantic, cigar in hand, vaguely contemptuous of his surroundings and collaborators, but still willing to infuse the proceedings with something of the velvet and gold braid. Keith Phipps of The A.V. Club once described the documentary as “a brain-damaged sequel” to Welles’s lovely F for Fake, which is very generous. The entire project is manifestly ridiculous and exploitative, with uncut footage from the Zapruder film mingling with a xenophobic fantasy of a war of the West against Islam. Yet there are also moments that are oddly transporting, as when Welles turns to the camera and says:

Before continuing, let me warn you now that the predictions of the future are not at all comforting. I might also add that these predictions of the past, these warnings of the future are not the opinions of the producers of the film. They’re certainly not my opinions. They’re interpretations of the quatrains as made by scores of independent scholars of Nostradamus’ work.

In the sly reading of “my opinions,” you can still hear a trace of Harry Lime, or even of Gregory Arkadin, who invited his guests to drink to the story of the scorpion and the frog. And the entire movie is full of strange echoes of Welles’s career. Footage is repurposed from Waterloo, in which he played Louis XVIII, and it glances at the fall of the Shah of Iran, whose brother-in-law funded Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind, which was impounded by the revolutionary government that Nostradamus allegedly foresaw.

Welles later expressed contempt for the whole affair, allegedly telling Merv Griffin that you could get equally useful prophecies by reading at random out of the phone book. Yet it’s worth remembering, as the critic David Thomson notes, that Welles turned all of his talk show interlocutors into versions of the reporter from Citizen Kane, or even into the Hal to his Falstaff, and it’s never clear where the game ended. His presence infuses The Man Who Saw Tomorrow with an unearned loveliness, despite the its many awful aspects, such as the presence of the “psychic” Jeane Dixon. (Dixon’s fame rested on her alleged prediction of the Kennedy assassination, based on a statement—made in Parade magazine in 1960—that the winner of the upcoming presidential election would be “assassinated or die in office though not necessarily in his first term.” Oddly enough, no one seems to remember an equally impressive prediction by the astrologer Joseph F. Goodavage, who wrote in Analog in September 1962: “It is coincidental that each American president in office at the time of these conjunctions [of Jupiter and Saturn in an earth sign] either died or was assassinated before leaving the presidency…John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960 at the time of a Jupiter and Saturn conjunction in Capricorn.”) And it’s hard for me to watch this movie without falling into reveries about Welles, who was like John W. Campbell in so many other ways. Welles may have been the most intriguing cultural figure of the twentieth century, but he never seemed to know what would come next, and his later career was one long improvisation. It might not be too much to hear a certain wistfulness when he speaks of the man who could see tomorrow, much as Campbell’s fascination with psychohistory stood in stark contrast to the confusion of the second half of his life. When The Man Who Saw Tomorrow was released, Welles had finished editing about forty minutes of his unfinished masterpiece The Other Side of the Wind, and for decades after his death, it seemed that it would never be seen. Instead, it’s available today on Netflix. And I don’t think that anybody could have seen that coming.

The Men Who Saw Tomorrow, Part 1

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If there’s a single theme that runs throughout my book Astounding, it’s the two sides of the editor John W. Campbell. These days, Campbell tends to be associated with highly technical “hard” science fiction with an emphasis on physics and engineering, but he had an equally dominant mystical side, and from the beginning, you often see the same basic impulses deployed in both directions. (After the memory of his career had faded, much of this history was quietly revised, as Algis Burdrys notes in Benchmarks Revisited: “The strong mystical bent displayed among even the coarsest cigar-chewing technists is conveniently overlooked, and Campbell’s subsequent preoccupation with psionics is seen as an inexplicable deviation from a life of hitherto unswerving straight devotion to what we all agree is reasonability.”) As an undergraduate at M.I.T. and Duke, Campbell was drawn successively to Norbert Wiener, the founder of cybernetics, and Joseph Rhine, the psychologist best known for his statistical studies of telepathy. Both professors fed into his fascination with a possible science of the mind, but along strikingly different lines, and he later pursued both dianetics, which he originally saw as a kind of practical cybernetics, and explorations of psychic powers. Much the same holds true of his other great obsession—the problem of foreseeing the future. As I discuss today in an essay in the New York Times, its most famous manifestation was the notion of psychohistory, the fictional science of prediction in Asimov’s Foundation series. But at a time of global uncertainty, it wasn’t the method of forecasting that counted, but the accuracy of the results, and even as Campbell was collaborating with Asimov, his interest in prophecy was taking him to even stranger places.

