Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

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Beyond cyberspace

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The Human Use of Human Beings

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on October 7, 2016.

About a year and a half ago, I spent some time reading the work of Norbert Wiener, the mathematician and polymath best known as the founder of cybernetics. Wiener plays a small but pivotal role in my upcoming book Astoundinghe was one of John W. Campbell’s professors at M.I.T., and Campbell later remembered him as the only instructor who ever helped him with a story. (He also called him “one of America’s dullest and most incompetent teachers.” According to Campbell, Wiener would write an expression on the blackboard, say that its implications were clear, and then write another without further explanation. He could also do third-order differential equations in his head, which was very impressive, apart from the fact that he expected his students to be able to do the same thing.) I became interested in Wiener because of the role that his ideas played in the development of dianetics: Campbell once wrote to Wiener saying that he thought the latter would be “greatly interested” in his research with L. Ron Hubbard, and Wiener later had to ask the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation to stop using his name in its literature. Much of the terminology of dianetics, including the word “clear,” seems to have been derived directly from Wiener’s work. But after reading both Cybernetics and The Human Use of Human Beings—while skipping most of the mathematics, which even Isaac Asimov admitted he didn’t understand—I’ve started to realize that Wiener’s influence in the genre was even greater than I supected. For much of the fifties, the magazine Astounding served as a conduit that brought cybernetic ideas into the mainstream of science fiction, and from there, they entered all our lives.

“Cybernetics” is one of those words, like “postmodernism,” that can be used to mean just about anything, but it originated in a pair of straightforward but profound observations. Wiener, who had worked on computing machines at M.I.T. and laid out the principles of their operation in a famous memo to Vannevar Bush, had grown intrigued by the parallels between computers and the human brain. He also understood that any attempt to explain intelligence in purely mechanical terms was doomed to fail. The mind doesn’t resemble a clock or any other machine, with gears that can run forwards or backwards. It’s more like the weather: a complicated system made up of an countably huge number of components that move only in one direction. Wiener’s first important insight was that the tools of statistical mechanics and information theory could be used to shed light on biological and mental processes, which amount to an island of negative entropy—it’s one of the few places in the universe where matter becomes more organized over time. So how the heck do you control it? In practice, life and intelligence consist of so many variables that they seem impossible to analyze or replicate, and Wiener’s second major contribution related to how such complicated systems could regulate themselves. During the war, he had worked on servomechanisms, like anti-artillery guns, that relied on negative feedback loops to increase their accuracy: the device performed an action, checked the result against its original goal, and then adjusted its performance accordingly. And it seemed to Wiener that many organic and cognitive processes could be modeled in the same way.

Norbert Wiener

This might all seem obvious now, when we’ve unconsciously absorbed so much of Wiener’s thinking, but it’s one of those pivotal insights that opened up a whole new world to explore. When we pick up a pencil—or a cigar, in the example that Wiener, a lifelong smoker, liked to use—we’re engaging in a series of complicated muscular movements that are impossible to consciously control. Instead of explicitly thinking through each step, we rely on feedback: as Wiener puts it, his senses provide him with information about “the amount by which I have yet failed to pick up the cigar,” which is then translated into a revised set of instructions to his muscles. By combining many different feedback loops, we end up with complicated behaviors that couldn’t emerge from any one piece alone. Life, Weiner says, is an attempt to control entropy through feedback. It’s a powerful concept that allows us both to figure out how we got here to think about where we’re going, and it had a considerable impact on such fields as artificial intelligence, anthropology, and game theory. But what fascinates me the most is Wiener’s belief that cybernetics would allow us to solve the problems created by rapid technological change. As he writes in The Human Use of Human Beings:

The whole scale of phenomena has changed sufficiently to preclude any easy transfer to the present time of political, racial, and economic notions derived from earlier stages…We have modified our environment so radically that we must now modify ourselves in order to exist in our new environment.

