Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Robert A. Heinlein

The unknown future

with 2 comments

During the writing of Astounding, I often found myself wondering how much control an editor can really have. John W. Campbell is routinely described as the most powerful and influential figure in the history of science fiction, and there’s no doubt that the genre would look entirely different if he were somehow lifted out of the picture. Yet while I never met Campbell, I’ve spoken with quite a few other magazine editors, and my sense is that it can be hard to think about reshaping the field when you’re mostly just concerned with getting out the current issue—or even with your very survival. The financial picture for science fiction magazines may have darkened over the last few decades, but it’s always been a challenge, and it can be difficult to focus on the short term while also keeping your larger objectives in mind. Campbell did it about as well as anyone ever did, but he was limited by the resources at his disposal, and he benefited from a few massive strokes of luck. I don’t think he would have had nearly the same impact if Heinlein hadn’t happened to show up within the first year and a half of his editorship, and you could say much the same of the fortuitous appearance of the artist Hubert Rogers. (By November 1940, Campbell could write: “Rogers has a unique record among science fiction artists: every time he does a cover, the author of the story involved writes him fan mail, and asks me for the cover original.”) In the end, it wasn’t the “astronomical” covers that improved the look of the magazine, but the arrival and development of unexpected talent. And much as Heinlein’s arrival on the scene was something that Campbell never could have anticipated, the advent of Rogers did more to heighten the visual element of Astounding than anything that the editor consciously set out to accomplish.

Campbell, typically, continued to think in terms of actively managing his magazines, and the pictorial results were the most dramatic, not in Astounding, but in Unknown, the legendary fantasy title that he launched in 1939. (His other great effort to tailor a magazine to his personal specifications involved the nonfiction Air Trails, which is a subject for another post.) Unlike Astounding, Unknown was a project that Campbell could develop from scratch, and he didn’t have to deal with precedents established by earlier editors. The resulting stories were palpably different from most of the other fantasy fiction of the time. (Algis Budrys, who calls Campbell “the great rationalizer of supposition,” memorably writes that the magazine was “more interested in the thermodynamics and contract law of a deal with the devil than with just what a ‘soul’ might actually be.”) But this also extended to the visual side. Campbell told his friend Robert Swisher that all elements, including page size, were discussed “carefully and without prejudice” with his publisher, and for the first year and a half, Unknown featured some of the most striking art that the genre had ever seen, with beautiful covers by H.W. Scott, Manuel Rey Isip, Modest Stein, Graves Gladney, and Edd Carter. But the editor remained dissatisfied, and on February 29, 1940, he informed Swisher of a startling decision:

We’re gonna pull a trick on Unknown presently. Probably the July issue will have no picture on the cover—just type. We have hopes of chiseling it outta the general pulp group, and having a few new readers mistake it for a different type. It isn’t straight pulp, and as such runs into difficulties because the adult type readers who might like it don’t examine the pulp racks, while the pulp-type reader in general wouldn’t get much out of it.

The italics are mine. Campbell had tried to appeal to “the adult type readers” by running more refined covers on Astounding, and with Unknown, his solution was to essentially eliminate the cover entirely. Writing to readers of the June 1940 issue to explain the change, the editor did his best to spin it as a reflection of the magazine’s special qualities:

Unknown simply is not an ordinary magazine. It does not, generally speaking, appeal to the usual audience of the standard-type magazine. We have decided on this experimental issue, because of this, in an effort to determine what other types of newsstand buyers might be attracted by a somewhat different approach.

In the next paragraph, Campbell ventured a curious argument: “To the nonreader of fantasy, to one who does not understand the attitude and philosophy of Unknown, the covers may appear simply monstrous rather than the semicaricatures they are. They are not, and have not been intended as, illustrations, but as expressive of a general theme.” Frankly, I doubt that many readers saw the covers as anything but straight illustrations, and in the following sentence, the editor made an assertion that seems even less plausible: “To those who know and enjoy Unknown, the cover, like any other wrapper, is comparatively unimportant.”