The vehicle for the editor’s more mystical explorations was Unknown, the landmark fantasy pulp that briefly channeled these inclinations away from the pages of Astounding. (In my book, I argue that the simultaneous existence of these two titles purified science fiction at a crucial moment, and that the entire genre might have evolved in altogether different ways if Campbell had been forced to express all sides of his personality in a single magazine.) As I noted here the other day, in an attempt to attract a wider audience, Campbell removed the cover paintings from Unknown, hoping to make it look like a more mainstream publication. The first issue with the revised design was dated July 1940, and in his editor’s note, Campbell explicitly addressed the “new discoverers” who were reading the magazine for the first time. He grandly asserted that fantasy represented “a completely untrammeled literary medium,” and as an illustration of the kinds of subjects that he intended to explore in his stories, he offered a revealing example:

Until somebody satisfactorily explains away the unquestionable masses of evidence showing that people do have visions of things yet to come, or of things occurring at far-distant points—until someone explains how Nostradamus, the prophet, predicted things centuries before they happened with such minute detail (as to names of people not to be born for half a dozen generations or so!) that no vague “Oh, vague generalities—things are always happening that can be twisted to fit!” can possibly explain them away—until the time those are docketed and labeled and nearly filed—they belong to The Unknown.

It was Campbell’s first mention in print of Nostradamus, the sixteenth-century French prophet, but it wouldn’t be the last. A few months later, Campbell alluded in another editorial to the Moberly-Jourdain incident, in which two women claimed to have traveled over a century back in time on a visit to the Palace of Versailles. The editor continued: “If it happens one way—how about the other? How about someone slipping from the past to the future? It is known—and don’t condemn till you’ve read a fair analysis of the old man’s works—that Nostradamus, the famous French prophet, did not guess at what might happen; he recorded what did happen—before it happened. His accuracy of prophecy runs considerably better, actually, than the United States government crop forecasts, in percentage, and the latter are certainly used as a basis for business.” Campbell then drew a revealing connection between Nostradamus and the war in Europe:

Incidentally, to avoid disappointment, Nostradamus did not go into much detail about this period. He was writing several hundred years ago, for people of that time—and principally for Parisians. He predicted in some detail the French Revolution, predicted several destructions of Paris—which have come off on schedule, to date—and did not predict destruction of Paris for 1940. He did, however, for 1999—by a “rain of fire from the East.” Presumably he didn’t have any adequate terms for airplane bombs, so that may mean thermite incendiaries. But the present period, too many centuries from his own times, would be of minor interest to him, and details are sketchy. The prophecy goes up to about the thirty-fifth century.

And the timing was highly significant. Earlier that year, Campbell had published the nonfiction piece “The Science of Whithering” by L. Sprague de Camp in Astounding, shortly after German troops marched into Paris. De Camp’s article, which discussed the work of such cyclical historians as Spengler and Toynbee, represented the academic or scientific approach the problem of forecasting, and it would soon find its fictional expression in such stories as Jack Williamson’s “Breakdown” and Asimov’s “Foundation.” As usual, however, Campbell was playing both sides, and he was about to pursue a parallel train of thought in Unknown that has largely been forgotten. Instead of attempting to explain Nostradamus in rational terms, Campbell ventured a theory that was even more fantastic than the idea of clairvoyance:

Occasionally a man—vanishes…And somehow, he falls into another time. Sometimes future—sometimes past. And sometimes he comes back, sometimes he doesn’t. If he does come back, there’d be a tendency, and a smart one, to shut up; it’s mighty hard to prove. Of course, if he’s a scholarly gentlemen, he might spend his unintentional sojourn in the future reading histories of his beloved native land. Then, of course, he ought to be pretty accurate at predicting revolutions and destruction of cities. Even be able to name inconsequential details, as Nostradamus did.

