Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Robert A. Heinlein

The Heirs of Sputnik

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Earlier this morning, it was announced that the Nobel Peace Prize had been awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, in recognition of “its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its groundbreaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons.” The award also happens to coincide with the sixtieth anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, which occurred earlier this week. I haven’t seen any attempt yet to draw a connection between these two events, but there was a time in which they would have been seen as inextricably entwined. These days, we tend to think of Sputnik, in the words of The Onion, as a “bleeping two-foot tin ball,” but it was regarded by its contemporaries, and not without reason, as a sinister development. On October 9, 1957, Robert A. Heinlein wrote to his friend Buddy Scoles:

I am very shook up…On the basis of payload and performance…it appeared that [the Russians] had solved the problem of precision positioning and that it must be assumed that we were sitting ducks…Everybody from the president on down was caught flat-footed by a degree of Russian engineering achievement we had not suspected they were capable of.

Heinlein had been called earlier that day by a local paper looking for a comment. He didn’t pull any punches: “I told the press that if the Russians could put that payload in that orbit then it seemed extremely likely that they could hit us anywhere they wanted to with warheads—and any time, depending on whether they had the hardware on the shelf or had to stop to build it.”

Almost exactly six months later, on April 5, 1958, Heinlein was shaken awake by his wife Ginny, who showed him a newspaper advertisement calling for a unilateral halt to nuclear testing. (It was placed by the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, which was founded by the editors Lenore Marshall and Norman Cousins and counted Martin Luther King, Jr. among its supporters.) Heinlein, who didn’t trust the Soviet Union to participate in any treaty in good faith, wrote his own ad in response, titling it “Who Are the Heirs of Patrick Henry?” He strongly hinted that the ban’s proponents, including Eleanor Roosevelt and the psychiatrist Erich Fromm, were serving as instruments, knowingly or otherwise, of communist propaganda:

The Communists are again using our own people to try to shame or scare us into throwing our weapons away…Those who have signed this manifesto have made their choice; consciously or unconsciously they prefer enslavement to death. Such is their right and we do not argue with them—we speak to you who are still free in your souls.

Ginny warned him: “You do realize, if we run this ad, we’re going to lose half our friends in town?” Heinlein went ahead and sent copies to everyone he knew, but the response was lukewarm. John W. Campbell was skeptical of the effort, expressing his reasoning in characteristic terms: “Your newspaper ads aren’t going to do much good, Bob, because the Common Man is in control…and he’s quite incapable of understanding the complexities of the systems he’s controlling.” One of the few positive responses came from Edward Teller, who wrote of their gesture of support: “Yours is the first one. Yours is the only one.”

Isaac Asimov, who later called Teller “my idea of a scientific villain,” was in favor of the ban. A few years earlier, in 1955, he had written an article titled “The Radioactivity of the Human Body” for the Journal of Chemical Education, which described—for the first time in print—the risks of exposure to the radioactive isotope carbon-14. In his memoir In Joy Still Felt, he recalled its surprising afterlife:

Nearly four years later, Linus Pauling published a paper in the November 14, 1958 Science that discussed the dangers of carbon-14 in a careful and systematic way. I’m sure Pauling’s article played its part in the eventual agreement on the part of the three chief nuclear powers to suspend atmospheric testing, for Pauling was one of the most prominent and influential critics of such tests, and he used the production of carbon-14 in such tests as one of its chief long-term dangers.

Asimov didn’t want to get into a dispute with Pauling over priority, but he sent him a reprint of the original article with a note attached. Pauling thanked him and replied: “I now remember that I had read the paper when it appeared…but I had forgotten about it, except that without doubt the principal argument remained in my mind.” Asimov concluded in his autobiography: “I don’t want to arrogate to myself too much importance, of course, but I think it is fair to say that I may indeed have influenced Professor Pauling, and that through him I therefore played a very small part in bringing about the nuclear test ban—and I’m delighted.” And as far as I can tell, he never discussed the issue with Heinlein.

The Patrick Henry campaign managed to put only five hundred signatures on President Eisenhower’s desk, at a cost of two dollars for every name, and its most lasting legacy was to harden Heinlein’s feelings toward what he perceived as leftist resistance to national security. (Of the hundreds of writers and editors to whom he sent letters, most never responded, and only a few, including Jack Williamson, expressed their support. And the most obvious result was the novel Starship Troopers, which Heinlein seems to have written in part as a deliberate provocation to his critics.) In retrospect, it’s easy to say that Heinlein was on the wrong side of history, but it was far from obvious at the time. At the start of the campaign, Heinlein wrote to Blassingame:

I don’t really expect World War III. I think we are going to go under through capitulations, the way Czechoslovakia did. I think we will suspend nuclear weapons testing, in response to “World Opinion,” after this present series this summer—and I don’t think we will ever set off another nuclear explosion. Then, after some years of apparent peace and good will, when we have effectively disarmed, something will happen…which will really annoy us. When we object, we will be handed an ultimatum—and it will turn out that we no longer have the potential to win. And we will surrender.

