Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Ray Bradbury

The final blackout

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When a reader sees the title of my upcoming book, Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, the first question is often what Hubbard is doing there. I’ve even seen or heard comments wondering whether I included Hubbard in the subtitle in order to sell more copies—which isn’t exactly wrong, although it gets at only part of the reason. When I initially pitched this project to publishers, it was solely as a biography of Campbell, although the other three writers would obviously have played an important role in the story. Campbell isn’t widely known outside the genre, however, and my editor brilliantly suggested that I expand the scope to encompass a few other writers with greater recognition among mainstream readers. Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard were the first names that came to mind, mostly because they were the closest to Campbell, which meant that there was an abundance of narrative material that I could organically include. (Campbell was always my central figure, which meant that I couldn’t devote as much space as I might have liked to such influential writers as Leigh Brackett, Ray Bradbury, or Arthur C. Clarke, who didn’t have as much interaction with him on a personal level.) There’s no doubt in my mind that including Hubbard has vastly expanded the potential audience for this book. Yet it’s also true that his appearance on the cover seems slightly incongruous. It seems to make a claim about his importance and interest, perhaps even his ultimate value, and it may even raise suspicions about my motives. A glance at the contents of the book itself should make it clear that I’m no apologist for Hubbard, but even then, we’re left with two big questions. Does Hubbard deserve to appear in such exalted company? And was he any good as a writer?

My response to the first question is that he absolutely belongs here, less as a writer than on account of the earthquake that he caused within the genre by his presence and personality. If there’s one fact that emerges from memoirs and other accounts of the period, it’s that Hubbard made a huge impression on just about every writer he met in the thirties. Campbell, in particular, never got over him, and you could make a strong argument that Hubbard played a greater role in the editor’s inner life than any other writer except for Heinlein—and that includes Asimov. Heinlein was fascinated by him, and although their friendship had its ups and downs, he never ceased to regard Hubbard as anything less than a war hero. (This is especially extraordinary when you consider his own service record. Unlike Campbell, who had never been anywhere close to the military, Heinlein, an Annapolis graduate, wasn’t an easy man to fool, and he might not even have wanted to know the truth. Russell Miller’s biography Bare-Faced Messiah, which did a comprehensive job of debunking Hubbard’s claims about his naval career, was released the year before Heinlein’s death, but according to his widow, Virginia, he never read it.) Asimov was never as close to Hubbard, but he was a fan long before they met, and he was undoubtedly awed by him in person. You could assemble a long list of other writers, from Bradbury to de Camp, who were personally or professionally affected by Hubbard, and the evidence from letters columns and other sources indicate unequivocally that he was popular among fans, particularly in the fantasy magazine Unknown. And this doesn’t even get at the impact of the debut of dianetics, which was arguably the single most significant event in fandom up to that time. It’s frankly impossible to write the story of Campbell and Astounding without devoting significant space to Hubbard’s career.

As for Hubbard’s merits as an author, I’ve written an entire article on the subject, and my conclusions haven’t changed over the last year and a half. (I like to say that I’ve read more of Hubbard’s science fiction and fantasy than anyone who isn’t actually a Scientologist, and I’ve managed to work my way through nearly all of it, with one big exception: I was never able to finish all ten volumes of the Mission Earth dekalogy, and I can’t say that I much regret it.) In discussing his body of work as a fiction writer, I’ve learned to refer to Sturgeon’s Law, which famously states that ninety percent of anything is crud. That’s as true of Hubbard’s work as it is with the rest of the genre, and if anything, his percentage of decent material might even be a little lower. Yet the sheer volume of his output means that a few good stories must exist, and there are a handful that are worth checking out even by casual fans, although I wouldn’t dream of forcing anyone to read them. My personal favorite is Death’s Deputy, a shockingly good fantasy novel from Unknown that, weirdly, remains out of print, even as Galaxy Press cranks out glossy reissues of just about everything else that Hubbard ever wrote. Final Blackout is both historically important and a rare example of Hubbard taking pains with the writing and the plot. Fear hasn’t held up as well, but it remains an influential horror story in the careers of such writers as Bradbury. His fantasy novels and stories are mostly readable and engaging, and even if most of his science fiction is forgettable or worse, he isn’t alone. You could make a pretty strong case that Hubbard was a better pure writer, line for line, than Asimov was before the war. And if the second act of his career had unfolded differently, I suspect that he’d be fondly remembered in the same breath as such writers as van Vogt and de Camp—not quite of the first tier with Heinlein, Asimov, or Sturgeon, but with one or two novels that would still be read with enjoyment by fans today.

