Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Robert A. Heinlein

What comes next

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Isaac Asimov

In the memoir I. Asimov, which Isaac Asimov wrote when he knew that he was dying from complications of an HIV infection acquired years earlier from a blood transfusion, its author says:

Comparatively early in life I managed to have it ground into my brain that there was no disgrace in dying after seventy, but that dying before seventy was “premature” and was a reflection on a person’s intelligence and character.

Asimov blamed this on the Bible verse that tells us that “the years of our life are threescore and ten,” and he observes that his opinion was “unreasonable, of course; quite irrational.” Still, I have a hunch that many of us continue to share that view, if only subconsciously. This year may or may not have had a greater number of celebrity deaths than usual, but it certainly seemed that way, and many of the ones that stung the most—David Bowie, Prince, George Michael, Carrie Fisher—were of artists who were between the ages of fifty and seventy. They had been around for enough to feel like legends, but not quite old enough for us to think that their stories were over, and it felt, in some cases, as if we’d been deprived of another decade or two of work. (It’s a measure of Bowie’s hold over my imagination that even after we’ve lost so many others, his death is still the one that hurts the most, and I think that the post I wrote after hearing the news might be the best thing I’ve ever written on this blog.)

When a science fiction writer dies, there’s an additional pang of regret that he or she didn’t live “to see the future,” which, if anything, is even more irrational. But that doesn’t make it wrong. In the May 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, John W. Campbell published the complete chart of Robert A. Heinlein’s Future History, which extended from the present day to past the year 2100. In his editor’s note, Campbell wrote:

It might be of very real interest to you to trace in on this suggestion of the future your own life line. My own, I imagine, should extend up to about 1980—a bit beyond the time of “Roads Must Roll” and “Blowups Happen.” My children may see the days of “Logic of Empire.” Where does your life line fall? Where will your children’s end?

Campbell, in fact, had no intention of dying at all. In a biographical sketch from the early fifties, he said: “It’s my intention to live at least two hundred years, because I damn well want to find out how this mess comes out, and that’s the only way I know of that I can do it.” A few years later, he extended the timeline, saying that he planned “to see what happens next—if I have to hang around for another five hundred years or so to do so!” Toward the end of the sixties, when he was painfully conscious of his failing health, he wrote, more modestly, that he hoped to keep editing the magazine for another thirty years, noting that he would be “just shy of ninety” in 1998.

Robert A. Heinlein's Future History

Campbell’s fullest statement on human longevity came in an editorial titled “Oh King, Live Forever!”, which was published in the April 1949 issue of Astounding. Campbell began with the statement:

At some point in the history of the world and the history of medical science, a point will be reached such that a child born at that time can, if he chooses—and has reasonable luck so far as mechanical damage goes—live practically forever. This point in time will be some forty or more years before the perfection of the full requirements for continuous life—and this point may already have passed, without our knowing it.

He continued by saying that it shouldn’t be too hard to extend the human lifespan by a few decades, and he concluded:

The first advance of thirty years would be no “eternal youth” treatment. But—science tends to advance exponentially. That thirty-year reprieve might give just the time needed for research to extend your life another forty years. And that forty years might—

It’s an argument that perfectly anticipates those of such later transhumanists as Ray Kurzweil, author of books like Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever. And for all I know, it might be right—someday.

As it turned out, Campbell was only sixty-one when he died, and while his death was sudden, it was far from unexpected: he had been suffering from gout, high blood pressure, and other ailments for years. It’s easy to regret that both he and Asimov failed to make it to the twenty-first century. But Campbell lived to see the moon landing. So did Asimov, who once wrote, like Campbell, that he hoped to keep on living as long as he was still curious to see how the story would turn out. In his movie review of The Sea Inside, which is about a quadriplegic who demands the right to die, Roger Ebert made a similar statement:

I believe I would want to live as long as I could, assuming I had my sanity and some way to communicate…If a man is of sound mind and not in pain, how in the world can he decide he no longer wants to read tomorrow’s newspaper?

When he wrote those words, Ebert—who once called Campbell “my hero”—was a few years away from his own very public struggle with mortality. But the desire to see what happens next is very strong, and it’s particularly moving when you think of the times through which Campbell, Asimov, and the rest all lived. It’s been a rough twelve months, and I can’t say that I’m particularly sorry to say goodbye to 2016. But I still want to know what comes next.

