Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Robert A. Heinlein

The fall of the foundation

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Note: Spoilers follow for the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov.

At the World Science Fiction Convention two years ago in Kansas City, I attended a panel where an audience member asked a question about Donald Trump. There were audible groans from the room, but one of the panelists—I think it was David Brin—drew a parallel between Trump and Nehemiah Scudder, the religious demagogue who casts an ominous shadow across Heinlein’s Future History. It was a clever comparison, but as time goes on, I’ve come to realize that there’s an even better surrogate from the golden age of science fiction. I’ve seen it mentioned here and there online, but the most thorough treatment is by Chris Taylor of Mashable, who writes of the psychohistorians of Asimov’s Foundation series:

They hope to preserve all the knowledge of civilization after the collapse of the Empire, as predicted by foresighted futurist Hari Seldon. We see them overcome various “Seldon crises,” gaining more and more star systems—until the Empire collapses halfway through the second book, Foundation and Empire, ahead of schedule. At this point in the story, the Foundation seems as secure as Obama-era technocracy did. It’s the end of history, basically—and though a group of underground democrats grumble about its rigid political system, the rational, enlightened, science-friendly Foundation has clearly triumphed over the forces of darkness and anarchy…Then out of nowhere comes the Mule, a terrifying warlord who conquers the entire Foundation in the space of a year. Seldon’s…prediction turns out to be badly wrong—as useless, say, as pre-election polling in November 2016. He didn’t see the Mule coming…[The Mule] turns out to have developed a one-in-a-trillion genetic mutation that gives him a strange power: the ability to implant the emotion of his choice in others. So the Mule instills his followers with ecstatic, fanatical loyalty, and sticks his opponents with despair and “a miserable sense of defeat.”

Taylor’s excellent article, which is worth reading in its entirety, highlights passages from Asimov’s stories—much of which the Mule spends in disguise as a clown—that have taken on an uncanny resonance. Here, for instance, we see Han Pritcher, a decorated military hero who once opposed the Mule, only to be converted by him after a failed assassination attempt:

Pritcher caught a mental breath and tried to think back. How had he been before the Mule had Converted him from the diehard democrat that he had been? It was hard to remember. He could not place himself mentally. He could not break the lining wires that bound him emotionally to the Mule…There had been no sensation the first time. There had been no pain, no mental jar—not even a feeling of discontinuity. He had always loved the Mule. If there had ever been a time long before—as long before as five short years—when he had thought he hadn’t loved him, that he had hated him—that was just a horrid illusion. The thought of that illusion embarrassed him.

And a little while later, when the First Speaker of the Second Foundation addresses the Mule directly at last:

Emotional contact such as you and I possess is not a very new development…but the faculty of direct emotional contact tended to atrophy with the development of speech a million years back…[But] you were born with it…We calculated the extent to which a megalomania would take control of you and we thought we were prepared…The added psychic distortion due to your inferiority complex passed us by. We allowed only for megalomania—not for an intensely psychopathic paranoia as well.

And if you’re wondering whether these parallels might have occurred to anyone within the Republican Party itself—well, it’s possible. Here’s what one prominent conservative wrote two decades ago in a book titled To Renew America, which seems now like a slightly less catchy version of Trump’s favorite slogan:

While Toynbee was impressing me with the history of civilizations, Isaac Asimov was shaping my view of the future in equally profound ways…For a high school student who loved history, Asimov’s most exhilarating invention was the “psychohistorian” Hari Seldon. The term does not refer to Freudian analysis but to a kind of probabilistic forecasting of the future of whole civilizations. The premise was that, while you cannot predict individual behavior, you can develop a pretty accurate sense of mass behavior. Pollsters and advertisers now make a good living off the same theory.

The author was Newt Gingrich, whose love of science fiction has been amply documented elsewhere—he wrote science fiction novels, participated in Jerry Pournelle’s think tank on the Strategic Defense Initiative, gave a controversial speech at the Nebula Awards, and mused during his last presidential campaign about placing a permanent base on the moon. And he really likes the Foundation series. As Ray Smock, the former historian of the House of Representatives, wrote in a fascinating article on the subject: “The greatest influence on Newt Gingrich, the conservative Republican, was the liberal atheist Isaac Asimov…Newt saw not just entertainment but a master plan using the Foundation trilogy as his political handbook, a guide to how one man creates a new force for civilized life.”

