Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Sputnik

The Heirs of Sputnik

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mule and the Beaver

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If you wanted to construct the most prolific writer who ever lived, working from first principles, what features would you include? (We’ll assume, for the purposes of this discussion, that he’s a man.) Obviously, he would need to be capable of turning out clean, publishable prose at a fast pace and with a minimum of revision. He would be contented—even happy—within the physical conditions of writing itself, which requires working indoors at a desk alone for hours on end. Ideally, he would operate within a genre, either fiction or nonfiction, that lent itself to producing pages fairly quickly, but with enough variety to prevent burnout, since he’d need to maintain a steady clip every day for years. His most productive period would coincide with an era that gave him steady demand for his work, and he would have a boundless energy that was diverted early on toward the goal of producing more books. If you were particularly clever, you’d even introduce a psychological wrinkle: the act of writing would become his greatest source of satisfaction, as well as an emotional refuge, so that he would end up taking more pleasure in it than almost anything else in life. Finally, you’d provide him with cooperative publishers and an enthusiastic, although not overwhelming, readership, granting him a livelihood that was comfortable but not quite lavish enough to be distracting. Wind him up, let him run unimpeded for three or four decades, and how many books would you get? In the case of Isaac Asimov, the total comes to something like five hundred. Even if it isn’t quite enough to make him the most productive writer of all time, it certainly places him somewhere in the top ten. And it’s a career that followed all but axiomatically from the characteristics that I’ve listed above.

Let’s take these points one at a time. Asimov, like all successful pulp writers, learned how to crank out decent work on deadline, usually limiting himself to a first draft and a clean copy, with very little revision that wasn’t to editorial order. (And he wasn’t alone here. The pulps were an unforgiving school, and they quickly culled authors who weren’t able to write a sentence well enough the first time.) From a young age, Asimov was also drawn to enclosed, windowless spaces, like the kitchen at the back of his father’s candy store, and he had a persistent daydream about running a newsstand in the subway, where he could put up the shutter and read magazines in peace. After he began to write for a living, he was equally content to work in his attic office for up to ten hours a day. Yet it wasn’t fiction that accounted for the bulk of his output—which is a common misconception about his career—but a specific kind of nonfiction. Asimov was a prolific fiction writer, but no more so than many of his contemporaries. It was in nonfiction for general readers that he really shone, initially with such scientific popularizations as The Chemicals of Life and Inside the Atom. At first, his work drew on his academic and professional background in chemistry and biochemistry, but before long, he found that he was equally adept at explaining concepts from the other sciences, as well as such unrelated fields as history and literature. His usual method was to work straight from reference books, dictionaries, and encyclopedias, translating and organizing their concepts for a lay audience. As he once joked to Martin Gardner: “You mean you’re in the same racket I am? You just read books by the professors and rewrite them?”

This kind of writing is harder than it sounds. Asimov noted, correctly, that he added considerable value in arranging and presenting the material, and he was better at it than just about anyone else. (A faculty member at Boston University once observed him at work and exclaimed: “Why, you’re just copying the dictionary!” Asimov, annoyed, handed the dictionary to him and said: “Here. The dictionary is yours. Now go write the book.”) But it also lent itself admirably to turning out a lot of pages in a short period of time. Unlike fiction, it didn’t require him to come up with original ideas from scratch. As soon as he had enough projects in the hopper, he could switch between them freely to avoid becoming bored by any one subject. He could write treatments of the same topic for different audiences and cannibalize unsold material for other venues. In the years after Sputnik, there was plenty of demand for what he had to offer, and he had a ready market for short articles that could be collected into books. And since these were popular treatments of existing information, he could do all of the work from the comfort of his own office. Asimov hated to fly, and he actively avoided assignments that would require him to travel or do research away from home. Before long, his productivity became a selling point in itself, and when his wife told him that life was passing him by, Asimov responded: “If I do manage to publish a hundred books, and if I then die, my last words are likely to be, ‘Only a hundred!’” Writing became a place of security, both from life’s small crises and as an escape from an unhappy marriage, and it was also his greatest source of pleasure. When his daughter asked him what he would do if he had to choose between her and writing, Asimov said: “Why, I would choose you, dear.” But he adds: “But I hesitated—and she noticed that, too.”

Asimov was a complicated man—certainly more so than in the version of himself that he presented to the public—and he can’t be reduced to a neat set of factors. He wasn’t a robot. But those five hundred books represent an achievement so overwhelming that it cries out for explanation, and it wouldn’t exist if certain variables, both external and internal, hadn’t happened to align. In terms of his ability and ambition, Asimov was the equal of Campbell, Heinlein, or Hubbard, but in place of their public entanglements, he channeled his talents into a safer direction, where it grew to gargantuan proportions that only hint at how monstrous that energy and passion really were. (He was also considerably younger than the others, as well as more naturally cautious, and I’d like to believe that he drew a negative lesson from their example.) The result, remarkably, made him the most beloved writer of them all. It was a cultural position, outside the world of science fiction, that was due almost entirely to the body of his nonfiction work as a whole. He never had a bestseller until late in his career, but the volume and quality of his overall output were enough to make him famous. Asimov was the Mule, the unassuming superman of the Foundation series, but he conquered a world from his typewriter. He won the game. And when I think of how his talent, productivity, and love of enclosed spaces combined to produce a fortress made of books, I think of what David Mamet once said to The Paris Review. When asked to explain why he wrote, Mamet replied: “I’ve got to do it anyway. Like beavers, you know. They chop, they eat wood, because if they don’t, their teeth grow too long and they die. And they hate the sound of running water. Drives them crazy. So, if you put those two ideas together, they are going to build dams.”

