Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Robert A. Heinlein

The happy golden years

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A few months ago, the American Library Association announced that it was renaming the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, which has been awarded annually for over six decades for merit in children’s literature. (The decision was reached at the association’s summer conference in New Orleans, which I attended, although I was only vaguely aware of the discussion at the time.) In a joint statement explaining the move, which was primarily motivated by the “anti-Native and anti-Black sentiments in [Wilder’s] work,” the presidents of the ALA and the Association for Library Service to Children were careful to distinguish between the value of her legacy and the message sent by institutionalizing it in this particular form:

Although Wilder’s work holds a significant place in the history of children’s literature and continues to be read today, ALSC has had to grapple with the inconsistency between Wilder’s legacy and its core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness through an award that bears Wilder’s name…This change should not be viewed as a call for readers to change their personal relationship with or feelings about Wilder’s books. Updating the award’s name should not be construed as censorship, as we are not demanding that anyone stop reading Wilder’s books, talking about them, or making them available to children. We hope adults think critically about Wilder’s books and the discussions that can take place around them.

This seems reasonable enough, although Wilder’s biographer, Caroline Fraser, argues in an opinion piece for the Washington Post that the decision evokes “the anodyne view of literature” that the ALA has elsewhere tried to overcome. Fraser concludes: “Whether we love Wilder or hate her, we should know her. “

For reasons of my own, I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot recently. Last week at Worldcon, a critic who had recently finished reading Astounding commented that he wasn’t sure he would have wanted to meet any of its subjects, and I know what he means. (If I had the chance to spend time with a single person from the book, I might well choose Doña Campbell, or possibly Leslyn Heinlein, if only because I’d learn more from them than I would from any of the others.) I didn’t go into this project with any preexisting agenda in mind, but I emerged with a picture of these four writers that is often highly critical. John W. Campbell’s importance to the history of science fiction is indisputable, and I wrote this biography largely to bring his achievements to the attention of a wider audience. He also expressed views that were unforgivably racist, both in private conversation and in print, and he bears part of the blame for limiting the genre’s diversity, which is an issue that we’re still struggling to address today. I think that Robert A. Heinlein is the best and most significant writer that the genre ever produced, but I’m not sure I would have wanted to be the the same room with him for very long. Hubbard, obviously, is a special case. And perhaps the most difficult reckoning involves Isaac Asimov, a writer who meant a lot to me—and to countless others—growing up, but whose treatment of women looks increasingly awful over time. It was hard for me to write about this, and I expect that it will be hard for many others to read it. It’s safe to say that many fans made up their minds about Heinlein and Hubbard years ago, while this book will introduce Campbell to a larger readership for the first time in what I hope will be his full complexity. With Asimov, however, I suspect that many readers will need to revise their understanding of a man they admired and thought they knew, and that might be the hardest part of all.

At the convention, I conducted what I saw as a trial run for discussing these issues in public, and the results were often enlightening. (Among other things, I found that whenever I brought up Asimov’s behavior, many fans would start to silently nod. It’s common knowledge within fandom—it just hasn’t been extensively discussed in print.) At my roundtable, an attendee raised the question of how we can separate an artist’s life from the work, which prompted someone else to respond: “Well, we choose to separate it.” And third person nervously hoped that no one was suggesting that we stop reading these authors altogether. On the individual level, this is clearly a matter of conscience, as long as we each take the trouble of engaging with it honestly. Collectively speaking, it isn’t always clear. Occasionally, the community will reach a consensus without too much trouble, as it did with Hubbard, which is about as easy as this sort of decision gets. More often, it’s closer to what we’ve seen with Wilder. As Fraser notes: “While the answer to racism is not to impose purity retroactively or to disappear titles from shelves, no eight-year-old Dakota child should have to listen to an uncritical reading of Little House on the Prairie. But no white American should be able to avoid the history it has to tell.” In a New York Times article on the controversy, the scholar Debbie Reese makes a similar point more forcefully: “People are trying to use [these books] and say, ‘Well, we can explain them,’ and I say: ‘Okay, you’re trying to explain racism to white people. Good for those white kids.’ But what about the Native and the black kids in the classroom who have to bear with the moment when they’re being denigrated for the benefit of the white kids?” If nothing else, renaming the award sends a clear message that this conversation needs to take place. It’s manifestly the first step, not the last.

