Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Robert A. Heinlein

Tales from the pulp jungle

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In 1934, a young man named Frank Gruber moved from Illinois to New York City, where he took up residence at the Forty-Fourth Street Hotel in Times Square. In his memoir The Pulp Jungle, Gruber described the hotel’s usual clientele as consisting of “broken-down actors, starving actors, hungry vaudevillians, wrestlers, poor opera singers, touts, bookies, sharpies, hungry actors, no, I said that before, and all around no-goods and deadbeats. And one hungry, would be writer.” Like Robert A. Heinlein, his slightly younger contemporary, Gruber had grown up entranced by the rags-to-riches stories of Horatio Alger, although he later said that he had come away from those novels with the wrong message:

Virtually all of the Horatio Alger, Jr. books have the same theme—they tell how poor boys became rich. The theme inspired three generations of Americans. Alas! The reading of the Alger books did not instill in me the ambition to become a rich businessman. No, the books inspired me to become a writer, to write books like those of Horatio Alger, Jr.

Gruber, like Heinlein, had been impressed by the example of pulp legend Jack Woodford, and by the age of twenty-three, he had accumulated a stack of rejection slips from dozens of publications, ranging from The Saturday Evening Post to what Gruber considered “the lowest form of writing”—the Sunday School papers. Finally, after a period in which he had as many as forty submissions out for consideration at any one time, he sold a story, “The Two-Dollar Raise,” for three dollars and fifty cents. Gruber recalled his sense of elation: “I had made it.”

After a stint as an editor for a series of farm papers in the Midwest, Gruber moved to New York to try breaking into the pulps. He estimated that the trip would take two or three weeks, but it lasted for seven months. Soon after his arrival, he met the prolific Arthur J. Burks, who offered him some useful advice: “The life of a pulp writer is seven years. At the end of seven years you’ve got to go on to better writing, or go downhill.” Gruber took his words to heart, and he soon learned the everyday survival skills that most aspiring writers are forced to master. As he wrote decades later:

I had “tomato soup” at the Automat on Broadway at least once a day. The Automat restaurants, which are peculiar to the East, are just what the name implies. You get a flock of nickels from the cashier, then go down the battery of little cubicles, inside of which repose the articles of food that appeal to you…So this is how the famous Automat tomato soup came into being. You got a bowl intended for soup, went over to the hot water nozzle and filled up your own. You sidled along to where you got the soup and picked up a couple of glassine bags of crackers (free), supposedly to go with the soup. You now went to one of the tables, sat down and crumbled the crackers into the hot water. Every table had a bottle of ketchup. You emptied about half of the ketchup into the hot water and cracker mixture. Presto—tomato soup!

Gruber continued: “Cost? Nothing. I sometimes had tomato soup four or five times a day.” And he admitted elsewhere that there were stretches when he ate nothing else for three days at a time.

At last, Gruber got his break, after writing five thousand words overnight to fill a gap in the pulp magazine Operator #5, and he became a reliable contributor to the detective and mystery titles, as well as a member of an association of pulp writers called the American Fiction Guild. He wrote a few stories for Weird Tales, along with a much later effort for Fantasy & Science Fiction, but he was never particularly close to the science fiction crowd, with whom he claimed to have waged “a cold war…that exists, to a degree, to this very day.” Gruber was friends with Mort Weisinger, the editor who would later play a significant role in the development of Superman. One day, Gruber got into an argument with Weisinger and the agent Julius Schwartz about what was then known as “pseudoscience fiction,” which encompassed science fiction, horror, and fantasy. Gruber remembered:

In the heat of the discussion I made the statement that all pseudoscience writers were weirdies [sic]. I was roundly denounced by both Mort and Julius and in the ensuing melee I came out with the flat declaration that I could pick out a pseudoscience writer in a roomful of people. Mort promptly challenged me. J. Hamilton Edwards was in New York from his home upstate and would be at the American Fiction Guild. Mort had ten dollars that said I could not pick J. Hamilton Edwards out of the crowd on sight.

Gruber took him up on the bet, which he reduced from ten dollars to two, and they went to lunch. Looking around the room, Gruber saw a writer “with buck teeth as big as those of Clement Attlee’s son-in-law.” He confidently identified him as J. Hamilton Edwards—and he was right. (“Edwards” was really the writer Edmond Hamilton, and he eventually got his teeth fixed.) Gruber recalled: “The story got around and the science fiction writers still hate me.”

The anecdote hints at the divide, which may have been more apparent than real, between the different circles of pulp writers, of whom Gruber wrote elsewhere: “A writer spends so many hours inventing adventures for his fictional characters that he sometimes confuses fiction and fact. He begins to think that he has lived some of the adventures of which he has written.” (Much later, S.I. Hayakawa made a similar observation: “If the writer of science-fiction writes too much of it too fast and too glibly…he may eventually succeed in concealing the distinction between his facts and his imaginings from himself.”) As an example, he mentions another aspiring author at the Fourth-Fourth Street Hotel, who often spent time in Gruber’s room with Weisinger and the writers Jack Reardon and Steve Fisher. One evening, this writer was bragging about his own exploits: “He had been in the United States Marines for seven years, he had been an explorer on the upper Amazon for four years, he’d been a white hunter in Africa for three years.” Gruber quietly took a few notes, and later in the conversation, he asked his friend: “You’re eighty-four years old, aren’t you?” When the writer protested that he was only twenty-six, Gruber showed his work:

I read from my notes. “Well, you were in the Marines seven years, you were a civil engineer for six years, you spent four years in Brazil, three in Africa, you barnstormed with your own flying circus for six years…I’ve just added up all the years you did this and that and it comes to eighty-four years.”