And there also seems to be an unsatisfied demand among readers of a certain age to talk about Hubbard’s writing. After my solo event last week in San Jose, I took questions for thirty minutes, and well over half were about Hubbard—and not about the more sordid aspects of his career, but about his writing. Many older fans evidently read him as they might have read, say, Lester del Rey or Eric Frank Russell, and they’ve rarely had a chance to discuss it. I noticed much the same response when I met a few months back with a group of former Scientologists, who were invariably critical of the church itself, but curious to hear my thoughts on Hubbard’s value as a fiction writer. In the past, I’ve pitched panels about Hubbard’s fiction at Worldcon, and I might try again next year in Dublin. (My dream would be to assemble some of the authors who have served as judges for the Writers of the Future competition, which includes a surprisingly large number of prominent names in the field.) I don’t have any interest in rehabilitating Hubbard, or even in returning him into the canon, and as I’ve mentioned before, there are literally dozens of other authors I’d recommend reading first. But his removal from the history of science fiction has left a hole that needs to be filled in order to make sense of how the genre evolved. This blackout is partly the result of embarrassment, or perhaps a reluctance to be mistaken for a supporter of his work in other ways, but it also goes deeper. Because the Church of Scientology persistently overstates Hubbard’s significance, it’s tempting for his critics to go the other way—to insist that he was a con man, a talentless hack, and a failure in human living. Yet he wouldn’t have been able to pull off what he did if he hadn’t managed to impress a lot of people, including Campbell and Heinlein, who weren’t easy to deceive. To make sense of Hubbard at all, it’s necessary to acknowledge and reckon with this uncomfortable fact. But first we need to let him back into the story.

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August 23, 2018 at 8:43 am

The multiverse theory

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Yesterday, I flew back from the Grappling with the Futures symposium, which was held over the course of two days at Harvard and Boston University. I’d heard about the conference from my friend Emanuelle Burton, a scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago, whom I met two years ago through the academic track at the World Science Fiction Convention in Kansas City. Mandy proposed that we collaborate on a presentation at this event, which was centered on the discipline of futures studies, a subject about which I knew nothing. For reasons of my own, though, I was interested in making the trip, and we put together a talk titled Fictional Futures, which included a short history of the concept of psychohistory. The session went fine, even if we ended up with more material than we could reasonably cover in twenty minutes. But I was equally interested in studying the people around me, who were uniformly smart, intense, quirky, and a little mysterious. Futures studies is an established academic field that draws on many of the tools and concepts of science fiction, but it uses a markedly different vocabulary. (One of the scheduled keynote speakers has written and published a climate change novella, just like me, except that she describes it as a “non-numerical simulation model.”) It left me with the sense of a closed world that evolved in response to the same problems and pressures that shaped science fiction, but along divergent lines, and I still wonder what might come of a closer relationship between the two communities.

As it happened, I had to duck out after the first day, because I had something else to do in Boston. Ever since I started work on Astounding, I’ve been meaning to pay a visit to the Isaac Asimov collection at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, which houses the majority of Asimov’s surviving papers, but which can only be viewed in person. Since I was going to be in town anyway, I left the symposium early and headed over to the library, where I spent five hours yesterday going through what I could. When you arrive at the reading room, you sign in, check your bag and cell phone, and are handed a massive finding aid, an inventory of the Asimov collection that runs to more than three hundred pages. (The entire archive, which consists mostly of work that dates from after the early sixties, fills four hundred boxes.) After marking off the items that you want, you’re rewarded with a cart loaded with archival cartons and a pair of white gloves. At the back of my mind, I wasn’t expecting to find much—I’ve been gathering material for this book for years. As it turned out, there were well over a hundred letters between Asimov, Campbell, and Heinlein alone that I hadn’t seen before. You aren’t allowed to take pictures or make photocopies, so I typed up as many notes as I could before I had to run to catch my plane. For the most part, they fill out parts of the story that I already have, and they won’t fundamentally change the book. But in an age of digital research, I was struck by the fact that all this paper, of which I just scratched the surface, is only accessible to scholars who can physically set foot in the reading room at the Mugar Library.

