Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Spacewar

The long now

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In early 1965, Tom Wolfe noticed a book on the shelves of Ken Kesey’s house in La Honda, California, which had become a gathering place for the young, mostly affluent hippies whom the journalist had dubbed “the Beautiful People.” In Kesey’s living room, “a curious little library” was growing, as Wolfe recounts in typically hyperbolic fashion in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test:

Books of science fiction and other mysterious things, and you could pick up almost any of these books and find strange vibrations. The whole thing here is so much like…this book on Kesey’s shelf, Robert Heinlein’s novel, Stranger in a Strange Land. It is bewildering. It is as if Heinlein and the Pranksters were bound together by some inexplicable acausal connecting bond. This is a novel about a Martian who comes to earth, a true Superhero, in fact…raised by infinitely superior beings, the Martians. Beings on other plants are always infinitely superior in science fiction novels. Anyway, around him gathers a mystic brotherhood, based on a mysterious ceremony known as water-sharing. They live in—La Honda! At Kesey’s! Their place is called the Nest. Their life transcends all the usual earthly games of status, sex, and money. No one who once shares water and partakes of life in the Nest ever cares about such banal competitions again. There is a pot of money inside the front door, provided by the Superhero…Everything is totally out front in the Nest—no secrets, no guilt, no jealousies, no putting anyone down for anything.

He closes with a string of quotations from the character Jubal Harshaw, who had affinities to Wolfe himself, including the skeptical but grudgingly admiring line: “Ain’t nobody here but [just] us gods.”

One member of Kesey’s circle who undoubtedly read the novel was Stewart Brand, my hero, who pops up in Wolfe’s book as an “Indian freak” and later founded The Whole Earth Catalog, which became famous for a similar declaration of intent: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” (As I retype it now, it’s that one italicized word that strikes me the most, as if Brand were preemptively replying to Wolfe and his other detractors.) Much later, in the celebrated essay “We Owe it All to the Hippies,” Brand writes:

We all read Robert Heinlein’s epic Stranger in a Strange Land as well as his libertarian screed-novel, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Hippies and nerds alike reveled in Heinlein’s contempt for centralized authority. To this day, computer scientists and technicians are almost universally science-fiction fans. And ever since the 1950s, for reasons that are unclear to me, science fiction has been almost universally libertarian in outlook.

Heinlein and his circle don’t figure prominently in the Catalog, in which the work of fiction that receives the most attention is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. But Brand later recommended the Foundation trilogy as part of the Manual for Civilization collection at the Long Now Foundation, which may have been a subtle hint to its true intentions. In the Foundation series, after all, the writing of the Encyclopedia Galactica is an elaborate mislead, a pretext to build an organization that will ultimately be turned to other ends.  An even better excuse might be the construction and maintenance of an enormous clock designed to last for ten thousand years—an idea that is obviously too farfetched for fiction. In an interview, Brand’s friend Kevin Kelly protested too much: “We’re not trying to be Hari Seldon from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation.” Yeah, right.

Brand himself was only tangentially inspired by science fiction, and his primarily exposure to it was evidently through the remarkable people with whom he surrounded himself. In his book The Media Lab, which was published in 1988, Brand asks the roboticist Marvin Minsky why he’s so interested in science fiction writers, and he quotes from the answer at length:

Well, I think of them as thinkers. They try to figure out the consequences and implications of things in as thoughtful a way as possible. A couple of hundred years from now, maybe Isaac Asimov and Fred Pohl will be considered the important philosophers of the twentieth century, and the professional philosophers will almost all be forgotten, because they’re just shallow and wrong, and their ideas aren’t very powerful. Whenever Pohl or Asimov writes something, I regard it as extremely urgent to read it right away. They might have a new idea. Asimov has been working for forty years on this problem: if you can make an intelligent machine, what kind of relations will it have with people? How do you negotiate when their thinking is so different? The science fiction writers think about what it means to think.

Along with Asimov and Pohl, Brand notes, the other writers whom Minsky studied closely included Arthur C. Clarke, Heinlein, Gregory Benford, James P. Hogan, John W. Campbell, and H.G. Wells. “If Minsky had his way,” Brand writes, “there would always be a visiting science fiction writer in resident at the Media Lab.” In practice, that’s more or less how it worked out—Campbell was a frequent visitor, as was Asimov, who said that Minsky was one of the handful of people, along with Carl Sagan, whom he acknowledged as being more intelligent than he was.

To be honest, I doubt that Asimov and Pohl will ever be remembered as “the important philosophers of the twentieth century,” although if they might have a better shot if you replace “philosophers” with “futurologists.” It seems a reasonably safe bet that the Three Laws of Robotics, which Campbell casually tossed out in his office for Asimov to develop, will be remembered longer than the vast majority of the work being produced by the philosophy departments of that era. But even for Kesey, Brand, and all the rest, the relationship was less about influence than about simple proximity. When Wolfe speaks of “an acausal connecting bond” between Heinlein and the Merry Pranksters, he’s consciously echoing the subtitle of Carl Jung’s Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle, which may be the best way to think about it. During moments of peak cultural intensity, ideas are simultaneously developed by different communities in ways that may only occasionally intersect. (On April 6, 1962, for instance, Asimov wrote to Campbell to recommend that he investigate the video game Spacewar, which had been developed just two months earlier at MIT. Campbell spent the next decade trying to get an article on it for Analog, which Albert W. Kuhfeld finally wrote up for the July 1971 issue. A year later, Brand wrote a piece about it for Rolling Stone.) And Brand himself was keenly aware of the costs of such separation. In The Media Lab, he writes:

Somewhere in my education I was misled to believe that science fiction and science fact must be kept rigorously separate. In practice they are so blurred together they are practically one intellectual activity, although the results are published differently, one kind of journal for careful scientific reporting, another kind for wicked speculation.

In 1960, Campbell tried to tear down those barriers in a single audacious move, when he changed the title of his magazine from Astounding to Analog Science Fact & Fiction. For most of his career, Brand has been doing the same thing, only far more quietly. But I have a hunch that his approach may be the one that succeeds.

Children of the Lens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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