This sounds a lot like Campbell’s vision of science fiction, which he saw as a kind of technical education for turning his readers into the new breed of men who could deal with the changes that the future would bring. And when you read Wiener, you’re constantly confronted with concepts and turns of phrase that Campbell would go on to popularize through his editorials and his ideas for stories. (For instance, Wiener writes: “When we consider a problem of nature such as that of atomic reactions and atomic explosives, the largest single item of information which we can make public is that they exist. Once a scientist attacks a problem which he knows to have an answer, his entire attitude is changed.” I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure that this sentence gave Campbell the premise that was later written up by Raymond F. Jones as “Noise Level.”) Campbell was friendly with Wiener, whom he described fondly as “a crackpot among crackpots,” and cybernetics itself quickly became a buzzword in such stories as Walter M. Miller’s “Izzard and the Membrane,” the Heinlein juveniles, and Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man. Over time, its original meaning was lost, and the prefix “cyber-” was reduced to an all-purpose shorthand for an undefined technology, much as “positronic” had served the same function a few decades earlier. It would be left to writers like Thomas Pynchon to make real use of it in fiction, while cybernetics itself became, in Gordon Pask’s evocative definition, “the art and science of manipulating defensible metaphors.” But perhaps that’s the fate of all truly powerful ideas. As none other than our own president once put it so aptly, we have so many things we have to do better, and certainly cyber is one of them.

Written by nevalalee

January 17, 2018 at 9:00 am

Beyond cyberspace

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The Human Use of Human Beings

Recently, I’ve been reading the work of Norbert Wiener, the mathematician and polymath best known as the founder of cybernetics. Wiener plays a small but pivotal role in my book Astounding: he was one of John W. Campbell’s professors at M.I.T., and Campbell later remembered him as the only person there who ever helped him with a story. (He also called Wiener, who always remained one of his intellectual idols, “one of America’s dullest and most incompetent teachers.” According to Campbell, Wiener would write an expression on the blackboard, say “From this, it is clear that…”, and then write another one without explaining any of the intermediate steps. He could also do third-order differential equations in his head, which was very impressive, except for the fact that he expected his students to do the same thing.) I became interested in Wiener because of the role that his ideas played in the development of dianetics: Campbell once wrote a letter to Wiener saying that he thought the latter would be “greatly interested” in his work with L. Ron Hubbard, and Wiener later asked the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation to stop using his name in its literature. And much of the terminology of dianetics, including the word “clear,” seems to have been derived directly from Wiener’s work. But after reading both Cybernetics and The Human Use of Human Beings—while skipping most of the mathematics, which even Isaac Asimov admitted he didn’t understand—I’ve started to realize that Wiener’s overall influence was much greater. For much of the fifties, Campbell served as a conduit to bring cybernetic ideas into the mainstream of science fiction. As a result, Wiener’s fingerprints are all over the genre, and from there, they entered all our lives.

“Cybernetics” is one of those words, like “postmodernism,” that can be used to mean just about anything you want, but it originated in a pair of straightforward but profound observations. Wiener, who had worked on computing machines at M.I.T. and laid out the principles of their operation in a famous memo to Vannevar Bush, had grown intrigued by the parallels between computers and the human brain. He also understood that any attempt to explain intelligence in purely mechanical terms was doomed to fail. The mind doesn’t resemble a clock or any other machine, with gears that can run forwards or backwards. It’s more like the weather: a complicated system made up of an countably huge number of components that move only in one direction. Wiener’s first important insight was that the tools of statistical mechanics and information theory could be used to shed light on biological and mental processes, which amount to an island of negative entropy—it’s one of the few places in the universe where matter becomes more organized over time. But how the heck do you control it? In practice, life and intelligence consist of so many variables that they seem impossible to analyze or replicate, and Wiener’s second major contribution related to how such complicated systems could regulate themselves. During the war, he had worked on servomechanisms, like anti-artillery guns, that relied on negative feedback loops to increase their accuracy: the device performed an action, checked the result against its original goal, and then adjusted its performance accordingly. And it seemed to Wiener that many organic and cognitive processes could be modeled in the same way.

Norbert Wiener

This might all seem obvious now, when we’ve unconsciously absorbed so much of Wiener’s thinking, but it’s one of those pivotal insights that opened up a whole new world to explore. When we pick up a pencil—or a cigar, in the example that Wiener, a lifelong smoker, liked to use—we’re engaging in a series of complicated muscular movements that are impossible to consciously control. Instead of explicitly thinking through each step, we rely on feedback: as Wiener puts it, his senses provide him with information about “the amount by which I have yet failed to pick up the cigar,” which is then translated into a revised set of instructions to his muscles. By combining many different feedback loops, we end up with complicated behaviors that couldn’t emerge from any one piece alone. Life, Weiner says, is an attempt to control entropy through feedback. It’s a powerful concept that allows us to look backward, to figure out how we got here, and forward, to think about where we’re going, and it had a considerable impact on such fields as artificial intelligence, anthropology, and game theory. But what fascinates me the most is Wiener’s belief that cybernetics would allow us to solve the problems created by rapid technological change. As he writes in The Human Use of Human Beings:

The whole scale of phenomena has changed sufficiently to preclude any easy transfer to the present time of political, racial, and economic notions derived from earlier stages…We have modified our environment so radically that we must now modify ourselves in order to exist in our new environment.