Gruber concluded: “The writer blew his stack. I will say this, his extremely vivid imagination earned him a fortune, some years later. He wrote one book that directly and indirectly earned him around half a million dollars in a single year.” It was called Dianetics.

The Big One

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In a heartfelt appreciation of the novelist Philip Roth, who died earlier this week, the New York Times critic Dwight Garner describes him as “the last front-rank survivor of a generation of fecund and authoritative and, yes, white and male novelists…[that] included John Updike, Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow.” These four names seem fated to be linked together for as long as any of them is still read and remembered, and they’ve played varying roles in my own life. I was drawn first to Mailer, who for much of my adolescence was my ideal of what a writer should be, less because of his actual fiction than thanks to my repeated readings of the juiciest parts of Peter Manso’s oral biography. (If you squint hard and think generously, you can even see Mailer’s influence in the way I’ve tried to move between fiction and nonfiction, although in both cases it was more a question of survival.) Updike, my favorite, was a writer I discovered after college. I agree with Garner that he probably had the most “sheer talent” of them all, and he represents my current model, much more than Mailer, of an author who could apparently do anything. Bellow has circled in and out of my awareness over the years, and it’s only recently that I’ve started to figure out what he means to me, in part because of his ambiguous status as a subject of biography. And Roth was the one I knew least. I’d read Portnoy’s Complaint and one or two of the Zuckerman novels, but I always felt guilty over having never gotten around to such late masterpieces as American Pastoral—although the one that I should probably check out first these days is The Plot Against America.

Yet I’ve been thinking about Roth for about as long as I’ve wanted to be a writer, largely because he came as close as anyone ever could to having the perfect career, apart from the lack of the Nobel Prize. He won the National Book Award for his debut at the age of twenty-six; he had a huge bestseller at an age when he was properly equipped to enjoy it; and he closed out his oeuvre with a run of major novels that critics seemed to agree were among the best that he, or anyone, had ever written. (As Garner nicely puts it: “He turned on the afterburners.”) But he never seemed satisfied by his achievement, which you can take as an artist’s proper stance toward his work, a reflection of the fleeting nature of such rewards, a commentary on the inherent bitterness of the writer’s life, or all of the above. Toward the end of his career, Roth actively advised young writers not to become novelists, and in his retirement announcement, which he delivered almost casually to a French magazine, he quoted Joe Louis: “I did the best I could with what I had.” A month later, in an interview with Charles McGrath of the New York Times, he expanded on his reasoning:

I know I’m not going to write as well as I used to. I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration—it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time…I can’t face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away. I can’t do that anymore…I knew I wasn’t going to get another good idea, or if I did, I’d have to slave over it.

And on his computer, he posted a note that gave him strength when he looked at it each day: “The struggle with writing is over.”

Roth’s readers, of course, rarely expressed the same disillusionment, and he lives most vividly in my mind as a reference point against which other authors could measure themselves. In an interview with The Telegraph, John Updike made one of the most quietly revealing statements that I’ve ever heard from a writer, when asked if he felt that he and Roth were in competition:

Yes, I can’t help but feel it somewhat. Especially since Philip really has the upper hand in the rivalry as far as I can tell. I think in a list of admirable novelists there was a time when I might have been near the top, just tucked under Bellow. But since Bellow died I think Philip has…he’s certainly written more novels than I have, and seems more dedicated in a way to the act of writing as a means of really reshaping the world to your liking. But he’s been very good to have around as far as goading me to become a better writer.

I think about that “list of admirable novelists” all the time, and it wasn’t just a joke. In an excellent profile in The New Yorker, Claudia Roth Pierpoint memorably sketched in all the ways in which other writers warily circled Roth. When asked if the two of them were friends, Updike said, “Guardedly,” and Bellow seems to have initially held Roth at arm’s length, until his wife convinced him to give the younger writer a chance. Pierpont concludes of the relationship between Roth and Updike: “They were mutual admirers, wary competitors who were thrilled to have each other in the world to up their game: Picasso and Matisse.”

And they also remind me of another circle of writers whom I know somewhat better. If Bellow, Mailer, Updike, and Roth were the Big Four of the literary world, they naturally call to mind the Big Three of science fiction—Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke. In each case, the group’s members were perfectly aware of how exceptional they were, and they carefully guarded their position. (Once, in a conference call with the other two authors, Asimov jokingly suggested that one of them should die to make room for their successors. Heinlein responded: “Fuck the other writers!”) Clarke and Asimov seem to have been genuinely “thrilled to have each other in the world,” but their relationship with the third point of the triangle was more fraught. Toward the end, Asimov started to “avoid” the combative Heinlein, who had a confrontation with Clarke over the Strategic Defense Initiative that effectively ended their friendship. In public, they remained cordial, but you can get a hint of their true feelings in a remarkable passage from the memoir I. Asimov:

[Clarke] and I are now widely known as the Big Two of science fiction. Until early 1988, as I’ve said, people spoke of the Big Three, but then Arthur fashioned a little human figurine of wax and with a long pin— At least, he has told me this. Perhaps he’s trying to warn me. I have made it quite plain to him, however, that if he were to find himself the Big One, he would be very lonely. At the thought of that, he was affected to the point of tears, so I think I’m safe.