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December 30, 2016 at 9:24 am

The MAYA prophecy

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Raymond Loewy on the cover of Time Magazine

In this month’s issue of The Atlantic, there’s an excerpt from the upcoming book Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction. Its author, Derek Thompson, argues that success in a wide range of fields results from what researchers have called “optimal newness”—a degree of innovation that is advanced enough to be striking, but also just familiar enough to be accessible. Thompson illustrates his point with numerous examples, from plot formulas in prestige dramas to chord progressions in popular music, and he notes that science and business are vulnerable to it as well:

In 2014, a team of researchers from Harvard University and Northeastern University wanted to know exactly what sorts of proposals were most likely to win funding from prestigious institutions such as the National Institutes of Health—safely familiar proposals, or extremely novel ones? They prepared about 150 research proposals and gave each one a novelty score…The most-novel proposals got the worst ratings. Exceedingly familiar proposals fared a bit better, but they still received low scores. “Everyone dislikes novelty,” Karim Lakhani, a co-author, explained to me, and “experts tend to be overcritical of proposals in their own domain.” The highest evaluation scores went to submissions that were deemed slightly new. There is an “optimal newness” for ideas, Lakhani said—advanced yet acceptable.

Thompson frames his argument with a consideration of the career of the industrial designer Raymond Loewy, who summed up the principle with the acronym MAYA: “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable.” And while this may seem like a tautology—an innovation is acceptable until it isn’t—it’s worth scrutinizing more closely. When we look at business or the arts, we find that they often reward the simulation of innovation, which pushes all the right buttons for novelty while remaining fundamentally conventional. The result can be an entire culture that regards itself as innovative while really only repeating an endless cycle of the same clichés. You can see this clearly in technology, of which Thompson writes:

In Silicon Valley, where venture capitalists also sift through a surfeit of proposals, many new ideas are promoted as a fresh spin on familiar successes. The home-rental company Airbnb was once called “eBay for homes.” The on-demand car-service companies Uber and Lyft were once considered “Airbnb for cars.” When Uber took off, new start-ups began branding themselves “Uber for [anything].”

And when every company is talking about “disruption,” it implies that very little is being disrupted at all—especially when the startups in question are inclined to hire people who look just like the founders.

Charles Atlas

Not surprisingly, I found myself applying this observation to the history of science fiction. When you look at Astounding in the golden age through the lens of “optimal newness,” you find that it fits the definition pretty well. John W. Campbell was famously conservative in many respects, and he was wary of directly engaging such subjects as sex and religion. In 1939, when he first read Robert A. Heinlein’s “If This Goes On—,” he loved it, but he also noted in a letter to a friend that it was “too hot to handle,” and that the references to religion had to be carefully edited. Decades later, he was still saying the same thing—the phrase “too hot to handle” recurs repeatedly in his correspondence. Campbell had a fixed idea of how much change his readers would tolerate. As he later wrote to his father: “[Astounding] is carefully expurgated to suit the most prudish—while I’m busy sawing away at the piling on which the whole crazy structure is resting.” And his caution is visible in other ways. When he took over Astounding, it was still basically a pulp magazine, and in order to retain his readership, he couldn’t depart too far from the original model. Instead, he tweaked it in small but significant ways. Instead of the usual hypermasculine heroes, he introduced a new kind of character—the “competent man” who solved all of his problems using logic and engineering. But he was still a white male. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Campbell that he could be anything else. And as late as 1967, he was still saying that he didn’t think his readers could accept a black protagonist.

And he had good reasons for believing this. One of the first things that everyone notices about the fans of this era—who were a small subset, but a highly visible one, of the readership as a whole—is that many of them were outsiders. They were poor, sickly, unathletic, and sexually inexperienced, and they craved stories that told them that they could become something more. Like Charles Atlas, whose ads were inescapable in the magazine’s pages, Campbell was selling a vision of transformation, which said that you, too, could become a superman if you worked hard enough at it. And he was telling the truth. The sense of otherness that many young science fiction fans experienced was a temporary one, inseparable from the hell of adolescence, and most of them grew up to become productive members of society. They were competent men in larval form. But the genre had less to say to fans who were set apart by qualities that couldn’t merely be outgrown, like race, gender, or sexuality. Like Silicon Valley, it was pitched to appeal to a particular kind of outcast, and this was reflected in the heroes that it celebrated. As long as the formula remained intact, you could do pretty much as you liked. But it also limited the kinds of stories that could be told, to the point where it created a self-fulfilling prophecy about the writers who were drawn to it. The planets were exotic, but the faces were familiar. It’s no secret that science fiction has always tended to take the approach of optimal newness, and that it innovated within acceptable boundaries. But acceptable to whom?