This sounds a lot like John W. Campbell’s vision of science fiction, which he saw as a kind of university for turning his readers into the new breed of men who could deal with the changes that the future would bring. And when you read Wiener, you’re constantly confronted with concepts and turns of phrase that Campbell would go on to popularize through his editorials and his ideas for stories. (For instance, Wiener writes: “When we consider a problem of nature such as that of atomic reactions and atomic explosives, the largest single item of information which we can make public is that they exist. Once a scientist attacks a problem which he knows to have an answer, his entire attitude is changed.” I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure that this sentence gave Campbell the premise that was later written up by Raymond F. Jones as “Noise Level.”) Campbell was friendly with Wiener, whom he described fondly as “a crackpot among crackpots,” and cybernetics itself quickly became a buzzword in science fiction stories as different as “Izzard and the Membrane,” the Heinlein juveniles, and The Demolished Man. Over time, its original meaning was lost, and the prefix “cyber-” was reduced to an all-purpose shorthand for an undefined technology, as “positronic” had been a few decades earlier. It would be left to writers like Thomas Pynchon to make real use of it in fiction, while cybernetics itself became, in Gordon Pask’s evocative definition, “the art and science of manipulating defensible metaphors.” But perhaps that’s the fate of all truly powerful ideas. As one of our presidential candidates put it so aptly, we have so many things we have to do better, and certainly cyber is one of them.

Astounding Stories #18: “Noise Level”

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Noise Level

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

On March 31, 1952, the science fiction editor John W. Campbell wrote a long letter to his friend Robert A. Heinlein. It began: “I’ve got an idea that may appeal to you as a starting point for a yarn. If so—I’d love it. If not—lemme know, and I’ll try it on someone else.” Campbell went on to describe the plot in great detail, from its initial premise to its concluding twist, which was unusual in itself: he often pitched ideas to writers, but he was generally happiest when the author came back to him with something he wasn’t expecting. In this case, however, he clearly wanted a story written to order. Here’s how it started:

The top scientists of the country are called into closed, secret session. One of the top men of the National Research Council gets up and explains. Joseph Quincy Doakes, a twenty-eight-year-old physicist, came to the Council and claimed he had an antigravity device. His technical knowledge was definitely of the highest order, but he was an insufferable egotist. He refused to tell anything about it until they’d seen it work. He gave a demonstration, a personal flying device. It worked.

The scientists are shown filmed footage of the test at an airfield, with the inventor flying miraculously toward the sky—until something goes wrong. There’s a malfunction, the inventor crashes from five hundred feet, and he’s killed at once, with the antigravity device itself reduced to a smoking ruin.

As soon as the presentation is over, the scientists are informed that their assignment is to reproduce Doakes’s discovery, whatever the hell it was. Unfortunately, Doakes was so paranoid about his ideas being stolen that he left no record of his work: no notes, no diagrams, no trace of the underlying theory. All that remains is a nearly indecipherable audio recording of a brief explanation that he gave on the airfield that day, only a few words of which are audible. The scientists are each given a copy of the tape, along with unlimited resources and funding, and ordered to get cracking: “We need that device.” Eventually, after much feverish work, they manage to reconstruct a working antigravity machine using these meager clues, in defiance of all known laws of physics. And here’s the kicker, as Campbell told it to Heinlein:

The whole thing [is] one hundred percent fake. The purpose being this: a situation has been established wherein the top physicists of the nation have had firmly, solely planted on them these two propositions: an antigravity device can be made [and] we have to make it…With twenty brilliant minds, stored with vast quantities of data related to the problem, running wide open and under pressure to glean the necessary facts—with a whispering, noise-loaded voice in their ears, the voice of a dead man who did it—the half-heard, and nine-tenths guessed concepts he speaks—the tremendous straining concentration to find that hidden answer—

And you know, Bob, that same basic mechanism should work for a lot of other things!