Written by nevalalee

March 22, 2017 at 9:54 am

From Sputnik to WikiLeaks

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In Toy Story 2, there’s a moment in which Woody discovers that his old television series, Woody’s Roundup, was abruptly yanked off the air toward the end of the fifties. He asks: “That was a great show. Why cancel it?” The Prospector replies bitterly: “Two words: Sput-nik. Once the astronauts went up, children only wanted to play with space toys.” And while I wouldn’t dream of questioning the credibility of a man known as Stinky Pete, I feel obliged to point out that his version of events isn’t entirely accurate. The space craze among kids really began more than half a decade earlier, with the premiere of Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, and the impact of Sputnik on science fiction was far from a positive one. Here’s what John W. Campbell wrote about it in the first issue of Astounding to be printed after the satellite’s launch:

Well, we lost that race; Russian technology achieved an important milestone in human history—one that the United States tried for, talked about a lot, and didn’t make…One of the things Americans have long been proud of—and with sound reason—is our ability to convert theoretical science into practical, working engineering…This time we’re faced with the uncomfortable realization that the Russians have beaten us in our own special field; they solved a problem of engineering technology faster and better than we did.

And while much of the resulting “Sputnik crisis” was founded on legitimate concerns—Sputnik was as much a triumph of ballistic rocketry as it was of satellite technology—it also arose from the notion that the United States had been beaten at its own game. As Arthur C. Clarke is alleged to have said, America had become “a second-rate power.”

Campbell knew right away that he had reason to worry. Lester del Rey writes in The World of Science Fiction:

Sputnik simply convinced John Campbell that he’d better watch his covers and begin cutting back on space scenes. (He never did, but the art director of the magazine and others were involved in that decision.) We agreed in our first conversation after the satellite went up that people were going to react by deciding science had caught up with science fiction, and with a measure of initial fear. They did. Rather than helping science fiction, Sputnik made it seem outmoded.

And that’s more or less exactly what happened. There was a brief spike in sales, followed by a precipitous fall as mainstream readers abandoned the genre. I haven’t been able to find specific numbers for this period, but one source, the Australian fan Wynne Whitford, states that the circulation of Astounding fell by half after Sputnik—which seems high, but probably reflects a real decline. In a letter written decades later, Campbell said of Sputnik: “Far from encouraging the sales of science fiction magazines—half the magazines being published lost circulation so drastically they went out of business!” An unscientific glance at a list of titles appears to support this. In 1958, the magazines Imagination, Imaginative Tales, Infinity Science Fiction, Phantom, Saturn, Science Fiction Adventures, Science Fiction Quarterly, Star Science Fiction, and Vanguard Science Fiction all ceased publication, followed by three more over the next twelve months. The year before, just four magazines had folded. There was a bubble, and after Sputnik, it burst.

At first, this might seem like a sort of psychological self-care, of the same kind that motivated me to scale back my news consumption after the election. Americans were simply depressed, and they didn’t need any reminders of the situation they were in. But it also seems to have affected the public’s appetite for science fiction in particular, rather than science as a whole. In fact, the demand for nonfiction science writing actually increased. As Isaac Asimov writes in his memoir In Joy Still Felt:

The United States went into a dreadful crisis of confidence over the fact that the Soviet Union had gotten there first and berated itself for not being interested enough in science. And I berated myself for spending too much time on science fiction when I had the talent to be a great science writer…Sputnik also served to increase the importance of any known public speaker who could talk on science and, particularly, on space, and that meant me.

What made science fiction painful to read, I think, was its implicit assumption of American superiority, which had been disproven so spectacularly. Campbell later compared it to the reaction after the bomb fell, claiming that it was the moment when people realized that science fiction wasn’t a form of escapism, but a warning:

The reactions to Sputnik have been more rapid, and, therefore, more readily perceptible and correlatable. There was, again, a sudden rise in interest in science fiction…and there is, now, an even more marked dropping of the science-fiction interest. A number of the magazines have been very heavily hit…I think the people of the United States thought we were kidding.

And while Campbell seemed to believe that readers had simply misinterpreted science fiction’s intentions, the conventions of the genre itself clearly bore part of the blame.

In his first editorials after Sputnik, Campbell drew a contrast between the American approach to engineering, which proceeded logically and with vast technological resources, and the quick and dirty Soviet program, which was based on rules of thumb, trial and error, and the ability to bull its way through on one particular point of attack. It reminds me a little of the election. Like the space race, last year’s presidential campaign could be seen as a kind of proxy war between the American and Russian administrations, and regardless of what you believe about the Trump camp’s involvement, which I suspect was probably a tacit one, there’s no question as to which side Putin favored. On one hand, you had a large, well-funded political machine, and on the other, one that often seemed comically inept. Yet it was the quick and dirty approach that triumphed. “The essence of ingenuity is the ability to get precision results without precision equipment,” Campbell wrote, and that’s pretty much what occurred. A few applications of brute force in the right place made all the difference, and they were aided, to some extent, by a similar complacency. The Americans saw the Soviets as bunglers, and they never seriously considered the possibility that they might be beaten by a bunch of amateurs. As Campbell put it: “We earned what we got—fully, and of our own efforts. The ridicule we’ve collected is our just reward for our consistent efforts.” Sometimes I feel the same way. Right now, we’re entering a period in which the prospect of becoming a second-rate power is far more real than it was when Clarke made his comment. It took a few months for the implications of Sputnik to really sink in. And if history is any indication, we haven’t even gotten to the crisis yet.

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