Which brings me to John W. Campbell. In 1973, two years after the editor’s death, the Campbell Award for Best New Writer—which is given out annually at the Hugo Awards—was inaugurated by the World Science Fiction Society, along with the Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel by the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas. I don’t know how this biography will be received, but it wouldn’t entirely surprise me if it led to a wider debate about Campbell, his views on race, and whether his name ought to be attached to an award whose list of recent recipients stands as a testament to the genre’s range of voices. For now, I’ll only say that if Laura Ingalls Wilder can inspire this sort of discussion, then Campbell absolutely should. If it happens, I don’t know what the outcome will be. But I will say that while Campbell absolutely deserves to be remembered, it may not need to be in this sort of institutionalized form. In the Post, Fraser writes:

If the books are to be read and taught today—and it’s hard to escape them given their popularity—then teachers, librarians and parents are going to have to proceed armed with facts and sensitivity…I’d like to think that what would matter to Wilder in this debate would be not the institutionalized glory of an award bearing her name but the needs of children. “I cannot bear to disappoint a child,” she once said.

Campbell, to be frank, might well have welcomed the “institutionalized glory” of such an award. But he also wanted to be taken seriously. As Fraser says about Wilder, we can love or hate him, but we should know him. And a discussion about the future of the Campbell Award may well end up being the price that has to be paid for restoring him—and the entire golden age—to something more than just a name.

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

Bester of both worlds

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Note: To celebrate the World Science Fiction Convention this week in San Jose, I’m republishing a few of my favorite pieces on various aspects of the genre. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on August 11, 2017.

In 1963, the editor Robert P. Mills put together an anthology titled The Worlds of Science Fiction, for which fifteen writers—including Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Ray Bradbury—were invited to contribute one of their favorite stories. Mills also approached Alfred Bester, the author of the classic novels The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination, who declined to provide a selection, explaining: “I don’t like any of [my stories]. They’re all disappointments to me. This is why I rarely reread my old manuscripts; they make me sick. And when, occasionally, I come across a touch that pleases me, I’m convinced that I never wrote it—I believe that an editor added it.” When Mills asked if he could pick a story that at least gave him pleasure in the act of writing it, Bester responded:

No. A writer is extremely schizophrenic; he is both author and critic. As an author he may have moments of happiness while he’s creating, but as a critic he is indifferent to his happiness. It cannot influence his merciless appraisal of his work. But there’s an even more important reason. The joy you derive from creating a piece of work has no relationship to the intrinsic value of the work. It’s a truism on Broadway that when an actor particularly enjoys the performance he gives, it’s usually his worst. It’s also true that the story which gives the author the most pain is often his best.

Bester finally obliged with the essay “My Private World of Science Fiction,” which Mills printed as an epilogue. Its centerpiece is a collection of two dozen ideas that Bester plucked from his commonplace book, which he describes as “the heavy leather-bound journal that I’ve been keeping for twenty years.” These scraps and fragments, Bester explains, are his best works, and they inevitably disappoint him when they’re turned into stories. And the bits and pieces that he provides are often dazzling in their suggestiveness: “A circulating brain library in a Womrath’s of the future, where you can rent a brain for any purpose.” “A story about weather smugglers.” “There must be a place where you can go to remember all the things that never happened to you.” And my personal favorite:

The Lefthanded Killer: a tour de force about a murder which (we tell the reader immediately) was committed by a lefthanded killer. But we show, directly or indirectly, that every character is righthanded. The story starts with, “I am the murderer,” and then goes on to relate the mystery, never revealing who the narrator is…The final twist; killer-narrator turns out to be an unborn baby, the survivor of an original pair of twins. The lefthand member killed his righthand brother in the womb. The entire motivation for the strange events that follow is the desire to conceal the crime. The killer is a fantastic and brilliant monster who does not realize that the murder would have gone unnoticed.