As it turned out, Clarke, like Roth, outlived all the rest, and perhaps they felt lonely in the end. Longevity can amount to a kind of victory in itself. But it must be hard to be the Big One.

Thinkers of the unthinkable

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At the symposium that I attended over the weekend, the figure whose name seemed to come up the most was Herman Kahn, the futurologist and military strategist best known for his book On Thermonuclear War. Kahn died in 1983, but he still looms large over futures studies, and there was a period in which he was equally inescapable in the mainstream. As Louis Menand writes in a harshly critical piece in The New Yorker: “Herman Kahn was the heavyweight of the Megadeath Intellectuals, the men who, in the early years of the Cold War, made it their business to think about the unthinkable, and to design the game plan for nuclear war—how to prevent it, or, if it could not be prevented, how to win it, or, if it could not be won, how to survive it…The message of [his] book seemed to be that thermonuclear war will be terrible but we’ll get over it.” And it isn’t surprising that Kahn engaged in a dialogue throughout his life with science fiction. In her book The Worlds of Herman Kahn, Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi relates:

Early in life [Kahn] discovered science fiction, and he remained an avid reader throughout adulthood. While it nurtured in him a rich appreciation for plausible possibilities, [his collaborator Anthony] Wiener observed that Kahn was quite clear about the purposes to which he put his own scenarios. “Herman would say, ‘Don’t imagine that it’s an arbitrary choice as though you were writing science fiction, where every interesting idea is worth exploring.’ He would have insisted on that. The scenario must focus attention on a possibility that would be important if it occurred.” The heuristic or explanatory value of a scenario mattered more to him than its accuracy.

Yet Kahn’s thinking was inevitably informed by the genre. Ghamari-Tabrizi, who refers to nuclear strategy as an “intuitive science,” sees hints of “the scientist-sleuth pulp hero” in On Thermonuclear War, which is just another name for the competent man, and Kahn himself openly acknowledged the speculative thread in his work: “What you are doing today fundamentally is organizing a Utopian society. You are sitting down and deciding on paper how a society at war works.” On at least one occasion, he invoked psychohistory directly. In the revised edition of the book Thinking About the Unthinkable, Kahn writes of one potential trigger for a nuclear war:

Here we turn from historical fact to science fiction. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels describe a galaxy where there is a planet of technicians who have developed a long-term plan for the survival of civilization. The plan is devised on the basis of a scientific calculation of history. But the plan is upset and the technicians are conquered by an interplanetary adventurer named the Mule. He appears from nowhere, a biological mutant with formidable personal abilities—an exception to the normal laws of history. By definition, such mutants rarely appear but they are not impossible. In a sense, we have already seen a “mule” in this century—Hitler—and another such “mutant” could conceivably come to power in the Soviet Union.

And it’s both frightening and revealing, I think, that Kahn—even as he was thinking about the unthinkable—doesn’t take the next obvious step, and observe that such a mutant could also emerge in the United States.

Asimov wouldn’t have been favorably inclined toward the notion of a “winnable” nuclear war, but Kahn did become friendly with a writer whose attitudes were more closely aligned with his own. In the second volume of Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, William H. Patterson describes the first encounter between the two men:

By September 20, 1962, [the Heinleins] were in Las Vegas…[They] met Dr. Edward Teller, who had been so supportive of the Patrick Henry campaign, as well as one of Teller’s colleagues, Herman Kahn. Heinlein’s ears pricked up when he was introduced to this jolly, bearded fat man who looked, he said, more like a young priest than one of the sharpest minds in current political thinking…Kahn was a science fiction reader and most emphatically a Heinlein fan.

Three years later, Heinlein attended a seminar, “The Next Ten Years: Scenarios and Possibilities,” that Kahn held at the Hudson Institute in New York. Heinlein—who looked like Quixote to Kahn’s Sancho Panza—was flattered by the reception:

If I attend an ordinary cocktail party, perhaps two or three out of a large crowd will know who I am. If I go to a political meeting or a church or such, I may not be spotted at all…But at Hudson Institute, over two-thirds of the staff and over half of the students button-holed me. This causes me to have a high opinion of the group—its taste, IQ, patriotism, sex appeal, charm, etc. Writers are incurably conceited and pathologically unsure of themselves; they respond to stroking the way a cat does.

And it wasn’t just the “stroking” that Heinlein liked, of course. He admired Thinking About the Unthinkable and On Thermonuclear War, both of which would be interesting to read alongside Farnham’s Freehold, which was published just a few years later. Both Heinlein and Kahn thought about the future through stories, in a pursuit that carried a slightly disreputable air, as Kahn implied in his use of the word “scenario”:

As near as I can tell, the term scenario was first used in this sense in a group I worked with at the RAND Corporation. We deliberately choose the word to deglamorize the concept. In writing the scenarios for various situations, we kept saying “Remember, it’s only a scenario,” the kind of thing that is produced by Hollywood writers, both hacks and geniuses.