Gingrich, like the economist Paul Krugman, wanted to be Hari Seldon, and at first, he pursued his goals in the manner of any aspiring psychohistorian. (As Smock writes with a straight face: “While Hari Seldon created the Foundation to carry out his work, Newt used a variety of foundations and organizations to foster his work.”) So how did he become such a vocal defender of our generation’s equivalent of the Mule? Helpfully, Gingrich published an entire book on the subject, Understanding Trump, which includes a passage that sheds some light on the problem, mostly by speaking of Trump as if he were a super empath:

[Donald Trump] has a sixth sense about connecting with the American people. For instance, Trump routinely spoke to crowds of ten to twenty thousand people, but if you watched his gestures and body language, you saw that he was connecting with audience members one by one…Trump’s familiarity and comfortableness with working-class Americans also enables him to intuit what people care about and what they are looking for…In addition to giving strength and resolve to his supporters, I am sure the rallies were critical to maintaining Trump’s spirit as well. He was able to stay in tune with, and be guided by, the will of the people.

And if you want to understand the fundamental strangeness of what remains of the Republican Party, it helps to see it as an organization of men who thought fondly that they were a foundation of Hari Seldons, but who turned out to be embarrassingly eager to throw in their lot with the Mule, contenting themselves with “wins” on specific issues even as their party was irrevocably transformed. Trump, like the Mule, seems to have only gradually understood the extent of his power: “Slowly, I learned that I could reach into those minds and turn the pointer to the spot I wished, that I could nail it there forever.” Now he clearly knows what he can do. And he fooled many of us for a long time into thinking that he was a clown.

Astounding Stories #20: “Unwillingly to School”

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Note: With less than half a year to go until the publication of Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’m returning, after a long hiatus, to the series in which I highlight works of science fiction that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

In its broad outlines, “Unwillingly to School” looks pretty much like the kind of novella that you’d expect to find in the January 1958 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, with a premise straight out of a Heinlein juvenile. Its narrator is a stubborn teenager working on a small family farm in a mining colony around the star Excenus. Through a series of unlikely developments, the protagonist goes reluctantly to college on earth, displays a few surprising talents, and ends up studying Cultural Engineering, which is the science of intervening discreetly in the development of immature civilizations—all of which is very Campbellian. The difference is that the main character is a nineteen-year-old girl named Lysistrata “Lizzie” Lee, and she speaks in the first person with the kind of distinct, funny voice that rarely made it into the magazine. For instance, here’s a description of visitors to the farm: “Peoples’ wives from Town come out to board some times, Dad lets them because he thinks they will Mother me. Well mostly I manage to steer them off and no hard feelings, it is my home after all they got to be reasonable about it if they want to stay.” And a little later, when Lizzie still thinks that the plan to send her off to college is part of a convoluted trick to get her out of a jam:

We are to go shopping buying some clothes for me to wear on Earth, it seems to me this is carrying realism too far but I do not want any more time in the hotel with nothing to do…M’Clare is all the time trying to get me to talk, he says for instance Have I ever thought about going to College? I say Sure, I count my blessings now and then.

It’s a tightly imagined, utterly engaging story, and John W. Campbell loved it. In his acceptance letter to the author, Pauline Ashwell, who had originally submitted the story under the pseudonym “Paul Ash,” the editor wrote enthusiastically:

I’m taking “Unwillingly to School”; it’s completely delightful and completely unique. On this one, I really feel you should use your own feminine name; only a woman could have achieved that precise presentation of a girl’s enthusiastic, bubbling-with-life, confused, yet strongly directed thinking…I hope you’ll be able to make the London Science Fiction Convention this September; I’ll be there, and I’d enjoy meeting you.

And in the announcement of the contents of the upcoming issue, Campbell described the novella in terms that would have struck longtime readers as unusually glowing:

The lead novelette will be “Unwillingly to School,” by Pauline Ashwell. She is genuinely, no-kidding, a new author, not an old one in a new disguise. There has never been a science-fiction story like this before; I am hopefully praying, however, that Miss Ashwell can repeat and extend the adventures of Lizzie Lee, who must be read to be believed. Lizzie is a teenage girl that I am extremely glad I never met, and delighted to have read about; she’s a menace, and in the course of “Unwillingly to School” she breaks every rule of English grammar, punctuation, and composition I ever heard about, and I think invents a few in order to rebel against them, too. Lizzie is this year’s Christmas present to the readers, from Astounding Science Fiction.