Every writer has a collection of story fragments like this—mine takes up a page in a notebook of my own—but few ever publish theirs, and it’s fascinating to wonder at Bester’s motivations for making his unused ideas public. I can think of three possible reasons. The first, and perhaps the most plausible, is that he knew that many of these premises were more interesting in capsule form than when written out as full stories, and so, in acknowledgement of what I’ve called the Borges test, he simply delivered them that way. (He also notes that ideas are cheap: “The idea itself is relatively unimportant; it’s the writer who develops it that makes the big difference…It is only the amateur who worries about ‘his idea being stolen.'”) Another possibility is that he wanted to convey how stray thoughts in a journal like this can mingle and combine in surprising ways, which is one of the high points of any writer’s life:

That’s the wonder of the Commonplace Book; the curious way an incomprehensible note made in 1950 can combine with a vague entry made in 1960 to produce a story in 1970. In A Life in the Day of a Writer, perhaps the most brilliant portrait of an author in action ever painted, Tess Slesinger wrote: “He rediscovered the miracle of something on page twelve tying up with something on page seven which he had not understood when he wrote it…”

Bester concludes of his ideas: “They’ll cross-pollinate, something totally unforeseen will emerge, and then, alas, I’ll have to write the story and destroy it. This is why your best is always what you haven’t written yet.”

Yet the real explanation, I suspect, lies in that line “I’ll have to write the story,” which gets at the heart of Bester’s remarkable career. In reality, Bester is all but unique among major science fiction writers in that he never seemed to “have to write” anything. He contributed short stories to Astounding for a few heady years before World War II, then disappeared for the next decade to do notable work in comic books, radio, and television. Even after he returned, there was a sense that science fiction only occupied part of his attention. He published a mainstream novel, wrote television scripts, and worked as a travel writer and senior editor for the magazine Holiday, and the fact that he had so many ideas that he never used seems to reflect the fact that he only turned to science fiction when he really felt like it. (Bester should have been an ideal writer for John W. Campbell, who, if he could have managed it, would have loved a circle of writers that consisted solely of professional men in other fields who wrote on the side—they were more likely to take his ideas and rewrite to order than either full-time pulp authors or hardcore science fiction fans. And the story of how Campbell alienated Bester over the course of a single meeting is one of the most striking anecdotes from the whole history of the genre.) Most professional writers couldn’t afford to allow their good ideas to go to waste, but Bester was willing to let them go, both because he had other sources of income and because he knew that there was plenty more where that came from. I still think of Heinlein as the genre’s indispensable writer, but Bester might be a better role model, if only because he seemed to understand, rightly, that there were realms to explore beyond the worlds of science fiction.

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August 17, 2018 at 9:00 am

The science fiction sieve

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Note: To celebrate the World Science Fiction Convention this week in San Jose, I’m republishing a few of my favorite pieces on various aspects of the genre. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on June 28, 2017.

In a remarkably lucid essay published last year in Nautilus, the mathematician Noson S. Yanofsky elegantly defines the self-imposed limitations of science. Yanofsky points out that scientists deliberately take a subset of phenomena—characterized mostly by how amenable it is to their chosen methods—for their field of study, while leaving the rest to the social sciences or humanities. (As Paul Valéry put it: “Science means simply the aggregate of all the recipes that are always successful. All the rest is literature.”) He visualizes science as a kind of sieve, which lets in some subjects while excluding others:

The reason why we see the structure we do is that scientists act like a sieve and focus only on those phenomena that have structure and are predictable. They do not take into account all phenomena; rather, they select those phenomena they can deal with…Scientists have classified the general textures and heights of different types of clouds, but, in general, are not at all interested in the exact shape of a cloud. Although the shape is a physical phenomenon, scientists don’t even attempt to study it. Science does not study all physical phenomena. Rather, science studies predictable physical phenomena. It is almost a tautology: science predicts predictable phenomena.

Yanofsky groups these criteria under the general heading “symmetry,” and he concludes: “The physicist must be a sieve and study those phenomena that possess symmetry and allow those that do not possess symmetry to slip through her fingers.” I won’t get into the rest of his argument, which draws an ingenious analogy from mathematics, except to say that it’s worth reading in its entirety. But I think his thesis is sound, and it ties into many issues that I’ve discussed here before, particularly about the uncomfortable status of the social sciences.