In other words, it was a hoax designed to make the scientists to devote their best efforts to solving a problem that they otherwise would have dismissed out of hand. (As Norton Juster puts it so movingly in The Phantom Tollbooth: “So many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.”)

Noise Level

Heinlein ultimately passed on the idea, and Campbell eventually gave it to Raymond F. Jones, who wrote it up as a novelette that was published under the title “Noise Level” in the December 1952 issue of Astounding. It’s a wonderful story in its own right, and Jones adds a lot of nice touches that aren’t there in Campbell’s original pitch. For example, the scientists are taken to what they’re told was the home of the device’s late inventor, whose name in the finished version is Dunning. The house has a beautiful tinkerer’s lab, a machine shop, and a strange pair of libraries: one filled with physics and engineering titles, the other with books about astrology, the occult, and Eastern mysticism. As one of the scientists says disbelievingly: “It isn’t possible…that Dunning owned and understood both of these libraries.” Later, when asked why they included “the stuff on Babylonian mysticism, astrology, and the rest of that crud,” an organizer of the hoax explains:

The whole project was set up to be as noisy as possible…We didn’t know how to produce antigravity, so we gave you a picture of a man who did, and made it as noisy as possible to loosen up your own noise filters on the subject. I offered you a dose of omniscient noise on the subject of antigravity, and the one inescapable conclusion that it had been done.

By “omniscient noise,” he’s referring to the idea, discussed earlier on, that pure noise—a completely random sequences of pulses—contains all possible messages and information, and that our ability to understand it depends on the mental filters that we’ve set up. Give a team of geniuses a source of raw noise and loosen up their filters, the story argues, and they can figure out just about anything, as long as they’re convinced that it’s possible.

And while “Noise Level” doesn’t bear Campbell’s name, it’s still one of the most personal statements he ever allowed into print. (It’s especially revealing that he originally approached Heinlein with the premise. Heinlein had written up a few of Campbell’s ideas before, in stories like “Sixth Column,” “Solution Unsatisfactory,” and “Universe,” but he hadn’t done so for over a decade. The fact that Campbell tried pitching the idea to his single best writer, even though it was highly unlikely that Heinlein would take it, tells us how important it was to him.) One of the first problems that occurs to anyone who studies Campbell is how the same man who was almost singlehandedly responsible for the rise of hard science fiction could also endorse such concepts as dianetics, psionics, the Hieronymus Machine, and the Dean Drive. You could say that Campbell genuinely believed that these phenomena existed; that he wanted to be responsible for popularizing a major discovery that would rival atomic power and space travel; that he saw them as a way to maintain science fiction’s status as a frontier literature; or that he wanted to challenge scientific orthodoxy by feeding it some of the most outrageous concepts imaginable. To some extent, all of these interpretations are accurate. But I’d like to think that Campbell revealed his true motivations in “Noise Level,” and that he spent his last two decades at the magazine deliberately trying to make his ongoing experiment with his readers as noisy as possible. Like the two libraries in Dunning’s house, Astounding ran hard science fiction side by side with pieces on psychic powers and dowsing, and many readers couldn’t understand how Campbell could believe in both. Maybe he did—but he also wanted to give his readers the chaotic raw material that they needed to expand their way of thinking. Whether or not he succeeded is another question entirely. But he thought it would take them to the stars.

Written by nevalalee

September 28, 2016 at 9:33 am

Astounding Stories #13: “The Cold Equations”

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The Cold Equations

Note: As part of the research process for my book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ve taken 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 plot of “The Cold Equations,” a short story by Tom Godwin that first appeared in Astounding in August 1954, can be summarized in just a few sentences. Its protagonist is Barton, the pilot of the Stardust, a small emergency spacecraft carrying a shipment of serum that is urgently needed to save the lives of six colonists on an isolated planet. Because the emergency vessels are deployed only as a last resort from larger transports, they carry the bare minimum of fuel required to get them to their destination, and any extra weight would cause the entire ship to crash. As a result, the punishment for stowaways is severe: in order to save the ship as a whole, the pilot is legally obligated to immediately eject any unauthorized passengers through the airlock. The story opens with Barton discovering that he has a stowaway, a teenage girl named Marilyn, who snuck onboard to visit her brother at the ship’s destination, unaware that the penalty was death. Barton, in despair, realizes that he has no choice but to jettison her: if he doesn’t, they’ll both die, along with the six colonists awaiting the serum. After an agonized discussion of the situation, Marilyn comes to terms with her fate. Barton allows her to talk to her brother over the radio one last time, then marches her into the airlock and opens the doors. Marilyn is sucked into space to die horribly, while Barton returns to the controls. As a character in another story reminded his captain under similar circumstances, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few—or the one.