In the end, the response from readers was underwhelming. “Unwillingly to School” ranked third in the monthly Analytical Laboratory poll, behind “All the King’s Horses” by Robert Silverberg and Randall Garrett, a story that was much more typical of what Campbell was publishing in the late fifties. (Both Ashwell and her story did receive Hugo nominations the following year, which wouldn’t be the last time that the tastes of the readers diverged from those of the major awards.) Almost two years later, there was a sequel, “The Lost Kafoozalum,” a likable story that gave up much of Lizzie’s voice—it was basically a Competent Man story with a female lead, which shouldn’t understate how unusual this was. It also ranked third. And on March 25, 1962, Campbell felt obliged to write to Robert A. Heinlein in his rejection of the story that became Podkayne of Mars:

The last yarn we ran which had a teenage girl as the central character was “Unwillingly To School”; it was written by an expert on teenage girls (she had been one; she taught at a girl’s school; she was a biologist-anthropologist—and she could write and had a magnificent sense of humor). It didn’t go over so hot—our readers appear to be less than enthusiastic about the peculiarities of teenage girl’s thinking. That seems to be a reasonable attitude; teenage girls don’t like teenage girls’ thinking either—including their own. They’re inherently frustrated, squeezed thereby into an inferiority complex type of apparent self-satisfaction, are immensely erratic, and utterly undependable.

It’s a shame, because Lizzie was, frankly, a more interesting character than Poddy, and while Ashwell later wrote two more installments in the series in the eighties, which I haven’t read, it would have been nice to see more of her in the sixties.

And the episode gets at something important about Campbell. As an editor, he never had much of an interest in diversifying his writers or characters, at least when it came to race, but he would have been happy to have had more women. His readers, who were overwhelmingly male, weren’t particularly interested, and when such efforts as “Unwillingly to School” failed to make an impression, he dropped it. On some level, this reflects the role that he claimed to see for himself, writing decades earlier: “A magazine is not an autocracy, as readers tend to believe, ruled arbitrarily by an editor’s opinions. It is a democracy by readers’ votes, the editor serving as election board official. The authors are the candidates, their style and stories the platform.” And there’s no question that he listened seriously to feedback from his readers as a whole. On another level, though, it only tells us which battles he was willing to fight. Campbell was more than glad to take on issues that he thought were important, like psionics, and persistently force them onto his audience in the absence of any conceivable demand. He could have chosen to invest the same energy into issues of representation, which could only have elevated the quality of the fiction that he was publishing, but when the readers pushed back, he didn’t press it. That’s more revealing than anything else, and it represents a real loss. Campbell published important work by such authors as Leigh Brackett, Catherine L. Moore, Judith Merril, and Anne McCaffrey, but the magazine mostly lacked straightforward stories like “The Lost Kafoozalum,” in which women appeared without comment as the heroes of the stock gadget and engineering stories that filled the pages of Astounding and Analog. As a result, the migration of women into hard science fiction never really took place, at least not under Campbell’s watch. He wanted it to happen. But not quite badly enough.

Looking at “The Spires,” Part 1

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Note: Over the next three days, I’ll be discussing the origins of my novelette “The Spires,” the lead story for the March/April 2018 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. You can purchase a copy and read a long excerpt of it here.  

On December 1, 2015, give or take a few days, I was browsing in my local thrift store when I came across a copy of the book Alaska Bush Pilots in the Float Country by Archie Satterfield. As I’ve noted elsewhere, it struck me at once that the subject matter would make a decent foundation for a short story—the time and place were evocative, the material was available but obscure, and the pilots that it described were the epitome of the competent men that so much science fiction uncritically celebrates. (I’ve become more skeptical of the whole idea, but that doesn’t mean that I won’t use it in the service of a larger narrative.) After some dithering, I bought the book, even though I knew that I wouldn’t be able to use it right away. As it turned out, it sat on my shelf for close to a year before I picked it up again, and as it turned out, that delay profoundly affected the result. A story is the product of whatever constellation of influences and interests happens to be in a writer’s head at a particular moment, and the version that emerges on a given day might differ considerably from the one that crystallizes a few months later, even if the starting point was exactly the same. In my case, between buying the book and writing the story, not only had I begun the research for Astounding, but I’d spent months doing nothing else but reading science fiction from the golden age. In a few weeks, I would take the plunge into the first draft. And it seemed to me that if I was going to write a story in the meantime, I might as well turn it into an homage to the authors and stories I’d been reading.