You could say much the same about science fiction. And perhaps it’s appropriate that Kahn’s most lasting cultural contribution came out of Hollywood. Along with Wernher von Braun, he was one of the two most likely models for the title character in Dr. Strangelove. Stanley Kubrick immersed himself in Kahn’s work—the two men met a number of times—and Kahn’s reaction to the film was that of a writer, not a scientist. As Ghamari-Tabrizi writes:

The Doomsday Machine was Kahn’s idea. “Since Stanley lifted lines from On Thermonuclear War without change but out of context,” Khan told reporters, he thought he was entitled to royalties from the film. He pestered him several times about it, but Kubrick held firm. “It doesn’t work that way!” he snapped, and that was that.

Checks and balances

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About a third of the way through my upcoming book, while discussing the May 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, I include the sentence: “The issue also featured Heinlein’s “Universe,” which was based on Campbell’s premise about a lost generation starship.” My copy editor amended this to “a lost-generation starship,” to which I replied: “This isn’t a ‘lost-generation’ starship, but a generation starship that happens to be lost.” And the exchange gave me a pretty good idea for a story that I’ll probably never write. (I don’t really have a plot for it yet, but it would be about Hemingway and Fitzgerald on a trip to Alpha Centauri, and it would be called The Double Sun Also Rises.) But it also reminded me of one of the benefits of a copy edit, which is its unparalleled combination of intense scrutiny and total detachment. I sent drafts of the manuscript to some of the world’s greatest nitpickers, who saved me from horrendous mistakes, and the result wouldn’t be nearly as good without their advice. But there’s also something to be said for engaging the services of a diligent reader who doesn’t have any connection to the subject. I deliberately sought out feedback from a few people who weren’t science fiction fans, just to make sure that it remained accessible to a wider audience. And the ultimate example is the copy editor, who is retained to provide an impartial consideration of every semicolon without any preconceived notions outside the text. It’s what Heinlein might have had in mind when he invented the Fair Witness, who said when asked about the color of a nearby house: “It’s white on this side.”

But copy editors are human beings, not machines, and they occasionally get their moment in the spotlight. Recently, their primary platform has been The New Yorker, which has been quietly highlighting the work of its copy editors and fact checkers over the last few years. We can trace this tendency back to Between You & Me, a memoir by Mary Norris that drew overdue attention to the craft of copy editing. In “Holy Writ,” a delightful excerpt in the magazine, Norris writes of the supposed objectivity and rigor of her profession: “The popular image of the copy editor is of someone who favors rigid consistency. I don’t usually think of myself that way. But, when pressed, I do find I have strong views about commas.” And she says of their famous detachment:

There is a fancy word for “going beyond your province”: “ultracrepidate.” So much of copy editing is about not going beyond your province. Anti-ultracrepidationism. Writers might think we’re applying rules and sticking it to their prose in order to make it fit some standard, but just as often we’re backing off, making exceptions, or at least trying to find a balance between doing too much and doing too little. A lot of the decisions you have to make as a copy editor are subjective. For instance, an issue that comes up all the time, whether to use “that” or “which,” depends on what the writer means. It’s interpretive, not mechanical—though the answer often boils down to an implicit understanding of commas.

In order to be truly objective, in other words, you have to be a little subjective. Which equally true of writing as a whole.

You could say much the same of the fact checker, who resembles the copy editor’s equally obsessive cousin. As a rule, books aren’t fact-checked, which is a point that we only seem to remember when the system breaks down. (Astounding was given a legal read, but I was mostly on my own when it came to everything else, and I’m grateful that some of the most potentially contentious material—about L. Ron Hubbard’s writing career—drew on an earlier article that was brilliantly checked by Matthew Giles of Longreads.) As John McPhee recently wrote of the profession:

Any error is everlasting. As Sara [Lippincott] told the journalism students, once an error gets into print it “will live on and on in libraries carefully catalogued, scrupulously indexed…silicon-chipped, deceiving researcher after researcher down through the ages, all of whom will make new errors on the strength of the original errors, and so on and on into an exponential explosion of errata.” With drawn sword, the fact-checker stands at the near end of this bridge. It is, in part, why the job exists and why, in Sara’s words, a publication will believe in “turning a pack of professional skeptics loose on its own galley proofs.”

McPhee continues: “Book publishers prefer to regard fact-checking as the responsibility of authors, which, contractually, comes down to a simple matter of who doesn’t pay for what. If material that has appeared in a fact-checked magazine reappears in a book, the author is not the only beneficiary of the checker’s work. The book publisher has won a free ticket to factual respectability.” And its absence from the publishing process feels like an odd evolutionary vestige of the book industry that ought to be fixed.