Sixty years later, we’re in much the same position, down to the sarcastic quotes around “World Opinion,” even if the names of some of the players have changed. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons was honored for its part in supporting a treaty to ban such weapons that was adopted earlier this year by the United Nations. Not surprisingly, the United States and the world’s other nuclear powers all boycotted the negotiations, with ambassador Nikki Haley saying: “We have to be realistic. Is there anyone who thinks that North Korea would ban nuclear weapons?” Sputnik, let’s not forget, means “traveling companion.” And even after six decades, that bleeping tin ball—and the rockets that launched it—accompanies us wherever we go.

The playboy and the playwright

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In 1948, the playwright and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson spent four months teaching a legendary writing course at the University of Illinois. His lectures were published as The Human Nature of Playwriting, a book that until recently was remarkably difficult to find—I ended up photographing every page of it in the reading room of the Newberry Library. (A digital edition is now available for eight dollars on Kindle, which is a real bargain.) It’s as much about living a meaningful life as it is about becoming a good writer, and my favorite passage is Raphaelson’s praise of those who live by their wits:

I intend to gamble to my dying day on my capacity to provide bread and butter, a roof and an overcoat. That kind of gambling, where you pit yourself against the primary hazards of life, is something I believe in. Not merely for writers, but for everyone. I think security tends to make us timid. You do well at something, you know you can continue doing well at it, and you hesitate about trying anything else. Then you begin to put all your energies into protecting and reinforcing what you have. You become conservative and face all the dangers of conservatism in an age when revolutions, seen and unseen, are occurring every day.

One of the students in his class was the young Hugh Hefner, who was twenty-two years old. And the more I think about Hefner’s implausible career, which ended yesterday, the more I suspect that he listened intently to Raphaelson, even if his inner life was shaped less by the stage than by the movies. In Thy Neighbor’s Wife, Gay Talese writes of Hefner’s teenage days working as an usher at the Rockne Theater in Chicago: “As he stood watching in the darkened theater, he often wished that the lights would never turn on, that the story on the screen would continue indefinitely.”

And Hefner’s improbable existence starts to make more sense if see him as at the star of a movie that he was furiously writing in real time. These impulses were central to his personality, as Talese notes:

Not content with merely presenting fantasy, [Hefner] wished to experience it, connect with it, to synthesize his strong visual sense with his physical drives, and to manufacture a mood, a love scene, that he could both feel and observe…He was, and had always been, visually aware of whatever he did as he did it. He was a voyeur of himself. He acted at times in order to watch. Once he allowed himself to be picked up by a homosexual in a bar, more to see than to enjoy sex with a man. During Hefner’s first extramarital affair, he made a film of himself making love to his girlfriend, a 16mm home movie that he keeps with cartons of other personal documents and mementos, photo albums, and notebooks that depict and describe his entire personal life.

Talese observes elsewhere that as Playboy grew in popularity, Hefner dressed the set with the obsessiveness of an experienced stage manager:

The reclusive Hefner was now beginning to reveal himself in his own pages…by inserting evidence of his existence in the backgrounds of nude photographs that were shot exclusively for Playboy. In a picture of a young woman taking a shower, Hefner’s shaving brush and comb appeared on the bathroom sink. His tie was hung near the mirror. Although Hefner was now presenting only the illusion of himself as the lover of the women in the pictures, he foresaw the day when, with the increasing power of his magazine, he would truly possess these women sexually and emotionally; he would be realizing his readers’ dreams, as well as his own, by touching, wooing, and finally penetrating the desirable Playmate of the Month.

“[Hefner] saw himself as a fantasy matchmaker between his male readers and the females who adorned his pages,” Talese writes, and the logical conclusion was to assume this role in reality, as a kind of Prospero composing encounters for real men and women. In The Human Nature of Playwriting, Raphaelson advises:

If you start writing and suddenly it isn’t going where you want it to go, what you expected to happen can’t happen, and you are within five pages of your second-act curtain and you’re stuck, there is a procedure which I have found invaluable. I make a list of my principal characters and check to see if each character has had a major scene with every other character, and by “major” I mean a scene in which they are in conflict and explore each other…I would say a good play, all other things being equal, should have thorough exploration of each other by all the major characters.

