Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Nova

Astounding Stories #21: Black Man’s Burden

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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

“This never gets old,” T’Challa says in Black Panther, just before we see the nation of Wakanda in its full glory for the first time. It’s perhaps the most moving moment in this often overwhelmingly emotional film, and it speaks to how much of its power hinges on the idea of Wakanda itself. Most fictional countries in the movies—a disproportionate number of which seem to be located in Africa, South America, or the Middle East—are narrative evasions, but not here. As Ishaan Tharoor wrote recently in the Washington Post:

Wakanda, like many places in Africa, is home to a great wealth of natural resources. But unlike most places in Africa, it was able to avoid European colonization. Shielded by the powers of vibranium, the element mined beneath its surface that enabled the country to develop the world’s most advanced technology, Wakanda resisted invaders while its rulers constructed a beautiful space-age kingdom.

Or as the writer Evan Narcisse observed elsewhere to the Post: “Wakanda represents this unbroken chain of achievement of black excellence that never got interrupted by colonialism.” It’s imaginary, yes, but that’s part of the point. In his review, Anthony Lane of The New Yorker delivered a gentle rebuke: “I wonder what weight of political responsibility can, or should, be laid upon anything that is accompanied by buttered popcorn. Vibranium is no more real than the philosopher’s stone…Are 3-D spectacles any more reliable than rose-tinted ones, when we seek to imagine an ideal society?” But the gap between dreams and reality is precisely how the best science fiction—and Black Panther, along with so much else, is a kickass science fiction movie—compels us to see the world with new eyes.

The fiction published by the editor John W. Campbell rarely tackled issues of race directly, and the closest that it ever came was probably a series that began with Black Man’s Burden, the first installment of which ran in the December 1961 issue of Analog. It revolves around a coalition of African-American academics working undercover to effect social and political change in North Africa, with the ultimate goal of uniting the region in the scientific and cultural values of the West. The protagonist is a sociologist named Homer Crawford, who explains:

The distrust of the European and the white man as a whole was prevalent, especially here in Africa. However, and particularly in Africa, the citizens of the new countries were almost unbelievably uneducated, untrained, incapable of engineering their own destiny…We of the Reunited Nations teams are here because we are Africans racially but not nationally, we have no affiliations with clan, tribe, or African nation. We are free to work for Africa’s progress without prejudice. Our job is to remove obstacles wherever we find them. To break up log jams. To eliminate prejudices against the steps that must be taken if Africa is to run down the path of progress, rather than to crawl.

All of this is explained to the reader at great length. There’s some effective action, but much of the story consists of the characters talking, and if these young black intellectuals all end up sounding a lot like John W. Campbell, that shouldn’t be surprising—the author, Mack Reynolds, later said that the story and its sequels “were written at a suggestion of John Campbell’s and whole chunks of them were based on his ideas.” Many sections are taken verbatim from the editor’s letters and editorials, ranging from his musings on judo, mob psychology, and the virtues of the quarterstaff to blanket statements that border on the unforgivable: “You know, with possibly a few exceptions, you can’t enslave a man if he doesn’t want to be a slave…The majority of Jefferson’s slaves wanted to be slaves.”

We’re obviously a long way from Wakanda here—but although Black Man’s Burden might seem easy to hate, oddly enough, it isn’t. Mack Reynolds, who had lived in North Africa, was a talented writer, and the serial as a whole is intelligent, restrained, consistently interesting, and mindful of the problems with its own premise. To encourage the locals to reject tribalism in favor of modern science, medicine, and education, for instance, the team attributes many of its ideas to a fictional savior figure, El Hassan, on the theory that such societies “need a hero,” and by the end, Homer Crawford has reluctantly assumed the role himself. (There are shades not just of T.E. Lawrence but of Paul Atreides, whose story would appear in the magazine just two years later.) But he has few illusions about the nature of his work. As one of his colleagues puts it in the sequel:

Monarchies are of the past, and El Hassan is the voice of the future, something new. We won’t admit he’s just a latter-day tyrant, an opportunist seizing power because it’s there crying to be seized. Actually, El Hassan is in the tradition of Genghis Khan, Temerlane, or, more recently, Napoleon. But he’s a modern version, and we’re not going to hang the old labels on him.