As a result of such tributes, the copy editors and fact checkers of The New Yorker have become cultural icons in themselves, and when an error does make it through, it can be mildly shocking. (Last month, the original version of a review by Adam Gopnik casually stated that Andrew Lloyd Webber was the composer of Chess, and although I knew perfectly well that this was wrong, I had to look it up to make sure that I hadn’t strayed over into a parallel universe.) And their emergence at this particular moment may not be an accident. The first installment of “Holy Writ” appeared on February 23, 2015, just a few months before Donald Trump announced that he was running for president, plunging us all into world in which good grammar and factual accuracy can seem less like matters of common decency than obstacles to be obliterated. Even though the timing was a coincidence, it’s tempting to read our growing appreciation for these unsung heroes as a statement about the importance of the truth itself. As Alyssa Rosenberg writes in the Washington Post:

It’s not surprising that one of the persistent jokes from the Trump era is the suggestion that we’re living in a bad piece of fiction…Pretending we’re all minor characters in a work of fiction can be a way of distancing ourselves from the seeming horror of our time or emphasizing our own feelings of powerlessness, and pointing to “the writers” often helps us deny any responsibility we may have for Trump, whether as voters or as journalists who covered the election. But whatever else we’re doing when we joke about Trump and the swirl of chaos around him as fiction, we’re expressing a wish that this moment will resolve in a narratively and morally comprehensible fashion.

Perhaps we’re also hoping that reality itself will have a fact checker after all, and that the result will make a difference. We don’t know if it will yet. But I’m hopeful that we’ll survive the exponential explosion of errata.

The moon is a harsh fortress

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The May 1947 issue of Air Trails and Science Frontiers

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This is a significantly expanded version of a post that first appeared on February 27, 2017.

In the May 1947 issue of the nonfiction magazine Air Trails and Science Frontiers, which was edited at the time by John W. Campbell, the cover story was an article titled “Fortress in the Sky.” Its author, credited as “Capt. B. A. Northrop,” argued that the existence of the atomic bomb had rendered the notion of a defensible land or naval base obsolete. The only truly impregnable military position, he wrote, was the moon, which would soon be “conquered” by mankind: “It will probably be reached in five years and completed in ten. Its possessor will be supreme over all nations and peoples of Earth.” Northrop went on to discuss the possible technologies that could be used for a moon landing, but he also made a very peculiar claim:

Here and there throughout the world many men have been thinking about rockets for some time. I recall that in 1930, L. Ron Hubbard, a writer and engineer, developed and tested—but without fanfare—a rocket motor considerably superior to the V-2 instrument of propulsion and rather less complicated.

In fact, “Northrop” was none other than Hubbard himself, who was nineteen years old in 1930, when he was allegedly conducting his rocket research. (I used to believe that his pseudonym, which is spelled “Northorp” elsewhere in the issue, was inspired by Northrop Aircraft, a frequent presence in the magazine’s pages, but it seems more likely to me now that it was a nod to Sara Northrup, Hubbard’s wife. Campbell himself may have suggested it—he had written his most famous stories as Don A. Stuart and encouraged Robert A. Heinlein to use the pen name Anson MacDonald, both of which were based on their wives’ maiden names.) “Fortress in the Sky” was Hubbard’s first major publication after the war. He had been suffering from depression and writer’s block, and before Campbell give him the assignment, he had contributed just a few poems and short articles to the Catalina Islander. As such, the piece was a turning point in his career, but as far as I know, it has never been reprinted in its entirety. Last year, however, I got my hands on a copy of the original issue of Air Trails in which it appeared, and I was able to read the whole thing. Aside from Hubbard’s gratuitous reference to himself, which Campbell either believed or was willing to let slide, it’s a surprisingly plausible piece of futuristic speculation. Campbell appears to have provided much of the science, and a lot of the material relating to a future moon colony seems to have been drawn directly from the editor’s unpublished novel The Moon is Hell.

If you’re a science fiction fan, however, the most fascinating section comes about a third of the way through. While listing the moon’s strategic advantages as an atomic missile base, Hubbard notes:

The first [factor] might be termed the “gravity gauge” comparable to the weather gauge so desirable in the days of sailing ships of the line…The gravity gauge is important in the ratio of six to one, in that a missile would have to travel with an initial velocity of six miles per second to leave Earth, but would only have to travel with a velocity of one mile per second to leave the Moon. Such a missile, leaving Earth, would have to go nine-tenths of the way to the Moon on power before the latter body would begin to pull it in by its own gravity, whereas it would only have to travel one-tenth of the distance to escape the Moon and begin to ride down on Earth gravity.

On the next page, a diagram by the artist Frank Tinsley is provided to illustrate this point, with a caption that was presumably written by Campbell:

Skippers of old-time men-o’-war early learned the advantage of the “weather gauge,” which meant being up-wind from the enemy. The Moon affords a similar “gravity gauge” over the Earth by reason of its weaker pull. A missile shot from Earth to Moon must work against the stronger Earth gravity to the point where the pulls balance, nine-tenths of the way out. Missiles fired from the Moon work against one-sixth the pull through one-tenth the total distance, and ride free the rest of the way. Also, the moon has no retarding blanket of atmosphere to slow the take-off.

If I had to guess, I’d say the concept itself probably came from Campbell, while the term “gravity gauge” sounds more like Hubbard, a nautical enthusiast who casually uses the term “weather gauge” in one of his later novels, Masters of Sleep. But this is pure speculation. (A few years later, incidentally, Hubbard would work on the script for the film Rocketship X-M, which includes the line: “Today, there is even the possibility that an unassailable base could be established on the moon to control world peace.”)