To some extent, this might have been just a game that he was playing for his readers—but not completely. Campbell’s interest in Nostradamus was very real, and just as he had used Williamson and Asimov to explore psychohistory, he deployed another immensely talented surrogate to look into the problem of prophecy. His name was Anthony Boucher. I’ll be exploring this in greater detail tomorrow.

Note: Please join me today at 12:00pm ET for a Twitter AMA to celebrate the release of the fantastic new horror anthology Terror at the Crossroads, which includes my short story “Cryptids.”

The beauty of the world

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In the fall of 1953, the science fiction editor John W. Campbell visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He wasn’t impressed, saying that the results could have been “duplicated in any major insane asylum” and that modern art was the expression of a “violent neurosis.” But the trip wasn’t entirely wasted. As he wrote in a letter to his father, Campbell and his wife Peg were able to spend the day in the company of a good friend:

We went with Alejandro Cañedo, a fine-arts partner friend of mine. We’d just been up to his apartment to see his incredibly lovely land-sea-sky-scapes. He does beach scenes that look as though they might have been painted 3,000,000,000 years ago in the pre-Cambrian period, where raw rock meets long, curling waves, under a vast, spacious sky. He can actually paint a cloud so it looks like a cloud, instead of a bit of white cotton fluff. The pictures are magnificently spacious, and patient and calm. They have eternity and timelessness and action built in them all at once.

Campbell continued: “I was very glad [Cañedo] was along when we went to the museum. He is an artist, and an artist who can, and does, paint beauty. He’s a gentleman, a philosopher, and he’s lived in a number of parts of the world. Mexican by birth, served in the Mexican state department, and studied in Paris and Rome.” And Campbell drew a strong contrast between Cañedo’s “incredibly lovely” canvases and the excesses of abstract act, which was full of nothing but “hate and anger and confusion and frustration.”

And the artist whom Campbell described in another letter as “considerable of a philosopher” was a fascinating figure in his own right. He was born Alejandro de Cañedo in Mexico City in 1902, which made him nearly a decade older than Campbell, and he became known for his exquisitely rendered male figure studies, which he later exhibited under the name Alexander Cañedo. For the December 1946 issue of Astounding, he provided a cover painting for Eric Frank Russell’s “Metamorphosite,” but he might never have made any impression on the magazine’s fans—or its editor—if it hadn’t been for a happy accident. As Campbell told readers the following August:

Item the first is Astounding’s cover for September. It’s different. It’s unique. And it’s more than good. It came about in the following way; Alejandro Cañedo, who did our last cover, was in, and invited me to come up to his studio where he had some paintings he was about to ship to a showing. I did. And he had some strikingly beautiful and wholly unique artwork. I had never seen anything like it—and immediately demanded why he hadn’t done one like that for Astounding.

Campbell concluded: “It seems that Cañedo doing what he likes, and Cañedo doing what he thinks someone else wants, are quite, quite different. I think you’ll want a lot more of the type he’s done. And I can’t describe it.” The cover of the September issue featured the painting reproduced above, and over the next few years, Campbell published several more “symbolic” covers credited to “Alejandro,” which were striking images that didn’t illustrate any specific story.

As even a casual glance reveals, they were also blatantly homoerotic. I haven’t been able to find much in the way of biographical information on Cañedo, but his work appears in the permanent collection of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, and his article on Wikipedia includes the unsourced statement that he painted works of gay erotica for private collectors that couldn’t be displayed in public. And it’s very hard to look at these covers now and see them as anything but erotic reveries. (Even at the time, Cañedo’s cover for the July 1954 issue, titled “Inappropriate,” apparently made some fans uncomfortable, although few seem to have seen anything strange about this cover from several years earlier.) Campbell doesn’t appear to have noticed anything out of the ordinary, and his unabashed admiration for Cañedo’s work stands in remarkable contrast to the sentiments that he expressed elsewhere. Just one year after Cañedo’s first “symbolic” cover, he published an article in which Dr. Joseph Winter, who later became a member of the original dianetics team, expressed the hope that endocrinology would lead to a world with “no homosexuality.” Campbell later claimed that dianetics had been used for successful “cures” of gay men, and he stated both in private and in the pages of the magazine that homosexuality was a sign of cultural decline. And he didn’t think that he had any trouble identifying such individuals, writing in an unbelievably horrifying passage in a letter to Isaac Asimov in 1958:

And Ike, my friend, consider the case of a fairy, a queer. They can, normally, be spotted about as far off as you can spot a mulatto. I’ll admit a coal-black Negro can be spotted a bit further than a fairy can, but the normal mulatto can’t. Sure, I know a lot of queers don’t look that way—but they’re simply “passing.”