After two frantic days, I finally made it home, where my wife and I watched last night’s premiere of James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction on AMC. At first glance, this series might seem like the opposite of my experiences in Boston. Instead of being set apart from the wider world, it’s an ambitious attempt to appeal to the largest audience possible, with interviews with the likes of Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan and discussions of such works as Close Encounters and Alien. I’ve been looking forward to this show for a long time, not least because I was hoping that it would lead to a spike in interest in science fiction that would benefit my book, and the results were more or less what I expected. In the opening sequence, you briefly glimpse Heinlein and Asimov, and there’s even a nod to The Thing From Another World, although no mention of John W. Campbell himself. For the most part, though, the series treats the literary side as a precursor to its incarnations in the movies and television, which is absolutely the right call. You want to tell this story as much as possible through images, and the medium lends itself better to H.R. Geiger than to H.P. Lovecraft. But when I saw a brief clip of archival footage of Ray Bradbury, in his role in the late seventies as an ambassador for the genre, I found myself thinking of the Bradbury whom I know best—the eager, unpublished teenager in the Great Depression who wrote fan letters to the pulps, clung to the edges of the Heinlein circle, and never quite managed to break into Astounding. It’s a story that this series can’t tell, and I can’t blame it, because I didn’t really do it justice, either.

Over the last few days, I’ve been left with a greater sense than ever before of the vast scope and apparently irreconcilable aspects of science fiction, which consists of many worlds that only occasionally intersect. It’s a realization, or a recollection, that might seem to come at a particularly inopportune time. The day before I left for the symposium, I received the page proofs for Astounding, which normally marks the point at which a book can truly be said to be finished. I still have time to make a few corrections and additions, and I plan to fix as much of it as I can without driving my publisher up the wall. (There are a few misplaced commas that have been haunting my dreams.) I’m proud of the result, but when I look at the proofs, which present the text as an elegant and self-contained unit, it seems like an optical illusion. Even if I don’t take into account what I learned when it was too late, I’m keenly aware of everything and everyone that this book had to omit. I’d love to talk more about futures studies, or the letters that I dug up in the Asimov archives, or the practical effects in John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, but there just wasn’t room or time. As it stands, the book tries to strike a balance between speaking to obsessive fans and appealing to a wide audience, which meant excluding a lot of fascinating material that might have survived if it were being published by a university press. It can’t possibly do everything, and the events of the weekend have only reminded me that there are worlds that I’ve barely even explored. But if that isn’t the whole point of science fiction—well, what is?

Fear of a female planet

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The Legion of Time

In his memoir In Memory Yet Green, Isaac Asimov describes some of the earliest stories that he wrote with an eye to publication, when he was just eighteen years old, and concludes:

There were no girls in [these stories]…But then, women were very much an unknown quantity for me…In 1938, when I was writing my first stories, I had yet to have a formal date with a girl. In short, the circumstances of my life were such that it never occurred to me to put a feminine character in my stories…I eventually had dates, and I eventually learned about women, but the early imprinting had its effect. To this very day, the romantic element in my stories tends to be minor and the sexual element virtually nil.

When you dig a little deeper, however, you find that the absence of women wasn’t just an accidental quality of the young Asimov’s work, but a conscious decision. Or at least that’s how he chose to spin it. In a letter that was published in the September 1938 issue of Astounding—or just as he was making his first serious efforts as a writer—Asimov wrote: “When we want science fiction, we don’t want swooning dames…Come on, men, make yourself heard in favor of less love mixed with our science!” A year later, after his letters had inspired a debate among fans, Asimov doubled down, writing: “The great philosophers and the great religious leaders of the world—the ones who taught truth and virtue, kindliness and justice—were all, all men.”

To be fair, Asimov was only nineteen, and later in his life, he probably would have been embarrassed by the sentiments expressed in those letters. (They feel a lot like a defense mechanism to justify his own shyness with women, both in fiction and in real life.) But the trouble that science fiction has always had with its female characters is so fundamental that you could almost point to it as a defining quality of the genre. The case of Robert A. Heinlein is even more problematic than Asimov’s, in large part because he was a better writer. In an essay published in the memorial volume Requiem, the writer Spider Robinson disputes the accusation that Heinlein was “a male chauvinist,” listing a few dozen female characters who seem to disprove the allegation. “Virtually every one of them,” Robinson concludes, “is a world-class expert in at least one demanding and competitive field.” And there’s no question that Heinlein’s fiction is full of tough, smart, attractive women. The trouble is that they possess these qualities mostly because it’s what the protagonist—invariably male—likes to see in a prospective mate. These strong, intelligent, liberated women become the prize that the hero gets for surviving, and they’re often openly eager to have his babies. They aren’t allowed to drive the story or have an inner life of their own, and even the toughest of them meekly submits to the hero as soon as he takes charge. The only really convincing adult woman in all of Heinlein is Cynthia Randall in “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag,” and I don’t think it’s an accident that she feels so much like a portrait of his wife Leslyn in the years before their marriage fell apart.

