Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Elder Gods

The flicker effect

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In 1953, the neurologist and roboticist W. Grey Walter published an extraordinary book titled The Living Brain. Among his many other accomplishments, Walter was a pioneer in the use of the electroencephalograph to study the brain’s electrical activity, which was described here for the first time for a wide popular audience, although his book become more famous for the chapter “Revelation by Flicker.” It described how stroboscopic light could produce epileptic seizures and other neurological reactions, including one particularly memorable anecdote: “A man found that when he went to the cinema he would suddenly feel an irresistible impulse to strangle the person next to him.” And when Walter tested the equipment on his own team, he became aware of some unusual effects:

In the biological sciences it is a good principle to be your own rabbit, to experiment on yourself; in electroencephalography the practice is widespread, convenient, and harmless. Whenever a new instrument is to be tested or calibrated, normal subjects from among the laboratory staff are used as “signal generators”…When we started to use high-power electronic stroboscopes to generate flicker, with the aim of testing the hypothesis of resonant synchronization in epilepsy, we took a large number of records from one another while looking at the brilliant flashing light…The tests were entirely satisfactory and in fact gave us much information which will be discussed later, but as well as that we all noticed a peculiar effect. The effect was a vivid illusion of moving patterns whenever one closed one’s eyes and allowed the flicker to shine through the eyelids.

Walter characterized these patterns as “whirling spirals, whirlpools, explosions, Catherine wheels,” quoting an evocative passage from a memoir by Margiad Evans, a poet who suffered from epilepsy:

I lay there holding the green thumbless hand of the leaf while things clicked and machinery came to life, and commands to gasp, to open and shut my eyes, reached me from across the unseen room, as though by wireless. Lights like comets dangled before me, slow at first and then gaining a fury of speed and change, whirling color into color, angle into angle. They were all pure ultra unearthly colors, mental colors, not deep visual ones. There was no glow in them but only activity and revolution.

After investigating further, Walter concluded that the imagery wasn’t an optical illusion caused by the light, but a phenomenon that occurred within the eye or brain itself, and that it involved more than one sensory system. (Walter doesn’t mention this in particular, but after reading his description of “whirling spirals,” I was surprised that it hasn’t been more widely used to explain away the vision of the chariot—with its mysterious “wheel within a wheel”—of the prophet Ezekiel, who has been diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy.) And his work with strobe lights inspired a number of interested readers to try it out for themselves, although to rather different ends, in the fifties equivalent of neurohacking.

One was John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction. After reading The Living Brain, he wrote—but evidently never sent—a long letter to Walter himself, and he also built a “panic generator” with a flickering fluorescent tube in his basement workshop. (The idea of using flickering lights to induce hypnotism was a familiar one in the genre, and it had appeared in stories including Campbell’s short novel The Elder Gods and in L. Sprague de Camp’s “The Exalted.”) When he tried the device on his family, his wife’s throat tightened up, his stepson felt asthmatic, and his daughter’s head hurt, but it bothered Campbell for just ten seconds. He was, he proudly noted, “immune.” Writing to his father, he said that he thought that it might have therapeutic value:

The only way a human being exposed to this device can continue to think coherently is by shifting his method of thinking. He either changes his method—his frequency—or is hopelessly scrambled in panic. The device, however, doesn’t tell him to think; it simply forces him to think in some new manner. The result is that the problems he’s been denying existed, the ideas he’s been refusing to consider—all of these will now come into sight, and he’ll be forced to at least consider them. The one sure and certain thing is that he can not continue to think in the terms he has been!

This insight inspired one of Campbell’s best editorials, “The Value of Panic,” as well as a premise that he gave to G. Harry Stine, who wrote under the pen name Lee Correy. The resulting story, “Design Flaw,” was about an experimental rocket plane plagued by a series of accidents that turn out to be caused by a flashing screen that provides landing data, which accidentally interferes with the pilot’s alpha rhythms.

A few years afterward, Walter’s work had an even more striking afterlife, and it serves as a reminder of the surprising overlap in those decades between science fiction and the counterculture. On September 14, 1960, William S. Burroughs wrote enigmatically to his friend Brion Gysin: “Also will see Grey Walter when he returns from vacation.” He followed up two weeks later: “I heard Grey Walter. Most interesting and will make a flicker date with him in Bristol.” Burroughs also wrote to Walter directly about “possible therapeutic applications in drug addiction” and “the effect of flicker on the creative process,” neatly tying together the two major threads of his career. His interest in the flicker effect emerged from the same impulse that led to his ongoing dalliance with Scientology, and he often mentioned the two in the same breath in his letters. And it led Gysin and his collaborator Ian Sommerville to build the Dream Machine, a rotating cylinder with flashing slits that was viewed with the eyes closed. In an interview, Burroughs vividly described its effects: “Elaborate geometric constructions of incredible intricacy build up from multidimensional mosaic into living fireballs like the mandalas of Eastern mysticism or resolve momentarily into apparently individual images and powerfully dramatic scenes like brightly colored dreams.” And he closed in terms that echoed Margiad Evans, who had spoken of “lights like comets”:

“Flicker” creates a dazzling multiplicity of images in constantly altering relationships which makes the “collages” and “assemblages” of so-called “modern” art appear utterly ineffectual and slow. Art history is no longer being created. Art history as the enumeration of individual images ended with the direct introduction of light as the principal agents in the creation of images which have become infinitely multiple, complex and all-pervading. The comet is Light.