Hefner clearly conceived of the Playboy Mansion as a stage where such “thorough exploration” could take place, and its habitués included everyone from Gene Siskel to Shel Silverstein. The Playboy offices also attracted a curious number of science fiction writers, including Ray Russell and my hero, Robert Anton Wilson, who answered the letters in the Playboy Forum as an associate editor for five years. (Wilson writes in Cosmic Trigger: “You all want to know, of course, does Hef really fuck all the Playmates, and is he really homosexual…We have no real inside information—but our impression is that Hef has made love to a lot of the Playmates, though by no means all of them, and that he is not homosexual.”) On September 2, 1962, after participating in a symposium on the future, Robert A. Heinlein attended a party at the mansion, of which he recalled:

This fabulous house illustrated a couple of times in Playboy—and it really is fabulous, with a freeform swimming pool in the basement, a bar under that with a view window into the pool, and all sorts of weird and wonderful fancies…I saw my chum Shel Silverstein…I got into a long, drunken, solemn discussion with Hefner in the bar and stayed until 7:30am—much too late or early, both from health and from standpoint of proper behavior of a guest. I like Hefner very much—my kind of son of a bitch. No swank at all and enjoying his remarkable success.

But it can be dangerous when a man creates a dream, walks into it, and invites the rest of us to follow. Hefner sometimes reminds me of John Updike—another aspiring cartoonist who took the exploration of extramartial sex as his artistic territory—but he’s also uncomfortably reminiscent of another famous figure. Talese writes: “Although there were numerous men who were far wealthier than Hefner, the public was either unaware or unenvious of them since they rarely appeared on television and never called attention to the fact that they were enjoying themselves.” It’s hard to read these words now without thinking at once of Donald Trump, whose victory over Ted Cruz in the primaries Hefner hailed as “a sexual revolution in the Republican Party.” Like Trump, Hefner became a caricature of himself over time, perhaps failing to heed Raphaelson’s warning: “When you make money and are known as being a competent and well-heeled fellow, it’s natural to accept yourself at that value and to be horrified at the thought that you should ever again be broke—that is, that anyone should know of it.” And Talese’s description of Hefner in the sixties carries a new resonance today:

Hugh Hefner saw himself as the embodiment of the masculine dream, the creator of a corporate utopia, the focal point of a big-budget home movie that continuously enlarged upon its narcissistic theme month after month in his mind—a film of unfolding romance and drama in which he was simultaneously the producer, the director, the writer, the casting agent, the set designer, and the matinee idol and lover of each desirable new starlet who appeared on cue to enhance, but never upstage, his preferred position on the edge of satiation.

This sounds a lot like our current president. Trump had a long association with Playboy, and while we may never know how much of his personality was shaped in some way by Hefner, I suspect that it was just as profound as it was for countless other American males of his generation. It might seem a stretch to draw the line from Raphaelson to Hefner to Trump—but we’re all part of the play now. And the curtain hasn’t fallen yet.

Time for the stars

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Last year, the screenwriter Terry Rossio, whose blog is the best online resource I’ve ever seen for advice on survival in Hollywood, posted a long post titled “Time Risk.” How long was it? If published, it could be sold as a short book of a hundred pages or so, and it would probably be acclaimed as one of the two or three most useful works ever written on the business of screenwriting. Rossio has spent more time than any successful writer since William Goldman on sharing his experiences in the industry, and this post is his masterpiece. (It received a flurry of attention earlier this year because of one unflattering anecdote about Johnny Depp, which is a classic instance of missing the forest for the trees.) I don’t know why Rossio invested so much effort into this essay, but I suspect that it was because he realized that he had stumbled across a single powerful idea that explained so much that was otherwise inexplicable, even cruel, about the life of a writer in the movies. It’s the fact that any investment of time presents a risk, which means that there’s an enormous incentive to transfer it to others—and the writer, for better or worse, is where the process ends. As Rossio puts it in an exchange with a producer whom he calls Jake:

At the point of sitting down to write, there was no way for my writer to know whether this particular story was going to work. She set forth on faith alone. So did thousands, tens of thousands of other writers around town, none of them knowing whether their stories would pan out, or even whether they could finish, or whether they could beat out the competition and have their work land on your desk…You [the producer] not only gain the value of the time my writer put at risk, but also the risk of every other writer who sat down to face the blank page around the same time, most of whom came up short. It’s like having everyone play the lotto, then you call the one person with the winning ticket. At the start it’s a giant risk pool, and all that collective risk is represented by this one winning screenplay.