And that’s pretty much it. “The Cold Equations” made an enormous impression on readers at the time, and it’s the only story by Godwin, a favorite of editor John W. Campbell, that is still widely read or anthologized. Of all the short stories that were published in Astounding after the golden age, it’s the one that has probably inspired the most subsequent discussion, usually in response to the question of whether or not Campbell deliberately avoided unhappy endings. Ben Bova, who certainly knows what he’s talking about, once wrote:

It is no secret that Campbell did prefer “upbeat” stories. He had little tolerance for weaklings or failures…Does this mean he automatically rejected “downbeat,” pessimistic stories? No, as a glance at Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations”…will show…The theme of the story is classical: the universe (or what the ancient Greeks would have called Destiny) does not care about our petty loves and desires. One and one inexorably add up to two, no matter how desperately we would have it otherwise.

Years after “The Cold Equations” was published Campbell laughingly recalled the story’s evolution. “He [Godwin] kept wanting to save the girl.” The editor had to insist on the “downbeat” ending. To do otherwise would have been to turn a memorable story into merely another “gadget” tale.

Campbell later said that he sent the manuscript back to Godwin no fewer than four times in order to get the bleak ending that he wanted. As it stands, the story is almost ludicrously free of the engineering heroics that readers had come to expect: both Barton and Marilyn quickly come to see her fate as a given, which seems to imply that Campbell was willing to push a story into dark places if he felt that the logic demanded it.

The Cold Equations

Yet the truth is a little more complicated. “The Cold Equations” emerged from a period in Campbell’s career when he was frustrated with orthodoxy of all kinds, and he was on the verge of taking the fateful plunge, which would consume his life for more than a decade, into psionics and fringe science. He also believed that it was worth embracing a contrarian stance for its own sake, as he explained to the writer Raymond F. Jones in a letter from 1954:

We’ve called the technique the Demeaned Viewpoint technique. It boils down to this: Consider the viewpoint that you just can’t consider under any circumstances, and find validity in it. There is no viewpoint that has zero validity—though some have very small validity, or very limited application. But if there is some viewpoint that you hold to be anathema—it must be important if you expend the effort to anathematize it!

And this was the explicit motivation for the ending of “The Cold Equations.” As Campbell said in a letter to his friend Wayne Batteau from later that year:

That [story], you see, is simply a Demeaned Viewpoint gimmick on the proposition “Human sacrifice is absolutely unacceptable.” So we deliberately, knowingly and painfully sacrifice a young, pretty girl…and make the reader accept that it is valid!

In other words, it wasn’t so much that Campbell saw a dark ending as following inexorably from the premise, but that he systematically twisted the story to subject the reader to an unpleasant thought experiment. This is a subtle distinction, but a real one. And many readers didn’t accept it at all. Gary Westfahl noted that the story was good physics, but bad engineering: the fact that the emergency ship is built without any factor of safety is clearly just a plot device. More recently, Cory Doctorow wrote: 

The parameters of “The Cold Equations” are not the inescapable laws of physics. Zoom out beyond the page’s edges and you’ll find the author’s hands carefully arranging the scenery…The author, not the girl, decided that there was no autopilot that could land the ship without the pilot. The author decided that the plague was fatal to all concerned, and that the vaccine needed to be delivered within a timeframe that could only be attained through the execution of the stowaway.

Doctorow concludes that the story is “an elaborate shell game.” And he’s right. But so is nearly every work of science fiction, which quietly rigs the rules for the sake of the story that the writer wants to tell, no matter how implausible it might be. What sets “The Cold Equations” apart—and why I don’t think it holds up as a story, despite its historical importance—is that by blatantly loading the dice to create its no-win situation, it inadvertently reveals its own fakery. As Doctorow says, the real cold equations are “parameterized by human beings.” And we finish the story knowing that it wasn’t Barton, or physics, who killed Marilyn. It was Godwin and Campbell.

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