Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Theodore Sturgeon

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.”

The dianetics epidemic

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Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health

In his bestselling book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell devotes several pages to a discussion of the breakout success of the novel Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. After its initial release in 1996, it sold reasonably well in hardcover, receiving “a smattering of reviews,” but it became an explosive phenomenon in paperback, thanks primarily to what Gladwell calls “the critical role that groups play in social epidemics.” He writes:

The first bestseller list on which Ya-Ya Sisterhood appeared was the Northern California Independent Bookseller’s list. Northern California…was where seven hundred and eight hundred people first began showing up at [Rebecca Wells’s] readings. It was where the Ya-Ya epidemic began. Why? Because…the San Francisco area is home to one of the country’s strongest book club cultures, and from the beginning Ya-Ya was what publishers refer to as a “book club book.” It was the kind of emotionally sophisticated, character-driven, multilayered novel that invites reflection and discussion, and book groups were flocking to it. The groups of women who were coming to Wells’s readings were members of reading groups, and they were buying extra copies not just for family and friends but for other members of the group. And because Ya-Ya was being talked about and read in groups, the book itself became that much stickier. It’s easier to remember and appreciate something, after all, if you discuss it for two hours with your best friends. It becomes a social experience, an object of conversation. Ya-Ya’s roots in book group culture tipped it into a larger word-of-mouth epidemic.

You could say much the same thing about a very different book that became popular in California nearly five decades earlier. Scientology has exhibited an unexpected degree of staying power among a relatively small number of followers, but Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, the work that that made L. Ron Hubbard famous, was a textbook case of a viral phenomenon. Just three months elapsed between the book’s publication on May 9, 1950 and Hubbard’s climactic rally at the Shrine Auditorium on August 10, and its greatest impact on the wider culture occurred over a period of less than a year. And its dramatic spread and decline had all the hallmarks of virality. In the definitive Hubbard biography Bare-Faced Messiah, Russell Miller writes:

For the first few days after publication of Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, it appeared as if the publisher’s caution about the book’s prospects had been entirely justified. Early indications were that it had aroused little interest; certainly it was ignored by most reviewers. But suddenly, towards the end of May, the line on the sales graph at the New York offices of Hermitage House took a steep upturn.

By midsummer, it was selling a thousand copies a day, and by late fall, over seven hundred dianetics clubs had been established across the country. As Miller writes: “Dianetics became, virtually overnight, a national ‘craze’ somewhat akin to the canasta marathons and pyramid clubs that had briefly flourished in the hysteria of postwar America.”

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

The result was a quintessential social epidemic, and I’m a little surprised that Gladwell, who is so hungry for case studies, has never mentioned it. The book itself was “sticky,” with its promise of a new science of mental health that could be used by anyone and that got results every time. Like Ya-Ya, it took root in an existing group—in this case, the science fiction community, which was the natural audience for its debut in the pages of Astounding. Just as the ideal book club selection is one that inspires conversations, dianetics was a shared experience: in order to be audited, you needed to involve at least one other person. Auditing, as the therapy was originally presented, seemed so easy that anyone could try it, and many saw it as a kind of parlor game. (In his biography of Robert A. Heinlein, William H. Patterson shrewdly compares it to the “Freuding parties” that became popular in Greenwich Village in the twenties.) Even if you didn’t want to be audited yourself, dianetics became such a topic of discussion among fans that summer that you had to read the book to be a part of it. It also benefited from the presence of what Gladwell calls mavens, connectors, and salesmen. John W. Campbell was the ultimate maven, an information broker who, as one of Gladwell’s sources puts it, “wants to solve other people’s problems, generally by solving his own.” The connectors included prominent members of the fan community, notably A.E. van Vogt, who ended up running the Los Angeles foundation, and Forrest Ackerman, Hubbard’s agent and “the number one fan.” And the salesman was Hubbard himself, who threw himself into the book’s promotion on the West Coast. As Campbell wrote admiringly to Heinlein: “When Ron wants to, he can put on a personality that would be a confidence man’s delight—persuasive, gentle, intimately friendly. The perfect bedside manner, actually.”