This is a remarkable insight, and it applies to more than just screenwriting. Rossio doesn’t come out and say it, but he strongly implies there’s a fundamental cognitive divide between people who can work on more than one thing at a time and those who mostly can’t. It’s the difference between writers and agents, writers and book editors, writers and producers. The relationship doesn’t need to be adversarial, but it unquestionably creates different incentives, and it can result in situations in which the two players in the room aren’t even speaking the same language. It also lead to apparently paradoxical consequences, as when Rossio describes what he calls “Death by Sale”:

The day you sell your screenplay, you gain a small real chance it will be produced, at the same time almost guaranteeing that it will never be produced. Put another way, the same screenplay, unsold, has a much better chance of reaching the silver screen than it does when purchased by a studio…Selling a screenplay represents the exchange of all future positive outcomes of a project for a single, often unlikely, current scenario. You throw in with a particular set of players, at a particular time and place, with a particular set of restrictions and parameters.

This might sound crazy, but like everything else in Rossio’s post, it’s a logical extension of the principle in the title. If you’re a rational producer, you deal with time risk in the same way that a fund manager deals with investment risk—by diversifying your portfolio. A producer can have twenty or thirty projects in the hopper at any one time, in hopes that one winner will make up for all the losers. Writers don’t have this luxury, but they engage in a kind of simulation of it during the submission process. An unsold script has a virtual portfolio of potential buyers, one of whom might one day pay off. As soon as someone buys it, all those other possibilities disappear, and if it fails, the project might be tainted forever.

So how in the world do you deal with this? Rossio’s advice is simple, but it’s also the exact opposite of the reality that most writers face: “Spend as much time as you can making films, rather than trying to get films made.” Every strategy that he proposes comes down to knowing where to commit your time and how much of it to devote to a given situation. Take what he says about buyers and sellers:

First, understand when you’re in a room with fellow sellers, and temper your excitement accordingly. Second, commit less time risk to fellow sellers—and infinite time risk to an actual buyer. Third, understand the real value of investing time with fellow sellers. The value is not just an eventual project sale. The real value is building your team.

Rossio also advises writers to take cues from the industry players, notably producers, who have learned how to maximize the relationship between risk and return. (In financial terms, they’ve figured out an investment strategy with a good Sharpe ratio.) He quotes the producer Ram Bergman: “I told Rian [Johnson], I simply will not let you sell anything you write…The more we put it together, script, cast, producer, the more effectively we can dictate how it gets made.” If you can be a director or a novelist—or set up an animation studio in your garage, as Rossio repeatedly recommends—that’s even better. But even powerful people need to take what comes. Rossio devotes a considerable amount of space to the travails of his screenplay Déjà Vu, which set and still holds the record for the highest price ever paid for a spec script, only to run into rewrite problems and a reluctant director. When Rossio complained and suggested that they pull out, the producer Jerry Bruckheimer replied: “I have a director, a script, a star, and the studio giving me a green light. It’s not my job to not make movies.” And he was right.

I could keep quoting forever from this essay, which is loaded with throwaway insights that deserve a full post of their own. (Here’s one of my favorites: “Writers and producers often do the majority of their work with the cameras snug in their form-fitting foam cases. Actors get paid when cameras roll. And it’s only when cameras are rolling that power accumulates, and brands are established.” And another: “It’s amusing to listen to film critics assign responsibility for the content of a film exclusively to the screenwriter, the one person on the team with no final authority to insist on any particular story choice.”) But I’ll close with a story about a project in which I take an obvious interest—the adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, on which Rossio worked while the rights to the novel were still held by DreamWorks. Here’s what happened:

The screenplay was completed about a month prior to the rights renewal date, and to be honest, we nailed it. The source material is of course fantastic, one of the top ten science fiction novels of all time, and the draft we turned in would have made an amazing film. The renewal date came and went, with no word from the studio, but a few days later we got a phone call. “We’re going to let the rights expire,” said the executive. “Did you not like the script?” we asked. “I’ll be honest with you,” said the executive, “We’ve been really busy. I’m sure the screenplay is fantastic, you guys always do good work. But we just didn’t have time to read it.”

Rossio concludes: “While this sounds insane from a business perspective—why option the book rights at all, on such a high profile project, or hire screenwriters to do an adaptation—it makes perfect sense from a time risk perspective. If you’re an executive, and you know the project doesn’t fit your production schedule, why expend the time risk to even read the screenplay?” He’s perfectly right, of course. But the real takeaway here is one that he leaves unspoken. In this situation, you don’t want to be Terry Rossio, or the producer, or even the executive on the other end of the phone. You want to be Heinlein.