In a separate note, Campbell asked for feedback on the change, but he also made his own feelings clear: “We’re going to ask your newsdealer to display [Unknown] with magazines of general class—not with the newsprints. And we’re asking you—do you like the more dignified cover? Isn’t it much more fitting for a magazine containing such stories?” A few months later, in the October 1940 issue, a number of responses were published in the letters column. The reaction was mostly favorable—although Campbell may well have selected letters that supported his own views—but reasonable objections were also raised. One reader wrote: “How can you hope to win new readers by a different cover if the inside illustrations are as monstrous, if not more so, than have any previous covers ever been? If you are trying to be more dignified in your illustrations, be consistent throughout the magazine.” On a more practical level, another fan mentioned one possible shortcoming of the new approach: “The July issue was practically invisible among the other publications, and I had to hunt somewhat before I located it.” But it was too late. Unknown may have been the greatest pulp magazine of all time, but along the way, it rejected the entire raison d’être of the pulp magazine cover itself. And while I can’t speak for the readers of the time, I can say that it saddens me personally. Whenever I’m browsing through a box of old pulps, I feel a pang of disappointment when I come across one of the later Unknown covers, and I can only imagine what someone like Cartier might have done with Heinlein’s The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag, or even Hubbard’s Fear. Unknown ran for another three years with its plain cover, which is about the same amount of time that it took for Astounding to reach its visual peak. It might have evolved into something equally wonderful, but we’ll never know—because Campbell decided that he had to kill the cover in order to save it.

Written by nevalalee

October 26, 2018 at 8:58 am

The planetary chauvinists

with 10 comments

In a profile in the latest issue of Wired, the journalist Steven Levy speaks at length with Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, about his dream of sending humans permanently into space. Levy was offered a rare glimpse into the operations of the Amazon founder’s spaceflight company, Blue Origin, but it came with one condition: “I had to promise that, before I interviewed [Bezos] about his long-term plans, I would watch a newly unearthed 1975 PBS program.” He continues:

So one afternoon, I opened my laptop and clicked on the link Bezos had sent me. Suddenly I was thrust back into the predigital world, where viewers had more fingers than channels and remote shopping hadn’t advanced past the Sears catalog. In lo-res monochrome, a host in suit and tie interviews the writer Isaac Asimov and physicist Gerard O’Neill, wearing a cool, wide-lapeled blazer and white turtleneck. To the amusement of the host, O’Neill describes a future where some ninety percent of humans live in space stations in distant orbits of the blue planet. For most of us, Earth would be our homeland but not our home. We’d use it for R&R, visiting it as we would a national park. Then we’d return to the cosmos, where humanity would be thriving like never before. Asimov, agreeing entirely, called resistance to the concept “planetary chauvinism.”

The discussion, which was conducted by Harold Hayes, was evidently lost for years before being dug up in a storage locker by the Space Studies Institute, the organization that O’Neill founded in the late seventies. You can view the entire program here, and it’s well worth watching. At one point, Asimov, whom Hayes describes as “our favorite jack of all sciences,” alludes briefly to my favorite science fiction concept, the gravity gauge: “Well once you land on the moon, you know the moon is a lot easier to get away from than the earth is. The earth has a gravity six times as strong as that of the moon at the surface.” (Asimov must have known all of this without having to think twice, but I’d like to believe that he was also reminded of it by The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.) And in response to the question of whether he had ever written about space colonies in his own fiction, Asimov gives his “legendary” response:

Nobody did, really, because we’ve all been planet chauvinists. We’ve all believed people should live on the surface of a planet, of a world. I’ve had colonies on the moon—so have a hundred other science fiction writers. The closest I came to a manufactured world in free space was to suggest that we go out to the asteroid belt and hollow out the asteroids, and make ships out of them [in the novelette “The Martian Way”]. It never occurred to me to bring the material from the asteroids in towards the earth, where conditions are pleasanter, and build the worlds there.