In all epidemics, geography plays a crucial role, and in the case of dianetics, it had profound consequences on individual careers. One of Campbell’s priorities was to sell the therapy to his top writers, much as the Church of Scientology later reached out to movie stars, and the single greatest predictor of how an author would respond was his proximity to the centers of fan culture. Two of the most important converts were van Vogt, who was in Los Angeles, and Theodore Sturgeon, who lived in New York, where he was audited by Campbell himself. Isaac Asimov, by contrast, had moved from Manhattan to Boston just the year before, and Heinlein, fascinatingly, had left Hollywood, where he had been working on the film Destination Moon, in February of 1950. Heinlein was intrigued by dianetics, but because he was in Colorado Springs with his wife Ginny, who refused to have anything to do with it, he was unable to find an auditing partner. And it’s worth wondering what might have ensued if he had remained in Southern California for another six months. (Such accidents of place and time can have significant aftereffects. Van Vogt had moved from the Ottawa area to Los Angeles in 1944, and his involvement with dianetics took him out of writing for the better part of a decade, at the very moment when science fiction was breaking into the culture as a whole. His absence during this critical period, which made celebrities out of Heinlein and Asimov, feels like a big part of the reason why van Vogt has mostly disappeared from the popular consciousness. And it might never have happened if he had stayed in Canada.) The following year, dianetics as a movement fizzled out, due largely to Hubbard’s own behavior—although he might also have sensed that it wouldn’t last. But it soon mutated into another form. And before long, Hubbard would begin to spread a few divine secrets of his own.

The Imaginary Dr. Kutzman

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A Criticism of Dianetics

In my recent piece on Longreads about L. Ron Hubbard and the origins of Scientology, I note that Hubbard initially didn’t want the first important article on dianetics to appear in Astounding Science Fiction at all. In April of 1949, he made efforts to reach out to such organizations as the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, and the Gerontological Society in Baltimore, and he only turned to the science fiction editor John W. Campbell after all of these earlier attempts had failed. Most of the standard biographies of Hubbard mention this fact, but what isn’t always emphasized is that even Campbell, who became one of Hubbard’s most passionate supporters, didn’t seem all that eager to publish the piece in Astounding. Campbell knew perfectly well that printing this material in a pulp magazine would make it hard for it to be taken seriously, and he was also concerned that it would be mistaken for a hoax article, like Isaac Asimov’s story about the fictional compound thiotimoline. As a result, even as Campbell served as a key member of the team that was developing dianetics in Bay Head, New Jersey, he continued to push for it to make its first appearance in a professional journal. Later that year, Dr. Joseph Winter, their third crucial collaborator, reached out “informally” about a paper to the Journal of the American Medical Association, only to be told that it lacked sufficient evidence, and he got much the same response from the American Journal of Psychiatry. It was only after they had exhausted these avenues that they decided to publish “Dianetics: The Evolution of a Science” in the magazine that Campbell himself edited—which tells us a lot about how they had originally wanted their work to be received.

At that point, Campbell was hardly in a position to be objective, but he wanted to present the article to his readers in a way that at least gave the appearance of balance. Accordingly, he proposed that they find a psychiatrist to write a critical treatment of dianetics, presumably to run alongside Hubbard’s piece—but he was doomed to be disappointed in this, too. On December 9, 1949, Hubbard wrote: “In view of the fact that no psychiatrist to date has been able to look at Dianetics and listen long enough to find out the fundamentals, Dianetic explanations being dinned out by his educational efforts about Freud, we took it upon ourselves to compose the rebuttal.” Incredibly, Hubbard and Winter wrote up an entire article, “A Criticism of Dianetics,” that spent over five thousand words laying out the case against the new therapy, credited to the nonexistent “Irving R. Kutzman, M.D.” (In his letter, Hubbard argued that the “M.D.” was justified, since it reflected the contributions of Winter, a general practitioner and endocrinologist from Michigan.) Hubbard claimed that the essay consisted of the verbatim comments of four psychiatrists he had consulted on the subject, including one he had met while living in Savannah, Georgia, and that he had “played them back very carefully,” using the perfect memory that a dianetic “clear” possessed. He also described setting up “a psychiatric demon” to write the piece, which refers to the notion that a clear can deliberately create and break down temporary delusions for his private amusement. To the best of my knowledge, this paper, which I discovered among Campbell’s correspondence, hasn’t been published or discussed anywhere else, and it provides some fascinating insights into Hubbard’s thinking at the time.