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December 14, 2016 at 9:31 am

The Slan solution

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Slan by A.E. van Vogt

Science fiction has never been as good at predicting the future as it might like to believe, but it came as close as it ever did in the story “Solution Unsatisfactory,” which Robert A. Heinlein wrote based on an idea from the editor John W. Campbell. It appeared in the May 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, which represented the peak of Heinlein’s career in the pulps: it also included his novella “Universe,” which was similarly derived from a premise by Campbell, and the complete chart of his Future History, an act of unprecedented generosity by the magazine to an individual writer. But “Solution Unsatisfactory,” which he wrote under the pen name Anson MacDonald, is the most impressive work of all. It describes the invention of a superweapon, based on radioactive dust, that is used to end World War II, but which quickly results in a destructive arms race. The “solution” is the creation of the Peace Patrol, a nongovernmental organization that maintains monopoly power over the weapon and monitors other countries to prevent it from being developed elsewhere. As the title implies, this isn’t much of an answer—it means that the Peace Patrol effectively holds the rest of the world hostage—but Heinlein and Campbell weren’t able to come up with a better one. We’re faced with either the constant threat of destruction from what we’d now call “non-state actors,” or an intrusive and unaccountable police state that controls the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction while drastically limiting most other freedoms.

“Solution Unsatisfactory” is usually remembered as a prediction of the Cold War, but it reads more today like an anticipation of nuclear terrorism. In the note at the end of the story, Campbell lays out the dilemma:

The irresistible weapon has been discovered. It can be duplicated easily by small groups, so that only the most rigorous and minute policing—intruding on every individual’s private life—can prevent it escaping control to be turned on all men…The world must be defended against every little knot of crackpots with a mission—and the horrible weapon.

Campbell concludes: “Can any solution not invoking the aid of the Arisian super-beings protect mankind against the irresistible weapon?” This last sentence may require a word of explanation. The Arisians, who made their first appearance in E.E. Smith’s Lensman series, are a race of advanced aliens who have been secretly manipulating mankind throughout all of human history. They’re infinitely intelligent, powerful, and benevolent, and they would, in fact, represent a pretty good solution to the problem that the story presents. So would a different kind of superbeing, which made its debut the previous year in A.E. van Vogt’s landmark serial Slan. The Slan are mutated, superintelligent humans who have developed the power of telepathy. (When the story begins, they’re a persecuted minority, and many science fiction readers—who felt oppressed and ostracized because of their own intelligence—identified with their situation, leading to the popular slogan: “Fans are slans.”) As a reader named Billiam Kingston-Stoy promptly pointed out in a letter to the magazine, having seen only a plot summary of the Heinlein story: “Any slan, or reasonable facsimile thereof, could give you an accurate solution of the problem.” Campbell responded: “The question on ‘Solution Unsatisfactory’ is to answer the problem without supermen.”

"Solution Unsatisfactory" by Robert A. Heinlein

Needless to say, introducing a species of nonhuman superbeings to resolve an existential threat is a form of cheating—and one to which science fiction, like the superhero genre, has always been particularly susceptible. But what isn’t as well known is that Campbell originally had a similar solution in mind when he first pitched the idea to Heinlein. As he wrote in a letter dated December 15, 1940:

I’d rather lean to the nice, ironic possibility, in the ending, of having one of the characters of the story—[a] rather minor background character, but a persistent one, make a concluding observation to his wife. Seems he’s been watching with great interest, that he and she and their fifteen children know that what happens now isn’t particularly important, since they and their new race, the superhumans, are taking over in a generation or two anyway. They’re the result of one of the mutations caused by all the dusting.

In response, Heinlein wrote:

I did not use the superman mutant idea—too reminiscent of Slan and too much like a rabbit out of a hat. Besides I have a strong hunch that big jumps in mutation are always down…and never up. I don’t know enough about genetics to prove it, but it seems wildly improbable to me that brand-new powers, abilities, senses, etc. can appear without a long, slow evolutionary background.