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September 19, 2017 at 8:51 am

The passion of the pulps

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A few weeks ago, I happened to read an essay by a distinguished but elderly science fiction writer who did his best to explain the absence of women in the pulp stories of the late thirties and early forties. See if you can spot the flaw in his reasoning:

Prior to public recognition in the United States that babies are not brought by the stork, there was simply no sex in the science fiction magazines. This was not a matter of taste, it was a matter of custom that had the force of law. In most places, non-recognition of the existence of sex was treated as though it was the law, and for all I know, maybe it was indeed local law. In any case, words or actions that could bring a blush to the leathery cheek of the local censor were clearly out.

But if there’s no sex, what do you do with female characters? They can’t have passions and feelings. They can’t participate on equal terms with male characters because that would introduce too many complications where some sort of sex might creep in. The best thing to do was to keep them around in the background, allowing them to scream in terror, to be caught and rescued, and, at the end, to smile prettily at the hero. (It can be done safely then because The End is the universal rescue.)

The man who wrote this, I’m sorry to say, was Isaac Asimov. It appeared in his essay “Women and Science Fiction,” which was published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1983 and later reprinted in the posthumous collection Gold. And it might be the least convincing explanation that the man whom Carl Sagan called “the greatest explainer of the age” ever gave about anything.

Before I dig into the argument itself, I should probably review Asimov’s earlier statements about women in science fiction, which go back half a century. In the late thirties, before he became a published writer, he was a regular contributor to the letters column in Astounding, and as I’ve noted here before, he would have had reason to later regret some of his comments, as when he wrote: “When we want science fiction, we don’t want swooning dames…Come on, men, make yourself heard in favor of less love mixed with our science.” And he wasn’t kidding. In “Women and Science Fiction,” Asimov acknowledged:

No doubt there were a number of tough young men and girl-chasing young men who read science fiction [in those days], but by and large, I suspect it was the stereotypical “skinny intellectual” who wrote letters to the magazines and denounced any intrusion of femininity. I know. I wrote such letters myself. And in the days when I was reading and rating every science fiction story written, I routinely deducted many points for any intrusion of romance, however sanitized it might be.

To be fair, Asimov later outgrew these feelings, and while women rarely figured in his fiction, there were a few notable exceptions. Later in the same essay, he derided the science fiction magazines for showing “no guts whatsoever” in dealing with the absence of women in its pages, in large part because of its heavily masculine audience, and in his memoir In Joy Still Felt, he simply wrote: “I am a feminist.” (His actual track record on the subject has been discussed elsewhere by other writers, notably Cat Rambo.)

So what do we do with the statement that I quoted above, which was made with a straight face toward the end of Asimov’s career? It’s factually correct on exactly one level, which is that the pulps had to be mindful of obscenity laws, and any explicit sexual content would place the entire magazine at risk. John W. Campbell—and his assistant editor Kay Tarrant, whom he used as a scapegoat for writers who complained about being censored—had a reputation for prudery, but in the period in question, he didn’t have much of a choice. This is all true enough. But to argue that women couldn’t be depicted “on equal terms” with men because sex would inevitably enter the equation, as if the writer had no control over his characters, is so flimsy a justification that it reflects poorly on a writer who needed so badly to think of himself as rational. In its implication that sexual entanglements would naturally follow from the “passions and feelings” of women who work alongside men, it uncomfortably recalls similar arguments about women in the military and the sciences. It isn’t just wrong, but dumb, and it feels for all the world like a living fossil of an opinion that was somehow planted in Asimov’s brain in the thirties and then casually transmitted, fifty years later, to the readers of his magazine. And we don’t need to look far to find counterexamples. In the May 1940 issue of Super Science Stories, for instance, a story appeared titled “Let There Be Light,” credited to Lyle Monroe. It was basically a Campbellian gadget yarn, and its basic plot—about two inventors who develop a free source of electricity and are targeted by the power companies—recalled a story that Campbell himself had written seven years earlier called “The Battery of Hate.” But one of the inventors was a woman. (The story also ends with her male colleague literally dragging her to the courthouse to get married, but I suppose you can’t have everything.)

And even Asimov noticed. On May 4, 1940, he wrote a letter to his friend Frederik Pohl, the editor of Super Science Stories, that began: “I’m going to have to take up a new role today. At least it looks as if I’m under the painful necessity of defending the love interest in a story which is being attacked by other readers on that account.” He continued:

As official anti-love-interest-spouter of science fiction, I should have been the first to howl, but, strangely enough, I liked “Let There Be Light” a lot…There’s no denying that Lyle Monroe gave the story a liberal dash of femininity and I certainly can’t deny that several spots of the story called for raised eyebrows…However, Monroe was not obscene, or anything faintly approaching it. He was witty, I think, and humorous and the—shall we say—daring style of the humor is not too out of place in this good year 1940. Let’s not be prudes, ladies and gentlemen and—don’t look now—Queen Victoria died in 1902.