"The Door into Summer" by Robert A. Heinlein

I’m being hard on Heinlein precisely because he was the best writer the genre ever produced, which makes his failure here all the harder to forgive. If we judge science fiction’s treatment of women by the extent to which they’re allowed to affect the stories in which they appear, then none of the central figures in Astounding pass even that rudimentary test. On the whole, in fact, science fiction has done better when its women are openly allowed to be sinister. Belle in The Door into Summer, my favorite Heinlein novel, isn’t exactly a positive role model, but as a femme fatale—much of the first half of the book reads oddly like James M. Cain—she’s twice as interesting as the usual pneumatic secretary with a genius IQ whom Heinlein submits for our approval. As far as other writers go, A.E. van Vogt, whose background was in confession stories, is surprisingly good with women, especially when they’re a little menacing. And then there’s Jack Williamson, who was so much better at female villains than at heroines that it became a running joke among his friends. (You can see this most clearly in his masterpiece, “The Legion of Time,” which amounts to a Betty and Veronica story told on a cosmic scale.) In a letter to John W. Campbell, Heinlein writes:

At a recent gathering of the Mañana Literary Society, [Cleve] Cartmill and [Anthony Boucher]…were trying to determine why Jack’s sinister female characters were so solid and convincing and his heroine-like females so cardboard. Someone suggested that it was because Jack was really afraid of women. Jack considered this and said that he thought it might be true. “I may have a subconscious conviction,” avers Jack, “that vaginas are equipped with teeth.”

It’s tempting to blame much of this on the historical circumstances in which pulp science fiction emerged: Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing came out of a community of electronic hobbyists that consisted mostly of young white men, and the fan groups that emerged followed suit. As you see in even a cursory glance at the letters columns from that period, girls were regarded with active suspicion. (Asimov sarcastically observes that there must be “at least twenty” female science fiction fans.) It certainly wasn’t an environment in which most women felt welcome, and it became a cycle that fed on itself, with writers unable to see the contrary examples that were right in front of their faces. Ray Bradbury was mentored by the likes of Catherine Moore and Leslyn Heinlein, but in The Martian Chronicles, he blows much of his goodwill whenever he has to talk about women. There’s the punchline in “The Silent Towns,” for example, in which the last man on Mars goes in search of the last woman, only to be dismayed to find that she’s dumpy and unattractive. And there’s the unforgivable line about the early days of settlement of Mars: “Everyone knew who the first women would be.” It’s a massive blind spot that reminds me of the androids in Westworld, who can’t see anything that conflicts with their programming. Given the times in which they lived, you could argue that it’s unreasonable to wish that these writers had done better. But these were the men we trusted to tell us about the future. If they can’t be held to the highest possible standard, then who can?

The Importance of Writing “Ernesto,” Part 1

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My short story “Ernesto,” which originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, has just been reprinted by Lightspeed. To celebrate its reappearance, I’ll be publishing revised versions of a few posts in which I described the origins of this story, which you can read for free here, along with a nice interview. Please note that this post reveals details about the ending. 

Readers of the story “Ernesto” might reasonably assume that I have a strong interest in the career of Ernest Hemingway. The central character, after all, is a thinly veiled version of the young Hemingway, with a dash of Sherlock Holmes, investigating what initially appears to be a paranormal mystery in the Madrid of the Spanish Civil War. At first glance, it might even seem like a work of Hemingway fanfic, like Bradbury’s “The Kilimanjaro Device,” or Joe Haldeman’s far darker and more sophisticated “The Hemingway Hoax.” (Science fiction writers have always been drawn to Hemingway, who certainly had a lot to say about the figure of the competent man.) In fact, although I live in Hemingway’s hometown of Oak Park, and my daughter has learned to recognize his face on the omnipresent signs that have been posted near the library, he’s a writer I’ve always found hard to like, if only because his style and preoccupations are so radically removed from mine. And the chain of events that led me to write about him is my favorite example from my own career of what I’ve elsewhere called the anthropic principle of fiction, or how a story is never really about what it seems.