If you’re trying to catch this process in action, though, the trouble is that the boundaries of science aren’t determined by a general vote, or even by the work of isolated geniuses, but emerge gradually and invisibly from the contributions of countless individuals. But if I were a historian of science, I’d take a close look at the development of science fiction, in which an analogous evolution occurred in plain sight over a relatively short period of time. You can see it clearly in the career of the editor John W. Campbell, who remained skeptical of the social sciences, but whose signal contribution to the genre may have been to put them at its center. And the “sieve” that he ended up using is revealing in itself. A significant turning point was the arrival on his desk of Robert A. Heinlein’s landmark novella “If This Goes On—,” of which Campbell wrote in 1939:

Robert Heinlein, in his “If This Goes On—,” presents a civilization in which mob psychology and propaganda have become sciences. They aren’t, yet…Psychology isn’t a science, so long as a trained psychologist does—and must—say “there’s no telling how an individual man will react to a given stimulus.” Properly developed, psychology could determine that.

As an editor, Campbell began to impose psychological and sociological elements onto stories where they didn’t always fit, much as he would gratuitously insert references to uranium-235 during World War II. He irritated Isaac Asimov, for instance, by asking him to add a section to the story “Homo Sol” about “certain distinctions between the emotional reactions of Africans and Asians as compared with those of Americans and Europeans.” Asimov saw this as an early sign of Campbell’s racial views, and perhaps it was, but it pointed just as convincingly to his interest in mass psychology.

And readers took notice at a surprisingly early stage. In the November 1940 issue of Astounding, a fan named Lynn Bridges presciently wrote:

The Astounding Science Fiction of the past year has brought forth a new type of story, best described, perhaps, as “sociological” science fiction. The spaceships…are still present, but more emphasis has been placed on the one item which will have more to do with shaping the future than anything else, that strange race of bipeds known as man…Both Asimov [in “Homo Sol”] and Heinlein [in “If This Goes On—”] treat psychology as an exact science, usable in formulas, certain in results. I feel called upon to protest. Its very nature prevents psychology from achieving the exactness of mathematics…The moment men stop varying and the psychologist can say definitely that all men are alike psychologically, progress stops and the world becomes a very boring Utopia.

Campbell responded: “Psychology could improve a lot, though, without becoming dangerously oppressive!” Just two months later, in a letter in the January 1941 issue, Asimov referred to the prospect of “mathematical psychology”: “If we can understand Einstein and Hitler down to the mathematical whys and wherefores, we might try to boost along a few Einsteins and cut down on a few Hitlers, and progress might really get going.” Campbell replied much as before: “Psychology isn’t an exact science—but it can be.” Implicit in the whole discussion was the question of whether psychology could be tackled using the same hard-headed engineering approach that had worked for the genre before. And as I’ve written elsewhere, the evolution of Campbellian science fiction is largely one of writers who were so good at lecturing us about engineering that we barely even noticed when they moved on to sociology.

But what interests me now is the form it took in Astounding, which looks a lot like the sieve that Yanofsky describes. Campbell may have hoped that psychology would learn how to predict “how an individual man will react to a given stimulus,” but he seems to have sensed that this wouldn’t be credible or interesting in fiction. Instead, he turned to two subsets of psychology that were more suited to the narrative tools at his disposal. One was the treatment of simplified forms of human personality—say, for instance, in a robot. The other was the treatment of large masses of individuals. Crucially, neither was necessarily more possible than predicting the behavior of individuals, but they had the advantage that they could be more plausibly treated in fiction. Campbell’s preferred instrument at the time was Asimov, who was reliable, willing to take instruction, and geographically close enough to talk over ideas in person. As a result, Asimov’s most famous stories can be read as a series of experiments to see how the social sciences could be legitimately explored by the genre. The Three Laws of Robotics, which Campbell was the first to explicitly formulate, are really a simplified model of human behavior: Campbell later wrote that they were essentially “the basic desires of a small child, with the exception that the motivation of desire for love has been properly omitted.” At the other end of the spectrum, psychohistory looks for laws that can be applied on a mass scale, and it’s central not only to the Foundation series but even to “Nightfall,” with its theme of the cyclical rise and fall of civilizations. In science, you could draw a parallel to artificial intelligence and macroeconomics, which represent two extremes at which qualities of symmetry and predicability seem to enter the realm of psychology. In between, there’s a vast terrain of human experience that Campbell was never quite able to tackle, and that impulse ended up being channeled into dianetics. But much as science can be defined as everything that makes it through the sieve of symmetry, Campbell had a sieve of his own, and the result was the science fiction of the golden age.

