Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Way the Future Was

The mogul empire

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Earlier this month, the news sites DNAinfo and Gothamist were abruptly closed by their owner, the billionaire Joe Ricketts, after their staff voted to join the Writers Guild of America East. Ricketts, who founded Ameritrade and controls the Chicago Cubs, took down the home pages of both publications—including, temporarily, their archives, which made it hard for their suddenly jobless reporters to even access their own clips—and replaced them with a letter stating that the sites hadn’t been successful enough “to support the tremendous effort and expense needed to produce the type of journalism on which the company was founded.” Back in September, however, Ricketts wrote a blog post, “Why I’m Against Unions At Businesses I Create,” that cast his decision in a somewhat different light:

In my opinion, the essential esprit de corps that every successful company needs can’t exist when employees and ownership see themselves as being on opposite ends of a seesaw.  Everyone at a company—owners and employees alike—need to be sitting on the same end of the seesaw because the world is sitting on the other end. I believe unions promote a corrosive us-against-them dynamic that destroys the esprit de corps businesses need to succeed.  And that corrosive dynamic makes no sense in my mind where an entrepreneur is staking his capital on a business that is providing jobs and promoting innovation.

Of course, his response to his newly unionized employees, who hadn’t even made any demands yet, wasn’t exactly conducive to esprit de corps, either. As a headline in the opinion section of the New York Times put it, Ricketts, who supported Donald Trump after spending millions of dollars in an unsuccessful bid to derail his candidacy, seems to have closed his own businesses entirely out of spite.

And this isn’t just a story about unionization, but the unpleasant flip side of a daydream to which many of us secretly cling about journalism—the notion that in the face of falling circulation and a shaky business model, its salvation lies with philanthropic or ambitious billionaires. We’ve seen this work fairly well with Jeff Bezos and the Washington Post, but other recent examples don’t exactly inspire confidence. In 2012, The New Republic was acquired by Chris Hughes of Facebook, who cut its annual number of print issues in half and revamped it as a “vertically integrated digital-media company,” leading to the resignations of editors Franklin Foer and Leon Wieseltier. (Foer rebounded with a book pointedly titled World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, while Wieseltier has suffered from unrelated troubles of his own.) Go a little further back, and you have the acquisition of the New York Observer by none other than Jared Kushner, which went about as well as you would expect. As Rich Cohen writes in Vanity Fair:

The Observer was a hybrid—tabloid heart, broadsheet brain. A funny man in a serious mood, a serious man with a sense of humor…Kushner either did not get this or did not care. Millennials have a thing about broadsheets. They’ve grown up reading on phones, that smooth path of entry. They can’t stand unwieldiness—following a piece from front page to jump, and all that folding, and the ink stains your fingers.

Kushner took the Observer to tabloid size, discontinued its print edition, and even fired Rex Reed, turning the paper into a ghost town. He and Hughes are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, but they both seized a vulnerable publication, tried to turn it into something that it wasn’t, and all but destroyed it. Ricketts, who shut down Gothamist a mere eight months after buying it, simply took that process to its logical conclusion. And these cases all point to the risk involved when the future of a media enterprise lies in the hands of an outside benefactor who sees no reason not to dismantle it as impulsively as he bought it in the first place.

Obviously, there are countless examples of media companies that fared poorly after an acquisition, but I’ve been thinking recently about one particular case, in which The New Republic also figures prominently. The American News Company was the distribution firm and wholesaler on which many magazines once depended to get on newsstands, and its collapse in 1957 is widely seen as an “extinction event” that caused a meltdown of the market for short science fiction. (For additional details, see this post, particularly the comments.) Here’s how Frederik Pohl describes it in The Way the Future Was:

ANC was big, mighty, and old. It had been around so long that over the years it had acquired all sorts of valuable property. Land. Buildings. Restaurants. Franchises. Items of considerable cash value, acquired when time was young and everything was cheap, and still carried on their books at the pitiful acquisition costs of 1890 or 1910. A stock operator took note of all this and observed that if you bought up all the outstanding stock in ANC (a publicly held corporation) at prevailing prices, you would have acquired an awful lot of valuable real estate at, really, only a few cents on the dollar. It was as profitable as buying dollar bills for fifty cents each…So he did. He bought a controlling interest and liquidated the company.

The truth is slightly more complicated. The American News Company had been on the decline for years, with the departure of such major clients as Time, Look, and Newsweek, and its acquirer wasn’t a “stock operator,” but Henry Garfinkle, the wealthy owner of a newsstand chain called the Union News Corporation. There were obvious possibilities for vertical integration, and for the first year or so, he seems to have made a real effort to run the combined company.