Of course, it isn’t entirely accurate that science fiction writers had “all” been planet chauvinists—Heinlein had explored similar concepts in such stories as “Waldo” and “Delilah and the Space Rigger,” and I’m sure there are other examples. (Asimov had even discussed the idea ten years earlier in the essay “There’s No Place Like Spome,” which he later described as “an anticipation, in a fumbling sort of way, of Gerard O’Neill’s concept of space settlements.”) And while there’s no doubt that O’Neill’s notion of a permanent settlement in space was genuinely revolutionary, there’s also a sense in which Asimov was the last writer you’d expect to come up with it. Asimov was a notorious acrophobe and claustrophile who hated flying and suffered a panic attack on the roller coaster at Coney Island. When he was younger, he loved enclosed spaces, like the kitchen at the back of his father’s candy store, and he daydreamed about running a newsstand on the subway, where he could put up the shutters and just read magazines. Years later, he refused to go out onto the balcony of his apartment, which overlooked Central Park, because of his fear of heights, and he was always happiest while typing away in his office. And his personal preferences were visible in the stories that he wrote. The theme of an enclosed or underground city appears in such stories as The Caves of Steel, while The Naked Sun is basically a novel about agoraphobia. In his interview with Hayes, Asimov speculates that space colonies will attract people looking for an escape from earth: “Once you do realize that you have a kind of life there which represents a security and a pleasantness that you no longer have on earth, the difficulty will be not in getting people to go but in making them line up in orderly fashion.” But he never would have gone there voluntarily.

Yet this is a revealing point in itself. Unlike Heinlein, who dreamed of buying a commercial ticket to the moon, Asimov never wanted to go into space. He just wanted to write about it, and he was better—or at least more successful—at this than just about anybody else. (In his memoirs, Asimov recalls taping the show with O’Neill on January 7, 1975, adding that he was “a little restless” because he was worried about being late for dinner with Lester and Judy-Lynn del Rey. After he was done, he hailed a cab. On the road, as they were making the usual small talk, the driver revealed that he had once wanted to be a writer. Asimov, who hadn’t mentioned his name, told him consolingly that no one could make a living as writer anyway. The driver responded: “Isaac Asimov does.”) And the comparison with Bezos is an enlightening one. Bezos obviously built his career on books, and he was a voracious reader of science fiction in his youth, as Levy notes: “[Bezos’s] grandfather—a former top Defense Department official—introduced him to the extensive collection of science fiction at the town library. He devoured the books, gravitating especially to Robert Heinlein and other classic writers who explored the cosmos in their tales.” With his unimaginable wealth, Bezos is in a position remarkably close to that of the protagonist in such stories, with the ability to “painlessly siphon off a billion dollars every year to fund his boyhood dream.” But the ideas that he has the money to put into practice were originated by writers and other thinkers whose minds went in unusual directions precisely because they didn’t have the resources, financial or otherwise, to do it personally. Vast wealth can generate a chauvinism of its own, and the really innovative ideas tend to come from unexpected places. This was true of Asimov, as well as O’Neill, whose work was affiliated in fascinating ways with the world of Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog. I’ll have more to say about O’Neill—and Bezos—tomorrow.

The Rover Boys in the Air

with 3 comments

On September 3, 1981, a man who had recently turned seventy reminisced in a letter to a librarian about his favorite childhood books, which he had read in his youth in Dixon, Illinois:

I, of course, read all the books that a boy that age would like—The Rover Boys; Frank Merriwell at Yale; Horatio Alger. I discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs and read all the Tarzan books. I am amazed at how few people I meet today know that Burroughs also provided an introduction to science fiction with John Carter of Mars and the other books that he wrote about John Carter and his frequent trips to the strange kingdoms to be found on the planet Mars.

At almost exactly the same time, a boy in Kansas City was working his way through a similar shelf of titles, as described by one of his biographers: “Like all his friends, he read the Rover Boys series and all the Horatio Alger books…[and] Edgar Rice Burroughs’s wonderful and exotic Mars books.” And a slightly younger member of the same generation would read many of the same novels while growing up in Brooklyn, as he recalled in his memoirs: “Most important of all, at least to me, were The Rover Boys. There were three of them—Dick, Tom, and Sam—with Tom, the middle one, always described as ‘fun-loving.’”