Campbell evidently agreed, and it’s instructive to see how he immediately turned Heinlein’s objection into a condition of the story itself. The lack of a satisfying resolution was no longer a bug, but a feature. (Campbell explained in a later letter: “The story is weak, because the solution is palpably synthetic and unsatisfactory—and that very fact can be made, by proper blurbing, the greatest strength of the story.” That’s good editing!) But the most fascinating development came later. Within a few years, the scenario sketched out by the story had become all too plausible, and Campbell wasn’t optimistic about mankind’s chances. As he wrote in the magazine in April 1946:

When small, use-anything atomic devices can be made, they can be made in secret…When they can be made in secret, some sincere, noble soul, a martyr to his own desire to save the world as quickly as possible in the way he knows is best, is going to commit suicide with some such gadget, and remove Washington…from the Earth…It’s up to psychology to develop means of finding such unstable people…Psychology must advance faster than nuclear physics.

The italics are mine. Before long, Campbell would try to put a new psychology into practice—with the help of L. Ron Hubbard. It was called dianetics, and its goal was to provide its subjects with enhanced intelligence, memory, sensory awareness, and even morality. The improved human beings that resulted would be the only ones capable of providing the world with the security that it desperately needed. Hubbard called this idealized person a “clear.” But you could also say that Campbell’s solution to the unsolvable problem was to turn fans into slans.

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December 12, 2016 at 9:49 am

Fear of a female planet

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The Legion of Time

In his memoir In Memory Yet Green, Isaac Asimov describes some of the earliest stories that he wrote with an eye to publication, when he was just eighteen years old, and concludes:

There were no girls in [these stories]…But then, women were very much an unknown quantity for me…In 1938, when I was writing my first stories, I had yet to have a formal date with a girl. In short, the circumstances of my life were such that it never occurred to me to put a feminine character in my stories…I eventually had dates, and I eventually learned about women, but the early imprinting had its effect. To this very day, the romantic element in my stories tends to be minor and the sexual element virtually nil.

When you dig a little deeper, however, you find that the absence of women wasn’t just an accidental quality of the young Asimov’s work, but a conscious decision. Or at least that’s how he chose to spin it. In a letter that was published in the September 1938 issue of Astounding—or just as he was making his first serious efforts as a writer—Asimov wrote: “When we want science fiction, we don’t want swooning dames…Come on, men, make yourself heard in favor of less love mixed with our science!” A year later, after his letters had inspired a debate among fans, Asimov doubled down, writing: “The great philosophers and the great religious leaders of the world—the ones who taught truth and virtue, kindliness and justice—were all, all men.”

To be fair, Asimov was only nineteen, and later in his life, he probably would have been embarrassed by the sentiments expressed in those letters. (They feel a lot like a defense mechanism to justify his own shyness with women, both in fiction and in real life.) But the trouble that science fiction has always had with its female characters is so fundamental that you could almost point to it as a defining quality of the genre. The case of Robert A. Heinlein is even more problematic than Asimov’s, in large part because he was a better writer. In an essay published in the memorial volume Requiem, the writer Spider Robinson disputes the accusation that Heinlein was “a male chauvinist,” listing a few dozen female characters who seem to disprove the allegation. “Virtually every one of them,” Robinson concludes, “is a world-class expert in at least one demanding and competitive field.” And there’s no question that Heinlein’s fiction is full of tough, smart, attractive women. The trouble is that they possess these qualities mostly because it’s what the protagonist—invariably male—likes to see in a prospective mate. These strong, intelligent, liberated women become the prize that the hero gets for surviving, and they’re often openly eager to have his babies. They aren’t allowed to drive the story or have an inner life of their own, and even the toughest of them meekly submits to the hero as soon as he takes charge. The only really convincing adult woman in all of Heinlein is Cynthia Randall in “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag,” and I don’t think it’s an accident that she feels so much like a portrait of his wife Leslyn in the years before their marriage fell apart.

"The Door into Summer" by Robert A. Heinlein

I’m being hard on Heinlein precisely because he was the best writer the genre ever produced, which makes his failure here all the harder to forgive. If we judge science fiction’s treatment of women by the extent to which they’re allowed to affect the stories in which they appear, then none of the central figures in Astounding pass even that rudimentary test. On the whole, in fact, science fiction has done better when its women are openly allowed to be sinister. Belle in The Door into Summer, my favorite Heinlein novel, isn’t exactly a positive role model, but as a femme fatale—much of the first half of the book reads oddly like James M. Cain—she’s twice as interesting as the usual pneumatic secretary with a genius IQ whom Heinlein submits for our approval. As far as other writers go, A.E. van Vogt, whose background was in confession stories, is surprisingly good with women, especially when they’re a little menacing. And then there’s Jack Williamson, who was so much better at female villains than at heroines that it became a running joke among his friends. (You can see this most clearly in his masterpiece, “The Legion of Time,” which amounts to a Betty and Veronica story told on a cosmic scale.) In a letter to John W. Campbell, Heinlein writes:

At a recent gathering of the Mañana Literary Society, [Cleve] Cartmill and [Anthony Boucher]…were trying to determine why Jack’s sinister female characters were so solid and convincing and his heroine-like females so cardboard. Someone suggested that it was because Jack was really afraid of women. Jack considered this and said that he thought it might be true. “I may have a subconscious conviction,” avers Jack, “that vaginas are equipped with teeth.”

It’s tempting to blame much of this on the historical circumstances in which pulp science fiction emerged: Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing came out of a community of electronic hobbyists that consisted mostly of young white men, and the fan groups that emerged followed suit. As you see in even a cursory glance at the letters columns from that period, girls were regarded with active suspicion. (Asimov sarcastically observes that there must be “at least twenty” female science fiction fans.) It certainly wasn’t an environment in which most women felt welcome, and it became a cycle that fed on itself, with writers unable to see the contrary examples that were right in front of their faces. Ray Bradbury was mentored by the likes of Catherine Moore and Leslyn Heinlein, but in The Martian Chronicles, he blows much of his goodwill whenever he has to talk about women. There’s the punchline in “The Silent Towns,” for example, in which the last man on Mars goes in search of the last woman, only to be dismayed to find that she’s dumpy and unattractive. And there’s the unforgivable line about the early days of settlement of Mars: “Everyone knew who the first women would be.” It’s a massive blind spot that reminds me of the androids in Westworld, who can’t see anything that conflicts with their programming. Given the times in which they lived, you could argue that it’s unreasonable to wish that these writers had done better. But these were the men we trusted to tell us about the future. If they can’t be held to the highest possible standard, then who can?

The analytical laboratory

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The Martian

Over the last few months, there’s been a surprising flurry of film and television activity involving the writers featured in my upcoming book Astounding. SyFy has announced plans to adapt Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in the Strange Land as a miniseries, with an imposing creative team that includes Hollywood power broker Scott Rudin and Zodiac screenwriter James Vanderbilt. Columbia is aiming to reboot Starship Troopers with producer Neal H. Mortiz of The Fast and the Furious, prompting Paul Verhoeven, the director of the original, to comment: “Going back to the novel would fit very much in a Trump presidency.” The production company Legendary has bought the film and television rights to Dune, which first appeared as a serial edited by John W. Campbell in Analog. Meanwhile, Jonathan Nolan is apparently still attached to an adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, although he seems rather busy at the moment. (L. Ron Hubbard remains relatively neglected, unless you want to count Leah Remini’s new show, which the Church of Scientology would probably hope you wouldn’t.) The fact that rights have been purchased and press releases issued doesn’t necessarily mean that anything will happen, of course, although the prospects for Stranger in a Strange Land seem strong. And while it’s possible that I’m simply paying more attention to these announcements now that I’m thinking about these writers all the time, I suspect that there’s something real going on.

So why the sudden surge of interest? The most likely, and also the most heartening, explanation is that we’re experiencing a revival of hard science fiction. Movies like Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, and Arrival—which I haven’t seen yet—have demonstrated that there’s an audience for films that draw more inspiration from Clarke and Kubrick than from Star Wars. Westworld, whatever else you might think of it, has done much the same on television. And there’s no question that the environment for this kind of story is far more attractive now than it was even ten years ago. For my money, the most encouraging development is the movie Life, a horror thriller set on the International Space Station, which is scheduled to come out next summer. I’m tickled by it because, frankly, it doesn’t look like anything special: the trailer starts promisingly enough, but it ends by feeling very familiar. It might turn out to be better than it looks, but I almost hope that it doesn’t. The best sign that a genre is reaching maturity isn’t a series of singular achievements, but the appearance of works that are content to color inside the lines, consciously evoking the trappings of more visionary movies while remaining squarely focused on the mainstream. A film like Interstellar is always going to be an outlier. What we need are movies like what Life promises to be: a science fiction film of minimal ambition, but a certain amount of skill, and a willingness to copy the most obvious features of its predecessors. That’s when you’ve got a trend.