“Ernesto” emerged, like many of my stories, from an idea sparked by a magazine article. In this case, it was a piece in Discover by the science writer Jeanne Lenzer about the work of Dr. William Coley, the nineteenth-century surgeon who experimented with bacterial infections, especially erysipelas, as a treatment for cancer. Around the same time, another article in the same magazine had started me thinking about a story about the investigation of miracles by the Catholic Church. And while that particular notion didn’t go anywhere, I ended up settling on a related premise: a mystery about a series of apparently miraculous cures that are actually due to the sort of cancer immunotherapy that Coley had investigated. The crucial step, it seemed, was to find an appropriate figure of veneration, ideally a Catholic saint, around whom I could build the story. And it took only a few minutes of searching online to come up with a viable candidate: St. John of the Cross, the Spanish mystic of the sixteenth century, who died of erysipelas. No other historical figure, as far as I could see, fit all the criteria so well.

Here, then, I had the germ of a story, which could be described in a single sentence: a number of visitants to the tomb of St. John of the Cross are cured of cancer, in what seems like a miracle, but is really due to the side effects of an erysipelas infection. (I knew that there were a few holes in the science here, but I was confident I could work my way around them.) At this point, however, I became conscious of a problem. Since the story was supposed to be a mystery along the lines of The X-Files, I couldn’t have the solution be obvious from the beginning, and I was pretty sure that any modern doctor would be able to tell fairly quickly that a patient was suffering from erysipelas. To delay this revelation, and to mislead the reader, I had to keep my patients away from the hospital for as long as possible, which implied that I couldn’t set the story in the present day. This meant that I was suddenly looking at a period piece that was set in Spain, although not so far in the past that I couldn’t talk about Coley’s work. Which led me, by a logical process of elimination, to the Spanish Civil War.

And that’s how Hemingway entered the story—in the most roundabout way imaginable. When I began devising the plot, not only did I not have Hemingway in mind, but I didn’t even have a setting or a time period. The search for the right saint carried me to Spain, and the specifics of the story I wanted to tell led me to the Spanish Civil War, which would allow me to confuse the issue long enough to delay the solution. At the time, it felt almost random, but when I look back, it seems as mathematically necessary as the reasoning that Poe once claimed was behind the composition of “The Raven.” Once the essential foundations have been set, the writer’s imagination can begin to play, and it seemed to me that if I was going to tell a story about the Spanish Civil War, it pretty much had to include Hemingway. As Umberto Eco says in Foucault’s Pendulum: “Like soy sauce in Chinese dishes. If it’s not there, it’s not Chinese.” Within a few days of starting my research, then, I found myself facing the prospect of writing a story about Hemingway investigating a paranormal mystery in wartime Spain. I really wanted to do it. But I wasn’t sure that I could.

The cyborg on the page

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Locutus of Borg

In an excellent anthology of his short stories, the author Joe Haldeman describes an exercise that he used to give to his students at M.I.T., where he taught a course on science fiction for many years. Reading it, I found myself wishing—for just about the first time ever—that I could have taken that class. Here’s what Haldeman says:

For this assignment, I gave each student a random number between 8 and 188, which corresponded to page numbers in the excellent sourcebook The Science in Science Fiction, by Peter Nicholls, with David Langford and Brian Stableford. They had to come up with a story using that scientific device or principle. I further restricted them by saying they had to use a story structure from one of the stories in our textbook The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, edited by Robert Silverberg. The point of the assignment was partly to demonstrate that art thrives under restrictions. (It was also to give them a starting point; many had never written fiction before, and a blank page or screen is a terrible thing.)

Haldeman notes that he always does his own assignments, at least to demonstrate the concept for a couple of pages, and that in this case, he was given the word “cyborg” and the structure of Daniel Keyes’s “Flowers for Algernon.” The result was a solid short story, “More Than the Sum of His Parts,” which was later published in Playboy.

Not surprisingly, I love this idea, for reasons that longtime readers of this blog will probably be able to guess. Constraints, as Haldeman observes, are where fiction flourishes. This partially because of the aforementioned tyranny of the blank page: any starting point, even a totally random one, is better than nothing at all, and a premise that is generated by chance can be more stimulating than one of great personal significance. (When you’re trying to write about something important to you, you’re often too intimidated by the possibilities to start, while it’s easy to get started on a premise that has been handed to you for free. As Trump might put it, what have you got to lose?) There’s also the fact that a kind of synergy results when you pair a story structure with a concept: the dialogue between form and content yields ideas that neither one could have generated in isolation. Nearly every story I’ve ever written has resulted from a pairing of two or more notions, and I’ve developed a fairly reliable intuition about which combinations will be the most fruitful. But I haven’t really experimented with structure in the same way, which is why this exercise is so useful. When I brought it up with Haldeman, he said that the assignment is designed to make students think of form as a tool—or a toy—that can be explored and enjoyed independently of plot, which is a point subtle enough that a lot of writers, including me, never get around to playing with it. But when I take my scheduled break in a couple of months to work out a new story, I’m going to give it a try.