Crawford mordantly responds: “As a young sociologist, I never expected to wind up a literal tyrant.” And Reynolds doesn’t pretend to offer easy solutions. The sequel, Border, Breed, Nor Birth, closes with a bleak denial of happy endings, while the concluding story, “Black Sheep Astray,” ends with Crawford, overthrown after a long rule as El Hassan, returning to start a new revolution among the younger generation, at the likely cost of his life. The leads are drawn with considerable care—even if Reynolds has a bad habit of saying that they look “surprisingly like” Joe Louis or Lena Horne—and their mere presence in Analog is striking enough that one prominent scholar has used it to question Samuel R. Delany’s claim that Campbell rejected one of his stories because “his readership would be able to relate to a black main character.”

Yet this overlooks the fact that an ambitious, messy, uncategorizable novel like Delany’s Nova is worlds apart from a serial that was commissioned and written to Campbell’s specifications. And its conceptual and literary limitations turn out to be closely related. Black Man’s Burden is constructed with diligence and real craft, but this doesn’t make its basic premise any more tenable. It interrogates many of its assumptions, but it doesn’t really question the notion of a covert operation to shape another country’s politics through propaganda, guerrilla action, and the assimilation of undercover agents into the local population. This isn’t science fiction. It’s what intelligence agencies on both sides were doing throughout the Cold War. (If anything, the whisper campaign for El Hassan seems primitive by contemporary standards. These days, the plan would include data analysis, viral messaging in support of favored policies or candidates, and the systematic weaponization of social media on the part of foreign nationals. What would be wrong with that?) By the story’s own logic, the project has to be run by black activists because the locals are suspicious of white outsiders, but there’s no suggestion that their underlying goals are any different—and if the same story would be unthinkable with a white protagonist, it implies that it has problems here that can’t be addressed with a change of race. It’s also characteristically evasive when it comes to how psychohistory actually works. Reading it again, I found myself thinking of what William Easterly writes in The White Man’s Burden:

A Planner thinks he already knows the answers; he thinks of poverty as a technical engineering problem that his answers will solve. A Searcher admits he doesn’t know the answers in advance…A Planner believes outsiders know enough to impose solutions. A Searcher believes only insiders have enough knowledge to find solutions, and that most solutions must be homegrown.

Planners still exist in foreign aid—but they can also edit magazines. Campbell was one of them. Black Man’s Burden was his idea of how to deal with race in Analog, even as he failed to make any effort to look for black writers who knew about the subject firsthand. And it worked about as well here as it did anywhere else.

The failure of the oracles

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Samuel R. Delany

There’s a scene in Samuel R. Delany’s convoluted but extraordinary novel Nova, which is set in the year 3172, in which a character performs a reading with tarot cards. In the interstellar civilization in which the story takes place, the tarot is taken for granted as a source of useful information, and when a supporting player named Mouse expresses his skepticism, he’s told that he sounds “like somebody living a thousand years ago.” As the tarot reader explains:

Mouse, the cards don’t actually predict anything. They simply propagate an educated commentary on present situations...The seventy-eight cards of the Tarot present symbols and mythological images that have recurred and reverberated through forty-five centuries of human history. Someone who understands these symbols can construct a dialogue about a given situation. There’s nothing superstitious about it. The Book of Changes, even Chaldean Astrology only become superstitious when they are abused, employed to direct rather than to guide and suggest.

The italics are mine. After Mouse objects that “cards aren’t educated,” someone else replies: “You’ve got some odd ideas, Mouse—admittedly, they’re fascinating. If somebody had told me I’d be working in the same crew, today in the thirty-first century, with somebody who could honestly be skeptical about the Tarot, I don’t think I would have believed it.”