Asimov concluded: “The name may be a pseudonym for someone—I don’t know—but one thing! It is not a pseudonym for Isaac Asimov, in case someone wants to be funny.” The notion that anyone could think that Asimov could have written it was funny in itself, but in any case, it was a pen name—for Robert A. Heinlein. He had submitted the story to Campbell, who rejected it with a letter that hinted at the real reason why female characters so rarely appeared. There were “passions and feelings” involved, all right, but they didn’t belong to the women. The italics are mine:

Your work is good. Even this is good, despite the fact that it’s bouncing. Main reason: the femme is too good. The science fiction readers have shown a consistent distaste for…feminine scenery in science fiction stories. She’s much more nicely handled than the average woman in science fiction, but I’m still afraid of her.

The First Foundation, Part 1

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On April 16, 1941, a highly regarded science fiction author wrote a letter to the editor John W. Campbell. “Besides some shorter material, I should like to do another serial for Astounding,” the writer said, and he described what he had in mind in considerable detail:

I’m interested in theories of the growth and decay of cultures…It would be interesting, I think, to show the logical culmination of that process in an interstellar civilization. Super-perfect transportation enables the human race to concentrate in a single megalopolis—“The Ultimate City,” or “N.” It is a tremendous artificial structure, larger than a planet. Its rulers enjoy sophistication and splendor…The story would deal with a group of characters during the fall of N. Reflections of Salammbô, the fall of Rome, the Reformation, the French and American Revolutions. The battle of a few individuals to find independence, to found a new world…I don’t know as much as I would like of the philosophy of culture-cycles. Perhaps I’ll dip a little further into Spengler—if the available libraries turn out to have Decline of the West.

You might reasonably think that this writer was Isaac Asimov, whose story “Foundation” appeared in the magazine the following May—but it wasn’t. It was Jack Williamson, whose letter crossed Campbell’s desk months before Asimov made his own pitch. Williamson’s interest in “the growth and decay of cultures” led to a pair of stories, “Backlash” and “Breakdown,” that anticipated the Foundation series, but which have been almost totally forgotten. And question of why we’re still talking about Asimov’s version, while Williamson’s efforts quickly fell into relative obscurity, amounts to one of the most intriguing problems from the whole history of the golden age.

We can begin by observing that the concept of psychohistory—or a psychological science that can accurately predict future events on a mass scale—was one that Campbell had been developing for a long time. The year before, he had published an article by L. Sprague de Camp titled “The Science of Whithering,” which ran in two parts starting in the July 1940 issue of Astounding. De Camp provided an overview of such philosophers of history as Hegel, Marx, Spengler, and Toynbee, and he also outlined the ideal attributes of such a science:

If there were such a science, what would it be like? It would have a body of observable facts, and would overlap with history, anthropology, sociology, economics, vital statistics, and perhaps one or two other sciences. Students of the science should be able to observe uniformities among these facts, deduce laws from these uniformities, and from the laws make predictions that are later borne out by observation.

De Camp concluded: “Let us encourage the fascinating study of whithering, in the hope that it will grow up from its present embryonic state into a big, healthy science.” A few months earlier, Heinlein had proposed a science of propaganda in his landmark novella “If This Goes On—,” which, combined with Asimov’s “Homo Sol,” prompted a fan named Lynn Bridges to presciently identify a trend toward “sociological science fiction.” Campbell and his authors were also taking an interest in “mathematical psychology,” which applied such methods on an individual scale. Asimov described the use of elaborate equations to predict behavior in the short story “The Imaginary,” which Campbell rejected, and he wrote in a letter to the magazine: “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.” And Campbell responded: “Psychology isn’t an exact science—but it can be.”

Fusing these two concepts together into a single story was the next logical step, and while Williamson wasn’t the earliest writer to allude to such ideas, he may have been the first to explicitly pitch a serial around it. He said in an interview years later:

I had read Spengler’s Decline of the West and several volumes of Toynbee’s study of history. Toynbee appealed to me because of his “challenge and response” notion, derived from the stimulus response theory of psychology, which enabled him to make his cultures or civilizations into entities that had regular, predictable lifetimes. This was plausible to him and to a lot of people studying history at the time. It created the possibility that one might be able to get a kind of handle on the future—an idea I could see could be applied as a means of forecasting a future history. So I based “Breakdown” on Spengler and Toynbee, and I wrote a drama of the decline and fall of a future civilization. It seemed obvious that since people seem so endlessly fascinated with the eclipse of Greece and the fall of Rome, the notion of our own civilization falling into ruin would naturally have a similarly strong emotional appeal.