Schema for Joyce's Ulysses

It’s revealing, too, that the story that Haldeman uses to illustrate his point is about a cyborg, since that’s what we’re really talking about here—a mixture of artificial and organic parts that theoretically forms a single viable organism. (In the actual story, it doesn’t turn out well.) Sometimes you start with a few components from off the shelf, or an assortment of discrete pieces of information, and once you start to combine them, they knit themselves together with newly grown tissue. In other cases, you begin with something more natural, like the chain of logical events that follow from a dramatic situation, and then add parts as needed. And incorporating a bit of randomness at an early stage results in solutions that never would have occurred to you otherwise. There’s a famous design exercise in which students are told to draw the human body in a state of movement, and then to construct an apparatus that will support the body in that position. At the end, the teacher points out that they’ve been designing furniture. That’s how writing works, too. Writers are frequently drawn to metaphors from carpentry, as when Gabriel García Marquez compares writing to making a table, or when José Saramago says that any chair he makes has to have four stable feet. But the result is more interesting when you don’t think in terms of making a table or a chair, but of creating a support system that will hold up the bodies you’ve set in motion. A cyborg carries his essential furniture with him at all times, stripped down to its purest functional form. And that’s also true of a story.

If every story is a cyborg, there’s also a range of approaches to how visible the parts should be. Some wear their artificial components openly, like Locutus of Borg, so that the result is a style in itself, while others keep their enhancements hidden. A book like Joyce’s Ulysses, with its endless experiments and pastiches in form, looks like a manufacturer’s catalog, or a fashion spread in which the same handful of models show off various possible outfits. I don’t recall offhand if Joyce assigned the various epic episodes, literary styles, and symbols to the chapters of Ulysses at random, but I’d like to believe that he did, simply because it’s such a pragmatic tool: “Let the bridge blow up,” Joyce once said, “provided I have got my troops across.” Sometimes the writer takes pleasure in making the joints between the pieces as invisible as possible, and sometimes it’s more fun to play up the artifice, or even to encourage the reader to spot the references—although a little of this goes a long way. It’s a matter of taste, which is another reason why the use of randomness at an early stage can be a good thing: the more detached you are from the big conceptual blocks of the plot, the more likely you are to make the right decisions when it comes to the details. If you’re the kind of writer who wants to crank out a story a week for a year, as Ray Bradbury once advised, Haldeman’s exercise is invaluable. (As Bradbury says: “I dare any young writer to write fifty-two stories that are all bad.”) I wouldn’t want to take the same approach for every story, since there comes a point at which the author himself starts to resemble a machine. But when used wisely, it’s a nice reminder that every story is more than the sum of its parts.

Written by nevalalee

August 25, 2016 at 8:56 am

Return to Dimension X

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Dimension X

Over the last week, I’ve been listening to a lot of classic radio programs from the fifties, including Dimension X, X Minus One, Stroke of Fate, and Exploring Tomorrow. They’re all science fiction shows, and although they suffered from the shifting time slots and unreliable scheduling that always seem to plague the genre, they attracted devoted followings and laid the groundwork for shows like The Twilight Zone. (Stroke of Fate was an alternate history series, and I’ll confess that I couldn’t resist starting with the episode that imagines what would have happened if Aaron Burr, rather than Alexander Hamilton, had died in that duel.) Given the growing popularity of science fiction in podcast form, it’s worth asking what writers and producers can learn from these older shows, many of which are available for streaming, and it turns out that they have a lot in common with modern efforts in the same line. Just as podcasts often benefit from sponsorships from existing media, many of these programs partnered with science fiction magazines, usually Astounding or Galaxy, both as a source of content and to take advantage of a known brand. If I were trying to start a science fiction podcast, I’d do the same thing. An established magazine would serve as a conduit for talent and ideas, and adapting, say, one story per issue could provide another way of building an audience. It couldn’t be done for free, and it can be challenging to adapt science fiction—which can be hard to follow even in print—to a radio format. But it’s because the genre is so hard to pull off that we remember the few shows that have taken the trouble to do it well. And the example of old-time radio provides a few useful guidelines here, too.