Jake Gyllenhaal in Life

The other key development is the growing market for prestige dramas on television, which is the logical home for Stranger in a Strange Land and, I think, Dune. It may be the case, as we’ve been told in connection with Star Trek: Discovery, that there isn’t a place for science fiction on a broadcast network, but there’s certainly room for it on cable. Combine this with the increased appetite for hard science fiction on film, and you’ve got precisely the conditions in which smart production companies should be snatching up the rights to Asimov, Heinlein, and the rest. Given the historically rapid rise and fall of such trends, they shouldn’t expect this window to remain open for long. (In a letter to Asimov on February 3, 1939, Frederik Pohl noted the flood of new science fiction magazines on newsstands, and he concluded: “Time is indeed of the essence…Such a condition can’t possibly last forever, and the time to capitalize on it is now; next month may be too late.”) What they’re likely to find, in the end, is that many of these stories are resistant to adaptation, and that they’re better off seeking out original material. There’s a reason that there have been so few movies derived from Heinlein and Asimov, despite the temptation that they’ve always presented. Heinlein, in particular, seems superficially amenable to the movies: he certainly knew how to write action in a way that Asimov couldn’t. But he also liked to spend the second half of a story picking apart the assumptions of the first, after sucking in the reader with an exciting beginning, and if you aren’t going to include the deconstruction, you might as well write something from scratch.

As it happens, the recent spike of action on the adaptation front has coincided with another announcement. Analog, the laboratory in which all these authors were born, is cutting back its production schedule to six double issues every year. This is obviously intended to manage costs, and it’s a reminder of how close to the edge the science fiction digests have always been. (To be fair, the change also coincides with a long overdue update of the magazine’s website, which is very encouraging. If this reflects a true shift from print to online, it’s less a retreat than a necessary recalibration.) It’s easy to contrast the game of pennies being played at the bottom with the expenditure of millions of dollars at the top, but that’s arguably how it has to be. Analog, like Astounding before it, was a machine for generating variations, which needs to be done on the cheap. Most stories are forgotten almost at once, and the few that survive the test of time are the ones that get the lion’s share of resources. All the while, the magazine persists as an indispensable form of research and development—a sort of skunk works that keeps the entire enterprise going. That’s been true since the beginning, and you can see this clearly in the lives of the writers involved. Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert, and their estates became wealthy from their work. Campbell, who more than any other individual was responsible for the rise of modern science fiction, did not. Instead, he remained in his little office, lugging manuscripts in a heavy briefcase twice a week on the train. He was reasonably well off, but not in a way that creates an empire of valuable intellectual property. Instead, he ran the lab. And we can see the results all around us.

The tragic life of Mitsui

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Leonardo Nam on Westworld

In the latest issue of The New York Times Magazine, the film critic Wesley Morris has a reflective piece titled “Last Taboo,” the subheadline of which reads: “Why Pop Culture Just Can’t Deal With Black Male Sexuality.” Morris, who is a gay black man, notes that full-frontal male nudity has become more common in recent years in movies and television, but it’s usually white men who are being undressed for the camera, which tells us a lot about the unresolved but highly charged feelings that the culture still has toward the black male body. As Morris writes:

Black men [are] desired on one hand and feared on the other…Here’s our original sin metastasized into a perverted sticking point: The white dick means nothing, while, whether out of revulsion or lust, the black dick means too much.

And although I don’t want to detract from the importance of the point that Morris is making here, I’ll admit that as I read these words, another thought ran though my mind. If the white penis means nothing, then the Asian penis, by extension, must mean—well, less than nothing. I don’t mean to equate the desexualization of Asian males in popular culture with the treatment of black men in fiction and in real life. But both seem to provide crucial data points, from opposite ends, for our understanding of the underlying phenomenon, which is how writers and other artists have historically treated the bodies of those who look different than they do.