Written by nevalalee

August 15, 2018 at 9:00 am

The dianetics epidemic

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Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health

Note: To celebrate the World Science Fiction Convention this week in San Jose, I’m republishing a few of my favorite pieces on various aspects of the genre. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on March 2, 2017.

In his bestselling book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell devotes several pages to discussing the breakout success of Rebecca Wells’s novel Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. After its initial release in 1996, it sold reasonably well in hardcover, receiving “a smattering of reviews,” but it became a true phenomenon in paperback, thanks primarily to what Gladwell calls “the critical role that groups play in social epidemics.” He writes:

The first bestseller list on which Ya-Ya Sisterhood appeared was the Northern California Independent Bookseller’s list. Northern California…was where seven hundred and eight hundred people first began showing up at [Wells’s] readings. It was where the Ya-Ya epidemic began. Why? Because…the San Francisco area is home to one of the country’s strongest book club cultures, and from the beginning Ya-Ya was what publishers refer to as a “book club book.” It was the kind of emotionally sophisticated, character-driven, multilayered novel that invites reflection and discussion, and book groups were flocking to it. The groups of women who were coming to Wells’s readings were members of reading groups, and they were buying extra copies not just for family and friends but for other members of the group. And because Ya-Ya was being talked about and read in groups, the book itself became that much stickier. It’s easier to remember and appreciate something, after all, if you discuss it for two hours with your best friends. It becomes a social experience, an object of conversation. Ya-Ya’s roots in book group culture tipped it into a larger word-of-mouth epidemic.

And you could say much the same thing about a very different book that became popular in California nearly five decades earlier. Scientology has exhibited an unexpected degree of staying power among a relatively small number of followers, but Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, the work that that made L. Ron Hubbard famous, was a textbook case of a viral phenomenon. Just three months elapsed between the book’s publication on May 9, 1950 and Hubbard’s climactic rally at the Shrine Auditorium on August 10, and its greatest impact on the wider culture occurred over a period of less than a year, in a dramatic spread and decline that had all the hallmarks of virality. In the definitive Hubbard biography Bare-Faced Messiah, Russell Miller writes:

For the first few days after publication of Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, it appeared as if the publisher’s caution about the book’s prospects had been entirely justified. Early indications were that it had aroused little interest; certainly it was ignored by most reviewers. But suddenly, towards the end of May, the line on the sales graph at the New York offices of Hermitage House took a steep upturn.

By midsummer, it was selling a thousand copies a day, and by late fall, over seven hundred dianetics clubs had been established across the country. As Miller writes: “Dianetics became, virtually overnight, a national ‘craze’ somewhat akin to the canasta marathons and pyramid clubs that had briefly flourished in the hysteria of postwar America.”

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

The result was a quintessential social epidemic, and I’m a little surprised that Gladwell, who is so hungry for case studies, has never mentioned it. The book itself was “sticky,” with its promise of a new science of mental health that could be used by anyone and that got results every time. Like Ya-Ya, it took root in an existing group—in this case, the science fiction community, which was the natural audience for its debut in the pages of Astounding. Just as the ideal book club selection is one that inspires conversations, dianetics was a shared experience: in order to be audited, you needed to involve at least one other person. Auditing, as the therapy was originally presented, seemed so easy that anyone could try it, and many saw it as a kind of parlor game. (In his biography of Robert A. Heinlein, William H. Patterson shrewdly compares it to the “Freuding parties” that became popular in Greenwich Village in the twenties.) Even if you didn’t want to be audited yourself, dianetics became such a topic of discussion among fans that summer that you had to read the book to be a part of it. It also benefited from the presence of what Gladwell calls mavens, connectors, and salesmen. John W. Campbell was the ultimate maven, an information broker who, as one of Gladwell’s sources puts it, “wants to solve other people’s problems, generally by solving his own.” The connectors included prominent members of the fan community, notably A.E. van Vogt, who ended up running the Los Angeles foundation, and Forrest J Ackerman, Hubbard’s agent and “the number one fan.” And the salesman was Hubbard himself, who threw himself into the book’s promotion on the West Coast. As Campbell wrote admiringly to Heinlein: “When Ron wants to, he can put on a personality that would be a confidence man’s delight—persuasive, gentle, intimately friendly.”