For instance, in these classic shows, we rarely hear more than two voices at once. This might seem like too obvious a point to even mention: even on the page, it’s difficult for the reader to keep track of more than two new characters at a time, and without any visual cues, it makes sense to restrict the speakers to a number that the listener can easily follow. This was also a function of budget: many of these shows were limited to casts of three actors per episode, usually two men and one woman, the latter of whom was also pressed into service for any children’s parts. But it’s worth keeping in mind as a basic structural tool, particularly when it comes to adaptations. Dimension X did a very satisfying job of presenting Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles in less than half an hour, focusing on the high points of a few stories—“Rocket Summer,” “Ylla,” “And the Moon Be Still as Bright,” “There Will Come Soft Rains,” “The Off Season,” and “The Million-Year Picnic”—and reworking them as a series of two-handers. (They did much the same in an earlier episode with Bradbury’s “Mars is Heaven!”, which Stephen King later recalled in Danse Macabre as his first encounter with horror.) A scene between two characters, particularly a man and a woman, is immediately more engaging than one in which we have to work hard to follow three male voices. It buys you breathing room that you can use to advance the story, rather than wasting time playing defense. And if I were trying to adapt a story for radio and didn’t know where to begin, I’d start by asking myself if it could be structured as five two-person dialogue scenes, ideally for one actor and one actress.

X Minus One

Another strategy that many of these episodes share is an unapologetic reliance on narration. In the movies, voiceover is often a crutch, and it’s particularly irritating in literary adaptations that read whole chunks of the original prose over the action. But there’s a good case to be made for it in radio. It saves time, for one thing, and it can provide transitional material to bridge the gaps between narrative units. Building on the rule of thumb that I mentioned above, if there’s a piece of important action that can’t be boiled down to a two-person dialogue scene, you might just want to insert some narration and be done with it. It should be used sparingly, and only after the writer has done everything possible to convey this information in some other fashion. But it’s an important part of the radio playwright’s bag of tricks, and it would be pointless to ignore it. There’s a reason why narration plays such a central role in radio journalism and podcasting: as I’ve noted elsewhere, it deliberately usurps the role of the listener’s inner monologue, telling us what the action means so that we’re freed up to pay attention to what comes next. It’s very hard for anyone to follow along on two levels of thought at once, and most of the listener’s attention should rightly be devoted to what is happening at this moment, rather than to figuring out what has happened already. Narration is a great way of doing this, and it doesn’t need to be used throughout the episode. (An excellent example is X Minus One’s adaptation of Frederik Pohl’s “The Tunnel Under the World,” which still works like gangbusters.)

But it’s also possible to take these rules too far. Of all the radio shows I’ve heard, the most frustrating is Exploring Tomorrow, which was hosted for about half a year by none other than John W. Campbell, with stories drawn from the pages of Astounding. Campbell would speak before, during, and after each episode, commenting on the action and providing transitional or expository material, and his role as an identifiable host anticipates the persona that Rod Serling would later assume. Yet the show was a flop. Why? Campbell wasn’t a natural radio presence, which didn’t help, but his narration also detracted far more than it added: it spelled out themes that should have been implicit in the action, and it ended up undermining the drama in the process. A story like “The Cold Equations,” for instance, should have been perfect for the format—it’s already a gripping two-hander with one male and one female character, and it had been adapted successfully by previous shows. Yet the version on Exploring Tomorrow just sort of sits there, because Campbell insists on telling us what has happened and what it means. (He also spoon-feeds us a lot of exposition that should have been conveyed through dialogue, if only because it would have forced the writers to work harder.) In theory, it isn’t so far from Ira Glass’s description of radio as “anecdote then reflection, over and over,” but it doesn’t work here. Campbell was a born lecturer, both in his magazine and in the office, but people didn’t want to invite him into their homes. And if a show can’t manage that, all the craft in the world won’t save it.

Astounding Stories #10: “Way in the Middle of the Air”

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Way in the Middle of the Air

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 golden age of science fiction, at least as I define it, ended in May 1950, with the initial publication of the article “Dianetics: The Evolution of a Science” in Astounding. (Technically, the issue would have appeared on newsstands the month before, but let’s not split hairs.) Yet with every end comes a beginning, and science fiction itself was far from dead: The Martian Chronicles was released just a few weeks later, and it success marked a signal moment in the genre’s passage into the mainstream. Its author, Ray Bradbury, had been desperate to get into the pages of Astounding, but despite the patient mentoring of Leigh Brackett and the friendship of Robert A. Heinlein, he was only able to sell one short story and a couple of minor pieces. In the end, he was the only major science fiction writer of his era who emerged outside the influence of John W. Campbell, and this wasn’t simply an oversight. Campbell had met Bradbury and critiqued his submissions at length, and the two men shared mutual close friends, but they never saw eye to eye. And while Campbell’s overall track record remains unimpeachable—it’s all but inevitable that he would overlook a promising talent or two out of the dozens he developed—it still feels like a loss. When I raised the issue at a panel last month at the Nebula Conference, the editor Stanley Schmidt said that it was less a question of a failure to recognize talent than of Bradbury not quite fitting in with Campbell’s vision, which is true enough. But it’s hard not to see his absence as anything less than a gap in the history of the magazine.