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Yet if this all sounds a little familiar, it might be because you’ve read Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, which was first published in 1966. The novel recounts the revolt of a lunar colony much like the one that Hubbard describes, and in a crucial plot point, its narrator quickly figures out the advantage that gravity provides, with the help of a computer named Mike: “Luna…has energy of position; she sits at top of gravity well eleven kilometers per second deep and kept from falling in by curb only two and a half km/s high. Mike knew that curb; daily he tossed grain freighters over it, let them slide downhill to Terra.” And they don’t need to use missiles at all. A hundred tons of anything, falling to earth from the moon, would generate six trillion joules of kinetic energy, or the equivalent of two-kiloton atomic bomb. All they have to do is throw rocks: “That terrible speed results from gravity well shaped by Terra’s mass, eighty times that of Luna, and made no real difference whether Mike pushed a missile gently over well curb or flipped it briskly. Was not muscle that counted but great depth of that well.” Heinlein had also mentioned this concept before—although, revealingly, not in Rocket Ship Galileo, which is actually about a Nazi military base on the moon, but was written before Hubbard’s piece was published. In late 1947, a few months after the article appeared, Heinlein began work on the juvenile novel Hayworth Hall, later retitled Space Cadet, in which we find the exchange:

“The spaceship is the perfect answer in a military sense to the atom bomb, and to germ warfare and weather warfare. It can deliver an attack that can’t be stopped—and it is utterly impossible to attack that spaceship from the surface of a planet.”

Matt nodded. “The gravity gauge.”

“Yes, the gravity gauge. Men on the surface of a planet are as helpless against men in spaceships as a man would be trying to conduct a rock-throwing fight from the bottom of a well. The man at the top of the well has gravity working for him.”

Heinlein first publicly made the connection to the moon at a meeting of the County Librarians’ Association in Los Angeles on May 5, 1948. (One of the other writers in attendance was Theodor Geisel, who would later become famous as Dr. Seuss.) A writeup in the Los Angeles Times quoted Heinlein as saying that the moon would make an ideal military base: “A power on the moon would have the gravity gauge. The moon has one-sixth the normal earth gravity. It would be like throwing rocks downhill.”

Over a decade and a half later, on February 24, 1965, Heinlein wrote in his typewritten notes for “a Luna-Terra novel,” which later became The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress: “Granite costs nothing and the power for a catapult [on the moon] is almost free….But the key point is that rocks are cheap and it’s downhill all the way.” Later that year, he returned to this point in a comment on his earlier essay “Pandora’s Box,” which was published in the collection Expanded Universe:

The disadvantage in being at the bottom of a deep “gravity well” is very great; gravity gauge will be as crucial in the coming years as wind gauge was in the days when sailing ships controlled empires. The nation that controls the Moon will control the Earth—but no one seems willing these days to speak that nasty fact out loud.

The italics are mine. Given the timing of its appearance in Space Cadet, Heinlein’s remarks on the subject in 1948, and his use of the term “wind gauge” in 1965, it seems clear that he read Hubbard’s “Fortress in the Sky” and was influenced by it while writing The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. (The clincher, at least for me, is that Heinlein alludes to this concept in his screenplay for the film Destination Moon, which was based in part on Rocket Ship Galileo, but which includes an observation that isn’t in the original novel at all: “Shooting a rocket from the moon to the Earth is a great deal easier than shooting from the Earth to the moon, because it’s downhill almost all the way.”) We know for a fact that Heinlein read Air Trails. Campbell had approached him about writing an article for the magazine, and Heinlein wrote back to the editor on November 11, 1946: “Air Trails shows distinct improvement under your editing.” He was also friends with Hubbard, and there’s no question that he would have found this article interesting. The fact that the three men had all spent time together over the previous couple of years means that we can’t rule out the possibility that Heinlein came up with the notion first and passed it along to one or both of the others. But I think that the simplest explanation—that Heinlein borrowed the concept from Hubbard’s article—is the most likely one. It’s also worth noting that it doesn’t seem to have occurred to Hubbard or Campbell that the gravity well could be used to deliver anything other than missiles, and utilizing it to “throw rocks” is, frankly, a much better idea. This implies that Heinlein read the article, mentioned it in passing in Space Cadet, thought up a distinct improvement, and then set it aside until he was ready to use it. Hubbard’s official biographies refer to Heinlein as his “protégé,” which is a stretch even by their uncritical standards, but this is one case in which the arrow of influence genuinely appears to have run the other way—although it also speaks to Heinlein’s unique gifts. When it came to other writers, he usually had the weather gauge. And it’s a testament to his genius that even when he found himself downwind, he was still able to seize the advantage.

The kitsch of survival

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Bomb Shelter

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on February 7, 2017.

Last year, The New Yorker published a fascinating article by Evan Osnos on the growing survivalist movement among the very wealthy. Osnos quotes an unnamed source who estimates that fifty percent of Silicon Valley billionaires have some kind of survival plan in place—an estimate that actually strikes me as a little too low. And it may well have grown in the meantime. (As one hedge fund manager is supposed to have said: “What’s the percentage chance that Trump is actually a fascist dictator? Maybe it’s low, but the expected value of having an escape hatch is pretty high.”) Osnos also pays a visit to the Survival Condo Project, a former missile silo near Wichita that has been converted into a luxury underground bunker. It includes twelve apartments, all of which have already been sold, that prospective residents can decorate to their personal tastes:

We stopped in a condo. Nine-foot ceilings, Wolf range, gas fireplace. “This guy wanted to have a fireplace from his home state”—Connecticut—“so he shipped me the granite,” [developer Larry] Hall said. Another owner, with a home in Bermuda, ordered the walls of his bunker-condo painted in island pastels—orange, green, yellow—but, in close quarters, he found it oppressive. His decorator had to come fix it.