In all epidemics, geography plays a pivotal role, and in the case of dianetics, it had profound consequences on individual careers. One of Campbell’s priorities was to sell the therapy to his top writers, much as the Church of Scientology later reached out to movie stars, and the single greatest predictor of how an author would respond was his proximity to the centers of fan culture. Two of the most important converts were van Vogt, who was in Los Angeles, and Theodore Sturgeon, who lived in New York, where he was audited by Campbell himself. Isaac Asimov, by contrast, had moved from Manhattan to Boston just the year before, and Heinlein, crucially, had left Hollywood, where he had been working on the film Destination Moon, in February of 1950. Heinlein was intrigued by dianetics, but because he was in Colorado Springs with his wife Ginny, who refused to have anything to do with it, he was unable to find an auditing partner, which makes me wonder what might have ensued if he had remained in Southern California for another six months. (Such accidents of place and time can have significant aftereffects. Van Vogt had moved from the Ottawa area to Los Angeles in 1944, and his involvement with dianetics took him out of writing for the better part of a decade, at the very moment when science fiction was breaking into the culture as a whole. His absence during this critical period, which made celebrities out of Heinlein and Asimov, feels like a big part of the reason why van Vogt has mostly disappeared from the popular consciousness. And it might never have happened if he had stayed in Canada.) The following year, dianetics as a movement fizzled out, due largely to Hubbard’s own behavior—although he might also have sensed that it wouldn’t last. But it soon mutated into another form. And before long, Hubbard would begin to spread a few divine secrets of his own.

The living wage

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Over the last few years, we’ve observed an unexpected resurgence of interest in the idea of a universal basic income. The underlying notion is straightforward enough, as Nathan Heller summarizes it in a recent article in The New Yorker:

A universal basic income, or U.B.I., is a fixed income that every adult—rich or poor, working or idle—automatically receives from government. Unlike today’s means-tested or earned benefits, payments are usually the same size, and arrive without request…In the U.S., its supporters generally propose a figure somewhere around a thousand dollars a month: enough to live on—somewhere in America, at least—but not nearly enough to live on well.

This concept—which Heller characterizes as “a government check to boost good times or to guard against starvation in bad ones”—has been around for a long time. As one possible explanation for its current revival, Heller suggests that it amounts to “a futurist reply to the darker side of technological efficiency” as robots replace existing jobs, with prominent proponents including Elon Musk and Richard Branson. And while the present political climate in America may seem unfavorable toward such proposals, it may not stay that way forever. As Annie Lowery, the author of the new book Give People Money, recently said to Slate: “Now that Donald Trump was elected…people are really ticked off. In the event that there’s another recession, I think that the space for policymaking will expand even more radically, so maybe it is a time for just big ideas.”

These ideas are certainly big, but they aren’t exactly new, and over the last century, they’ve attracted support from some surprising sources. One early advocate was the young Robert A. Heinlein, who became interested in one such scheme while working on the socialist writer Upton Sinclair’s campaign for the governorship of California in 1934. A decade earlier, a British engineer named C.H. Douglas had outlined a plan called Social Credit, which centered on the notion that the government should provide a universal dividend to increase the purchasing power of individuals. As the Heinlein scholar Robert James writes in his afterword to the novel For Us, the Living:

Heinlein’s version of Social Credit argues that banks constantly used the power of the fractional reserve to profit by manufacturing money out of thin air, by “fiat.” Banks were (and are) required by federal law to keep only a fraction of their total loans on reserve at any time; they could thus manipulate the money supply with impunity…If you took away that power from the banks by ending the fractional reserve system, and instead let the government do the exact same thing for the good of the people, you could permanently resolve the disparities between production and consumption. By simply giving people the amount of money necessary to spring over the gap between available production and the power to consume, you could end the boom and bust business cycle permanently, and free people to pursue their own interests.