I read Morris’s piece after seeing a tweet by the New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum, who connected it to an awful scene in last night’s episode of Westworld, in which an otherwise likable character makes a joke about a well-endowed black robot. It’s a weirdly dissonant moment for a series that is so controlled in other respects, and it’s possible that it reflects nothing more than Jonathan Nolan’s clumsiness—which he shares with his older brother—whenever he makes a stab at humor. (I also suspect, given the show’s production delays, that the line was written and shot a long time ago, before these questions assumed a more prominent role in the cultural conversation. Which doesn’t make it any easier to figure out what the writers were thinking.) Race hasn’t played much of a role on the series so far, and it may not be fair to pass judgment on a show that has only aired five episodes and clearly has a lot of other stuff on its mind. But it’s hard not to wonder. The cast is diverse, but the guests are mostly white men, undoubtedly because, as Nussbaum notes elsewhere, they’re the natural target audience for the park’s central fantasy. And the show has a strange habit of using its Asian cast members, who are mostly just faces in the background, as verbal punching bags for the other characters, a trend so peculiar that my wife and I both noticed it separately. It’s likely that this has all been muddied by what seems to be shaping up to be an actual storyline for Felix, played by Leonardo Nam, who looks as if he’s about to respond to his casual mistreatment by rising to a larger role in the story. But even for a show with a lot of moving parts, it strikes me as a lazy way of prodding a character into action.

John Lone in Year of the Dragon

Over the last few months, as it happens, I’ve been thinking a lot about the representation of Asians in science fiction. (As I’ve mentioned before, I’m Eurasian—half Chinese, half Finnish and Estonian.) I may as well start with Robert A. Heinlein’s Sixth Column, a novel that he wrote on assignment for Astounding Science Fiction, based in part on All, an earlier, unpublished serial by John W. Campbell. Both stories, which were written long before Pearl Harbor, are about the invasion of the United States by a combined Chinese and Japanese empire, which inspires an underground resistance movement in the form of a fake religion. Heinlein later wrote that he tried to rework the narrative to tone down its more objectionable elements, but it pains me to say that Sixth Column actually reads as more racist than All, simply because Heinlein was the stronger writer. When you read All, you don’t feel much of anything, because Campbell was a stiff and awkward stylist. Heinlein, by contrast, spent much of his career bringing immense technical skill to even the most questionable projects, and he can’t keep from investing his characters with real rhetorical vigor as they talk about “flat-faced apes” and “our slant-eyed lords.” I don’t even mind the idea of an Asian menace, as long as the bad guys are treated as worthy antagonists, which Heinlein mostly does. But when the leaders of the resistance decide to grow beards in order to fill the invaders with “a feeling of womanly inferiority,” it’s hard to excuse it. And the most offensive moment of all involves Mitsui, the only sympathetic Asian character in sight, who sacrifices himself for the sake of his friends and is rewarded with the epitaph: “But they had no time to dwell on the end of little Mitsui’s tragic life.”

That’s the kind of racism that rankles me: not the diabolical Asian villain, who can be invested with a kind of sinister allure, as much as the legion of little Mitsuis who still populate so much of our fiction. (This may be why I’ve always sort of liked Michael Cimino’s indefensible Year of the Dragon, which at least treats John Lone’s character as a formidable, glamorous foe. It’s certainly less full of hate than The Deer Hunter.) And it complicates my reactions to other issues. When it was announced that Sulu would be unobtrusively presented as gay in Star Trek Beyond, it filled me with mixed feelings, and not just because George Takei didn’t seem to care for the idea. As much as I appreciated what the filmmakers were trying to do, I couldn’t help but think that it would have been just as innovative, if not more so, to depict Sulu as straight. I’m aware that this risks making it all seem like a zero-sum game, which it isn’t. But these points deserve to be raised, if only because they enrich the larger conversation. If a single scene on Westworld can spark a discussion of how we treat black men as sexual objects, we can do the same with the show’s treatment of Asians. The series presumably didn’t invite or expect such scrutiny, but it occupies a cultural position—as a prestige drama on a premium cable channel—in which it has no choice but to play that part. Science fiction, in particular, has always been a sandbox in which these issues can be investigated in ways that wouldn’t be possible in narratives set in the present, from the original run of Star Trek on down. Westworld belongs squarely in that tradition. And these are frontiers that it ought to explore.

The failure of the oracles

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Samuel R. Delany

There’s a scene in Samuel R. Delany’s convoluted but extraordinary novel Nova, which is set in the year 3172, in which a character performs a reading with tarot cards. In the interstellar civilization in which the story takes place, the tarot is taken for granted as a source of useful information, and when a supporting player named Mouse expresses his skepticism, he’s told that he sounds “like somebody living a thousand years ago.” As the tarot reader explains:

Mouse, the cards don’t actually predict anything. They simply propagate an educated commentary on present situations...The seventy-eight cards of the Tarot present symbols and mythological images that have recurred and reverberated through forty-five centuries of human history. Someone who understands these symbols can construct a dialogue about a given situation. There’s nothing superstitious about it. The Book of Changes, even Chaldean Astrology only become superstitious when they are abused, employed to direct rather than to guide and suggest.