But I’m frankly more interested in what in the world Cañedo thought of Campbell. Even in the rare glimpses that we find in Campbell’s letters, it’s possible to discern glints of an ironic humor. (In a another letter to his father, the editor quoted Cañedo’s philosophy of life: “Sometimes I have not had a nickel in the bank, and sometimes I’ve had plenty, but I have been rich all the time, because I have had the friends I want to talk to, the work I want to do, and the things I want to learn about.” The same letter includes another anecdote that makes me wonder: “By the way, Alex had his apartment redecorated, and had a painter repaint the walls. Alex was out while the painter was on the job; when Alex came back that evening he made a horrifying discovery. God knows how that could be, but the painter was red-green colorblind! Instead of painting the walls the pale tan Alex wanted, he’d done them in a sort of baby pink!” God knows how indeed.) And it’s worth juxtaposing Campbell’s unqualified admiration for Cañedo’s nudes, which he saw as an answer to the lunacy of modern art, with his editorial of December 1958:

In England, there is a strong movement to remove homosexuality from the list of crimes. After all, we mustn’t impose our opinions on others, must we? Yes…and homosexuality was accepted in Greece, just before its fall. And in Rome, in the latter days. And in Hitlerite Germany. After all, now, you can’t prove, logically, that the homosexual doesn’t have as much right to his opinion as you do to yours, can you?

But perhaps we should just be glad that Campbell was obtuse enough to publish these remarkable covers. As he wrote to his father of modern artists: “They don’t want to see the truth, and reject seeing the beauty of the world. That an individual can make such a mistake is perfectly understandable.”

Written by nevalalee

October 29, 2018 at 9:00 am

The unknown future

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During the writing of Astounding, I often found myself wondering how much control an editor can really have. John W. Campbell is routinely described as the most powerful and influential figure in the history of science fiction, and there’s no doubt that the genre would look entirely different if he were somehow lifted out of the picture. Yet while I never met Campbell, I’ve spoken with quite a few other magazine editors, and my sense is that it can be hard to think about reshaping the field when you’re mostly just concerned with getting out the current issue—or even with your very survival. The financial picture for science fiction magazines may have darkened over the last few decades, but it’s always been a challenge, and it can be difficult to focus on the short term while also keeping your larger objectives in mind. Campbell did it about as well as anyone ever did, but he was limited by the resources at his disposal, and he benefited from a few massive strokes of luck. I don’t think he would have had nearly the same impact if Heinlein hadn’t happened to show up within the first year and a half of his editorship, and you could say much the same of the fortuitous appearance of the artist Hubert Rogers. (By November 1940, Campbell could write: “Rogers has a unique record among science fiction artists: every time he does a cover, the author of the story involved writes him fan mail, and asks me for the cover original.”) In the end, it wasn’t the “astronomical” covers that improved the look of the magazine, but the arrival and development of unexpected talent. And much as Heinlein’s arrival on the scene was something that Campbell never could have anticipated, the advent of Rogers did more to heighten the visual element of Astounding than anything that the editor consciously set out to accomplish.

Campbell, typically, continued to think in terms of actively managing his magazines, and the pictorial results were the most dramatic, not in Astounding, but in Unknown, the legendary fantasy title that he launched in 1939. (His other great effort to tailor a magazine to his personal specifications involved the nonfiction Air Trails, which is a subject for another post.) Unlike Astounding, Unknown was a project that Campbell could develop from scratch, and he didn’t have to deal with precedents established by earlier editors. The resulting stories were palpably different from most of the other fantasy fiction of the time. (Algis Budrys, who calls Campbell “the great rationalizer of supposition,” memorably writes that the magazine was “more interested in the thermodynamics and contract law of a deal with the devil than with just what a ‘soul’ might actually be.”) But this also extended to the visual side. Campbell told his friend Robert Swisher that all elements, including page size, were discussed “carefully and without prejudice” with his publisher, and for the first year and a half, Unknown featured some of the most striking art that the genre had ever seen, with beautiful covers by H.W. Scott, Manuel Rey Isip, Modest Stein, Graves Gladney, and Edd Carter. But the editor remained dissatisfied, and on February 29, 1940, he informed Swisher of a startling decision:

We’re gonna pull a trick on Unknown presently. Probably the July issue will have no picture on the cover—just type. We have hopes of chiseling it outta the general pulp group, and having a few new readers mistake it for a different type. It isn’t straight pulp, and as such runs into difficulties because the adult type readers who might like it don’t examine the pulp racks, while the pulp-type reader in general wouldn’t get much out of it.

The italics are mine. Campbell had tried to appeal to “the adult type readers” by running more refined covers on Astounding, and with Unknown, his solution was to essentially eliminate the cover entirely. Writing to readers of the June 1940 issue to explain the change, the editor did his best to spin it as a reflection of the magazine’s special qualities:

Unknown simply is not an ordinary magazine. It does not, generally speaking, appeal to the usual audience of the standard-type magazine. We have decided on this experimental issue, because of this, in an effort to determine what other types of newsstand buyers might be attracted by a somewhat different approach.

In the next paragraph, Campbell ventured a curious argument: “To the nonreader of fantasy, to one who does not understand the attitude and philosophy of Unknown, the covers may appear simply monstrous rather than the semicaricatures they are. They are not, and have not been intended as, illustrations, but as expressive of a general theme.” Frankly, I doubt that many readers saw the covers as anything but straight illustrations, and in the following sentence, the editor made an assertion that seems even less plausible: “To those who know and enjoy Unknown, the cover, like any other wrapper, is comparatively unimportant.”

In a separate note, Campbell asked for feedback on the change, but he also made his own feelings clear: “We’re going to ask your newsdealer to display [Unknown] with magazines of general class—not with the newsprints. And we’re asking you—do you like the more dignified cover? Isn’t it much more fitting for a magazine containing such stories?” A few months later, in the October 1940 issue, a number of responses were published in the letters column. The reaction was mostly favorable—although Campbell may well have selected letters that supported his own views—but reasonable objections were also raised. One reader wrote: “How can you hope to win new readers by a different cover if the inside illustrations are as monstrous, if not more so, than have any previous covers ever been? If you are trying to be more dignified in your illustrations, be consistent throughout the magazine.” On a more practical level, another fan mentioned one possible shortcoming of the new approach: “The July issue was practically invisible among the other publications, and I had to hunt somewhat before I located it.” But it was too late. Unknown may have been the greatest pulp magazine of all time, but along the way, it rejected the entire raison d’être of the pulp magazine cover itself. And while I can’t speak for the readers of the time, I can say that it saddens me personally. Whenever I’m browsing through a box of old pulps, I feel a pang of disappointment when I come across one of the later Unknown covers, and I can only imagine what someone like Cartier might have done with Heinlein’s The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag, or even Hubbard’s Fear. Unknown ran for another three years with its plain cover, which is about the same amount of time that it took for Astounding to reach its visual peak. It might have evolved into something equally wonderful, but we’ll never know—because Campbell decided that he had to kill the cover in order to save it.

Written by nevalalee

October 26, 2018 at 8:58 am

The new mutation

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Almost from the beginning, science fiction has had mixed feelings about the face that it presents to the world. The artwork that adorned the pulp magazines was the best form of advertising that it would ever have, and there were times when the covers seemed even more important than the contents, which could come across as an afterthought. (According to legend, Astounding itself owed its existence to a whim of the publisher William Clayton, who noticed one day that the huge sheet of paper on which the covers for his thirteen titles were printed—in four rows by four columns—had three blank spaces. Since the cover was the most expensive part, he could publish three more magazines at minimal cost, which was how the editor Harry Bates got the chance to pitch Astounding Stories of Super-Science. But this also tells you something about how the financial resources of the pulps were allocated.) To distinguish themselves from their competitors on the newsstands, these magazines naturally had to evolve bold colors and striking images, which is a big part of their appeal today. As long as they were content to be little more than disposable entertainment, that was perfectly fine, but after science fiction began to make claims for itself that were unlike those of other genre, the discrepancy between the packaging and the aspirations expressed on the inside began to seem like a problem. And this was a particular source of irritation for John W. Campbell, who came into the magazine with ambitions that strained against the confines of the medium, or at least the way in which it had always been marketed to its readers.