L. Ron Hubbard to John W. Campbell

The most interesting thing about “A Criticism of Dianetics” is how straightforward it is. Hubbard told Campbell that “it is in no sense an effort to be funny and it is not funny,” and for most of the piece, there’s little trace of burlesque. Notably, it anticipates many of the objections that would be raised against dianetics, including the idea that it merely repackaged existing psychological concepts. As “Kutzman” writes: “Further examination…disclosed that scraps of Dianetics have been known for thousands of years. Except for one or two relatively minor matters, all of them are known to the modern psychologist.” He also observes that Hubbard has only thirteen months of data—which is actually generous, given how little he disclosed about any of his alleged cases—and that there’s no evidence that any perceived improvements will last. It’s only toward the end that the mask begins to slip. “Kutzman” speaks glowingly of “the new technique of trans-orbital leukotomy and the older and more reliable technique of pre-frontal lobotomy,” with which “patients can be treated more swiftly and will be less of a menace to society than heretofore.” He concludes: “By such operations…[the neurosurgeon] can get rid of that part of your personality which is causing all your trouble.” (Even the name “Kutzman,” I suspect, is a bad pun.) The piece dismisses General Semantics and cybernetics, the latter of which it attributes to a “Dr. Werner [sic],” and closes with an odd account of the fictional Kutzman being audited by Hubbard, in which he explains away the prenatal and childhood memories that he recovered as delusions: “I had eaten excessively at supper and…my ulcer had been troubling me for some time.” It ends: “Discoveries not solidly founded in classical psychoanalysis are not likely to be easily accepted by a social world which already comprehends all the basic problems of the human mind.”

In any event, it was never published, and it isn’t clear whether Hubbard or Winter ever thought that it would be. Hubbard wrote to Campbell: “Any article you receive will, I know, run something on this order if written by a psychiatrist…May I invite you to peruse same, not in any misguided spirit of levity, but as a review of the composite and variously confirmed attitudes Dianetics meets in the field of those great men who guide our minds.” No actual rebuttal ever materialized, and dianetics was presented in the pages of Astounding without any critical analysis whatsoever. (Interestingly, Hubbard did contribute to a point/counterpoint discussion on at least two other occasions. One was in the November 1950 issue of Why Magazine, which ran Hubbard’s “The Case For It” with “The Case Against It” by Dr. Oscar Sachs of Mount Sinai, and the other was in the May 1951 installment of Marvel Science Stories, which contained positive articles on dianetics from Hubbard and Theodore Sturgeon and a critical one from Lester del Rey. Campbell could have arranged for something similar in Astounding, if he had really wanted it.) But it provides a valuable glimpse into a transitional moment in Hubbard’s career. Compared to the author’s later attacks on psychiatry, its tone is restrained, even subtle—which isn’t a description that usually comes to mind for Hubbard’s work. Yet it’s equally clear that he had already given up on reaching mainstream psychologists and psychiatrists, even to the extent of convincing one to compose an objective response. Campbell, for his part, still clung to the hope of obtaining academic or scientific recognition. Much of the tragicomedy of what happened over the next eighteen months emerged from that basic misunderstanding. And the seeds of it are visible here.

Written by nevalalee

February 23, 2017 at 8:50 am

The year of magical thinking

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Elon Musk at Trump Tower

Maybe if I’m part of that mob, I can help steer it in wise directions.

—Homer Simpson, “Whacking Day”

Yesterday, Tesla founder Elon Musk defended his decision to remain on President Trump’s economic advisory council, stating on Twitter: “My goals are to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy and to help make humanity a multi-planet civilization.” A few weeks earlier, Peter Thiel, another member of the PayPal mafia and one of Trump’s most prominent defenders, said obscurely to the New York Times: “Even if there are aspects of Trump that are retro and that seem to be going back to the past, I think a lot of people want to go back to a past that was futuristic—The Jetsons, Star Trek. They’re dated but futuristic.” Musk and Thiel both tend to speak using the language of science fiction, in part because it’s the idiom that they know best. Musk includes Asimov’s Foundation series among his favorite books, and he’s a recipient of the Heinlein Prize for accomplishments in commercial space activities. Thiel is a major voice in the transhumanist movement, and he’s underwritten so much research into seasteading that I’m indebted to him for practically all the technical background of my novella “The Proving Ground.” As Thiel said to The New Yorker several years ago, in words that have a somewhat different ring today:

One way you can describe the collapse of the idea of the future is the collapse of science fiction. Now it’s either about technology that doesn’t work or about technology that’s used in bad ways. The anthology of the top twenty-five sci-fi stories in 1970 was, like, “Me and my friend the robot went for a walk on the moon,” and in 2008 it was, like, “The galaxy is run by a fundamentalist Islamic confederacy, and there are people who are hunting planets and killing them for fun.”