Osnos adds: “The condo walls are fitted with L.E.D. ‘windows’ that show a live video of the prairie above the silo. Owners can opt instead for pine forests or other vistas. One prospective resident from New York City wanted video of Central Park.”

As I read the article’s description of tastefully appointed bunkers with fake windows, it occurred to me that there’s a word that perfectly sums up most forms of survivalism, from the backwoods prepper to the wealthy venture capitalist with a retreat in New Zealand. It’s kitsch. We tend to associate the concept of kitsch with cheapness or tackiness, but on a deeper level, it’s really about providing a superficial emotional release while closing off the possibility of meaningful thought. It offers us sentimental illusions, built on clichés, in the place of real feeling. As the philosopher Roger Scruton has said: “Kitsch is fake art, expressing fake emotions, whose purpose is to deceive the consumer into thinking he feels something deep and serious.” Even more relevant is Milan Kundera’s unforgettable exploration of the subject in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in which he observes that kitsch is the defining art form of the totalitarian state. He concludes: “Kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.” This might seem like an odd way to characterize survivalism, which is supposedly a confrontation with the unthinkable, but it’s actually a perfect description. The underling premise of survivalism is that by stocking up on beans and bullets, you can make your existence after the collapse of civilization more tolerable, even pleasant, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. It’s a denial of shit on the most fundamental level, in which a nuclear war causing the incendiary deaths of millions is sentimentalized into a playground for the competent man. And, like all kitsch, it provides a comforting daydream that allows its adherents to avoid more important questions of collective survival.

Family Fallout Shelter

Survivalism has often been dismissed as a form of consumerism, an excuse to play Rambo with expensive guns and toys, but it also embodies a perverse form of nostalgia. The survivalist mindset is usually traced back to the Cold War, in which schoolchildren were trained to duck and cover in their classrooms while the government encouraged their parents to build fallout shelters, and it came into its own as a movement during the hyperinflation and oil shortages of the seventies. In fact, the impulse goes back at least to the days after Pearl Harbor, when an attack on the East or West Coast seemed like a genuine possibility, leading to blackout drills, volunteer air wardens, and advice on how to prepare for the worst at home. (I have a letter from John W. Campbell to Robert A. Heinlein dated December 12, 1941, in which he talks about turning his basement into a bomb shelter, complete with porch furniture and a lamp powered by a car battery, and coldly evaluates the odds of an air raid being directed at his neighborhood in New Jersey.) It’s significant that World War II was the last conflict in which the prospect of a conventional invasion of the United States—and the practical measures that one would take to prepare for it—was even halfway plausible. Faced with the possibility of the war coming to American shores, households took precautions that were basically reasonable, even if they amounted to a form of wishful thinking. And it’s a little horrifying to see how quickly these assumptions were channeled toward a nuclear war, an utterly different kind of event that makes total nonsense of individual preparations. Survivalism is a type of kitsch that looks back fondly to the times in which a war in the developed world could be fought on a human scale, rather than as an impersonal cataclysm in which the actions of ordinary men and women were rendered wholly meaningless.

Like most kinds of kitsch, survivalism reaches its nadir of tastelessness among the nouveau riche, who have the resources to indulge themselves in ways that most of us can’t afford. (Paul Fussell, in his wonderful book Class, speculated that the American bathroom is the place where the working classes express the fantasy of “What I’d Do If I Were Really Rich,” and you could say much the same thing about a fallout shelter, which is basically a bathroom with cots and canned goods.) And it makes it possible to postpone an uncomfortable confrontation with the real issues. In his article, Osnos interviews one of my heroes, the Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, who gets at the heart of the problem:

[Brand] sees risks in escapism. As Americans withdraw into smaller circles of experience, we jeopardize the “larger circle of empathy,” he said, the search for solutions to shared problems. “The easy question is, How do I protect me and mine? The more interesting question is, What if civilization actually manages continuity as well as it has managed it for the past few centuries? What do we do if it just keeps on chugging?”

Survivalism ignores these questions, and it also makes it possible for someone like Peter Thiel, whose estate and backup citizenship in New Zealand provides him with the ultimate insurance policy, to endorse a social experiment in which millions of the less fortunate face the literal loss of their insurance. And we shouldn’t be surprised. When you look at the measures that many survivalists take, you find that they aren’t afraid of the bomb, but of other Americans—the looters, the rioters, and the leeches whom they expect to descend after the grid goes down. There’s nothing wrong with making rational preparations for disaster. But it’s only a short step from survival kits to survival kitsch.

The psychedelic nightmare

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Note: To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which held its premiere on April 2, 1968, I’ll be spending the week looking at various aspects of what remains the greatest science fiction movie ever made.