At first, Campbell even dreamed of replacing the name Astounding itself with the more refined Science Fiction, but he was frustrated by the debut of another pulp with that title the following year. He was busy trying to get better stories from his writers, but his first order of business was to improve the artwork, as he wrote to his friend Robert Swisher on October 24, 1937, just a few weeks after starting his new job:

Evolution proceeds by mutation—sudden small, but important changes developed through generations and tested before a new change is made. Ditto Astounding. The change in this case is going to be the cover: for some months, I’m going to try to run a series of covers that will be genuine artwork, first-class work with none of the lurid color idea that the mags have been using…I have vague, fond hopes that outsiders will be sufficiently interested in the cover to buy the magazine.

The use of the word “outsiders” was especially revealing. Campbell was looking to attract mainstream readers beyond his existing audience of fans, and he knew that the art—both inside and outside the magazine— had to make his case long before the stories ever could. As he wrote the following week to Swisher: “For the man who leafs through that curious and new-to-him magazine, Astounding Stories, nice, clean-cut illustrations in careful reproduction mean a lot. He can’t get the quality of the stories till he’s bought the thing once—the pictures have to sell it to him.”

In the meantime, though, Campbell had to sell his proposed changes to his current readers, for whom the artwork had always been a positive attraction. Writing in an unsigned editorial in the February 1938 issue, which bore a refined painting of the surface of Mercury, he laid out his reasoning in terms that he hoped would appeal to fans:

That cover is the first of a series—a new mutant field opened to science fiction. It illustrates Raymond Z. Gallun’s story “Mercutian Adventure,” but more than that; it is an accurate astronomical color-plate. You noticed there was no text, no printed matter on the picture itself? There will be none on the astronomical plates to follow. Each will be, as is this, an accurate a representation of some other-world scene as modern astronomical knowledge and the complex psychology and physics of human vision make possible.

Campbell emphasized the hard work that had gone into the painting: “Howard Brown and I worked over this cover, I trying to get the astronomy accurate; Brown, helping in the more difficult work of interpretation of fact to human understanding.” He noted that the cover actually depicted the sun as larger than it would appear from Mercury in real life, which reflected the fact that human vision tended to perceive astronomical objects as greater than their true size. And he concluded: “Our astronomical color plate covers will be as accurate an impression as astronomical science and knowledge of human reaction can make them.”

I don’t know what Campbell and Brown actually discussed, but my hunch is that the conversation was slightly more pragmatic than what the editor described here. The real issue, I suspect, was that a depiction of the sun in its true proportions wouldn’t have been striking enough to catch the eye of a casual browser at a candy store. But Campbell’s rationalization—which combines an appeal to accuracy with the need to reflect “human understanding”—is noteworthy in itself. For years, he would struggle to reconcile his hopes for the genre with the realities of the pulps, which resulted in some of the most fascinating aspects of the golden age of science fiction. (I could write an entire post, and maybe I will, about the cover typography alone. Campbell repeatedly tinkered with the magazine’s logo, including one version that I love so much that I quietly appropriated it for my own book, but it wasn’t until after World War II that he was able to alter it so that the word Astounding appeared in barely legible script over the bold Science Fiction, allowing him to effectively pull off the title change that he had wanted since the late thirties.) Over the following three years, the “astronomical” covers would continue to appear at irregular intervals, alternating with traditional pulp paintings, many of which were undeniably crude. Yet the more conventional artwork was improving as well. Charles Schneeman’s cover for “The Merman” in the December 1938 issue, which coincided with a gorgeous new logo, was an undeniable step forward, and the process culminated two months later with the debut of Hubert Rogers. Tomorrow, I’ll consider how the covers continued to evolve, and how the ultimate result was far more wonderful than even Campbell could have anticipated.

Written by nevalalee

October 25, 2018 at 9:00 am

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