Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Puppet Masters

Falls the Shadow

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Over the last year or so, I’ve found myself repeatedly struck by the parallels between the careers of John W. Campbell and Orson Welles. At first, the connection might seem tenuous. Campbell and Welles didn’t look anything alike, although they were about the same height, and their politics couldn’t have been more different—Welles was a staunch progressive and defender of civil rights, while Campbell, to put it mildly, wasn’t. Welles was a wanderer, while Campbell spent most of his life within driving distance of his birthplace in New Jersey. But they’re inextricably linked in my imagination. Welles was five years younger than Campbell, but they flourished at exactly the same time, with their careers peaking roughly between 1937 and 1942. Both owed significant creative breakthroughs to the work of H.G. Wells, who inspired Campbell’s story “Twilight” and Welles’s Mercury Theater adaptation of The War of the Worlds. In 1938, Campbell saw Welles’s famous modern-dress production of Julius Caesar with the writer L. Sprague de Camp, of which he wrote in a letter:

It represented, in a way, what I’m trying to do in the magazine. Those humans of two thousand years ago thought and acted as we do—even if they did dress differently. Removing the funny clothes made them more real and understandable. I’m trying to get away from funny clothes and funny-looking people in the pictures of the magazine. And have more humans.

And I suspect that the performance started a train of thought in both men’s minds that led to de Camp’s novel Lest Darkness Fall, which is about a man from the present who ends up in ancient Rome.

Campbell was less pleased by Welles’s most notable venture into science fiction, which he must have seen as an incursion on his turf. He wrote to his friend Robert Swisher: “So far as sponsoring that War of [the] Worlds thing—I’m damn glad we didn’t! The thing is going to cost CBS money, what with suits, etc., and we’re better off without it.” In Astounding, he said that the ensuing panic demonstrated the need for “wider appreciation” of science fiction, in order to educate the public about what was and wasn’t real:

I have long been an exponent of the belief that, should interplanetary visitors actually arrive, no one could possibly convince the public of the fact. These stories wherein the fact is suddenly announced and widespread panic immediately ensues have always seemed to me highly improbable, simply because the average man did not seem ready to visualize and believe such a statement.

Undoubtedly, Mr. Orson Welles felt the same way.

Their most significant point of intersection was The Shadow, who was created by an advertising agency for Street & Smith, the publisher of Astounding, as a fictional narrator for the radio series Detective Story Hour. Before long, he became popular enough to star in his own stories. Welles, of course, voiced The Shadow from September 1937 to October 1938, and Campbell plotted some of the magazine installments in collaboration with the writer Walter B. Gibson and the editor John Nanovic, who worked in the office next door. And his identification with the character seems to have run even deeper. In a profile published in the February 1946 issue of Pic magazine, the reporter Dickson Hartwell wrote of Campbell: “You will find him voluble, friendly and personally depressing only in what his friends claim is a startling physical resemblance to The Shadow.”

It isn’t clear if Welles was aware of Campbell, although it would be more surprising if he wasn’t. Welles flitted around science fiction for years, and he occasionally crossed paths with other authors in that circle. To my lasting regret, he never met L. Ron Hubbard, which would have been an epic collision of bullshitters—although Philip Seymour Hoffman claimed that he based his performance in The Master mostly on Welles, and Theodore Sturgeon once said that Welles and Hubbard were the only men he had ever met who could make a room seem crowded simply by walking through the door. In 1946, Isaac Asimov received a call from a lawyer whose client wanted to buy all rights to his robot story “Evidence” for $250. When he asked Campbell for advice, the editor said that he thought it seemed fair, but Asimov’s wife told him to hold out for more. Asimov called back to ask for a thousand dollars, adding that he wouldn’t discuss it further until he found out who the client was. When the lawyer told him that it was Welles, Asimov agreed to the sale, delighted, but nothing ever came of it. (Welles also owned the story in perpetuity, making it impossible for Asimov to sell it elsewhere, a point that Campbell, who took a notoriously casual attitude toward rights, had neglected to raise.) Twenty years later, Welles made inquiries into the rights for Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, which were tied up at the time with Roger Corman, but never followed up. And it’s worth noting that both stories are concerned with the problem of knowing how other people are what they claim to be, which Campbell had brilliantly explored in “Who Goes There?” It’s a theme to which Welles obsessively returned, and it’s fascinating to speculate what he might have done with it if Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby hadn’t gotten there first with The Thing From Another World. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?

But their true affinities were spiritual ones. Both Campbell and Welles were child prodigies who reinvented an art form largely by being superb organizers of other people’s talents—although Campbell always downplayed his own contributions, while Welles appears to have done the opposite. Each had a spectacular early success followed by what was perceived as decades of decline, which they seem to have seen coming. (David Thomson writes: “As if Welles knew that Kane would hang over his own future, regularly being used to denigrate his later works, the film is shot through with his vast, melancholy nostalgia for self-destructive talent.” And you could say much the same thing about “Twilight.”) Both had a habit of abandoning projects as soon as they realized that they couldn’t control them, and they both managed to seem isolated while occupying the center of attention in any crowd. They enjoyed staking out unreasonable positions in conversation, just to get a rise out of listeners, and they ultimately drove away their most valuable collaborators. What Pauline Kael writes of Welles in “Raising Kane” is equally true of Campbell:

He lost the collaborative partnerships that he needed…He was alone, trying to be “Orson Welles,” though “Orson Welles” had stood for the activities of a group. But he needed the family to hold him together on a project and to take over for him when his energies became scattered. With them, he was a prodigy of accomplishments; without them, he flew apart, became disorderly.

Both men were alone when they died, and both filled their friends, admirers, and biographers with intensely mixed feelings. I’m still coming to terms with Campbell. But I have a hunch that I’ll end up somewhere close to Kael’s ambivalence toward Welles, who, at the end of an essay that was widely seen as puncturing his myth, could only conclude: “In a less confused world, his glory would be greater than his guilt.”

Present tense, future perfect

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Michael Crichton

Science fiction is set in the future so frequently that it’s hard for many readers—or writers—to envision it as anything else. Yet it doesn’t have to be that way, and there are times when a futuristic setting actively gets in the way of the story. If you think that science fiction’s primary function is a predictive one, it’s hard to avoid, although I’ve made it pretty clear that I believe that it’s the other way around: the idea that this is a literature of prediction emerged only after most of its elements were already in place. But if you see it more as a vehicle for telling exciting stories in which science plays a crucial role, or as a sandbox for exploring extreme social or ethical situations, you quickly come to realize that it can be even more effective when set in the present. This is especially true of science fiction that trades heavily on suspense and paranoia. My favorite science fiction novel ever, Eric Frank Russell’s Sinister Barrier, is set in the future for no particular reason: its premise of invisible alien beings who control our lives and manipulate human civilization would work even better in ordinary surroundings, and nothing fundamental about the story itself would have to change. You could say much the same about Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, which is indebted to Russell’s story in more ways than one. And there’s a sense in which The X-Files actually plays better today, as a period piece, than it did when it initially aired: the early nineties have become even more mundane with time, and a perfect setting for horror.

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

Gillian Anderson in War of the Coprophages

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

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

Written by nevalalee

August 11, 2016 at 8:27 am

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