Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘R. DeWitt Miller

Astounding Stories #12: “Izzard and the Membrane”

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Izzard and the Membrane

Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

“The Internet is the great masterpiece of civilization,” Virginia Heffernan writes in her new book Magic and Loss, and whether or not you agree with her, it’s hard to deny its importance. It touches every aspect of our lives, at least in the parts of the world where it’s possible for you to read these words now, and any attempt to write about how we live today has to take it into account. For those who like to define science fiction as a predictive literature, its failure to collectively foresee the Internet in a meaningful way—in the sense that it devoted so much energy to such subjects as space travel—is perhaps the genre’s greatest cause for regret. You could say, fairly enough, that it’s easy to point out such shortcomings in hindsight, or even that science fiction’s true strength doesn’t lie in prediction, but in preparing its readers for developments that none of us can see coming. But there’s no denying that the absence of anything like the Internet in the vast majority of science fiction has enormous practical consequences. It means that most visions of the future are inevitably dated, and that we need to continuously suspend disbelief to read stories about galactic empires in which computers or information technology don’t play any part at all. (In some ways, the internal logic of Dune, in which thinking machines have been outlawed, has allowed it to hold up in respects that Frank Herbert himself probably never anticipated.)

Of course, in a literature that constantly spun out wild notions in all directions, there were a few stories that were bound to seem prescient, if only by the law of truly large numbers. The idea of a worldwide machine that runs civilization—and the problems that an ordinary mortal would have in dealing with it—was central to R. DeWitt Miller’s “The Master Shall Not Die,” which was published in 1938. Eight years later, A.E. van Vogt’s visionary novel Slan showed its hero interacting through a computer with a Bureau of Statistics that put “a quadrillion facts” at his disposal. Most impressive of all is Will Jenkins’s “A Logic Named Joe,” which appeared a short time earlier: Jenkins, better known under the pen name Murray Leinster, built the story around an interlinked computer network that can answer any conceivable question, and which has already replaced most of the world’s filing clerks, secretaries, and messenger services. When one of the computers accidentally develops “ambition,” it gleefully provides users with advice on how to murder their wives, shows dirty videos to children, and makes suggestions for other illegal queries they might want to ask. (When faced with the prospect of simply turning the system off, a character objects: “If we shut off logics, we go back to a kind of civilization we have forgotten how to run!”) It not only looks forward with eerie accuracy to the Internet, but speculates about what might come next. And yet the clues it provided went mostly unexplored.

But the story that fills me with the most awe is “Izzard and the Membrane” by Walter M. Miller, Jr., which was published in the May 1951 issue of Astounding. Miller is best known today as the author of A Canticle for Leibowitz, but he was also a prolific author of short fiction, and in a single novelette, he manages to lay out most of the concerns of the contemporary transhumanist movement. It’s about an American cyberneticist who has developed an innovative synaptic relay system—a neural network, in other words—that can be used to build a gigantic computer. After being kidnapped by the Russians, who break his will by showing him faked footage of his wife having an affair, he agrees to build a machine for them, called Izzard, that can analyze itself and suggest improvements to its own architecture. Izzard is designed to oversee the coming invasion of the United States, but it also becomes self-aware and develops a method, not just for reproducing attributes of consciousness, but of uploading an existing brain into its data banks. The hero uses it to replicate his wife, who has died, along with himself, so that his soul merges with its image in the machine. Once inside, he gradually becomes aware of another presence, who turns out to be a member of a race that has achieved transcendence already, and which is closely monitoring his work. In the end, he uses his newfound powers to foil the invasion, and he’s reunited with his wife in a virtual simulation, via a portal called the membrane, that allows him to start a new life in the universe inside his own mind.

The result is one of my ten favorite science fiction stories of all time, and not simply because it predicts a dazzling array of issues—the singularity, mind uploading, simulated reality—that seem to have entered the mainstream conversation only in the last decade or so. It’s also an exciting read, full of action and ingenious plot twists, that takes more than one reading to appreciate. Yet like “A Logic Named Joe,” it was an outlier: it doesn’t seem to have inspired other writers to take up its themes in any significant way. To some extent, that’s because it carries its premise about as far as it could possibly go, and if any story can be truthfully described as ahead of its time, it’s this one. But it’s intriguing to think about an alternative direction that science fiction might have taken if “Izzard and the Membrane” had served as the starting point for a line of speculation that the authors of the time had collaborated in developing, with some of the enthusiasm that the editor John W. Campbell devoted instead to channeling the energies of his writers into psionics. It might not have affected the future directly: in some ways, we’re still catching up to the vision that Miller provides here. But we might be better prepared to confront the coming challenges if we had absorbed them as part of the common language of science fiction over the last sixty years. “The future,” William Gibson famously observed, “is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” And that’s true of science fiction, too.