Before “Breakdown,” Williamson wrote and sold “Backlash,” a routine time travel story that reveals traces of the same train of thought. As one character says: “Years ago, when we saw the totalitarian storm sweeping the world, we planned the Pantechnicon to protect one seed of civilization…It’s hidden here. A scientific Shangri-La, to be a lamp of culture through the dark age ahead.” This sounds a lot like Asimov’s Foundation. In his autobiography Wonder’s Child, Williamson dismisses the story as “undistinguished,” and its familiar notion of changing the present by targeting a “node” in the past—which Williamson himself had explored in “The Legion of Time”—is far less interesting than the idea of forecasting the future. But it was still on newsstands on August 1, 1941, when Asimov came to Campbell with his proposal for a story about the decline and fall of a Galactic Empire, and it’s hard not to believe that it was on both men’s minds.

Williamson’s novelette “Breakdown,” which appeared at the end of the year in the January 1942 issue, is even more noteworthy. As the earth is consumed by the flames of revolution, a character named Melkart, a more sinister Hari Seldon, grimly tells the ruler of all mankind: “You have made the solar system into a laboratory for the test of my politicotechnic theories.” And when asked if he understands what is taking place, Melkart responds:

I’ve known for thirty years…Old Giovanni Vico had a glimmer of it, with his “law of cycles,” back in the seventeen hundreds. Spengler and Toynbee glimpsed it. Sprague, later, saw farther. But it remained to me to reduce the laws of the rise and fall of human cultures to the exact science that I call destiny.

Melkart, notably, is unable to change the course of history—he can only predict it. “Breakdown” ends with the ruler escaping the planet to found “a tiny seed of civilization” among the stars, of which Williamson writes in Wonder’s Child:

The story sprang from my fascination that Arnold Toynbee’s notion that civilizations are super-organisms with lifespans of centuries. As I adapted the idea, the life of every culture is its own historic purpose…In my story, that vitalizing purpose had been the human conquest of the solar system; with the conquest complete, its destiny fulfilled, the space empire breaks down. I felt a sense of truth in that, and enjoyed the sense of tragic drama. Encouraged by the way it went, I planned a sequel.

But the sequel was never published, at least not in Astounding, and in the meantime, Asimov’s “Foundation” had appeared. Tomorrow, I’ll delve further into the issue of why one man’s vision was eclipsed by the other, and the surprising light that this sheds on the tangled origins of psychohistory.

Bester of both worlds

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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 11, 2017 at 9:33 am

Children of the Lens

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During World War II, as the use of radar became widespread in battle, the U.S. Navy introduced the Combat Information Center, a shipboard tactical room with maps, consoles, and screens of the kind that we’ve all seen in television and the movies. At the time, though, it was like something out of science fiction, and in fact, back in 1939, E.E. “Doc” Smith had described a very similar display in the serial Gray Lensman:

Red lights are fleets already in motion…Greens are fleets still at their bases. Ambers are the planets the greens took off from…The white star is us, the Directrix. That violet cross way over there is Jalte’s planet, our first objective. The pink comets are our free planets, their tails showing their intrinsic velocities.

After the war, in a letter dated June 11, 1947, the editor John W. Campbell told Smith that the similarity was more than just a coincidence. Claiming to have been approached “unofficially, and in confidence” by a naval officer who played an important role in developing the C.I.C., Campbell said:

The entire setup was taken specifically, directly, and consciously from the Directrix. In your story, you reached the situation the Navy was in—more communications channels than integration techniques to handle it. You proposed such an integrating technique, and proved how advantageous it could be…Sitting in Michigan, some years before Pearl Harbor, you played a large share in the greatest and most decisive naval action of the recent war!

Unfortunately, this wasn’t true. The naval officer in question, Cal Laning, was indeed a science fiction fan—he was close friends with Robert A. Heinlein—but any resemblance to the Directrix was coincidental, or, at best, an instance of convergence as fiction and reality addressed the same set of problems. (An excellent analysis of the situation can be found in Ed Wysocki’s very useful book An Astounding War.)