Despite their shared origins at PayPal, Musk and Thiel aren’t exactly equivalent here: Musk has been open about his misgivings toward Trump’s policy on refugees, while Thiel, who seems to have little choice but to double down, had a spokesperson issue the bland statement: “Peter doesn’t support a religious test, and the administration has not imposed one.” Yet it’s still striking to see two of our most visible futurists staking their legacies on a relationship with Trump, even if they’re coming at it from different angles. As far as Musk is concerned, I don’t agree with his reasoning, but I understand it. His decision to serve in an advisory capacity to Trump seems to come down to his relative weighting of two factors, which aren’t mutually exclusive, but are at least inversely proportional. The first is the possibility that his presence will allow him to give advice that will affect policy decisions to some incremental but nontrivial extent. It’s better, this argument runs, to provide a reasonable voice than to allow Trump to be surrounded by nothing but manipulative Wormtongues. The second possibility is that his involvement with the administration will somehow legitimize or enable its policies, and that this risk far exceeds his slight chance of influencing the outcome. It’s a judgment call, and you can assign whatever values you like to those two scenarios. Musk has clearly thought long and hard about it. But I’ll just say that if it turns out that there’s even the tiniest chance that an occasional meeting with Musk—who will be sharing the table with eighteen others—could possibly outweigh the constant presence of Steve Bannon, a Republican congressional majority, and millions of angry constituents in any meaningful way, I’ll eat my copy of the Foundation trilogy.

Donald Trump and Peter Thiel

Musk’s belief that his presence on the advisory council might have an impact on a president who has zero incentive to appeal to anyone but his own supporters is a form of magical thinking. In a way, though, I’m not surprised, and it’s possible that everything I admire in Musk is inseparable from the delusion that underlies this decision. Whatever you might think of them personally, Musk and Thiel are undoubtedly imaginative. In his New Yorker profile, Thiel blamed many of this country’s problems on “a failure of imagination,” and his nostalgia for vintage science fiction is rooted in a longing for the grand gestures that it embodied: the flying car, the seastead, the space colony. Achieving such goals requires not only vision, but a kind of childlike stubbornness that chases a vanishingly small chance of success in the face of all evidence to the contrary. What makes Musk and Thiel so fascinating is their shared determination to take a fortune built on something as prosaic as an online payments system and to turn it into a spaceship. So far, Musk has been much more successful at translating his dreams into reality, and Thiel’s greatest triumph to date has been the destruction of Gawker Media. But they’ve both seen their gambles pay off to an extent that might mislead them about their ability to make it happen again. It’s this sort of indispensable naïveté that underlies Musk’s faith in his ability to nudge Trump in the right direction, and, on a more sinister level, Thiel’s eagerness to convince us to sign up for a grand experiment with high volatility in both directions—even if most of us don’t have the option of fleeing to New Zealand if it all goes up in flames.

This willingness to submit involuntary test subjects to a hazardous cultural project isn’t unique to science fiction fans. It’s the same attitude that led Norman Mailer, when asked about his support of the killer Jack Henry Abbott, to state: “I’m willing to gamble with a portion of society to save this man’s talent. I am saying that culture is worth a little risk.” (And it’s worth remembering that the man whom Abbott stabbed to death, Richard Adan, was the son of Cuban immigrants.) But when Thiel advised us before the election not to take Trump “literally,” it felt like a symptom of the suspension of disbelief that both science fiction writers and startup founders have to cultivate:

I think a lot of the voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously but not literally. And so when they hear things like the Muslim comment or the wall comment or things like that, the question is not “Are you going to build a wall like the Great Wall of China?” or, you know, “How exactly are you going to enforce these tests?” What they hear is “We’re going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy.”

We’ll see how that works out. But in the meantime, the analogy to L. Ron Hubbard is a useful one. Plenty of science fiction writers, including John W. Campbell, A.E. van Vogt, and Theodore Sturgeon, were persuaded by dianetics, in part because it struck them as a risky idea with an unlimited upside. Yet whatever psychological benefits dianetics provided—and it probably wasn’t any less effective than many forms of talk therapy—were far outweighed by the damage that Hubbard and his followers inflicted. It might help to mentally replace the name “Trump” with “Hubbard” whenever an ethical choice needs to be made. What would it mean to take Hubbard “seriously, but not literally?” And if Hubbard asked you to join his board of advisors, would it seem likely that you could have a positive influence, even if it meant adding your name to the advisory council of the Church of Scientology? Or would it make more sense to invest the same energy into helping those whose lives the church was destroying?