First, however, I had to decide what it was about. As I had expected, Alaska Bush Pilots furnished me with an abundance of good material, and I ended up focusing on the chapter about a pilot named Frank Barr who was active in the early thirties. In late 1932, he was stranded for a month at Wolfe Lake, about fifty miles north of Anchorage, when high winds overturned his plane on the ice. Here’s how Satterfield describes the scene:

A steel cabane strut holding the upper wing to the fuselage was buckled. The plastic windshield was broken. Several ribs in the wings were broken and flattened. The fabric covering was ripped in several places. The top of the rudder was smashed. Worst of all, the propeller had about six inches broken off one tip…He started on the wing. He flattened a gas can and nailed one edge to the top of the wing spar, then curled it over the leading edge and fastened it to the bottom of the spar. He patched the broken windshield by drilling holes along both sides of the break and lacing them together. He straightened out the cabane strut and dug an axe handle out of his supplies and lashed it to the strut as a splint…There was no prop-balancing machine nearer than Juneau, over the mountains in Alaska. So he did the next best thing. He made a paper pattern of the broken tip, which gave him an idea of where to begin cutting off the good tip. He smoothed down the rough edges of the broken tip and hoped he was at least close on his estimate.

This was obviously great stuff, and I used a lot of it, along with biographical information about another pilot named Shell Simmons, who provided much of the backstory for the character I eventually called Bill Lawson.

At this point, I knew that I was writing a story about a bush pilot who gets lost in the middle of nowhere, but I didn’t know what he was doing there. Under most circumstances, I would have turned to see what my favorite science magazines had to say about Alaska, but this time, I decided to take a different approach. I had always been vaguely aware of the work of the paranormal researcher Charles Fort, but I had recently been reminded of him by such stories as Heinlein’s “Goldfish Bowl” and, above all, Eric Frank Russell’s Sinister Barrier, which I’d feel comfortable ranking these days as my favorite science fiction novel of all time. Instead of Discover or Scientific American, then, I did a quick search for Alaska in the online edition of Fort’s complete works. There weren’t as many references to it as I had expected, but I did come up with a section from Fort’s book New Lands that eventually became the epigraph to “The Spires”:

In the English Mechanic, Sept. 10, 1897, a correspondent to the Weekly Times and Echo is quoted. He had just returned from the Yukon. Early in June, 1897, he had seen a city pictured in the sky of Alaska. “Not one of us could form the remotest idea in what part of the world this settlement could be. Some guessed Toronto, others Montreal, and one of us even suggested Peking. But whether this city exists in some unknown world on the other side of the North Pole, or not, it is a fact that this wonderful mirage occurs from time to time yearly, and we were not the only ones who witnessed the spectacle. Therefore it is evident that it must be the reflection of some place built by the hand of man.” According to this correspondent, the “mirage” did not look like one of the cities named, but like “some immense city of the past.”

Fort relates that the silent city was first described by a prospector named Dick Willoughby, who, after repeated attempts, actually succeeded in taking a picture of it. After quoting an earlier account of the story by the author Miner Bruce, Fort notes dryly: “Bruce publishes a reproduction of Willoughby’s photograph, and says that the city was identified as Bristol, England. So definite, or so un-mirage-like, is this reproduction, trees and many buildings shown in detail, that one supposes that the original was a photograph of a good-sized terrestrial city, perhaps Bristol, England.” As I looked at the picture itself, which I managed to track down online, it seemed to me that I had a decent beginning, and I began to research possible causes. There were plenty of rational explanations for what Willoughby claimed to have glimpsed, but they weren’t particularly interesting. The fact that so many otherwise reliable observers had described the apparition as a city was enough for me to argue—at least within the context of a story—that it was something other than a mirage, and the fact that it had been compared variously to Bristol, Toronto, Montreal, Peking and “some immense city of the past” suggested that it was really like none of the above. (I was influenced by the famous red herring in Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” in which a voice is reported by different witnesses to be that of a German, an Englishman, or a Russian. It’s actually an orangutan.) At some point, I came up with the idea that the city in the sky was the image, cast backward in time, of some future structure or scientific project based in Alaska, which the witnesses were unable to identify because they had never seen anything like it. All that remained was to figure out what the source of this mirage might be. It didn’t take me long to come up with an answer—and when I did, I really, really didn’t like it. But as I’ll explain tomorrow, I ended up using it anyway.