What I like about Delany’s treatment of the subject is that it suggests that an entire culture can pass from superstition through skepticism to something more advanced on the other side. (As the character quoted above continues: “As soon as you have people from the times of the great stellar migrations, you’re dealing with cultures sophisticated enough to comprehend things like the Tarot.”) A blind faith in the tarot as a means of predicting the future, like any form of divination, is characteristic of childhood, and most of us mature to the point where we no longer take it seriously. For artists like Delany, however, there’s another stage beyond this, in which we realize that structured repositories of arbitrary symbols—often preserved in the cultural memory as oracles—can be a tool for thinking through questions that are resistant to more rational analysis. Writing about the tarot a few years ago, I called it “a portable machine for generating patterns,” and I noted that it results in a temporary structure, spread out across the table, that feels like an externalization of the problem in your head. You can examine it, scrutinize it from different angles, or even walk away from it. I suspect that it’s the spatial aspect of the tarot that makes it a valuable source of connections between ideas, even more than the symbols on the cards themselves. It won’t tell you the future, but by forcing you to map or analogize your current situation onto a matrix of charged symbols, it can provide surprising insights into the present.

The Tarot of Marseilles

And here’s the really interesting part: you can make the same argument for science fiction. The genre has always made a big deal of its predictive side, but like the oracular powers of tarot cards or the I Ching, it’s best to regard this as a kind of bait designed to reel in susceptible minds. It’s a mislead, but a necessary one, if you want these art forms to survive. By promising everyone the ability to tell the future, you trick a select few into thinking seriously about the real purpose of the craft, which is to figure out where we are now. For most readers, it’s easier and safer to sell science fiction as a vision of the future than as a commentary on themselves. For instance, my battered paperback copy of Podkayne of Mars calls it “a remarkable picture of the customs and characters of the coming Age of Space,” which I don’t think even Heinlein would say he was writing. The blurb for an old edition of The Currents of Space says much the same thing: “In this novel, Dr. Asimov’s probing imagination has created a fascinating tale set in the not-too-distant future—an adventure that could change from fiction to fact any day now.” You could excuse this as a marketing strategy to promote this kind of fiction to a wider audience, but more insidiously, it encourages readers to focus on accidental, totally irrelevant acts of prediction while ignoring deeper insights of real value. Heinlein’s article on Wikipedia notes that he anticipated the waterbed, but not that he foresaw the Cold War. And I know which of the two I find more impressive.

This is all pretty harmless, but it becomes more worrisome when it influences how we define the practice of science fiction from the inside. As I see it, we’re faced with a stark pair of options. We can approach it like a phony psychic who makes a lot of wild predictions, hopes that her hits are remembered and her misses are forgotten, and leverages one lucky guess into an entire career, like Jeane Dixon allegedly predicting the Kennedy assassination. The net amount of information gained in the process, needless to say, is zero. Or we can think of ourselves as educated commentators on the present, which seems like the more valuable goal. If science fiction often seems stuck in a state of arrested development in the eyes of the overall culture, it’s largely due to the fact that critics see a preoccupation with prediction as a sign of immaturity. And maybe they’re right. If nothing else, it’s a form of superstition, or an inability to distinguish between the genre’s surface pleasures and its actual value. Science fiction has always whispered to certain readers, once they were lured inside: “You thought we were talking about the future, but we were really talking about you.” Like the tarot, it employs symbols that have recurred and reverberated throughout history and uses them to construct a dialogue, or an analogy. Responding instinctively to the symbols and missing the underlying pattern is a common, if understandable, mistake—these symbols wouldn’t work in the first place if they weren’t powerful enough to be subject to that kind of misinterpretation. But it’s only when we remember the real point of the exercise that science fiction, like the tarot in Nova, becomes something that no educated person can afford to dismiss.

Written by nevalalee

October 19, 2016 at 9:32 am

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