Astounding Stories #9: “The Mule”

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"The Mule" by Isaac Asimov

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 the four writers who stand at the heart of Astounding, the one who has been the hardest to pin down is Isaac Asimov. This might seem surprising, given that the other three figures are John W. Campbell, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard, all of whom, by any measure, had personalities and private lives of daunting complexity. Asimov, by contrast, seems like a relatively accessible figure: his life was comparatively uneventful in its externals, and he spent much of it in the lab at Boston University, giving speeches, or writing at home. He was also the author of two enormously detailed volumes of autobiography, In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt, that track his life on almost a daily basis, which would make them indispensable primary sources even if they weren’t also a huge pleasure to read. (A third volume, I, Asimov, is less essential, but still a must for fans.) He was also more of a public figure than any other science fiction writer of his time. With his glasses and sideburns, he was instantly recognizable, and I suspect that he might be the novelist, of any era, whom the greatest number of living Americans would be able to identify at sight. Decades after his death, he still has the highest name recognition of any writer in the genre. But separating the persona that he deliberately cultivated from the real man underneath presents undeniable challenges—all the more so because Asimov managed to convince millions of readers that they knew him well, when he really kept so many aspects of himself under close guard.

Asimov’s unique status as a celebrity also encourages a number of misconceptions about his career. He’s often cited as a monstrous fiction-writing machine, as Stephen King did in a recent essay for the New York Times on whether a novelist can be too productive. After evoking the likes of Max Brand and Alexandre Dumas, King continues: “And then there’s Isaac Asimov, who sold his first short story at nineteen, hammered out more than five hundred books, and revolutionized science fiction.” But there’s a big misapprehension here. Asimov was undoubtedly one of the most prolific writers who ever lived, but not on the fiction side. When you add up his novels and short stories, it’s an impressive body of work, but not that much larger than that of many other writers of his generation, and Asimov could go for years without producing much in the way of fiction at all. It was in nonfiction, and particularly in popular science, that he made his greatest mark on the world’s libraries, as well as on the consciousness of the public. For most of his life, Asimov was among the most highly regarded of authors within the closed circle of science fiction readers, but he didn’t have a mainstream bestseller until he returned to the Foundation series toward the end of his career. It was in the sheer volume of his nonfiction—which Asimov was among the first to realize would be newsworthy in itself—that he became famous to a general audience, less because of any one book than thanks to the familiarity of his face and byline.

Portrait of Isaac Asimov by Rowena Morrill

This makes it a little harder to objectively evaluate his fiction. There’s no doubt that he would be regarded as a major writer within the genre, even if he hadn’t become so famous outside of it, but his output is frankly more mixed than that of, say, Heinlein. It took Asimov a while to find his footing—although we should never forget, as King points out, that he was unbelievably young when he sold his first stories, and that he did much of his growing up as an author in full view. His single greatest breakthrough, “Nightfall,” has been voted the best science fiction story of all time on multiple occasions, although Asimov himself felt that it was overrated. The positronic robot stories are an indisputable landmark as a whole, but I’m not sure if any one installment in the series inspires particularly warm feelings in readers, and its most significant element, the Three Laws of Robotics, was really developed by Campbell. And Asimov’s limitations as a writer are more evident than they are in the best of his contemporaries. I’ve come to believe that Heinlein, Sturgeon, and the writing team of C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner, to name only the most obvious examples, could do just about anything, while Asimov seemed more comfortable working within a narrow range: it’s impossible to imagine him writing a story like “Vintage Season” or “Killdozer.” He helped define the genre, but he rarely strayed from a specific subset of it during the golden age, and it wasn’t until later, in stories like “The Last Question,” that he began to push into unexplored regions.