Going with the flow

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On July 13, 1963, New York University welcomed a hundred attendees to an event called the Conference on Education for Creativity in the Sciences. The gathering, which lasted for three days, was inspired by the work of Dr. Myron A. Coler, the director of the school’s Creative Science Program. There isn’t a lot of information available online about Coler, who was trained as an electrical engineer, and the best source I’ve found is an unsigned Talk of the Town piece that ran earlier that week in The New Yorker. It presents Coler as a scholar who was interested in the problem of scientific creativity long before it became fashionable: “What is it, how does it happen, how is it fostered—can it be isolated, measured, nurtured, predicted, directed, and so on…By enhancing it, you produce more from what you have of other resources. The ability to exploit a resource is in itself a resource.” He conducted monthly meetings for years with a select group of scientists, writing down everything that they had to say on the subject, including a lot of wild guesses about how to identify creative or productive people. Here’s my favorite:

One analyst claims that one of the best ways that he knows to test an individual is to take him out to dinner where lobster or crab is served. If the person uses his hands freely and seems to enjoy himself at the meal, he is probably well adjusted. If, on the other hand, he has trouble in eating the crab, he probably will have trouble in his relations with people also.

The conference was overseen by Jerome B. Wiesner, another former electrical engineer, who was appointed by John F. Kennedy to chair the President’s Science Advisory Committee. Wiesner’s interest lay in education, and particularly in identifying and training children who showed an early aptitude for science. In an article that was published a few years later in the journal Daedalus, Wiesner listed some of the attributes that were often seen in such individuals, based on the work of the pioneering clinical psychologist Anne Roe:

A childhood environment in which knowledge and intellectual effort were so highly valued for themselves than an addiction to reading and study was firmly established at an early age; an unusual degree of independence which, among other things, led them to discover early that they could satisfy their curiosity by personal efforts; an early dependence on personal resources, and on the necessity to think for oneself; an intense drive that generated concentrated, persistent, time-ignoring efforts in their studies and work; a secondary-school training that tended to emphasize science rather than the humanities; and high, but not necessarily remarkably high, intelligence.

But Wiesner also closed on a note of caution: “We do not now have useful techniques for predicting with comfortable reliability which individuals will turn out to be creative in the sciences or in any other field, no matter how great an investment we make in their education. Nor does it appear likely that such techniques will be developed in the immediate future.”

As it happened, one of the attendees at the conference was Isaac Asimov, who took the bus down to New York from Boston. Years afterward, he said that he couldn’t remember much about the experience—he was more concerned by the fact that he lost the wad of two hundred dollars that he had brought as emergency cash—and that his contributions to the discussion weren’t taken seriously. When the question came up of how to identify potentially creative individuals at a young age, he said without hesitation: “Keep an eye peeled for science-fiction readers.” No one else paid much attention, but Asimov didn’t forget the idea, and he wrote it up later that year in his essay “The Sword of Achilles,” which was published by The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. His views on the subject were undoubtedly shaped by his personal preferences, but he was also probably right. (He certainly met most of the criteria listed by Weisner, aside from “an unusual degree of independence,” since he was tied down for most of his adolescence to his father’s candy store.) And science fiction had more in common with Coler and Wiesner’s efforts than they might have appreciated. The editor John W. Campbell had always seen the genre as a kind of training program that taught its readers how to survive in the future, and Weisner described “tomorrow’s world” in terms that might have been pulled straight from Astounding: “That world will be more complex than it is today, will be changing more rapidly than now, and it will have jobs only for the well trained.” Weisner closed with a quotation from the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead:

In the conditions of modern life, the rule is absolute, the race which does not value trained intelligence is doomed…Today we maintain ourselves. Tomorrow science will have moved forward one more step, and there will be no appeal from the judgment which will then be pronounced on the uneducated.