Unfortunately, in the face of falling sales for the industry as a whole, his efforts took the form of a crackdown on small niche magazines that were having trouble sustaining large audiences, in a cycle that seems awfully familiar. (As one contemporary account stated: “The American News Company found that the newsstand demand for some of the more intellectual magazines like The New Republic, Commonweal, Wisdom, and Faith was so small that it was profitless to carry them.”) His brutal tactics alienated publishers, including Dell, its largest client, which filed a lawsuit for restraint of trade. More magazines left, including The New Yorker and Vogue, which, combined with an ongoing antitrust investigation, was what finally led Garfinkle to cut his losses and liquidate. Yet there isn’t much doubt that Garfinkle’s approach played a role in driving his clients away, and he had plenty of help on that front. He had started his empire with a single newsstand that he bought in his teens with a loan from a generous patron, and when he took control of the American News Company, the transaction was masterminded by his general council, who had joined the firm the year before. As one author describes this attorney’s “hardball legal tactics”:

[He] later claimed to have engineered Garfinkle’s successful coup. At the publicly held company’s annual meeting in March 1955, Garfinkle headed a dissident group that eventually forced the management to resign. This bold move allowed Garfinkle to gain control of the ninety-one-year-old company, which called itself the world’s oldest magazine wholesaler. Garfinkel revamped the ailing company, renamed it Ancorp National Services, Inc., and gained a near stranglehold on the distribution of newspapers and magazines in the Northeast.

This passage appears in Thomas Maier’s biography Newhouse. The benefactor who gave Garfinkle his start was Sam Newhouse, Sr., and the general counsel who oversaw the takeover—and remained at the company throughout all that followed—was none other than Roy Cohn. I’m not saying that Cohn, on top of everything else, also killed the science fiction market. But if history has taught us one thing, it’s that publications should watch out when a buyer like this comes calling.

Astounding Stories #15: The Space Merchants

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The Space Merchants

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

Of all the supporting figures whom I expect to play a significant role in Astounding, the one I’m most looking forward to getting to know better is Frederik Pohl. His engaging memoir, The Way the Future Was, provided me with one of the first nudges I needed to get this project off the ground, and he pops up in it repeatedly, to the point where I can almost envision an alternative version of this book with Pohl, and not John W. Campbell, at its center. He was almost exactly the same age as Isaac Asimov, on whom he made a huge impression when they met at the age of nineteen, and he quickly established himself as an important fan, agent, editor, and writer, in roughly that order. Campbell seems to have been wary of the younger man’s energy: he met with him frequently and passed along as much lore as he could about the technical side of magazine publishing, which he was picking up himself at the same time, like a piano teacher who manages to stay just one lesson ahead of the pupil. Yet their relationship had more than a trace of All About Eve, and Campbell, incredibly, never bought a story from Pohl. “Fair mortified my feelings, he did,” Pohl writes with fake offhandedness in his autobiography, but it speaks to a deeper rivalry between the two men. Campbell was never able to lower his guard around Pohl, and he clearly sensed that science fiction was just barely big enough for the two of them as it was. And in fact, when you combine Pohl’s achievements as a fan and a writer with his later editorial work, you end up with the only plausible competitor to Campbell in terms of his impact on the evolution of the genre.

Pohl’s interests always ran along an intriguingly divergent track from Campbell’s, and they amounted to an entire alternative vision of what science fiction could be. His repeated return to themes of advertising and consumer culture, for instance, feels even more prescient now than it did then, and Pohl knew that he had hit on the subject of a lifetime, both for its cultural relevance and for its ability to inspire great stories. After World War II, Pohl tried to write a mainstream novel about Madison Avenue, only to realize that he didn’t know enough about it to make it believable. So he simply got a job at an advertising agency and ended up working in the industry for years, much as an aspiring writer of hard science fiction might wind up with a PhD in physics: it was fieldwork of the most fundamental kind. It seems safe to say that advertising and multinational corporations will play a larger role in the lives of most human beings than space travel will, and by focusing on their impact, Pohl was able to invent possible futures that were more resonant and plausible than much of what Campbell was publishing at the time. “The Midas Plague,” for example, describes a world in which the availability of cheap robot labor has led to a surplus of everything, resulting in a reversal of the familiar logic of economics: poor people are obliged to consume as many luxury goods as possible, and only the rich can afford to live a simple life. (If this sounds farfetched, just think of all the minimalist blogs that advise you to pare your possessions down to what you can carry in a backpack, which in itself is a token of unimaginable privilege.) And “The Tunnel Under the World,” which I think is one of the ten best science fiction stories ever written, takes the idea of the consumer focus group to its horrifying conclusion.