But I don’t want to understate his talent, because many of the stories he wrote during this early period are extraordinary. My personal favorite is “The Red Queen’s Race,” a relatively unheralded work about a professor who tries to change the future by sending physics textbooks back in time to ancient Greece: maybe it’s because of my own classics background, but I think it’s a perfect story. And then there’s the Foundation series, which remains his most lasting achievement, despite what even Asimov, on rereading it after three decades, saw as a decided lack of action or conventional suspense. (“I read it with mounting uneasiness. I kept waiting for something to happen, and nothing ever did.”) Elsewhere, the writer James Gunn notes that “the romance is almost invisible,” which is another way of saying that there are almost no women in sight. Still, it remains a fascinating work, in part because of the appeal of the notion of a secret society of psychohistorians, which had a strange afterlife when Campbell tried to create one for real at the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation in Elizabeth, New Jersey. And it includes one undeniably great novella, “The Mule,” which was Asimov’s own favorite. It benefits from having a significant female character for once, in the form of Bayta Darell, and a stunning twist ending that still works like gangbusters today. Asimov wrote it in response to Campbell’s insistence that the Seldon Plan, the “connecting backbone” of the series, had to be disrupted: “I was horrified. No, I said, no, no, no. But Campbell said: Yes, yes, yes, yes, and I knew I wasn’t going to sell him a no, no.” And as Asimov himself knew well, even the best of plans have a way of going in unexpected directions—and in life as well as in fiction.

Astounding Stories #6: “Microcosmic God” and “E for Effort”

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Microcosmic God

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

It’s easy to forget that when Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health was first published, it wasn’t just meant as a textbook, but as a manual for an entire social movement that was designed to emerge at exactly the same time. The community that sprang up around it was no accident, and it was rooted in the very same science fiction circles that had been introduced to L. Ron Hubbard’s theories in the pages of Astounding. On the east coast, the movement was based at the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where Hubbard and his editor John W. Campbell were soon spending most of their time; on the west coast, it was centered on the Los Angeles chapter that was all but thrust into the hands of the writer A.E. van Vogt, in a disruption that took him out of science fiction for a decade. For Campbell, whose magazine had provided the initial platform that allowed Hubbard to reach a critical mass of readers, the foundation wasn’t just an adjunct to the book, but the heart of the entire project. Dianetics taught that individuals who had been “cleared” became smarter, more logical, and capable of accessing all the information they had ever learned or experienced. Unlike ordinary mortals, they were able to accurately process data from the world and evaluate it properly. And Campbell saw the foundation as a place where ideas of all kinds could be generated and refined by the heightened intellects that the therapy produced, which, in turn, was the only way to save mankind from its most destructive tendencies, as embodied in the threat of nuclear war.

This might seem like an impossibly grandiose mission, but it was only the expression, in the real world, of a longing that had been inherent in science fiction for years. The idea of a select group of enlightened men and women working together to save the human race from itself recurs repeatedly, and not just because it’s an engine for interesting stories. You see it, most famously, in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, first in the psychohistorians who transform psychology into an exact science that can be used to predict events far into the future, and then in the shadowy Second Foundation, which secretly nudges the minds of others to keep the plan on track. It’s there in Heinlein’s odd but wonderful novella Gulf, which was written just as he and Hubbard were becoming close friends, and which reads like a treatise wrapped in the pulpiest of pulp novels: it’s about a secret group of geniuses, the New Men, who parcel out scientific advances to the rest of society and defend the world against the existential threat of the nova effect, which could destroy the entire planet if it falls into the wrong hands. Perhaps most overtly, it’s visible in the numerous stories built around the general semantics of Alfred Korzybski, a fashionable theory of mental engineering that had a significant impact on authors like Hubbard, Heinlein, Poul Anderson, and van Vogt, whose novel The World of Null-A—which I hope to discuss in more detail soon—is both a fevered dramatization of Korzybski’s ideas and the weirdest story ever to appear in Astounding.

E for Effort

But for the most intriguing insights into Campbell’s hopes for the foundation, we should look at two stories in which the parallels are a little more subtle. The first is “Microcosmic God” by Theodore Sturgeon, published in 1941, which gives us a central character who reads a lot like a portrait of Campbell himself:

[Kidder] was always asking questions, and didn’t mind very much when they were embarrassing…If he was talking to someone who had knowledge, he went in there and got it, leaving his victim breathless. If he was talking to someone whose knowledge was already in his possession, he only asked repeatedly, “How do you know?”