These issues tend to come to the forefront during times of national anxiety, and it’s no surprise that we’re seeing a resurgence in them today. In last week’s issue of The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik rounded up a few recent titles on education and child prodigies, which reflect “the sense that American parents have gone radically wrong, making themselves and their kids miserable in the process, by hovering over them like helicopters instead of observing them from a watchtower, at a safe distance.” The catch is that while the current wisdom says that we should maximize our children’s independence, most child prodigies were the result of intensive parental involvement, which implies that the real secret to creative achievement lies somewhere else. And the answer may be right in front of us. As Gopnik writes of the author Ann Hulbert’s account of of the piano prodigy Lang Lang:

Lang Lang admits to the brutal pressures placed on him by his father…He was saved because he had, as Hulbert writes, “carved out space for a version of the ‘autotelic experience’—absorption in an activity purely for its own sake, a specialty of childhood.” Following the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Hulbert maintains that it was being caught in “the flow,” the feeling of the sudden loss of oneself in an activity, that preserved Lang Lang’s sanity: “The prize always beckoned, but Lang was finding ways to get lost in the process.”

This is very close to the “concentrated, persistent, time-ignoring efforts” that Weisner described fifty years ago, as well as his characterization of learning as “an addiction.” Gopnik concludes: “Accomplishment, the feeling of absorption in the flow, of mastery for its own sake, of knowing how to do this thing, is what keeps all of us doing what we do, if we like what we do at all.” And it seems to have been this sense of flow, above all else, that led Asimov to write more than four hundred books. He was addicted to it. As he once wrote to Robert A. Heinlein: “I like it in the attic room with the wallpaper. I’ve been all over the galaxy. What’s left to see?”

To be or not to be

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The Structural Differential

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on October 11, 2016.

If you’re familiar with the science fiction of the golden age, you’ve probably come across the name of Alfred Korzybski, the Polish philosopher whose ideas, known as general semantics, enjoyed a brief but intense vogue with writers and fans in the late thirties and early forties. Korzybski’s work provided the backdrop for A.E. van Vogt’s The World of Null-A and its sequels; Robert A. Heinlein mentions him by name in “Coventry” and “Gulf”; and he pops up in such stories as “The Helping Hand” by Poul Anderson and “Day of the Moron” by H. Beam Piper. He was also an important influence on L. Ron Hubbard and John W. Campbell, although both of them would have denied this. (Campbell liked to say that he was never able to get through Korzybski’s most famous book, Science and Sanity, and it’s likely that Hubbard never did, either.) And it isn’t hard to appreciate why the science fiction community found him so intriguing. General semantics was pitched as a kind of mental training program that would enhance the brain’s performance, allowing practitioners to think more clearly and move past the mental blocks that prevent us from accurately perceiving the world around us. Yet Korzybski remains relatively unknown today. Part of this is because Science and Sanity itself is such a daunting work: it’s long, repetitive, sometimes obscure, and often deeply weird. But there’s also a lot there that remains valuable to creative thinkers, if you’re willing to unearth it, and with certain qualifications, it’s still worth seeking out.

We can start with Korzybski’s most famous pronouncement, which a lot of people, including me, have quoted without fully understanding it: “The map is not the territory.” What he’s really talking about is language, which is the mental map that we use to orient ourselves as we make our way through the world. The trouble, he believes, is that the map we’ve inherited offers a flawed picture of reality. Language was developed when mankind was still in its infancy, and the inaccurate ideas that early humans had about the world are preserved in the way that we talk about it. We confuse words with their underlying objects; we take objects in isolation, when in fact they have meaning only in their relationships with others and in their place within an overall structure; we think in categories, when we’re invariably dealing with unique individuals; and we depend on preconceived ideas, rather than experience, to make our decisions. The primary culprit, Korzybski argued, was the word “is,” which always involves either a tautology or a falsehood. When we say that A is B, we’re either saying that it’s equivalent to itself, which doesn’t yield any useful information, or we’re falling prey to one of several fallacies. Either we’re saying that one unique object is identical to another; that an object is the same thing as the label we’ve given it, or to the overall class to which it belongs; or that it can be described in terms that can be agreed upon by all observers. And a moment’s reflection reveals that none of this is true.

Alfred Korzybski

Most of us, I think, will grant these points. What set Korzybski apart is that he attempted to train himself and others to systematically overcome these misconceptions, using a few misleadingly simple tricks. He advised his readers to be skeptical of any form of the verb “to be,” and that whenever they were told that something was the same as something else, they should reflexively respond: “This is not that.” The goal, he said, was “consciousness of abstracting,” or a constant, everyday awareness of how we think using different orders of abstractions. Words are not objects; objects are distinct from the inferences that we make about them; and the gap between the general and the particular means that no statement can be entirely true or false, but only probable in various degrees. To underline these points, Korzybski liked to use a model called the Structural Differential, a teaching aid fashioned out of wooden pegboards and lengths of string that were supposed to symbolize the abstracting process of the human nervous system. Students were told to study and handle it in silence, which would nonverbally remind them of the difference between an event, an object, a label, and the levels of abstraction above it. If this all sounds like an unwieldy way of seeing the world, if not a vaguely Duchampian joke, well, it is. But it’s also in service of what seems to me like a worthwhile goal: to insert a mental pause, or what Korzybski calls “the neurological delay,” before we unthinkingly respond to a statement or situation.