And many still argue that a universal basic income could be accomplished, at least in part, by fiat currency. As Lowery writes in her book: “Dollars are not something that the United States government can run out of.”

Heinlein addressed these issues at length in For Us, the Living, his first attempt at a novel, which, as I’ve noted elsewhere, miraculously transports a man from the present into the future mostly so that he can be subjected to interminable lectures on monetary theory. Here’s one mercifully short example, which sounds a lot like the version of basic income that you tend to hear today:

Each citizen receives a check for money, or what amounts to the same thing, a credit to each account each month, from the government. He gets this free. The money so received is enough to provide the necessities of life for an adult, or to provide everything that a child needs for its care and development. Everybody gets these checks—man, woman, and child. Nevertheless, practically everyone works pretty regularly and most people have incomes from three or four times to a dozen or more times the income they receive from the government.

Years later, Heinlein reused much of this material in his far superior novel Beyond This Horizon, which also features a man from our time who objects to the new state of affairs: “But the government simply gives away all this new money. That’s rank charity. It’s demoralizing. A man should work for what he gets. But forgetting that aspect for a moment, you can’t run a government that way. A government is just like a business. It can’t be all outgo and no income.” And after he remains unwilling to concede that a government and a business might serve different ends, another character politely suggests that he go see “a corrective semantician.”

At first, it might seem incongruous to hear these views from Heinlein, who later became a libertarian icon, but it isn’t as odd as it looks. For one thing, the basic concept has defenders from across the political spectrum, including the libertarian Charles Murray, who wants to replace the welfare state by giving ten thousand dollars a year directly to the people. And Heinlein’s fundamental priority—the preservation of individual freedom—remained consistent throughout his career, even if the specifics changed dramatically. The system that he proposed in For Us, the Living was meant to free people to do what they wanted with their lives:

Most professional people work regularly because they like to…Some work full time and some part time. Quite a number of people work for several eras and then quit. Some people don’t work at all—not for money at least. They have simple tastes and are content to live on their heritage, philosophers and mathematicians and poets and such. There aren’t many like that however. Most people work at least part of the time.

Twenty years later, Heinlein’s feelings had evolved in response to the Cold War, as he wrote to his brother Rex in 1960: “The central problem of today is no longer individual exploitation but national survival…and I don’t think we will solve it by increasing the minimum wage.” But such a basic income might also serve as a survival tactic in itself. As Heller writes in The New Yorker, depending on one’s point of view, it can either be “a clean, crisp way of replacing gnarled government bureaucracy…[or] a stay against harsh economic pressures now on the horizon.”

A potent force of disintegration

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As part of the production process these days, most nonfiction books from the major publishing houses get an automatic legal read—a review by a lawyer that is intended to check for anything potentially libelous about any living person. We can’t stop anyone from suing us, but we can make sure that we haven’t gone out of our way to invite it, and while most of the figures in Astounding have long since passed on, there are a handful who are still with us. As a result, I recently spent some time going over the relevant sections with a lawyer on the phone. The person on whom we ended up focusing the most, perhaps not surprisingly, was Harlan Ellison, who had a deserved reputation for being litigious, although he also liked to point out that he usually came out ahead. (After suing America Online for not promptly removing some of his stories that had been uploaded to a newsgroup on Usenet, Ellison explained in an interview that it was really about “slovenliness of thinking on the web” and the “slacker” philosophy that everything in life should be free: “If a professional gets published, well, any thief can steal it, and post it, and the thug feels abused if you whack him for it.” Ellison eventually received a settlement.) Mindful of this, we slowly went over the manuscript, checking each statement against its primary sources. Toward the end, the lawyer asked me if we had reasonable grounds for the sentence that described Ellison as “combative.” I replied: “Yes.”

Ellison died yesterday, and I never met or even corresponded with him, which is perhaps my greatest regret from the writing of Astounding. Two years ago, when I was just getting started, I wrote to him explaining the project and asking if I could interview him, but I never heard back. I don’t know if he ever saw the letter, and a mutual acquaintance told me that he was already too ill to respond to most of his mail. Ellison persists in the book as a kind of wraith in the background, appearing unexpectedly at various points in the narrative while trying to force his way into others. In an interview from the late seventies, he even claimed to have been in the room on the evening that L. Ron Hubbard came up with dianetics:

We were sitting around one night…who else was there? Alfred Bester, and Cyril Kornbluth, and Lester del Rey, and Ron Hubbard, who was making a penny a word, and had been for years…And somebody said, “Why don’t you invent a new religion? They’re always big.” We were clowning! You know, “Become Elmer Gantry! You’ll make a fortune!” He says, “I’m going to do it.” Sat down, stole a little bit from Freud, stole a little bit from Jung, a little bit from Adler…threw it all together, invented a few new words, because he was a science fiction writer, you know, “engrams” and “regression,” all that bullshit.

At the point at which this alleged event would have taken place, Ellison was a teenage kid living in Ohio. As another science fiction writer said to me: “Sometimes Harlan operates out of his own reality, which is always interesting but not necessarily identical to anybody else’s.”

Ellison may have never met Hubbard, but he interacted to one extent or another with the other subjects of my book, who often seemed bewildered by him—and I think it’s fair to say that he was the only science fiction writer of his generation who could plausibly seem like their match. He was very close to Asimov, while his relationship with Heinlein was cordial but distant, and John W. Campbell seems to viewed him mostly as an irritant. On April 15, 1958, Ellison, who was twenty-four, wrote in a letter to Campbell: “From the relatively—doubly—safe position of being eight hundred miles removed from your grasp and logic, and being fairly certain I’ll never sell to you anyhow, I wish to make a comment…lost in the wilderness.” After complaining about a story by Murray Leinster, which he described as a blatant example of “Campbell push-buttoning,” he continued:

Now writing to Campbell is not bad. It has been the policy of Astounding since I was in rompers, and anything that produces the kind of stuff ASF does, must have merit. But I look with sincere alarm at the ridiculous trend in the magazine currently: writing stories with the psi factor used when plotting or solving the problem becomes too wearying. Leinster has done it. Several others have done it also. I note this for your information. You may crucify me at will, Greeley.

Ellison, who was stationed at the time in Fort Knox, Kentucky, signed the letter “with respect and friendliness.” No response from Campbell survives.

Ellison had a point about the direction in which Campbell was taking the magazine, and he never had any reason to revise his opinion. Nearly a decade later, in the groundbreaking anthology Dangerous Visions, he mocked the editor’s circle of subservient writers and spoke of “John W. Campbell, Jr., who used to edit a magazine that ran science fiction, called Astounding, and who now edits a magazine that runs a lot of schematic drawings, called Analog.” He did sell one story to Campbell, “Brillo,” a collaboration with Ben Bova that was supposed to be sent using a pseudonym, but was accidentally submitted under both of their names. But the editor’s feelings about Ellison were never particularly warm. Campbell once wrote to a correspondent: “In my terms, Ellison seems more of the Hitler-Genghis Khan type genius—he’s destructive, rather than constructive. The language lacks an adequate term for this type of entity; he’s not a hero, but an antihero means something more on the order of a hopeless, helpless slob than a potent force of disintegration.” He wrote elsewhere that Ellison needed “a muzzle more than a platform,” and another letter includes the amazing—but not atypical—lines: “I don’t know whether it’s the hyper-defensive attitude of the undersize or what, but [Ellison’s] an insulting little squirt with a nasty tongue. He’s one of the type that earned the appellation ‘kike’; as Einstein, Disraeli, and thousands of others have demonstrated, it ain’t racial—it’s personal.” Ellison never saw these letters, and as I transcribed them for the book, I wondered what he would think. There’s no way of knowing now. But I suspect that he would have liked it.

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