Kidder, a scientist, is frustrated by society’s slow development of ideas, so he does it one better: he creates an artificial civilization in his laboratory populated by tiny creatures called Neoterics, who live and think at a rate hundreds of times faster than human beings, and to whom he poses scientific problems in the guise of their god. It takes the Neoterics just two hundred days to replicate all of mankind’s science, followed by the rapid development of everything from a vaccine against the common cold to an impenetrable force field, all in response to the miniature crises that he creates. It’s as perfect an allegory as I can imagine for Campbell’s vision of Astounding, which he saw as a collaboration between writers and fans to develop ideas at blinding speed, with himself as head of research. And he thought that the dianetics foundation would serve as an even greater laboratory.

The second story is by the author T.L. Sherred, who produced relatively little science fiction, but whose output includes one indisputable classic, “E for Effort,” which first appeared in 1947. It’s the story of two small-time operators who develop a technique for viewing events from any period in Earth’s history: they can literally look at anyone at any time, and they can film the result as if they had been there in person. They begin by using the technology to make popular documentaries, disguised as sword-and-sandal epics, about the likes of Alexander the Great, but they soon realize that they have something even more powerful at their disposal. By going back and documenting the sordid political realities of the first two world wars—“the cynical leaders who signed and laughed and lied”—they announce that their machine has made it impossible for governments to keep secrets, which is necessary “if atomic war is not to sear the face and fate of the world.” As one of the inventors tells the other:

War of any kind is what has made man spend most of his history in merely staying alive. Now, with the atom to use, he has within himself the seed of self-extermination. So help me, Ed, I’m going to do my share of stopping that, or I don’t see any point in living. I mean it!

In other words, what began as a form of entertainment becomes a means of saving the world. That’s exactly what Campbell thought science fiction could be. And it’s impossible to understand his hopes for dianetics, and the heartbreak that ensued when it fell short of that ideal, without remembering the vision of it that he infused, in secret, into the pages of his magazine.

Paper is cheap, and other lessons from street art

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When you come right down to it, graffiti is the most fundamental form of self-publishing there is. Long before Twitter, WordPress, or Amazon’s digital publishing arm, street artists managed to express themselves on the sides of buildings, fences, and city curbs, and the raw materials couldn’t have been cheaper: paint, paper, wheatpaste. At its best, the anonymity and accessibility of the form encouraged experimentation, radicalism, and resourcefulness—as exhilaratingly documented in Banksy’s great Exit Through the Gift Shop—as well as a refreshing lack of inhibition. As Raffi Khatchadourian of the New Yorker puts it in a recent profile of the street artist JR:

He rarely expresses doubt about his art; paper and glue are cheap, and it is easy to experiment with them rather than to agonize before executing a judgment.

In some ways, then, street art stands as a rebuke to those of us who are always seeking perfection in our own work. There’s no such thing as a “finished” piece of street art: it’s a work in progress, defined as much by the riskiness of its execution as the visible result, and it’s only complete when it succeeds in arousing a reaction in its audience. Even more importantly, it’s a reminder of how little an artist really needs. No matter what your medium of choice, the basic tools are readily at hand, if you have enough ingenuity to use them. Paper, or its equivalent, is cheap for everyone. And the best street art recognizes this. In the most literal way possible, it’s about throwing something against the wall and seeing what sticks.

The trouble with street art, of course, is the trouble with all forms of self-publishing: the work of a few good artists can be hard to find in a sea of meaningless graffiti. Most graffiti, after all, is ugly; most self-published works, when you consider the full range of material both in print and online, are unreadable. At first glance, bad graffiti might seem like the greater eyesore, since there’s no way of looking away from it in your own neighborhood, but graffiti, at least, has certain barriers to entry—notably its illegality—that discourage most of us from risking it. No such barriers exist on the Internet, and I dare you to find a city wall as terrifying as the comments section of, say, Yahoo News, which is really just graffiti in digital form.

So what’s the lesson here? There’s bad street art and good street art; bad self-published novels and good self-published novels; and bad comment threads and, believe it or not, good comment threads. As Theodore Sturgeon famously pointed out, the bad will always outweigh the good, in similar proportions, no matter what the medium. That’s the price we pay for making any means of expression universally accessible—and rightly so. Graffiti is just the most visible form of a process that takes place in every form of communication: a vast amount of experimentation, imitation, and outright trash that somehow results in a handful of viable artists and communities, whether or not we know their names. So if you think you have something to contribute, you should. Because paper is cheap. And we need you.

Written by nevalalee

December 28, 2011 at 10:16 am

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