On June 24, 1968, Ron Hopkins, an officer of the Church of Scientology, issued a secret policy statement to all members under his jurisdiction in the United Kingdom. It read in full: “No staff or current students are to see the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film produces heavy and unnecessary restimulation.” A few months later, the author William S. Burroughs wrote to his friend Brion Gysin: “Incidentally I thoroughly enjoyed 2001. More fun than a roller coaster. I knew I wanted to see it when all Scientologists were told it was off limits.” To the best of my knowledge, we don’t know precisely why the movie troubled the church, although it isn’t hard to guess. In dianetics, “restimulation” refers to the awakening of traumatic memories, often from past lives, and even the experience of seeing this film in a theater might have seemed like an unnecessary risk. In a lecture on the story of Xenu, L. Ron Hubbard explained the sad fate of the thetans, the disembodied souls who have clung for millions of years to unsuspecting humans:

[The thetans] were brought down, packed up, and put in front of projection machines, which were sound and color pictures. First [it] gave them the implant which you know as “clearing course.” And then a whole track implanted which you know as OT II. After this however, about the remainder of the thirty-six days, which is the bulk of them, is taken up with a 3D super colossal motion picture, which has to do with God, the Devil, space opera, etc.

And the uneasiness that Scientologists felt toward 2001 was only an extreme version of the ambivalence of many fans toward a movie that represented the most ambitious incursion that the genre had ever made into the wider culture.

As far as I can determine, we don’t know what Robert A. Heinlein thought of the film, although he presumably saw it—it was screened one night on the S.S. Statendam, the ocean liner on which he sailed on the ill-fated Voyage Beyond Apollo cruise in 1972. And Isaac Asimov had a few surprising brushes with the production itself. Arthur C. Clarke called him to discuss a plot point about the evolution of vegetarians into omnivores, and a year and a half later, Asimov came close to actually being in the movie:

Arthur Clarke was working with Stanley Kubrick to put out a motion picture called 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Kubrick, who was investing millions in what might have seemed a very dubious venture…was searching for ways to promote it properly. One way was to get a group of high-prestige individuals to make the movie respectable by having them submit to movie-camera interviews in which they would speak on such subjects as the possibility of extraterrestrial life. I was one of those approached, and I spent hours on May 18, 1966 doing the interview in one of the rooms in the Anatomy Department [at Boston University]…Afterward I heard that Carl Sagan had been approached and had refused to cooperate since no money was involved. It made me uneasily aware that I had given myself away for nothing and had exposed myself as valueless by the only measure Hollywood valued—money. But it was for Arthur Clarke, I told myself, and you can’t let a pal down.

Ultimately, the idea of the talking heads was dropped, and none of his footage made it into the finished film. Asimov later wrote approvingly of the movie’s “realistic portrayal of space travel” and called it a “classic,” but although he praised its special effects, he never seems to have said much about its merits as entertainment.

As far as John W. Campbell is concerned, I haven’t been able to find any opinions that he expressed on it in public—an unusual omission for an editor who was seldom reluctant to speak his mind about anything. In 1968, however, Analog took the unusual step of running what amounted to two reviews of the film, one by G. Harry Stine, the other by book critic P. Schuyler Miller. Stine, an author and rocket scientist who was close to both Campbell and Heinlein, hated the movie:

We thought that here, perhaps, would be a suitable sequel to the fabulous Destination Moon made twenty years ago…When the final title credits were flashed across the Cinerama screen after the New York premiere, I sat there with the feeling that I’d been had. It’s too bad that the film is billed as science fiction, because it isn’t. It is ninety percent “gee whiz” science gadgetry and ten percent fantasy nonsense…[Audiences] will believe that it is a solid look at the technology of the future. They will instead see a film that is the most cleverly made, subtly done attack on science and technology that has ever been made…It disintegrates into an unexplainable, nonscientific, anti-intellectual psychedelic nightmare.

Stein criticized the HAL subplot “because Kubrick and Clarke did not use or recall Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics,” and he lamented the film’s lack of characterization and conflict, adding without irony that these were qualities “rarely lacking in [the] pages” of Analog. A month later, in a combined review of the book and the movie, which he called “tantalizing,” Miller was slightly more kind to the latter: “Technically, it is certainly the most advanced science fiction film we have ever had…The film will be remembered; the book won’t.”

None of these criticisms are necessarily wrong, although I’d argue that the performances, which Miller called “wooden,” have held up better than anybody could have expected. But much of the response feels like an attempt by lifelong fans to grapple with a major effort by an outsider. Three decades earlier, Campbell had reacted in a similar way to a surprise move into science fiction by Kubrick’s most noteworthy precursor. In 1938, after the airing of the Mercury Theatre’s radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds, Campbell wrote to his friend Robert Swisher: “So far as sponsoring that War of [the] Worlds thing—I’m damn glad we didn’t! The thing is going to cost CBS money, what with suits, etc., and we’re better off without it.”  In Astounding, he said that the ensuing panic demonstrated the need for “wider appreciation” of science fiction, in order to educate the public about what was and wasn’t real:

I have long been an exponent of the belief that, should interplanetary visitors actually arrive, no one could possibly convince the public of the fact. These stories wherein the fact is suddenly announced and widespread panic immediately ensues have always seemed to me highly improbable, simply because the average man did not seem ready to visualize and believe such a statement. Undoubtedly, Mr. Orson Welles felt the same way.

Campbell, who was just a few years older than Welles, seems to have quickly tired of being asked about The War of the Worlds, which he evidently saw as an encroachment on his turf. 2001 felt much the same to many fans. Fifty years later, it’s easier to see it as an indispensable part of the main line of hard science fiction—and perhaps even as its culmination. But it didn’t seem that way at the time.

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