The Way the Future Was by Frederik Pohl

But my favorite is The Space Merchants, originally published in Galaxy as Gravy Planet, which Pohl wrote in collaboration with C.M. Kornbluth. (Kornbluth is a fascinating figure in his own right: he was responsible for a number of unforgettably dark short stories, notably “The Little Black Bag,” and dropped dead of a heart attack on his way to an interview for the editorship of Fantasy & Science Fiction—a point of divergence for the genre if there ever was one.) The novel’s premise is so good that it suffers a little today from seeming almost too obvious. Decades from now, the world is controlled by dueling ad agencies, which engage in private wars for clients and customers; the United States Congress consists of representatives of major corporations, such as “the gentleman from Rummy-Cola”; voters are weighted by net worth; and a relentless stream of propaganda is used to distract the populace from real problems of scarcity, overpopulation, and ecological damage. All of this background is worked unobtrusively into the story, and if it seems slightly facile when spelled out here, it doesn’t play that way on the page. If the book were simply a satire, it would still be worth reading, but about a third of the way through, it abruptly transforms itself from a futuristic version of Mad Men into a remarkably entertaining and inventive thriller, thanks largely to Kornbluth’s contributions. It’s one of the few really great science fiction page-turners, right up there with Sinister Barrier and The Demolished Man, and if you go into it, as I did, expecting little more than bleak social commentary, you’ll be surprised by how relentlessly the plot accelerates. It’s a reminder of how great ideas benefit from being grounded in an equally compelling story, and it’s one of the first novels I’d recommend to an intelligent reader who was curious about what science fiction can really do.

Along the way, it also sheds fresh light on Campbell’s limitations. The Space Merchants features many of the hallmarks of the science fiction that was being published in Astounding: a subplot about colonizing Venus, an interest in hypnotism and thought control, and a kind of wild momentum in its middle section that recalls A.E. van Vogt, as well as Alfred Bester. But it’s hard to imagine Campbell publishing a story that viewed its subject through this particular lens. Campbell liked to portray himself and his readers as skeptics who questioned all the usual assumptions, but on a social and political level, he was fundamentally conservative, and he had little inclination to attack the corporations that bought most of the ads in his magazine. It’s no accident that both Pohl and Kornbluth were members of the Futurians, whom I’ve described elsewhere, following Damon Knight, as forming a kind of counterculture to Campbell and his circle, and their early flirtations with socialism provided them with the same sort of tool that fringe science later offered to Campbell: a club that could be used against the prevailing orthodoxy, albeit from very different directions. But their choice of weapons was revealing. Campbell felt that the greatest threat was a scientific conformity that prevented the establishment from considering radical new ideas, while Pohl’s primary concern was the concentration of money and power that kept ordinary men and women from thinking any thoughts outside the narrow range prescribed by major corporations. Looking around the world today, it’s obvious which of the two men was closer to the mark. And although I’ve always said that the predictive function of science fiction is overrated, this is one case in which it feels a little too close for comfort.

Smoking on spaceships

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Tom Stafford

When you read a lot of stories from the golden age of science fiction, which stretched roughly from the late thirties through the early fifties, one of the first things you notice is that everybody is smoking on spaceships. In Skylark of Space by E.E. Smith and Lee Hawkins Garby, arguably the first great work of the space opera or superscience genre, the splendid villain Marc DuQuesne accidentally sends himself and two hostages six quadrillion miles from the solar system, and as he tries to figure out how to get back home, he remains “self-possessed, smoking innumerable cigarettes.” A few years later, in Smith’s masterpiece Galactic Patrol, which I’ll be discussing at greater length tomorrow, three whole paragraphs of the first chapter are devoted to the favorite smokes of the futuristic law enforcement officers of the Lensmen, and an entire plot point hinges on the thriving market for Alsakanite cigarettes. Most of these authors were perfectly aware of the difficulties that smoking would present in the closed environment of a spacecraft, but this only meant that they had to work around the problem, since cigarettes were such an essential component of the concentrated thinking around which such stories revolve. John W. Campbell, a lifelong smoker himself, says as much in his short story “The Irrelevant,” which is also set aboard a spaceship: “Cigarettes were very precious, because oxygen was. It was surprising, though, how they aided thought.”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the men—and the handful of women—who wrote pulp fiction for a living would regard cigarettes as an indispensable prerequisite for a civilized existence, even if you were halfway across the galaxy. As Frederik Pohl writes in his memoir The Way the Future Was: “If you want to think of a successful pulp writer in the late thirties, imagine a man with a forty-dollar typewriter on a kitchen table. By his right hand is an ashtray with a cigarette burning in it and a cup of coffee or bottle of beer within easy reach.” In the first issue of Astounding Stories of Super-Science, the advertisement on the back cover is for Camels, which happened to be Campbell’s brand of choice for decades. (In their letters, we read of John and his remarkable wife Doña working side by side on a pair of typewriters, smoking all the while.) The debut edition of Astounding also included several small ads on its inside pages on how to quit smoking, although the health risks, to put it mildly, weren’t fully appreciated at the time. In R. DeWitt Miller’s excellent novelette “The Master Shall Not Die,” which was published in March 1938, the characters in the far future are constantly smoking, and there’s an offhand reference to a year long past in which “increased intensity of cosmic rays caused mutations in tobacco plants.” The italics are emphatically mine:

One of the products of these mutations was a hybrid which, although it looked and smoked like ordinary tobacco, secreted a vegetable alkaloid which caused a great increase of death from certain types of heart disease. You never heard of it apparently.

Jose Chung's From Outer Space

The idea that smoking might be dangerous, in other words, was a form of science fiction in itself, and it isn’t hard to see the irony. “The Master Shall Not Die” appeared in the first issue of Astounding edited primarily by Campbell, who is described as constantly gesturing in his office with a Camel in a black cigarette holder. Thirty years later, he was told by his doctor that he had to stop smoking or die, so he began to limit himself to two cigarettes per day, one in the morning, the other in the early afternoon. (He died suddenly, and apparently without pain, of a massive aortic aneurysm at the age of sixty-one, while watching professional wrestling on television.) In the late seventies, Robert A. Heinlein suffered a precursor to a stroke. William H. Patterson, his authorized biographer, writes of his visit to his doctor: “He had an unlit cigarette in his hand at this exact moment: he had smoked for nearly sixty years—since the very first Armistice Day, in fact, November 11, 1918. He put the cigarette back in its pack and never smoked again.” Heinlein ultimately died of emphysema, in combination with heart failure. L. Ron Hubbard, who had once touted dianetics as a way to stop smoking, was rarely seen without an unfiltered Kool in his hand, and toward the end of his life, he had a rotating team of nubile young assistants who were tasked with lighting his cigarettes and catching his ashes as they fell. At the relatively advanced age of seventy-four, he died of a stroke, or, in the words of the Church of Scientology, he decided to “drop his body.”

In an editorial in Analog, shortly after the release of the landmark surgeon general’s report on smoking, Campbell wrote: “Tobacco is not habit-forming, and discontinuation causes no withdrawal symptoms whatsoever.” But if we’ve learned anything since, it’s that the only habit harder to break than smoking is an attachment to a cherished assumption. Campbell and his writers were able to conceive of hyperspace travel and intelligent vegetables, but largely unable to imagine a world in which astronauts wouldn’t be smoking on the job. (Isaac Asimov, it should be noted, never smoked at all, and he hated being around people who did. And many of the Mercury and Gemini astronauts were smokers, although never, to my knowledge, in the space capsule itself) And the point here isn’t that these writers weren’t prescient about the risks of smoking, but that the stories they wrote—and they futures they conceived—were naturally rooted in the times in which they lived. Their feelings about smoking are manifestly dated; attitudes toward race, gender, and other subjects can be harder to spot. This might seem like an obvious point, but it bears repeating, especially because we can’t exclude ourselves. The futures that we imagine today are colored in ways that we can’t see by the world in which we live, and there are undoubtedly going to be elements in the stories we’re writing now that will seem just as incongruous in fifty years. And we’ve got to be mindful of this as we construct our own visions of the future, even if the smoking gun isn’t as clear.

Pohl and the pulpsters

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The Way the Future Was by Frederik Pohl

Along with the sixteen volumes of the Richard Francis Burton translation of the Arabian Nights, my other great find at this year’s Newberry Library Book Fair is the memoir The Way The Future Was by Frederik Pohl. While he never achieved the same degree of mainstream recognition as many of his contemporaries, Pohl arguably embodied more aspects of science fiction than any other figure of the golden age: he was a novelist, short story writer, essayist, literary agent to the likes of Isaac Asimov, and acclaimed editor of magazines like Galaxy and If. He made his first professional sale in 1937 and continued writing up to his death two years ago, in a career that spanned eight decades, which reminds me of Bernstein’s sad, wonderful line from Citizen Kane: “I was there before the beginning, and now it’s after the end.” Pohl’s memoir is chatty, loaded with memorable gossip, and full of valuable advice—I’ve already posted the words of wisdom that he gleaned from the editor John W. Campbell. And it’s an essential read for anyone trying to make a mark in science fiction, or indeed any kind of writing, with its chronicle of the ups and downs of a freelance author’s career. (As both writer and editor, Pohl knew how the system worked from both sides, and he’s especially eloquent on the challenges of running a magazine on a limited budget.)