If we think of general semantics as an elaborate system for training us to pause to question our assumptions, it becomes a lot more comprehensible. It’s also worth noting that Korzbyski wasn’t opposed to abstraction, which he saw as a necessary tool and shortcut, but to its misuse. The ability for one generation to build on the abstractions developed by its predecessors, which he calls “time-binding,” is what separates human beings from the animals—but only if we’re good at it. Conventional language, which Korzybski associated with the followers of Aristotle, just makes it harder to pass along useful information; his non-Aristotelean approach was pitched as a more accurate reflection of reality, as well as a practical tool for generating and conveying ideas. And it’s probably worth a try. (If you don’t feel like plowing through all eight hundred pages of Science and Sanity, Korzybski advises readers to start with the shorter, self-contained section “The Mechanism of Time-Binding,” which includes most of the book’s practical advice.) Pausing before you think, interrogating your assumptions, and being conscious of your abstractions are all worthwhile goals, but they’re easier said than done: one of Korzybski’s followers later estimated that “about thirty” people had mastered it. You could argue that Korzybski overstated his case, that he exaggerated the benefits of his approach, and that he cloaked it in a lot of unnecessary pseudoscience. But he was right about the basic problem. And it’s easy to wish that we lived in a society in which we responded to all disagreements by pausing, smiling, and asking sincerely: “What do you mean?”

Written by nevalalee

January 18, 2018 at 9:00 am

Present tense, future perfect

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Michael Crichton

Note: I’m taking a few days off for the holidays, 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 August 11, 2016.

Science fiction is set in the future so frequently that it’s hard for many readers, or writers, to envision it in any other way. Yet there are times when a futuristic setting actively interferes with the story. If you think that the genre’s primary function is a predictive one, it’s hard to avoid, although I’ve made it pretty clear that I believe that it’s the other way around—the idea that science fiction is a literature of prediction emerged only after most of its elements were already in place. But if you see it as a vehicle for telling compelling stories in which science plays an important role, or as a sandbox for exploring extreme social or ethical situations, you realize that it can be even more effective when set in the present. This is especially true of science fiction that trades heavily on suspense and paranoia. My favorite science fiction novel ever, Eric Frank Russell’s Sinister Barrier, is set in the near future for no particular reason: its premise of invisible alien beings who manipulate human civilization would work even better in ordinary surroundings, and nothing fundamental about the story itself would have to change. You could say much the same about Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, which is indebted to Russell’s story in more ways than one. And there’s a sense in which The X-Files actually plays better today, as a period piece, than it did when it initially aired: in hindsight, the early nineties have become the definition of mundanity, and a perfect setting for horror. (At a time when we seem to be actually living in an alternate history novel, its assumption that a sinister government conspiracy had to be kept secret can seem downright comforting.)

When you push science fiction into the present, however, something curious happens: people start to think of it as something else. In particular, it tends to be labeled as a technothriller. This is ultimately just a marketing category, and slipperier than most, but it can be defined as science fiction that limits itself to a single line of extrapolation, usually in the form of a new technology, while grounding the rest in the period in which the book was written. And you’d think that this approach would be seen as worthwhile. Plausibly incorporating a hypothetical technology or scientific advance into the modern world can be just as hard as inventing an entire future society, and it allows the writer to tackle themes that lie close to the heart of the genre. If we’re looking to science fiction to help us work out the implications of contemporary problems, to simulate outcomes of current trends, or to force us to look at our own lives and assumptions a little differently, a story that takes place against a recognizable backdrop can confront us with all of these issues more vividly. A futuristic or interplanetary setting has a way of shading into fantasy, which isn’t necessarily bad, but risks turning the genre into exactly what John W. Campbell always insisted it wasn’t—a literature of escapism. In theory, then, any effort to coax science fiction back into the present is enormously important, and we should welcome the technothriller as a matrix in which the tools of the genre can be brought to bear on the reality around us.