Smoking on spaceships

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Tom Stafford

When you read a lot of stories from the golden age of science fiction, which stretched roughly from the late thirties through the early fifties, one of the first things you notice is that everybody is smoking on spaceships. In Skylark of Space by E.E. Smith and Lee Hawkins Garby, arguably the first great work of the space opera or superscience genre, the splendid villain Marc DuQuesne accidentally sends himself and two hostages six quadrillion miles from the solar system, and as he tries to figure out how to get back home, he remains “self-possessed, smoking innumerable cigarettes.” A few years later, in Smith’s masterpiece Galactic Patrol, which I’ll be discussing at greater length tomorrow, three whole paragraphs of the first chapter are devoted to the favorite smokes of the futuristic law enforcement officers of the Lensmen, and an entire plot point hinges on the thriving market for Alsakanite cigarettes. Most of these authors were perfectly aware of the difficulties that smoking would present in the closed environment of a spacecraft, but this only meant that they had to work around the problem, since cigarettes were such an essential component of the concentrated thinking around which such stories revolve. John W. Campbell, a lifelong smoker himself, says as much in his short story “The Irrelevant,” which is also set aboard a spaceship: “Cigarettes were very precious, because oxygen was. It was surprising, though, how they aided thought.”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the men—and the handful of women—who wrote pulp fiction for a living would regard cigarettes as an indispensable prerequisite for a civilized existence, even if you were halfway across the galaxy. As Frederik Pohl writes in his memoir The Way the Future Was: “If you want to think of a successful pulp writer in the late thirties, imagine a man with a forty-dollar typewriter on a kitchen table. By his right hand is an ashtray with a cigarette burning in it and a cup of coffee or bottle of beer within easy reach.” In the first issue of Astounding Stories of Super-Science, the advertisement on the back cover is for Camels, which happened to be Campbell’s brand of choice for decades. (In their letters, we read of John and his remarkable wife Doña working side by side on a pair of typewriters, smoking all the while.) The debut edition of Astounding also included several small ads on its inside pages on how to quit smoking, although the health risks, to put it mildly, weren’t fully appreciated at the time. In R. DeWitt Miller’s excellent novelette “The Master Shall Not Die,” which was published in March 1938, the characters in the far future are constantly smoking, and there’s an offhand reference to a year long past in which “increased intensity of cosmic rays caused mutations in tobacco plants.” The italics are emphatically mine:

One of the products of these mutations was a hybrid which, although it looked and smoked like ordinary tobacco, secreted a vegetable alkaloid which caused a great increase of death from certain types of heart disease. You never heard of it apparently.

Jose Chung's From Outer Space

The idea that smoking might be dangerous, in other words, was a form of science fiction in itself, and it isn’t hard to see the irony. “The Master Shall Not Die” appeared in the first issue of Astounding edited primarily by Campbell, who is described as constantly gesturing in his office with a Camel in a black cigarette holder. Thirty years later, he was told by his doctor that he had to stop smoking or die, so he began to limit himself to two cigarettes per day, one in the morning, the other in the early afternoon. (He died suddenly, and apparently without pain, of a massive aortic aneurysm at the age of sixty-one, while watching professional wrestling on television.) In the late seventies, Robert A. Heinlein suffered a precursor to a stroke. William H. Patterson, his authorized biographer, writes of his visit to his doctor: “He had an unlit cigarette in his hand at this exact moment: he had smoked for nearly sixty years—since the very first Armistice Day, in fact, November 11, 1918. He put the cigarette back in its pack and never smoked again.” Heinlein ultimately died of emphysema, in combination with heart failure. L. Ron Hubbard, who had once touted dianetics as a way to stop smoking, was rarely seen without an unfiltered Kool in his hand, and toward the end of his life, he had a rotating team of nubile young assistants who were tasked with lighting his cigarettes and catching his ashes as they fell. At the relatively advanced age of seventy-four, he died of a stroke, or, in the words of the Church of Scientology, he decided to “drop his body.”

In an editorial in Analog, shortly after the release of the landmark surgeon general’s report on smoking, Campbell wrote: “Tobacco is not habit-forming, and discontinuation causes no withdrawal symptoms whatsoever.” But if we’ve learned anything since, it’s that the only habit harder to break than smoking is an attachment to a cherished assumption. Campbell and his writers were able to conceive of hyperspace travel and intelligent vegetables, but largely unable to imagine a world in which astronauts wouldn’t be smoking on the job. (Isaac Asimov, it should be noted, never smoked at all, and he hated being around people who did. And many of the Mercury and Gemini astronauts were smokers, although never, to my knowledge, in the space capsule itself) And the point here isn’t that these writers weren’t prescient about the risks of smoking, but that the stories they wrote—and they futures they conceived—were naturally rooted in the times in which they lived. Their feelings about smoking are manifestly dated; attitudes toward race, gender, and other subjects can be harder to spot. This might seem like an obvious point, but it bears repeating, especially because we can’t exclude ourselves. The futures that we imagine today are colored in ways that we can’t see by the world in which we live, and there are undoubtedly going to be elements in the stories we’re writing now that will seem just as incongruous in fifty years. And we’ve got to be mindful of this as we construct our own visions of the future, even if the smoking gun isn’t as clear.

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