The italics are mine. After Mouse objects that “cards aren’t educated,” someone else replies: “You’ve got some odd ideas, Mouse—admittedly, they’re fascinating. If somebody had told me I’d be working in the same crew, today in the thirty-first century, with somebody who could honestly be skeptical about the Tarot, I don’t think I would have believed it.”

What I like about Delany’s treatment of the subject is that it suggests that an entire culture can pass from superstition through skepticism to something more advanced on the other side. (As the character quoted above continues: “As soon as you have people from the times of the great stellar migrations, you’re dealing with cultures sophisticated enough to comprehend things like the Tarot.”) A blind faith in the tarot as a means of predicting the future, like any form of divination, is characteristic of childhood, and most of us mature to the point where we no longer take it seriously. For artists like Delany, however, there’s another stage beyond this, in which we realize that structured repositories of arbitrary symbols—often preserved in the cultural memory as oracles—can be a tool for thinking through questions that are resistant to more rational analysis. Writing about the tarot a few years ago, I called it “a portable machine for generating patterns,” and I noted that it results in a temporary structure, spread out across the table, that feels like an externalization of the problem in your head. You can examine it, scrutinize it from different angles, or even walk away from it. I suspect that it’s the spatial aspect of the tarot that makes it a valuable source of connections between ideas, even more than the symbols on the cards themselves. It won’t tell you the future, but by forcing you to map or analogize your current situation onto a matrix of charged symbols, it can provide surprising insights into the present.

The Tarot of Marseilles

And here’s the really interesting part: you can make the same argument for science fiction. The genre has always made a big deal of its predictive side, but like the oracular powers of tarot cards or the I Ching, it’s best to regard this as a kind of bait designed to reel in susceptible minds. It’s a mislead, but a necessary one, if you want these art forms to survive. By promising everyone the ability to tell the future, you trick a select few into thinking seriously about the real purpose of the craft, which is to figure out where we are now. For most readers, it’s easier and safer to sell science fiction as a vision of the future than as a commentary on themselves. For instance, my battered paperback copy of Podkayne of Mars calls it “a remarkable picture of the customs and characters of the coming Age of Space,” which I don’t think even Heinlein would say he was writing. The blurb for an old edition of The Currents of Space says much the same thing: “In this novel, Dr. Asimov’s probing imagination has created a fascinating tale set in the not-too-distant future—an adventure that could change from fiction to fact any day now.” You could excuse this as a marketing strategy to promote this kind of fiction to a wider audience, but more insidiously, it encourages readers to focus on accidental, totally irrelevant acts of prediction while ignoring deeper insights of real value. Heinlein’s article on Wikipedia notes that he anticipated the waterbed, but not that he foresaw the Cold War. And I know which of the two I find more impressive.

This is all pretty harmless, but it becomes more worrisome when it influences how we define the practice of science fiction from the inside. As I see it, we’re faced with a stark pair of options. We can approach it like a phony psychic who makes a lot of wild predictions, hopes that her hits are remembered and her misses are forgotten, and leverages one lucky guess into an entire career, like Jeane Dixon allegedly predicting the Kennedy assassination. The net amount of information gained in the process, needless to say, is zero. Or we can think of ourselves as educated commentators on the present, which seems like the more valuable goal. If science fiction often seems stuck in a state of arrested development in the eyes of the overall culture, it’s largely due to the fact that critics see a preoccupation with prediction as a sign of immaturity. And maybe they’re right. If nothing else, it’s a form of superstition, or an inability to distinguish between the genre’s surface pleasures and its actual value. Science fiction has always whispered to certain readers, once they were lured inside: “You thought we were talking about the future, but we were really talking about you.” Like the tarot, it employs symbols that have recurred and reverberated throughout history and uses them to construct a dialogue, or an analogy. Responding instinctively to the symbols and missing the underlying pattern is a common, if understandable, mistake—these symbols wouldn’t work in the first place if they weren’t powerful enough to be subject to that kind of misinterpretation. But it’s only when we remember the real point of the exercise that science fiction, like the tarot in Nova, becomes something that no educated person can afford to dismiss.

Written by nevalalee

October 19, 2016 at 9:32 am

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