Gillian Anderson in War of the Coprophages

In practice, that isn’t how it turns out. The technothriller is often dismissed as a disreputable subgenre or a diluted version of the real thing, and not always without reason. There are a few possible explanations for this. One is that because of the technothriller’s natural affinity for suspense, it attracts literary carpetbaggers—writers who seem to opportunistically come from outside the genre, rather than emerging from within it. Michael Crichton, for instance, started out by writing relatively straight thrillers under pen names like Jeffrey Hudson and John Lange, and it’s interesting to wonder how we’d regard The Andromeda Strain, or even Sphere or Congo, if he had worked his way up in the pages of Analog. Other reasons might be the genre’s pervasive strain of militarism, which reflects the association of certain kinds of technological development with the armed forces; its emphasis on action; or even the sort of writer that it attracts. Finally, there’s the inescapable point that most technothrillers are providing escapism of another kind, with hardware taking the place of original characters or ideas. That’s true of a lot of science fiction, too, but a technothriller doesn’t even ask readers to make the modicum of effort necessary to transport themselves mentally into another time or place. It’s just like the world we know, except with better weapons. As a result, it appeals more to the mundanes, or readers who don’t think of themselves as science fiction fans, which from the point of view of fandom is probably the greatest sin of all.

Yet it’s worth preserving the ideal of the technothriller, both because it can be a worthwhile genre in itself and because of the light that it sheds on science fiction as a whole. When we think of the didactic, lecturing tone that dominated Crichton’s late novels, starting with Rising Sun, it’s easy to connect it to the psychological role that hardware plays within a certain kind of thriller. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, because the writer gets certain technical details right, we’re more inclined to believe what he says when it comes to other issues, at least while we’re still reading the book. But it takes another level of insight to realize that this is also true of Heinlein. (The story of Campbellian science fiction is one of writers who were so good at teaching us about engineering that we barely noticed when they moved on to sociology.) And the strain of technophobia that runs through the genre—which is more a side effect of the need to generate suspense than a philosophical stance—can serve as a corrective to the unthinking embrace of technology that has characterized so much science fiction throughout its history. Finally, on the level of simple reading pleasure, I’d argue that any attempt to bring suspense into science fiction deserves to be encouraged: it’s a tool that has often been neglected, and the genre as a whole is invigorated when we bring in writers, even mercenary ones, who know how to keep the pages turning. If they also have great, original ideas, they’re unstoppable. This combination doesn’t often appear in the same writer. But the next best thing is to ensure that they can push against each other as part of the same healthy genre.

Written by nevalalee

December 22, 2017 at 9:00 am

My secret book

with 2 comments

Last week, without consciously noticing it, I passed a small but meaningful milestone—I’ve now published something on this blog every single day for the last seven years. On most weekdays, I devote at least an hour to writing a new post, and while I’ve occasionally fallen back on reruns or longer quotations to fill space, they account for a tiny minority of what appears here. Perhaps the time that I’ve spent blogging might have been more profitably used in other ways, but I doubt it. The discipline of producing a thousand words on a daily basis has been inherently constructive; it wakes me up in the morning; I’ve used it as a platform for ideas and opinions that probably wouldn’t have found a home anywhere else, now that the market for online freelancing has mostly dried up; it has provided me with a necessary emotional outlet as I continue to deal with the fallout from last year’s election; and above all else, it gives me a place where I can workshop material in plain sight that will end up being used elsewhere.

In particular, I’ve often used this blog as a kind of sandbox for elements of Astounding. (Here and there, entire phrases and sentences from these posts have ended up in the book itself, although nearly everything has been reworked substantially for publication.) I’ve also seized the opportunity that this venue affords to talk at length about subjects that won’t make it into print, and when I look back, I found that I’ve written the equivalent of a stealth book—amounting to something like sixty thousand words—in my posts on science fiction alone, most of which have appeared within the last two years. With this in mind, I’ve gone ahead and compiled many of these shorter essays on a single page, “Science fiction studies,” which you can see in the navigation bar to your right, and I’ll continue to update it going forward. It includes my reviews of classic stories; such longer pieces as “A Hawk From a Handsaw” and “The First Foundation”; and my original research on topics like L. Ron Hubbard’s lost rebuttal of dianetics and the origins of Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. If you’re a science fiction fan, you might find it interesting. And best of all, it’s free.

Written by nevalalee

December 8, 2017 at 9:32 am

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