My favorite story in The Martian Chronicles is “Mars is Heaven!”, which appears under the title “The Third Expedition,” but the one that I’ve been thinking about the most is “Way in the Middle of the Air,” which starkly exposes both Bradbury’s strengths and his limitations. Bradbury had trouble selling it: it was published for the first time in the book itself, although it later appeared in Raymond A. Palmer’s Other Worlds Science Stories, and when you read it, you can see why. It’s about a small town in the South whose entire black population packs up and leaves on a rocket for Mars. The story is seen through the eyes of a group of white landowners, who sit sullenly watching the exodus from the porch of a hardware store. Its satirical targets are obviously the racists who are left behind, and there’s no question that Bradbury’s heart was in the right place. But the result is still intensely problematic, at least to modern readers. The black colonists are seen mostly as a monolithic mass moving through the center of town: “And in that slow, steady channel of darkness that cut across the white glare of day were touches of alert white, the eyes, the ivory eyes staring ahead, glancing aside, as the river, the long and endless river, took itself from old channels into a new one.” And the only reasonable reaction to lines like “the watermelon patches, if any, were left alone to heat their hidden liquors in the sun” and “in still farther meadows, the watermelons lay, unfingerprinted” is to wish fervently that they didn’t exist.

Ray Bradbury

But the real problem is that once the colonists have left for Mars, we never hear from them again. In the text as it stands, the implication is that they all returned to Earth, like everybody else, when war broke out back home—which feels even less plausible in this case than it does for the other settlers. Bradbury was keenly aware of this omission, and his reaction to it is fascinating in itself. In the biography Becoming Ray Bradbury, Jonathan R. Eller writes:

For his October 1949 submission of The Martian Chronicles typescript, he had prepared a short narrative bridge passage to explain why these people did not appear anywhere else in the saga. In this bridge, titled “The Wheel,” the interplanetary journey is portrayed like a spiritual saga in miniature, an Old Testament-style journey to the Promised Land. In this brief interlude, the actual destination is really less important than the freedom it stands for—the black pioneers deviate from course and eventually end up on Venus. But this option was too facile and dismissive, and Bradbury soon realized it; “The Wheel” was deleted from the Chronicles before the galleys were set, and Bradbury instead completed a full and logical sequel set on Mars.

This sequel, “The Other Foot,” appeared in The Illustrated Man, but it doesn’t fit in with the chronology of The Martian Chronicles: for its plot to make sense, it requires that only black colonies exist on Mars. For all his efforts and good intentions, Bradbury was unable to find a place for these colonists anywhere in his larger story.

Which tells us a lot about the author himself. If the Bradbury of this period has a weakness, it’s that he’s prone to falling in love with an image or a gag or a twist for its own sake, without considering how it fits into the big picture or working out its deeper implications. You see a similar problem in “The Silent Towns,” an equally discomfiting story in the same collection, and he was so taken, it seems, by the effect of “Way in the Middle of the Air”—which is an undeniably powerful story—that he made room for it here, despite his full knowledge that the absence of the black colonists in the rest of the narrative would create a self-evident hole. (He ultimately appears to have had second thoughts about it: the story was omitted in the British publication and in the later 1997 edition.) For many readers, his most appealing quality as a writer is the warm streak of nostalgia that pervades his fiction, but it can also shade into sentimentality in its worst sense, in which the symbols and trappings of small-town America are conflated with a coherent set of values. Personally, I prefer Bradbury in his darker, more sinister mode, which is why I think his masterpiece is “Mars is Heaven!”, which begins as an evocation of idyllic Americana and twists it into an unforgettable nightmare. “Way in the Middle of the Air” deserves to be read and remembered, if only because it’s the kind of story that few other authors of the era could even have contemplated writing: it’s impossible to imagine it ever running in Astounding. But it strands its colonists in the middle of the air, and it would be left to other writers to take them to the stars.

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