The meat of the book focuses on the height of the pulp era, which saw new magazines popping up seemingly every day for fans of westerns, mysteries, adventure, true confessions, and science fiction and fantasy itself. Pohl, who became a professional editor at the age of nineteen, estimates that there were five hundred titles in all, with annual sales of about a hundred million copies—a number that seems inconceivable today, when the number of widely circulated fiction magazines, literary or otherwise, can be counted on two hands. The pulps represented one extreme of a culture that simply read more for entertainment than we do now, with the high end occupied by the likes of The Saturday Evening Post, which paid writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald thousands of dollars for a single story. (Annualized for inflation, that’s more than most mainstream publishers pay on average for an entire novel.) Readership was especially high in the sticks, where movie houses were harder to find and demand was high for a cheap, disposable diversion. They all flourished for a decade or two, and then, abruptly, they were gone, finished off first by the paper shortages of the Second World War and then by television and paperbacks. And the fact that they vanished so utterly is less surprising than the fact that a handful of titles, like Analog, have stuck around at all.

Astounding Science Fiction (October 1955)

As with the heyday of paperback porn, it’s easy to romanticize the lost world of the pulps: as Theodore Sturgeon would later note, ninety percent of everything is crud, and the percentage for pulp fiction was probably higher. (Pohl says drily: “It was not all trash. But trash was the way to bet it.”) Given the pathetic rates on the low end of the scale—a penny a word at best—it’s not surprising that the good writers either got out of the pulps as soon as they could or avoided them entirely. Still, for those of us who see writing as a job like any other, it’s hard not to be enticed by the life that Pohl describes:

If you want to think of a successful pulp writer in the late thirties, imagine a man with a forty-dollar typewriter on a kitchen table. By his right hand is an ashtray with a cigarette burning in it and a cup of coffee or bottle of beer within easy reach. Stacked just past his typewriter are white sheets, carbons, and second sheets. Stacked to his left are finished pages, complete with carbon copies. he has taught himself to type reasonably neatly because he can’t afford a stenographer, and above all he has taught himself to type fast. A prolific pulpster could keep up a steady forty or fifty words a minute for long periods; there were a few writers who wrote ten thousand words a day and kept it up for years on end.

And for those who survived, the pulps were a remarkable training ground. Pohl believes that all it takes to be published are “luck, determination, and a few monkey tricks of style and plot,” and writers who made it out alive emerged with a bag of monkey tricks that no other school could offer. Pair those tricks with a good idea and a little curiosity about human life, and they were unstoppable. And although self-publishing, particularly in digital form, has revived certain aspects of that lifestyle, we’re still missing the structure that turned aspiring pulpsters into real writers, as embodied by editors like Campbell and Pohl. Editors, as Pohl notes, often took an active hand in shaping a story, either by nurturing problematic work into a publishable form or pitching ideas to authors, and even when they only served as gatekeepers, it was that sieve—or refinery—that forced their writers to grow. Pohl quotes James Blish’s observation that more than half of the major science-fiction writers of the last century were born within a year or two of 1920, which implies that it was tied to a particular event. Blish doesn’t know what this event was, and Pohl hypothesizes that it had something to do with the “social confusion and experimentation” of the thirties, but I suspect that the real answer is closer to home. The pulps were the pressure cooker that produced the popular fiction that dominated the next eighty years, and if we want to reproduce those conditions, it isn’t hard to see the limiting factor. The world already has plenty of writers; what it needs is a few hundred more paying magazines, and the editors who made them run.

John W. Campbell on the art of science fiction

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John W. Campbell

I hate a story that begins with atmosphere. Get right into the story, never mind the atmosphere.

The trouble with Bob Heinlein is that he doesn’t need to write. When I want a story from him, the first thing I have to do is think up something he would like to have, like a swimming pool. The second thing is to sell him on the idea of having it. The third thing is convince him he should write a story to get the money to pay for it, instead of building it himself.

When there’s something wrong with a story, I can tell you how to fix it. When it just doesn’t come across, there’s nothing I can say.

When I think of a story idea, I give it to six different writers. It doesn’t matter if all six of them write it. They’ll all be different stories, anyway, and I’ll publish all six of them.

I want the kind of story that could be printed in a magazine of the year two thousand A.D. as a contemporary adventure story. No gee-whiz, just take the technology for granted.

John W. Campbell, quoted by Frederik Pohl in The Way the Future Was

Written by nevalalee

July 25, 2015 at 7:30 am

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