Astounding Stories #11: The Moon is Hell

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The Moon is Hell

Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

On May 11, 1953, the science fiction editor John W. Campbell wrote a long letter to his stepmother Helen. He never mailed it, but it was preserved among his papers, and it’s a document of immense biographical interest. Campbell, who was chafing under what he saw as his father’s lack of appreciation for what he had achieved in his career, spent a full page listing his professional accomplishments, and he concluded:

My current plans are long-range; when I took over Astounding seventeen years ago, my plans were long range, too…The next step which literature must take is to develop a novel-like story in which the story shows the development of a culture through various experiences…Science fiction is now trying to develop the presentation techniques whereby an individual can understand and appreciate the developmental processes affecting entire cultures. Naturally, we haven’t completed the development of these techniques yet, and we have, in consequence, a rather patchy, unsuccessful literature. It’s like the first automobiles; they were less reliable, rougher riding, noisier, and smellier than the horse and buggy.

But their developmental stage was well worth the effort; their inadequacies in the early days were properly forgiven, but also properly recognized as inadequacies.

When I read these lines, I found myself thinking of Campbell’s novel The Moon is Hell, which first appeared in book form in 1951. It’s best remembered now as one of the very few stories that Campbell published in the three decades after he became the editor of Astounding Science Fiction. By all indications, it’s an apprentice work that was first written sometime in the early thirties, but it appears to have been carefully revised by its author before publication—the writing is far smoother and more accomplished than anything else Campbell was putting out at that stage. And the timing of its release was significant in itself. Science fiction was in a transitional moment: the impact of dianetics was just beginning to be felt, ambitious new competitors were appearing on newsstands, and authors like Heinlein were making their big push into the mainstream. For Campbell, it must have seemed like a good time for a statement of purpose, which is what The Moon is Hell really is—the quintessential hard science fiction novel, built from the ground up from first principles. As the author P. Schuyler Miller wrote in his review in Astounding:

Surely everyone who has done any science fiction has dreamed of writing a realistic story of the first men on another world, worked out with an absolute minimum of hokum—no green princesses, no ruins of alien civilizations, no hostile high priests. The ultimate would be the story of the first men on the Moon—a world without air, without life, or the possibility of life.

John W. Campbell, Jr.

And that’s exactly what Campbell gives us here. The Moon is Hell is told in the form of a journal kept by Dr. Thomas Ridgley Duncan, a physicist and second in command of the first mission to the dark side of the Moon. After the expedition’s relief ship crashes on landing, the astronauts are left stranded with no way to contact Earth; a steadily diminishing supply of food, air, and water; and the knowledge that it will be months before anyone back home realizes that they need to be rescued. They set to work with admirable discipline to obtain the necessities of life from the rocks around them, extracting hydrogen and oxygen from gypsum, developing new techniques for synthesizing nutrients, building generators and engines, turning the starch in their clothes and books into bread, and finally digging out an entire settlement underground, complete with a library and swimming pool. (Much of the plot anticipates The Martian in its determination to science the shit out of the situation.) The diary format allows Campbell to deliver all of this material unencumbered by any interruptions: long sections of it read like a briefing or an extract from a textbook. It’s a novel written by a chemist for other chemists, posing a series of ingenious scientific problems and solutions, and it has enough good ideas to fuel a dozen hard science fiction stories. Reading it, I was reminded of the joke title of the book on which the three protagonists are working in Foucault’s Pendulum: The Wonderful Adventure of Metals. Because although there are no recognizable characters in sight, this is a calculated choice—the real hero is chemistry itself.

The result, to be honest, can be pretty hard going, and although it gets better toward the end, the pages don’t exactly fly by. I found myself admiring each paragraph while vaguely dreading the next: it’s a relatively short novel, but it seems very long. (In its original edition, it was published together with The Elder Gods, a story that Campbell wrote on assignment for Unknown—its original author, Arthur J. Burks, had failed to deliver a publishable manuscript—that provides a much more engaging display of his talents.) But it’s also exactly the novel that Campbell wanted to publish. It provides as perfect a summation as you could want of its author’s strengths and limitations, as well as those of hard science fiction as a whole. This isn’t a narrative about individuals, but about the scientific method itself, and it succeeds in some respects in his goal of telling a story about a culture: it’s implied that the stranded astronauts are laying the foundations for a permanent presence in space. And although it doesn’t work as a novel by any conventional standard, it’s indispensable as a sort of baseline. It’s as if Campbell decided to stake out the limits of hard science fiction as an example to his readers and writers: this is a novel that nobody ought to imitate, but which provides an essential reference point by which all efforts in that vein can be judged. And it’s no accident that it was published at a moment when Campbell was about to push into dianetics, psionics, and fringe science, as if he had already gone as far in the other direction as he possibly could. As Emerson said of Shakespeare, Campbell wanted to plant the standard of humanity “some furlongs forward into chaos,” but first, he had to give us an ideal of order, even if it was hell to read.

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