If Campbell was tempted to overstate Smith’s influence, this isn’t surprising—the editor was disappointed that science fiction hadn’t played the role that he had envisioned for it in the war, and this wasn’t the first or last time that he would gently exaggerate it. Fifteen years later, however, Smith’s fiction had a profound impact on a very different field. In 1962, Steve Russell of M.I.T. developed Spacewar, the first video game to be played on more than one computer, with two spaceships dueling with torpedoes in the gravity well of a star. In an article for Rolling Stone written by my hero Stewart Brand, Russell recalled:

We had this brand new PDP-1…It was the first minicomputer, ridiculously inexpensive for its time. And it was just sitting there. It had a console typewriter that worked right, which was rare, and a paper tape reader and a cathode ray tube display…Somebody had built some little pattern-generating programs which made interesting patterns like a kaleidoscope. Not a very good demonstration. Here was this display that could do all sorts of good things! So we started talking about it, figuring what would be interesting displays. We decided that probably you could make a two-dimensional maneuvering sort of thing, and decided that naturally the obvious thing to do was spaceships…

I had just finished reading Doc Smith’s Lensman series. He was some sort of scientist but he wrote this really dashing brand of science fiction. The details were very good and it had an excellent pace. His heroes had a strong tendency to get pursued by the villain across the galaxy and have to invent their way out of their problem while they were being pursued. That sort of action was the thing that suggested Spacewar. He had some very glowing descriptions of spaceship encounters and space fleet maneuvers.

The “somebody” whom he mentions was Marvin Minsky, another science fiction fan, and Russell’s collaborator Martin Graetz elsewhere cited Smith’s earlier Skylark series as an influence on the game.

But the really strange thing is that Campbell, who had been eager to claim credit for Smith when it came to the C.I.C., never made this connection in print, at least not as far as I know, although he was hugely interested in Spacewar. In the July 1971 issue of Analog, he published an article on the game by Albert W. Kuhfeld, who had developed a variation of it at the University of Minnesota. Campbell wrote in his introductory note:

For nearly a dozen years I’ve been trying to get an article on the remarkable educational game invented at M.I.T. It’s a great game, involving genuine skill in solving velocity and angular relation problems—but I’m afraid it will never be widely popular. The playing “board” costs about a quarter of a megabuck!

Taken literally, the statement “nearly a dozen years” implies that the editor heard about Spacewar before it existed, but the evidence legitimately implies that he learned of it almost at once. Kuhfeld writes: “Although it uses a computer to handle orbital mechanics, physicists and mathematicians have no great playing advantage—John Campbell’s seventeen-year-old daughter beat her M.I.T. student-instructor on her third try—and thereafter.” Campbell’s daughter was born in 1945, which squares nicely with a visit around the time of the game’s first appearance. It isn’t implausible that Campbell would have seen and heard about it immediately—he had been close to the computer labs at Harvard and M.I.T. since the early fifties, and he made a point of dropping by once a year. If the Lensman series, the last three installments of which he published, had really been an influence on Spacewar, it seems inconceivable that nobody would have told him. For some reason, however, Campbell, who cheerfully promoted the genre’s impact on everything from the atomic bomb to the moon landing, didn’t seize the opportunity to do the same for video games, in an article that he badly wanted to publish. (In a letter to the manufacturers of the PDP-1, whom he had approached unsuccessfully for a writeup, he wrote: “I’ve tried for years to get a story on Spacewar, and I’ve repeatedly had people promise one…and not deliver.”)

So why didn’t he talk about it? The obvious answer is that he didn’t realize that Spacewar, which he thought would “never be widely popular,” was anything more than a curiosity, and if he had lived for another decade—he died just a few months after the article came out—he would have pushed the genre’s connection to video games as insistently as he did anything else. But there might have been another factor at play. For clues, we can turn to the article in Rolling Stone, in which Brand visited the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory with Annie Leibovitz, which is something that I wish I could have seen. Brand opens with the statement that computers are coming to the people, and he adds: “That’s good news, maybe the best since psychedelics.” It’s a revealing comparison, and it indicates the extent to which the computing movement was moving away from everything that Campbell represented. A description of the group’s offices at Stanford includes a detail that, if Campbell had read it, would only have added insult to injury:

Posters and announcements against the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon, computer printout photos of girlfriends…and signs on every door in Tolkien’s elvish Fëanorian script—the director’s office is Imladris, the coffee room The Prancing Pony, the computer room Mordor. There’s a lot of hair on those technicians, and nobody seems to be telling them where to scurry.

In the decade since the editor first encountered Spacewar, a lot had changed, and Campbell might have been reluctant to take much credit for it. The Analog article, which Brand mentions, saw the game as a way to teach people about orbital mechanics; Rolling Stone recognized it as a leading indicator of a development that was about to change the world. And even if he had lived, there might not have been room for Campbell. As Brand concludes:

Spacewar as a parable is almost too pat. It was the illegitimate child of the marrying of computers and graphic displays. It was part of no one’s grand scheme. It served no grand theory. It was the enthusiasm of irresponsible youngsters. It was disreputably competitive…It was an administrative headache. It was merely delightful.

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