The first youngster in question was Ronald Reagan; the second was Robert A. Heinlein; and the third was Isaac Asimov. There’s no question that all three men grew up reading many of the same adventure stories as their contemporaries, and Reagan’s apparent fondness for science fiction has inspired a fair amount of speculation. In a recent article on Slate, Kevin Bankston retells the famous story of how WarGames inspired the president to ask his advisors about the likelihood of such an incident occurring for real, concluding that it was “just one example of how science fiction influenced his administration and his life.” The Day the Earth Stood Still, which was adapted from a story by Harry Bates that originally appeared in Astounding, allegedly influenced Regan’s interest in the potential effect of extraterrestrial contact on global politics, which he once brought up with Gorbachev. And in the novelistic biography Dutch, Edmund Morris—or his narrative surrogate—ruminates at length on the possible origins of the Strategic Defense Initiative:

Long before that, indeed, [Reagan] could remember the warring empyrean of his favorite boyhood novel, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Princess of Mars. I keep a copy on my desk: just to flick through it is to encounter five-foot-thick polished glass domes over cities, heaven-filling salvos, impregnable walls of carborundum, forts, and “manufactories” that only one man with a key can enter. The book’s last chapter is particularly imaginative, dominated by the magnificent symbol of a civilization dying for lack of air.

For obvious marketing reasons, I’d love to be able to draw a direct line between science fiction and the Reagan administration. Yet it’s also tempting to read a greater significance into these sorts of connections than they actually deserve. The story of science fiction’s role in the Strategic Defense Initiative has been told countless times, but usually by the writers themselves, and it isn’t clear what impact it truly had. (The definitive book on the subject, Way Out There in the Blue by Frances FitzGerald, doesn’t mention any authors at all by name, and it refers only once, in passing, to a group of advisors that included “a science fiction writer.” And I suspect that the most accurate description of their involvement appears in a speech delivered by Greg Bear: “Science fiction writers helped the rocket scientists elucidate their vision and clarified it.”) Reagan’s interest in science fiction seems less like a fundamental part of his personality than like a single aspect of a vision that was shaped profoundly by the popular culture of his young adulthood. The fact that Reagan, Heinlein, and Asimov devoured many of the same books only tells me that this was what a lot of kids were reading in the twenties and thirties—although perhaps only the exceptionally imaginative would try to live their lives as an extension of those stories. If these influences were genuinely meaningful, we should also be talking about the Rover Boys, a series “for young Americans” about three brothers at boarding school that has now been almost entirely forgotten. And if we’re more inclined to emphasize the science fiction side for Reagan, it’s because this is the only genre that dares to make such grandiose claims for itself.

In fact, the real story here isn’t about science fiction, but about Reagan’s gift for appropriating the language of mainstream culture in general. He was equally happy to quote Dirty Harry or Back to the Future, and he may not even have bothered to distinguish between his sources. In Way Out There in the Blue, FitzGerald brilliantly unpacks a set of unscripted remarks that Reagan made to reporters on March 24, 1983, in which he spoke of the need of rendering nuclear weapons “obsolete”:

There is a part of a line from the movie Torn Curtain about making missiles “obsolete.” What many inferred from the phrase was that Reagan believed what he had once seen in a science fiction movie. But to look at the explanation as a whole is to see that he was following a train of thought—or simply a trail of applause lines—from one reassuring speech to another and then appropriating a dramatic phrase, whose origin he may or may not have remembered, for his peroration.

Take out the world “reassuring,” and we have a frightening approximation of our current president, whose inner life is shaped in real time by what he sees on television. But we might feel differently if those roving imaginations had been channeled by chance along different lines—like a serious engagement with climate change. It might just as well have gone that way, but it didn’t, and we’re still dealing with the consequences. As Greg Bear asks: “Do you want your presidents to be smart? Do you want them to be dreamers? Or do you want them to be lucky?”

The happy golden years

with 4 comments

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

leave a comment »

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.

Written by nevalalee

August 23, 2018 at 8:43 am

Bester of both worlds

leave a comment »

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.

Written by nevalalee

August 17, 2018 at 9:00 am

The science fiction sieve

leave a comment »

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

%d bloggers like this: