Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Unknown

Visions of tomorrow

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As I’ve mentioned here before, one of my few real regrets about Astounding is that I wasn’t able to devote much room to discussing the artists who played such an important role in the evolution of science fiction. (The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that their collective impact might be even greater than that of any of the writers I discuss, at least when it comes to how the genre influenced and was received by mainstream culture.) Over the last few months, I’ve done my best to address this omission, with a series of posts on such subjects as Campbell’s efforts to improve the artwork, his deliberate destruction of the covers of Unknown, and his surprising affection for the homoerotic paintings of Alejandro Cañedo. And I can reveal now that this was all in preparation for a more ambitious project that has been in the works for a while—a visual essay on the art of Astounding and Unknown that has finally appeared online in the New York Times Book Review, with the highlights scheduled to be published in the print edition this weekend. It took a lot of time and effort to put it together, especially by my editors, and I’m very proud of the result, which honors the visions of such artists as H.W. Wesso, Howard V. Brown, Hubert Rogers, Manuel Rey Isip, Frank Kelly Freas, and many others. It stands on its own, but I’ve come to think of it as an unpublished chapter from my book that deserves to be read alongside its longer companion. As I note in the article, it took years for the stories inside the magazine to catch up to the dreams of its readers, but the artwork was often remarkable from the beginning. And if you want to know what the fans of the golden age really saw when they imagined the future, the answer is right here.

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January 11, 2019 at 7:25 am

Astounding Stories #22: None But Lucifer

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Note: This is the latest entry in a series in which I highlight works of speculative fiction that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

None But Lucifer, a short novel by H.L. Gold and L. Sprague de Camp that appeared in the September 1939 issue of Unknown, opens with its lead character figuring out a foolproof way of getting whatever he wants—and it isn’t a fantasy. The story begins with its protagonist, Hale, living in deliberate poverty in a tenement in New York, and within the space of a few pages, merely as an experiment, he talks his way into a lucrative job, a beautiful apartment, and a luxurious lifestyle, mostly just to prove that he can. Hale’s system depends on aiming absurdly high while showing as much apparent contempt for his true goal as possible. As he explains to an incredulous listener:

I can get anything I want any time I want it…Moreover, anybody can use my system…I go after what I want obliquely, by seeming to aim at something else, but grabbing sideways at what I really want…I can be aiming at money, fame, love, an easy life, or influence—but I wouldn’t show which one I really wanted. You’d have to guess…The main thing is to keep your mouth shut about what you really want. The next most important thing is to get out of your social class. You can depend on your own class or the one just above it to defeat you…But if you break out of your class, the one you’re crashing isn’t sure of your aims, and can’t crush you so effectively.

He concludes: “If you’re trying to get a job as a clerk, your objective is pathetically simple to figure out. You want to eat. But if you go after a hundred-thousand-a-year position, with a crack at the boss’s daughter, it gets tougher to analyze your goal.” And that’s particularly true if you manage to break through the barriers that your social class has imposed.

As a list of commandments for con artists and other hustlers—you keep your motives hidden, avoid your own social class, and show as much contempt for possible for what you really want—this approach is as valid as ever, and there are times when it reminds me queasily of Neil Strauss’s The Game. But Gold and de Camp have larger ambitions of their own. The man to whom Hale is describing his strategy isn’t an ordinary human being at all. It’s Lucifier himself, who has been quietly running the world for thousands of years in the guise of an unassuming businessman named Mr. Johnson. Hale has figured out the sinister truth, which is that our world is Hell, and we’re all being punished without our knowledge for sins that we committed in a previous lifetime. (Hale’s first clue came from a line from the novelist Arnold Bennett: “Of all the inhabitants of the inferno, none but Lucifer knows that hell is hell.” Or as Eleanor Shellstrop memorably realized: This is the Bad Place!”) With this information in hand, Hale approaches Lucifer with an ultimatum. He wants to be an equal partner in the management of Hell, or he’ll tell the world about his system for getting whatever you want, which will upset the delicate balance of suffering. Lucifer agrees, and he takes Hale under his wing. And while we reasonably suspect that there’s more to the deal than meets the eye, for the moment, we’re more interested in hearing Lucifer expound on his methods of keeping mankind in an ideal state of misery. For instance:

Running Hell on an efficient basis happens to be my business, and I run it the same as any other businessman runs his business, by practical, common-sense methods…I’m immortal, of course. Hence I can control the world’s money simply by investing a little and waiting for the interest charges to pile up. Outside of that, I can run the world merely by a magnificent system of obtaining information, an understanding of men’s desires, and a knowledge of how to use pivot men. And, of course, the ability to start and stop the flow of money. In most cases the last can be done without a penny.

This is a terrific premise for a story, although None But Lucifer—which de Camp rewrote from Gold’s initial draft, with uncredited contributions from John W. Campbell—doesn’t quite live up to its opening. The middle sags a bit, and it doesn’t follow through completely on its promise. But it’s deliciously quotable throughout, and I can hardly imagine the effect that it must have had on the impressionable teenagers who bought it for twenty cents in 1939. Here, for example, is Lucifer on the efficiency of his strategies for causing pain, which don’t involve tracking every last person on earth, but just a few crucial people: “It’s enough to keep track of trade and production and social, political, and economic movements, with the key figures in each category, their influence, their motives and objectives, and what effect certain…uh…stimuli will have on their own categories and on society in general…No black magic—just detailed information and a knowledge of human nature.” A few pages later, Lucifer explains his attitude toward war:

Except in unusual cases, I never concentrate on tormenting a single person. That would be inefficient…The chronic state of crisis, never quite reaching war, which I have labored incessantly to create, is kept simmering. The world was growing apathetic, but now there is a very gratifying turmoil. Millions of people have been made afraid and unhappy. Others have had their hopes raised. At the proper moment those hopes will be dashed, and they, too, will be unhappy.

When Lucifer poses the problem of what should be done as humanity proceeds toward an inevitable global conflict, Hale gives the correct answer: “I guess I’d try to prevent war…To keep the world frightened for as long as possible.” Lucifer praises his insight, but he adds a reminder: “Even though the war crisis is our most absorbing problem at the moment, we must never cease using the smaller torments.”

None But Lucifer was written before the outbreak of war in Europe, and it was on newsstands when Hitler invaded Poland. Typically, in a later issue, Campbell was quick to play up the coincidence: “None But Lucifer was begun last spring, worked out in detail last summer, bought and started on the process of being set in type late last summer. And it was on the stands at the time Europe was busily proving for the world that Lucifer does rule this planet.” Yet there are few points in history when its insights wouldn’t seem relevant. Reading it over recently, I was most struck by the passage in which Hale marvels at the universal state of suffering:

Millions out of work; increase in the relief budget attacked by the economy lobby—and effectively, since they were now so powerful; hunger marches, riots, strikes, lockouts, freezing of credit. Out of all that torment and strife there should have been a little happiness. The isolationists and the economizers should have felt jubilant. But actually they were as frightened as the rest of the country…It seemed that people were unhappy no matter what you did.

Throughout the story, Hale wonders what the world’s inhabitants could possibly have done in a previous life to deserve such torment, and he never really finds out. In a closing twist, however, he finds that the very worst sinners are given the darkest punishment of all—in the next life, they’re doomed to become Lucifer himself. “Evidently we—those of us who are doomed, from time to time, to the supreme torment of indeterminate immortality as manager of Hell—committed the most unspeakable crimes in some other existence,” Lucifer explains before handing over the reins to the newly reluctant Hale. “While Hell would no doubt supply plenty of torment without our help, a manager is evidently required to assure the most efficient and economical distribution of misery.”

I’ll be appearing tonight at the Tuesday Funk reading series at Hopleaf Bar at 5148 N. Clark St. in Chicago at 7:30pm. Hope to see some of you there!

The Men Who Saw Tomorrow, Part 3

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By now, it might seem obvious that the best way to approach Nostradamus is to see it as a kind of game, as Anthony Boucher describes it in the June 1942 issue of Unknown Worlds: “A fascinating game, to be sure, with a one-in-a-million chance of hitting an astounding bullseye. But still a game, and a game that has to be played according to the rules. And those rules are, above all things else, even above historical knowledge and ingenuity of interpretation, accuracy and impartiality.” Boucher’s work inspired several spirited rebukes in print from L. Sprague de Camp, who granted the rules of the game but disagreed about its harmlessness. In a book review signed “J. Wellington Wells”—and please do keep an eye on that last name—de Camp noted that Nostradamus was “conjured out of his grave” whenever there was a war:

And wonder of wonders, it always transpires that a considerable portion of his several fat volumes of prophetic quatrains refer to the particular war—out of the twenty-odd major conflicts that have occurred since Dr. Nostradamus’s time—or other disturbance now taking place; and moreover that they prophesy inevitable victory for our side—whichever that happens to be. A wonderful man, Nostradamus.

Their affectionate battle culminated in a nonsense limerick that de Camp published in the December 1942 version of Esquire, claiming that if it was still in print after four hundred years, it would have been proven just as true as any of Nostradamus’s prophecies. Boucher responded in Astounding with the short story “Pelagic Spark,” an early piece of fanfic in which de Camp’s great-grandson uses the “prophecy” to inspire a rebellion in the far future against the sinister Hitler XVI.

This is all just good fun, but not everyone sees it as a game, and Nostradamus—like other forms of vaguely apocalyptic prophecy—tends to return at exactly the point when such impulses become the most dangerous. This was the core of de Camp’s objection, and Boucher himself issued a similar warning:

At this point there enters a sinister economic factor. Books will be published only when there is popular demand for them. The ideal attempt to interpret the as yet unfulfilled quatrains of Nostradamus would be made in an ivory tower when all the world was at peace. But books on Nostradamus sell only in times of terrible crisis, when the public wants no quiet and reasoned analysis, but an impassioned assurance that We are going to lick the blazes out of Them because look, it says so right here. And in times of terrible crisis, rules are apt to get lost.

Boucher observes that one of the best books on the subject, Charles A. Ward’s Oracles of Nostradamus, was reissued with a dust jacket emblazoned with such questions as “Will America Enter the War?” and “Will the British Fleet Be Destroyed?” You still see this sort of thing today, and it isn’t just the books that benefit. In 1981, the producer David L. Wolper released a documentary on the prophecies of Nostradamus, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, that saw subsequent spikes in interest during the Gulf War—a revised version for television was hosted by Charlton Heston—and after the September 11 attacks, when there was a run on the cassette at Blockbuster. And the attention that it periodically inspires reflects the same emotional factors that led to psychohistory, as the host of the original version said to the audience: “Do we really want to know about the future? Maybe so—if we can change it.”

The speaker, of course, was Orson Welles. I had always known that The Man Who Saw Tomorrow was narrated by Welles, but it wasn’t until I watched it recently that I realized that he hosted it onscreen as well, in one of my favorite incarnations of any human being—bearded, gigantic, cigar in hand, vaguely contemptuous of his surroundings and collaborators, but still willing to infuse the proceedings with something of the velvet and gold braid. Keith Phipps of The A.V. Club once described the documentary as “a brain-damaged sequel” to Welles’s lovely F for Fake, which is very generous. The entire project is manifestly ridiculous and exploitative, with uncut footage from the Zapruder film mingling with a xenophobic fantasy of a war of the West against Islam. Yet there are also moments that are oddly transporting, as when Welles turns to the camera and says:

Before continuing, let me warn you now that the predictions of the future are not at all comforting. I might also add that these predictions of the past, these warnings of the future are not the opinions of the producers of the film. They’re certainly not my opinions. They’re interpretations of the quatrains as made by scores of independent scholars of Nostradamus’ work.

In the sly reading of “my opinions,” you can still hear a trace of Harry Lime, or even of Gregory Arkadin, who invited his guests to drink to the story of the scorpion and the frog. And the entire movie is full of strange echoes of Welles’s career. Footage is repurposed from Waterloo, in which he played Louis XVIII, and it glances at the fall of the Shah of Iran, whose brother-in-law funded Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind, which was impounded by the revolutionary government that Nostradamus allegedly foresaw.

Welles later expressed contempt for the whole affair, allegedly telling Merv Griffin that you could get equally useful prophecies by reading at random out of the phone book. Yet it’s worth remembering, as the critic David Thomson notes, that Welles turned all of his talk show interlocutors into versions of the reporter from Citizen Kane, or even into the Hal to his Falstaff, and it’s never clear where the game ended. His presence infuses The Man Who Saw Tomorrow with an unearned loveliness, despite the its many awful aspects, such as the presence of the “psychic” Jeane Dixon. (Dixon’s fame rested on her alleged prediction of the Kennedy assassination, based on a statement—made in Parade magazine in 1960—that the winner of the upcoming presidential election would be “assassinated or die in office though not necessarily in his first term.” Oddly enough, no one seems to remember an equally impressive prediction by the astrologer Joseph F. Goodavage, who wrote in Analog in September 1962: “It is coincidental that each American president in office at the time of these conjunctions [of Jupiter and Saturn in an earth sign] either died or was assassinated before leaving the presidency…John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960 at the time of a Jupiter and Saturn conjunction in Capricorn.”) And it’s hard for me to watch this movie without falling into reveries about Welles, who was like John W. Campbell in so many other ways. Welles may have been the most intriguing cultural figure of the twentieth century, but he never seemed to know what would come next, and his later career was one long improvisation. It might not be too much to hear a certain wistfulness when he speaks of the man who could see tomorrow, much as Campbell’s fascination with psychohistory stood in stark contrast to the confusion of the second half of his life. When The Man Who Saw Tomorrow was released, Welles had finished editing about forty minutes of his unfinished masterpiece The Other Side of the Wind, and for decades after his death, it seemed that it would never be seen. Instead, it’s available today on Netflix. And I don’t think that anybody could have seen that coming.

The Men Who Saw Tomorrow, Part 2

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In the early forties, William Anthony Parker White—who used the pen name “Anthony Boucher”—was a successful mystery novelist, a noted Sherlockian, and a member in good standing of the Mañana Literary Society of Los Angeles. On May 12, 1941, he submitted an article to John W. Campbell that he hoped their mutual friend, Robert A. Heinlein, had been “kind enough to mention.” In his cover letter, Boucher wrote:

This is an attempt to interpret Nostradamus in the light of present events and to go even further and take a chance on the immediate future…It is (so far as I know) the only completely honest contemporary interpretation of the prophecies. The film shorts and the popularizers have cheated right and left—misquoted, mistranslated, cut, transposed, amalgamated, and what have you. It’s startling enough without cheating, and a damned sight more impressive.

By “film shorts,” Boucher was presumably referring to such newsreels as “More About Nostradamus,” produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which loosely applied the French seer’s prophecies to the ongoing war in Europe. Boucher, not unreasonably, thought that he could do better. He proposed that the article run under his real name, but Campbell evidently saw his background in mystery fiction as a selling point, and on the cover of the issue in which the piece ran, the editor made the connection clear: “Nostradamus the Prophet…named names and places—and has been proven incredibly accurate. What specific prophecies did he make concerning our time? A famous author of detective stories does a little analyzing of the clues Nostradamus left.”

The result was “On a Limb,” a witty article that appeared in the October 1941 issue of the magazine that was then known as Unknown Worlds. Like Campbell, Boucher evokes “time travel” as one possible explanation for Nostradamus’s alleged gifts, and he has an interesting response to the objection of why no one has been able to take advantage of these prophecies to change events before they happen:

The essence of true prophecy is that it must be disbelieved or misinterpreted. If it can be circumvented, it will be false. Cassandra, whom Apollo blessed with prophecy and cursed with an incredulous public, is the perfect archetype of the prophet. Nostradamus realized this. He had first written his prophecies, we gather, clearly and in sequence. Then, foreseeing the impossible contradiction of this procedure, he cast them into cryptic quatrains, in the damnedest French you ever read, and shuffled them out of all time order. As a result, they can usually be interpreted only after the event. Attempts at reading the future result in such catastrophes as Bouys’s confident proof to Napoleon that Nostradamus promised him victory forever, including a satisfactory invasion of England.

And in an editor’s note in the June 1942 issue, Campbell drew a clever comparison: “It was customary, then, to publish a scientific discovery in code, in anagram, in horribly confused allegory, or by depositing a sealed description of the discovery with some trusted friend. That way, while the “publication” didn’t do anybody any good, the discoverer was able, later on when it became general knowledge, or was discovered by someone else, to give the key to his code, anagram, or what have you, and prove that the had been the first discoverer.”

The obvious consequence of such obscurity, as Boucher notes, is that Nostradamus is all but useless when it comes to forecasting events in advance. As a result, the second half of the article, which consists of specific prophecies about what the war will bring, takes the author out on “a long and shaky limb.” (“File this copy of Unknown Worlds away carefully,” Boucher writes dryly. “It may make good reading in another year or two.”) And in retrospect, the results are about as accurate as you might expect. Boucher’s most specific prophecy, based on the line “Because of war, the king will abandon his realm,” was that George VI would flee to Canada after the fall of his prime minister, which is about as wrong as it gets. And Boucher’s claim that one phrase—“la matiere du pont”—refers to armaments produced by the DuPont company seems to have been too much even for Campbell, who wrote in a closing note:

The foregoing article on the prophecies of Nostradamus is thoroughly incredible. Nostradamus’ prophecies were thoroughly incredible—in the degree of their accuracy. Somehow it seems easier to believe that a man might successfully predict the movements and broad sweeps of the histories of nations than that one, two, or four centuries before it happens, the individual directly involved can be named…That seems, somehow, beyond the realm of prophecy. That Nostradamus could name…a particular corporation, specifying one of the products of that corporation, seems even more improbable…Anagrams and puns do exist in Nostradamus; to read from his quatrains the names and exact circumstances seems much as though the interpreter were finding in them things the author had not put there.

But what really caught my eye is the italicized section above. At precisely the same time that Campbell was editing Boucher’s article, he was discussing psychohistory with Isaac Asimov, who was about to write in the original story “Foundation”: “A great psychologist such as [Hari] Seldon could unravel human emotions and human reactions sufficiently to be able to predict broadly the historical sweep of the future.” And I strongly suspect that Campbell’s treatment of prediction in Unknown affected its much more famous incarnation in Astounding. As I’ve noted before, in “Foundation,” psychohistory is presented less as a specific method than as a claim about results. We aren’t told the first thing about how it works, and not even the characters seem especially clear on the concept. (As one says blandly to another: “Seldon was the greatest psychologist of our time…It seems reasonable to assume that he used his science to determine the probable course of the history of the immediate future.” And that’s all we get, apart from the flat assertion that Seldon “could easily have worked out the historical trends of the future by simple psychological technique.”) Since the claim had to stand on its own, it had to be plausible in itself—which means that it could only apply to “the broad sweep” of events, and it couldn’t be too specific. As Campbell understood about Nostradamus, a system that was able to generate names and dates seemed to fall outside the realm of credible science. And Nostradamus certainly wasn’t useful in the way that psychohistory was supposed to be. In the June 1942 issue, Boucher granted that most of his earlier prophecies had been wrong, or remained unfulfilled, and he reminded readers of a point that he had made earlier:

Prophecy is of no practical value. Its interest lies solely in its appeal to intellectual curiosity and in its possible use as evidence of some extrasensory power latent in mankind. Interpreting prophecies concerning the past is a task for an abstract scholar. Attempting to apply prophecies to the future is nothing but a game.

But the game wasn’t quite over yet. Tomorrow, I’ll be talking about two more players who appeared at slightly different stages. One was L. Sprague de Camp. The other was Orson Welles.

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November 1, 2018 at 9:29 am

The Men Who Saw Tomorrow, Part 1

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If there’s a single theme that runs throughout my book Astounding, it’s the two sides of the editor John W. Campbell. These days, Campbell tends to be associated with highly technical “hard” science fiction with an emphasis on physics and engineering, but he had an equally dominant mystical side, and from the beginning, you often see the same basic impulses deployed in both directions. (After the memory of his career had faded, much of this history was quietly revised, as Algis Burdrys notes in Benchmarks Revisited: “The strong mystical bent displayed among even the coarsest cigar-chewing technists is conveniently overlooked, and Campbell’s subsequent preoccupation with psionics is seen as an inexplicable deviation from a life of hitherto unswerving straight devotion to what we all agree is reasonability.”) As an undergraduate at M.I.T. and Duke, Campbell was drawn successively to Norbert Wiener, the founder of cybernetics, and Joseph Rhine, the psychologist best known for his statistical studies of telepathy. Both professors fed into his fascination with a possible science of the mind, but along strikingly different lines, and he later pursued both dianetics, which he originally saw as a kind of practical cybernetics, and explorations of psychic powers. Much the same holds true of his other great obsession—the problem of foreseeing the future. As I discuss today in an essay in the New York Times, its most famous manifestation was the notion of psychohistory, the fictional science of prediction in Asimov’s Foundation series. But at a time of global uncertainty, it wasn’t the method of forecasting that counted, but the accuracy of the results, and even as Campbell was collaborating with Asimov, his interest in prophecy was taking him to even stranger places.

The vehicle for the editor’s more mystical explorations was Unknown, the landmark fantasy pulp that briefly channeled these inclinations away from the pages of Astounding. (In my book, I argue that the simultaneous existence of these two titles purified science fiction at a crucial moment, and that the entire genre might have evolved in altogether different ways if Campbell had been forced to express all sides of his personality in a single magazine.) As I noted here the other day, in an attempt to attract a wider audience, Campbell removed the cover paintings from Unknown, hoping to make it look like a more mainstream publication. The first issue with the revised design was dated July 1940, and in his editor’s note, Campbell explicitly addressed the “new discoverers” who were reading the magazine for the first time. He grandly asserted that fantasy represented “a completely untrammeled literary medium,” and as an illustration of the kinds of subjects that he intended to explore in his stories, he offered a revealing example:

Until somebody satisfactorily explains away the unquestionable masses of evidence showing that people do have visions of things yet to come, or of things occurring at far-distant points—until someone explains how Nostradamus, the prophet, predicted things centuries before they happened with such minute detail (as to names of people not to be born for half a dozen generations or so!) that no vague “Oh, vague generalities—things are always happening that can be twisted to fit!” can possibly explain them away—until the time those are docketed and labeled and nearly filed—they belong to The Unknown.

It was Campbell’s first mention in print of Nostradamus, the sixteenth-century French prophet, but it wouldn’t be the last. A few months later, Campbell alluded in another editorial to the Moberly-Jourdain incident, in which two women claimed to have traveled over a century back in time on a visit to the Palace of Versailles. The editor continued: “If it happens one way—how about the other? How about someone slipping from the past to the future? It is known—and don’t condemn till you’ve read a fair analysis of the old man’s works—that Nostradamus, the famous French prophet, did not guess at what might happen; he recorded what did happen—before it happened. His accuracy of prophecy runs considerably better, actually, than the United States government crop forecasts, in percentage, and the latter are certainly used as a basis for business.” Campbell then drew a revealing connection between Nostradamus and the war in Europe:

Incidentally, to avoid disappointment, Nostradamus did not go into much detail about this period. He was writing several hundred years ago, for people of that time—and principally for Parisians. He predicted in some detail the French Revolution, predicted several destructions of Paris—which have come off on schedule, to date—and did not predict destruction of Paris for 1940. He did, however, for 1999—by a “rain of fire from the East.” Presumably he didn’t have any adequate terms for airplane bombs, so that may mean thermite incendiaries. But the present period, too many centuries from his own times, would be of minor interest to him, and details are sketchy. The prophecy goes up to about the thirty-fifth century.

And the timing was highly significant. Earlier that year, Campbell had published the nonfiction piece “The Science of Whithering” by L. Sprague de Camp in Astounding, shortly after German troops marched into Paris. De Camp’s article, which discussed the work of such cyclical historians as Spengler and Toynbee, represented the academic or scientific approach the problem of forecasting, and it would soon find its fictional expression in such stories as Jack Williamson’s “Breakdown” and Asimov’s “Foundation.” As usual, however, Campbell was playing both sides, and he was about to pursue a parallel train of thought in Unknown that has largely been forgotten. Instead of attempting to explain Nostradamus in rational terms, Campbell ventured a theory that was even more fantastic than the idea of clairvoyance:

Occasionally a man—vanishes…And somehow, he falls into another time. Sometimes future—sometimes past. And sometimes he comes back, sometimes he doesn’t. If he does come back, there’d be a tendency, and a smart one, to shut up; it’s mighty hard to prove. Of course, if he’s a scholarly gentlemen, he might spend his unintentional sojourn in the future reading histories of his beloved native land. Then, of course, he ought to be pretty accurate at predicting revolutions and destruction of cities. Even be able to name inconsequential details, as Nostradamus did.

To some extent, this might have been just a game that he was playing for his readers—but not completely. Campbell’s interest in Nostradamus was very real, and just as he had used Williamson and Asimov to explore psychohistory, he deployed another immensely talented surrogate to look into the problem of prophecy. His name was Anthony Boucher. I’ll be exploring this in greater detail tomorrow.

Note: Please join me today at 12:00pm ET for a Twitter AMA to celebrate the release of the fantastic new horror anthology Terror at the Crossroads, which includes my short story “Cryptids.”

The unknown future

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During the writing of Astounding, I often found myself wondering how much control an editor can really have. John W. Campbell is routinely described as the most powerful and influential figure in the history of science fiction, and there’s no doubt that the genre would look entirely different if he were somehow lifted out of the picture. Yet while I never met Campbell, I’ve spoken with quite a few other magazine editors, and my sense is that it can be hard to think about reshaping the field when you’re mostly just concerned with getting out the current issue—or even with your very survival. The financial picture for science fiction magazines may have darkened over the last few decades, but it’s always been a challenge, and it can be difficult to focus on the short term while also keeping your larger objectives in mind. Campbell did it about as well as anyone ever did, but he was limited by the resources at his disposal, and he benefited from a few massive strokes of luck. I don’t think he would have had nearly the same impact if Heinlein hadn’t happened to show up within the first year and a half of his editorship, and you could say much the same of the fortuitous appearance of the artist Hubert Rogers. (By November 1940, Campbell could write: “Rogers has a unique record among science fiction artists: every time he does a cover, the author of the story involved writes him fan mail, and asks me for the cover original.”) In the end, it wasn’t the “astronomical” covers that improved the look of the magazine, but the arrival and development of unexpected talent. And much as Heinlein’s arrival on the scene was something that Campbell never could have anticipated, the advent of Rogers did more to heighten the visual element of Astounding than anything that the editor consciously set out to accomplish.

Campbell, typically, continued to think in terms of actively managing his magazines, and the pictorial results were the most dramatic, not in Astounding, but in Unknown, the legendary fantasy title that he launched in 1939. (His other great effort to tailor a magazine to his personal specifications involved the nonfiction Air Trails, which is a subject for another post.) Unlike Astounding, Unknown was a project that Campbell could develop from scratch, and he didn’t have to deal with precedents established by earlier editors. The resulting stories were palpably different from most of the other fantasy fiction of the time. (Algis Budrys, who calls Campbell “the great rationalizer of supposition,” memorably writes that the magazine was “more interested in the thermodynamics and contract law of a deal with the devil than with just what a ‘soul’ might actually be.”) But this also extended to the visual side. Campbell told his friend Robert Swisher that all elements, including page size, were discussed “carefully and without prejudice” with his publisher, and for the first year and a half, Unknown featured some of the most striking art that the genre had ever seen, with beautiful covers by H.W. Scott, Manuel Rey Isip, Modest Stein, Graves Gladney, and Edd Carter. But the editor remained dissatisfied, and on February 29, 1940, he informed Swisher of a startling decision:

We’re gonna pull a trick on Unknown presently. Probably the July issue will have no picture on the cover—just type. We have hopes of chiseling it outta the general pulp group, and having a few new readers mistake it for a different type. It isn’t straight pulp, and as such runs into difficulties because the adult type readers who might like it don’t examine the pulp racks, while the pulp-type reader in general wouldn’t get much out of it.

The italics are mine. Campbell had tried to appeal to “the adult type readers” by running more refined covers on Astounding, and with Unknown, his solution was to essentially eliminate the cover entirely. Writing to readers of the June 1940 issue to explain the change, the editor did his best to spin it as a reflection of the magazine’s special qualities:

Unknown simply is not an ordinary magazine. It does not, generally speaking, appeal to the usual audience of the standard-type magazine. We have decided on this experimental issue, because of this, in an effort to determine what other types of newsstand buyers might be attracted by a somewhat different approach.

In the next paragraph, Campbell ventured a curious argument: “To the nonreader of fantasy, to one who does not understand the attitude and philosophy of Unknown, the covers may appear simply monstrous rather than the semicaricatures they are. They are not, and have not been intended as, illustrations, but as expressive of a general theme.” Frankly, I doubt that many readers saw the covers as anything but straight illustrations, and in the following sentence, the editor made an assertion that seems even less plausible: “To those who know and enjoy Unknown, the cover, like any other wrapper, is comparatively unimportant.”

In a separate note, Campbell asked for feedback on the change, but he also made his own feelings clear: “We’re going to ask your newsdealer to display [Unknown] with magazines of general class—not with the newsprints. And we’re asking you—do you like the more dignified cover? Isn’t it much more fitting for a magazine containing such stories?” A few months later, in the October 1940 issue, a number of responses were published in the letters column. The reaction was mostly favorable—although Campbell may well have selected letters that supported his own views—but reasonable objections were also raised. One reader wrote: “How can you hope to win new readers by a different cover if the inside illustrations are as monstrous, if not more so, than have any previous covers ever been? If you are trying to be more dignified in your illustrations, be consistent throughout the magazine.” On a more practical level, another fan mentioned one possible shortcoming of the new approach: “The July issue was practically invisible among the other publications, and I had to hunt somewhat before I located it.” But it was too late. Unknown may have been the greatest pulp magazine of all time, but along the way, it rejected the entire raison d’être of the pulp magazine cover itself. And while I can’t speak for the readers of the time, I can say that it saddens me personally. Whenever I’m browsing through a box of old pulps, I feel a pang of disappointment when I come across one of the later Unknown covers, and I can only imagine what someone like Cartier might have done with Heinlein’s The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag, or even Hubbard’s Fear. Unknown ran for another three years with its plain cover, which is about the same amount of time that it took for Astounding to reach its visual peak. It might have evolved into something equally wonderful, but we’ll never know—because Campbell decided that he had to kill the cover in order to save it.

Written by nevalalee

October 26, 2018 at 8:58 am

The Worlds of If

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As I prepare for my upcoming presentation this weekend at the Grappling With the Futures conference, I’ve been thinking a lot about the evolution of psychohistory, the fictional science that figures prominently in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. When it comes to describing how psychohistory is actually supposed to work in practice, however, the original stories aren’t much help. At first, the definition of the field might seem clear enough. If you initially encountered the trilogy in book form, it’s right there in the text, in an entry from the Encyclopedia Galactica:

Psychohistory: …Gal Dornick, using nonmathematical concepts, has defined psychohistory to be that branch of mathematics which deals with the reactions of human conglomerates to fixed social and economic stimuli…Implicit in all these definitions is the assumption that the human conglomerate being dealt with is sufficiently large for valid statistical treatment.

This seems fairly straightforward. But it wasn’t added to the series until the hardcover edition published by Gnome Press in 1951, for which Asimov wrote a new opening chapter called “The Psychohistorians.” When the novelette “Foundation” originally appeared in the May 1942 issue of Astounding, the word “psychohistory” was used only once. We’re informed that Hari Seldon is “the greatest psychologist of all time,” and that he has the ability “to unravel human emotions sufficiently to be able to predict broadly the historical sweep of the future” using “simple psychological technique.” But we aren’t told how—just what. Psychohistory isn’t a method here, but a claim about results.

It’s also possible that Asimov himself had only a vague idea about it. As I’ve noted elsewhere, psychohistory seems to have been largely the brainchild of John W. Campbell, who was more interested in what it could do than in how it would work. The year before, in the nonfiction article “The Science of Whithering,” L. Sprague de Camp had written in the magazine:

If there were such a science, what would it be like? It would have a body of observable facts, and would overlap with history, anthropology, sociology, economics, vital statistics, and perhaps one or two other sciences. Students of the science should be able to observe uniformities among these facts, deduce laws from these uniformities, and from the laws make predictions that are later borne out by observation.

And the method didn’t even need to be scientific. At the time, Campbell was also editing the fantasy magazine Unknown, and on May 6, 1942, he told one of his most valued contributors, Anthony Boucher, that he was considering a standalone issue devoted to prophecy: “The philosophy of prophecy, the record, through the past, of the various classes of prophecy, and the problems of the prophet.” He continued:

Second, there would be the main section consisting of prophecy. This would be devoted to several different types of prophecy concerning the present world situation and, specifically, the war. Who’ll win (and if the prophets have the sense God gave little green apples, the answer to that one’s going to be easy for them to figure out) and, more important, how, by what route, by licking who first, and when. When will Japan be knocked out? When will Italy fold? When’s Hitler going down to defeat?

This last statement is remarkably revealing. What Campbell wanted were predictions, specifically ones related to the war. As Hitler rewrote the map of Europe, the anxiety to knew what would come next—which is one to which I think we can all relate these days—became overwhelming, and the source didn’t matter, as long as it was “borne out by observation.” At this moment of global crisis, Campbell was willing to seek answers from astrology, numerology, and the prophecies of Nostradamus. (The prophecy issue, notably, never appeared, thanks largely to what Campbell characterized as an inability to find “competent fanatics”: “Nobody with any reputation or ability in the fields I wanted was willing to name names and date dates.” The italics are mine.) Psychohistory was simply a way to express these impulses in language that would feel at home in a science fiction magazine. Even Asimov, who never seems to have been altogether comfortable with Campbell’s ideas, was driven by much the same motivation. Decades later, he had a revealing exchange about the origins of the Foundation series in an interview with James Gunn:

Asimov: Mind you, this was also a time when I’d been living through the Hitler era in the 1930s, where no matter what anyone did, Hitler kept winning victories, and the only way that I could possibly find life bearable at the time was to convince myself that no matter what he did, he was doomed to defeat in the end. That he couldn’t win.
Gunn: Psychohistory is against it.
Asimov: That’s right…I suppose that was my literary response to my own feelings, which have no basis, I suppose, except that it made me feel better.

It was a longing that expressed itself equally well as psychohistory or prophecy, and it was about to assume its most convincing form. Not surprisingly, the science fiction magazines of the period often published stories that presented alternative outcomes for the war, including some that ended with victory for the Axis. Anthony Boucher justified this in a letter to Campbell that was published in Astounding in June 1943:

We are not, thank God, prophets. We don’t write what we feel sure is going to happen, but what, under certain circumstances, might happen…Now we aren’t expecting an Axis victory, any more than we are expecting worldwide tidal waves or planetary collisions or the invasion of little green men from Alpha Centauri. These disasters are all, with varying probabilities, present in one or more of the possible Worlds-of-If. And the more we write about ingenious ruses by which the Axis secures victory…the less apt those ruses are to succeed, and the more certain we can be that my sons and your daughter will inherit, in deepest truth, the best of all Possible Worlds.

Science fiction, in other words, was a way of generating models of potential outcomes and working through their implications. The real psychohistorians were the science fiction writers and fans, and psychohistory was a veiled way for the genre to talk about itself and its claims for foreseeing the future. Campbell might have been content to leave it there—but he was unable to leave well enough alone. In 1950, the year before the Foundation series appeared in hardcover, another author wrote: “The social organisms which we call states and nations behave and react in every respect as though they were individual organisms…The social organism behaves in a manner which can be graphed on the tone scale.” It was L. Ron Hubbard, who called the concept “political dianetics.” And he and Campbell were about to start a foundation of their own.

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.

Astounding Stories #5: Death’s Deputy and Final Blackout

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Final Blackout

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 millions of words that have been written about and by L. Ron Hubbard, the one observation that I always try to keep in mind appears in Going Clear by Lawrence Wright:

The many discrepancies between Hubbard’s legend and his life have overshadowed the fact that he genuinely was a fascinating man: an explorer, a best-selling author, and the founder of a worldwide religious movement. The tug-of-war between Scientologists and anti-Scientologists over Hubbard’s biography has created two swollen archetypes: the most important person who ever lived and the world’s greatest con man. Hubbard himself seemed to revolve on this same axis, constantly inflating his actual accomplishments in a manner that was rather easy for his critics to puncture. But to label him a pure fraud is to ignore the complex, charming, delusional, and visionary features of his character that made him so compelling to the many thousands who followed him and the millions who read his work. One would also have to ignore his life’s labor in creating the intricately detailed epistemology that has pulled so many into its net—including, most prominently, Hubbard himself.

This is a carefully worded and closely reasoned passage from an excellent book, and I think it’s fundamentally correct. And it’s very tempting to believe that the same holds true for Hubbard’s science fiction: that he was a major author whose undeniable accomplishments have been overshadowed by what he later became.

Unfortunately, this is only half true. As I’ve gone back to read all of Hubbard’s stories from Astounding and Unknown, I’ve been struck by two points. The first is the relatively small percentage of his total output that science fiction represents, although he’s invariably categorized as a science fiction writer; the second is how indifferent he often seems to the genre itself. Hubbard’s earliest works for Campbell, like “The Dangerous Dimension” and “The Tramp,” are comic fantasies iced with the lightest imaginable frosting of scientific jargon, and subsequent efforts like “General Swamp, C.I.C.” are straight military or naval fiction that could be transferred from Venus to Earth with a minimum of revision. He wasn’t the only author to write something else and call it science fiction, of course, but Hubbard has a palpable lack of interest in even maintaining the illusion. (Later stories like “The Kilkenny Cats” are written with what feels like a vein of genuine contempt for the genre’s conventions, and it isn’t until the Ole Doc Methuselah series, almost a decade down the line, that we find Hubbard writing it with anything like affection.) He was always more suited for fantasy, and his stories for Unknown are something else: undeniably dated, but written with real energy and enthusiasm. Reading any of his early Astounding stories followed by Slaves of Sleep reminds you of the difference between an author who is just going through the motions and one who is tickled by his own plot. And the half dozen short novels that he wrote for Unknown—along with one really nice, nasty shorter story, “Borrowed Glory”—are still fun and readable, although of limited interest to anyone who isn’t already a hardcore fan.

Death's Deputy

There are two exceptions. One is Death’s Deputy, a surprisingly superb short fantasy novel that first appeared in Unknown in 1940. Its hero is a pilot in the Canadian Air Force who is shot down over France, only to be saved by the intervention of a supernatural entity who later introduces himself as Destruction Incarnate. After refusing to serve him, the pilot is returned to the world of the living, where he finds that he’s become both unbelievably lucky and a curse to the people around him, who tend to die gruesome deaths that anticipate Final Destination. It’s inventive, vividly written, and enriched by what feels like Hubbard’s real interest in the subject—qualities that so much of his other fiction lacks. The other exception is Final Blackout, usually regarded as his single best novel, which was published two months later in Astounding. It follows a mythic figure known only as the Lieutenant as he leads a brigade of soldiers through a Europe devastated by decades of plague and nuclear war. They engage in small, meaningless skirmishes with the pockets of enemy troops they encounter, treating the rival officers with mutual respect while scavenging for food and supplies. The Lieutenant himself is so effective and beloved that he becomes a threat to the few remaining generals, who recall him to headquarters to be relieved of command. From there, events rapidly escalate into a conflict with global consequences, all of it narrated with an understated professionalism, even eloquence, that is utterly unlike Hubbard’s usual style. Of all his stories, it’s the one on which he imposes himself the least, and the only one in which he seems personally curious about what happens next.

And I’m not sure where it came from. The two novels appeared almost back to back, after a six-month break in which Hubbard published only one short story for Campbell, at a time when he was engaged in a fruitless effort to get a job with the War Department. And both narratives are obviously influenced by the situation in Europe, lending them a tone of fundamental seriousness that is rarely in evidence elsewhere in his work—which is fortunate, because his sense of humor hasn’t aged well. Before long, in stories like “The Professor was a Thief” and The Indigestible Triton, he would be back in his usual groove, alternating between science fiction that doesn’t seem to have interested even its author and engaging fantasy that only completists should bother to read today. (Two of the novels from this period, Typewriter in the Sky and Fear, are sometimes still regarded with respect, but both are uneven stories with ideas that would have been better developed at half the length, although the latter has a good twist ending.) But Final Blackout is powerful, and Death’s Deputy is a real find, which makes it all the more inexplicable that Galaxy Press, which otherwise seems determined to publish every last piece of pulp that Hubbard ever wrote, hasn’t bothered to release it. After the war, Hubbard would go on to write The End is Not Yet, an agonizingly sincere serial that Campbell later said he agreed to publish mostly out of pity—but by then, we’re deep into the next act of his life, which would culminate in Dianetics. In some ways, it’s the solution to the mystery with which this post began: Hubbard is remembered as a major science fiction author because dianetics made its debut in Astounding, not the other way around. And that’s a twist that even Hubbard himself might not have seen coming.

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April 13, 2016 at 10:00 am

The myth of the competent man

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Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp

If there’s a single figure who haunts the golden age of science fiction, it’s that of the competent man. The author Michael Moorcock, who was no fan of John W. Campbell, once wrote that Astounding Science Fiction became “full of crewcut wisecracking, cigar-chewing, competent guys” whom, he concluded, were ultimately “like Campbell’s image of himself.” And while I don’t entirely agree with that assessment, it gets close enough at the truth to sting. There’s always been an undeniable cult of competence in science fiction, usually centered on a heroic engineer—almost invariably a man—who can fix a spaceship or rig up a superweapon at the drop of a hat. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: genre fiction loves protagonists who are good at their jobs. But it can run into real trouble when it starts to treat all problems, including social and ethical ones, as subsets of engineering. It’s easy, maybe a little too easy, to see this impulse as a product of the Great Depression and World War II, which created a market for inspiring narratives about the triumph of ingenuity and hard work, or even a reaction to modernist or absurdist literary fiction, which tended to emphasize mankind’s helplessness. Astounding was there to provide an alternative myth that its readers wanted to see. And there’s a sense in which many of the conventions of science fiction emerged to provide a stage on which a particular fable about the competent man could be played out again and again, until it began to look like a prediction of the future.

To understand how this kind of story works, we can start with the novel Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp, which was originally published as a serial in Astounding’s sister fantasy magazine Unknown. It’s about a scholar from the present day, Martin Padway, who is flung back in time to the Roman Empire in the era of Justinian and Belisarius. He quickly uses his knowledge of modern science to distill brandy, introduce Arabic numbers and modern bookkeeping, and invent the first printing press, both to save his own skin and to prevent the coming of the Dark Ages. Padway is lucky enough to speak passable Latin, but he doesn’t know everything: he has trouble remembering the formula for gunpowder, for instance, which so many other time travelers seem to have memorized. But the story still serves as a form of wish-fulfillment. Padway overcomes the politics and military might of an entire civilization with little more than smarts, ingenuity, and a touch of luck, and we’re conscious of de Camp gently skewing the odds in his favor all the while. (It’s interesting to note that Belisarius, who plays a minor role in the story, is a figure who crops up repeatedly in classic science fiction: he inspired the character of Bel Riose in Asimov’s Foundation series, and he’s mentioned in Hubbard’s The End is Not Yet. This is partially because all these writers seem to have read Robert Graves’s bestselling novel of the same name, but also because he embodies a certain kind of competent man whom we see all the time in Hubbard’s work: the lone noble soldier in an army of fools.)

The Ultimate Adventure by L. Ron Hubbard

This is a formula to which the science fiction and fantasy of the golden age repeatedly returns, and it doesn’t always require time travel. Most of the novels that Hubbard published in Unknown—including The Ultimate AdventureSlaves of Sleep, The Case of the Friendly Corpse, Typewriter in the Sky, and probably a few more I’ve forgotten—have the same underlying plot: they’re about an ordinary guy, often comically weak or hassled by his family, who is translated by magic into a world straight out of Scheherazade. (Hubbard’s fascination with The Arabian Nights, incidentally, is an aspect of his career that deserves to be explored in depth. In his introduction to Slaves of Sleep, he recommends the translation by Richard Francis Burton, who was essentially the competent man brought to life, and with whom Hubbard seems to have personally identified.) The hero is initially panicked and overwhelmed by the situation, but he quickly adapts himself, and in most cases, he ends up ruling the kingdom. And the story wouldn’t be nearly as effective if the lead character didn’t come from our world. Without a connection to reality, however contrived, it would seem like just another fairy tale. What Hubbard does instead is create a world in which a modern man, complete with a business suit and tie, can live up to his full potential. If the hero succeeds beyond his wildest dreams, it’s largely because the rules have been rigged by the author, and we’re more likely to accept this in the context of a fantasy than in a realistic story.

But the key realization here is that this is true of much of science fiction as well, which offers up an idealized world designed to allow a certain kind of competent man to shine. Campbell’s writers were rarely interested in seriously exploring how human behavior would change between now and the far future: George O. Smith’s stories, for instance, read now like Mad Men set in orbit around Venus, and not just because everyone is smoking. But that’s part of the point. The heroes of these stories are emphatically men from the writer’s own time, only a little braver and more competent, and they’re plunged into situations, often in deep space, that draw upon the skill set of a perfect engineer. In real life, scientists and engineers are subject to forces outside their control, and World War II, in particular, would expose how complicated that relationship could be. But in a spaceship, far from home, the engineer could be king, and most of his problems could be resolved by technical solutions that he alone was qualified to invent, without the intrusion of external complications. This isn’t true of all stories from that era, and the conflict between science and politics is one that Astounding would continue to explore. But if so many of these plots come down to the wits of an engineer with a radio or a spanner in one hand, it’s because the writer has deliberately put him in a situation that only he can fix—or, more accurately, has grown the rest of the world around him for the sake of that one moment. It may look like the future. But it’s often just another fairy tale. And it’s still with us today.

Astounding Stories #4: Sinister Barrier

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Sinister Barrier

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

At the beginning of the only episode worth watching of the tenth season of The X-Files, a dejected Mulder says wearily to Scully: “Charles Fort spent his entire life researching natural and scientific anomalies, which he published in four books, all of which I know by heart. And at the end of his life, Fort himself wondered if it hadn’t all been a waste…Is this really how I want to spend the rest of my days? Chasing after monsters?” To which Scully gently replies: “We’ve been given another case, Mulder. It has a monster in it.” And while Mulder’s air of despondency can be attributed in large part to the sensibilities of writer Darin Morgan—who once had a character divided over whether to commit suicide or become a television weatherman—the reference to Fort is revealing. Charles Fort, who died in 1932, was a tireless cataloger of anomalous events from newspapers and scientific journals, mostly gathered in the reading room of the New York Public Library, and he’s something of a secular saint to those of us who try to take an agnostic approach to the unexplained. During his life, he was the object of a small but devoted following that included the authors Theodore Dreiser and Ben Hecht, and in the years that followed, he became the hidden thread that ran through an entire subgenre of science fiction. The X-Files, as Morgan implies, falls directly in his line of descent, and if I’m honest with myself, when I look at the science fiction I’ve published, it’s obvious that I do, too.

And I’m not the only one. Take Sinister Barrier by Eric Frank Russell, which I think is one of the four or five best science fiction novels ever written. It was originally published in 1939 in the inaugural issue of Unknown, and there’s a persistent rumor that John W. Campbell founded the entire magazine solely to find a place for this sensational story, which wasn’t quite right for Astounding. The truth is a little more complicated than that, but there’s no question that the novel made a huge impression on Campbell, as it still does on receptive readers today. After a quick nod to Charles Fort on the very first page, it opens with one of the great narrative hooks of all time: scientists across the world are committing suicide in exceptionally gruesome ways, and the only factor connecting the deaths, at least at first, is the fact that each man had painted his upper arm with iodine and dosed himself with mescal and methylene blue. Bill Graham, a kind of proto-Mulder working for military intelligence, is assigned to the investigation, and as he digs even deeper into the case, the anomalies continue to multiply. He discovers that one of the dead scientists had been looking into the low rate of goiter among the institutionally insane, and in a page of discarded notes, he reads the words: Sailors are notoriously susceptible. And he ultimately realizes that an excess of iodine—common in a seafaring diet, and inversely correlated with goiter—leads to changes in the eye and nervous system that allowed the scientists to stumble across a terrible truth.

Eric Frank Russell

By this point in the novel, I was sitting up in my chair, because what Russell is doing here is so close to what I’ve spent so many stories trying to achieve. And the big revelation more than lives up to our expectations. It turns out that humanity isn’t the highest form of life on this planet: instead, we’re little more than cattle being raised and devoured by aliens called Vitons that live in the upper atmosphere. Normally, they exist in the infrared range, so they’re invisible, but after being dosed with iodine, mescal, and methylene blue, we can see them for what they really are: balls of glowing plasma that descend on their unwilling victims and suck out their emotional energy. The Vitons can also read minds, which means that they can target and destroy anyone who glimpses the truth, and once Graham realizes what is going on, he finds that his own thoughts—and even his dreams—can betray him to the enemy. Other human beings can also be controlled by the Vitons, turning them into murderous automatons, which means that he can trust no one. This only complicates his efforts to fight the menace, which he soon identifies as the secret cause behind countless seemingly unrelated events. The Vitons deliberately inflame religious hatred and incite wars, in order to feed off the violent emotions that ensue, and they’re the explanation for such disparate mysteries as the disappearance of the Mary Celeste, the enigma of Kaspar Hauser, ball lightning, and, of course, alien abductions and unidentified flying objects. And as a global cataclysm ensues, Graham finds himself at the center of the resistance movement aimed at freeing mankind from its unseen oppressors.

In all honesty, the third act of Sinister Barrier doesn’t quite live up to that amazing opening, and it all comes down to the development of a superweapon that can destroy the alien menace, a plot device that was already a cliché by the late thirties. And it suffers, like much of the science fiction of its era, from a poorly developed love interest, when Russell’s heart is so clearly elsewhere. But it’s still an amazing read. It takes the novel less than eighty pages to accelerate from that initial string of unconnected deaths to action on a planetary scale, and it’s crammed throughout with action. At its best, it’s unbelievably fun and ingenious, and at times, it eerily anticipates developments to come. (For instance, it speculates that the Vitons were behind the actual unexplained suicide of the astronomer William Wallace Campbell, who, decades later, would lend his name to the Campbell Crater on Mars—which also honors a certain science fiction editor.) It’s so good, in fact, that it makes later efforts in the same line seem almost superfluous. To modern eyes, it reads like an entire season’s worth of The X-Files compressed into a single breathless narrative, and it even anticipates The Matrix in its vision of the entire human race enslaved and fed upon without its knowledge. If Fort was the godfather of the paranormal, Russell was the first author to fully realize its possibilities in fiction, and anyone who explores the same ground is in his debt, knowingly or otherwise. And I’m strangely glad that I didn’t discover this novel until I’d already made a few similar efforts of my own. If I’d known about it, I might have been too daunted to go any further. Because a little knowledge, as Russell warns us, can be a dangerous thing.

Developing the edges

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Stephin Merritt

Of all the pieces of writing advice I know, one of the most useful, at least in terms of immediate applicability, is that you should strive to omit the beginning and end of each scene, and jump from middle to middle. (I’m pretty sure that the original source of this admonition is William Goldman, either in Which Lie Did I Tell? or Adventures in the Screen Trade, although for the life of me I’ve never been able to track down the passage itself.) This only means that when you’re writing a first draft, your initial stab at the material has a way of gradually ramping into the chapter or sequence and then ramping down again, as you work your way into and out of the events taking place in your imagination, and in the rewrite, most of this material can be cut. In its simplest form, this involves nothing more than cutting the first and last few paragraphs of every chapter and seeing how it reads, a trick I first learned from David Morrell, author of First Blood. This expedient got me out of a major jam in The Icon Thief—the first third of the book never really flowed until I ruthlessly cut the beginning and end of each scene—and ever since, I’ve made a point of consciously reviewing everything I write to see if the edges can be trimmed.

Like any good rule, though, even this one can be overused, so I’ve also learned to keep an eye out for the exceptions. In screenwriting parlance, a story that dashes from one high point to another is “all legs,” with no room for anything but the plot, which robs the reader of any chance to process the incidents or get to know the characters. Usually, when you’re blocking out a story, lulls in the plot will naturally suggest themselves—if anything, they can start to seem too abundant—but it’s also worth asking yourself, when a story seems to be all business and no atmosphere, whether you can pull back slightly from time to time. In other words, there will be moments when you’ll want to invert your normal practice: you’ll cut the middle and develop the edges. This results in a change of pace, a flat stretch that provides a contrast to all those peaks, and it allows the reader to regroup while setting the climaxes into greater relief. (In musical terms, it’s something like the hypothetical song that Stephin Merritt once described, which moves repeatedly between the first and fourth chords while avoiding the fifth, creating a sense of wandering and unrealized expectations.)

Jessica Paré and Jon Hamm on Mad Men

There are other benefits to focusing on the edges of the scene as well, particularly if you’ve explicitly stated or dramatized something that might be more effectively left to implication. I’ve quoted the director Andrew Bujalski on this point before, but I’m not ashamed to cite him again, since it’s one of the most interesting writing tidbits I’ve seen all year:

Write out the scene the way you hear it in your head. Then read it and find the parts where the characters are saying exactly what you want/need them to say for the sake of narrative clarity. (E.g., “I’ve secretly loved you all along, but I’ve been too afraid to tell you.”) Cut that part out. See what’s left. You’re probably close.

This is especially true when it comes to elements that inherently grab a reader’s attention, like violence or sex. These are powerful tools, but only when used sparingly, and novels that contain too much of either can seem exhausting. In particular, I’ve learned to save extended depictions of violence—which might otherwise overwhelm the kinds of stories I’m telling—for two or three climactic points per novel, while writing around it as much as possible in the meantime.

And final point to bear in mind is that when we look back at the works of art we’ve experienced, it’s often the stuff at the edges that we remember the most. Mad Men, for instance, has increasingly become a show about those edge moments, and I can’t remember a single thing about the Liam Neeson thriller Unknown, which is crammed with action and chases, except for one quiet scene between the two great character actors Frank Langella and Bruno Ganz. A truly great artist, like Wong Kar-Wai at his best or Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in A Canterbury Tale, can even give us a story that is about nothing but the edges, although this is probably something that only geniuses should attempt. Even for the rest of us, though, it’s worth acknowledging that even the most crowded, eventful story needs to make room for anticipation, pauses, and silence, as Moss Hart understood. So the next time you’re reading over a story and you find your interest starting to flag, instead of ratcheting up the tension even further, try restructuring part of it to emphasize the edge over the center. In many cases, you’ll find that the center is still there, exerting its gravitational pull, but you just can’t see it.

Written by nevalalee

March 12, 2014 at 9:36 am

The bomb under the table

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In the classic study Hitchcock/Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock offers up a moment of insight so profound that it’s been quoted endlessly ever since, which won’t stop me from quoting it once again:

Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it…In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the secret.

Hitchcock concludes: “In the first case, we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed.”

This advice, as simple as it sounds, should be tattooed behind the eyeballs of all serious writers of horror and suspense, but today it’s strangely neglected. These days, thrillers seem obsessed by surprise, seeking out increasingly ludicrous twist endings, even if they make nonsense of everything that came before. For every movie like The Sixth Sense or The Others that retrospectively enriches the story with a closing revelation, we have a movie like Perfect Stranger, in which the audience’s only response is an incredulous “Really?” When something like this works, there’s an undeniable frisson of excitement, but usually, all it does is sacrifice fifteen minutes of suspense—or more—for fifteen seconds of surprise, which is mathematically unsound.

But it isn’t just about the numbers. Suspense is preferable to surprise, as Hitchcock notes, because it actively involves the audience in the telling of a story, until they aren’t just spectators, but participants. In a perfectly constructed work of suspense, like The Wages of Fear or A History of Violence, we aren’t watching passively, but caught up in both plot and artistic technique, and constantly telling stories to ourselves about what might happen next. This kind of anticipation is the best kind of interactivity that fiction affords. As I’ve noted before, transferring the twist in Vertigo from the end of the film to the start of the third act contributes enormously to that movie’s power. And one of the most potent discoveries in all of literature, dating back to Greek tragedy, is that there’s no better way of identifying with a protagonist, paradoxically, than by knowing something that he doesn’t.

The sweetest thing of all, of course, is to combine both suspense and surprise: to allow the audience to anticipate, suspensefully, what will happen next, before surprising them with an unexpected outcome. In comedy, this can be something like what writers on The Simpsons call a “screw the audience” joke, as when Homer, on the run from the police, ducks into a costume shop—in order to hide in the bathroom. In a thriller or horror movie, this reversal of expectations can be almost indecently satisfying. Psycho does this beautifully, as does The Silence of the Lambs, but even a lesser film can occasionally pull it off: the quiet scene between Frank Langella and Bruno Ganz in Unknown is a small masterpiece of reversed expectations in an otherwise shoddy movie. But even a stopped ticking clock is right twice a day.

Unknown and the problem of fridge logic

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Last night, as part of Redbox’s free movie promotion, my wife and I rented Unknown, a Liam Neeson thriller that is slightly more polished than Taken, but features significantly less throat-punching. If there was ever a movie meant to be rented for free on a random Thursday night, it’s this one: director Jaume Collet-Serra has a nice, slick visual style that keeps the story clocking along, and there’s one short scene between Bruno Ganz and Frank Langella that is a quiet masterpiece of suspense, but in the end, the movie founders on a script that squanders a clever premise for a series of generic action beats. As the implausibilities mount, it becomes impossible to take any of it seriously: it’s the kind of film where you walk out of the theater humming the plot holes.

Of course, nobody expects thrillers to be airtight. For a movie to mislead audiences, it’s usually obliged to reach some kind of accommodation with plausibility, working in the moment without necessarily standing up to extended scrutiny. Hence the phenomenon of fridge logic: a detail in a movie that seems fine at the time, but later strikes the viewer as ridiculous. Ted Tally, the screenwriter of The Silence of the Lambs, instructively quotes Jonathan Demme on this point:

“That’s a refrigerator question.” A refrigerator question? “You know. You’ve just come home from a movie, you had a great time, you go to the refrigerator to get a beer, you open the door, and you say ‘Wait a minute…'”

Tally concludes by saying that Demme doesn’t worry much about refrigerator questions. And for good reason. Because even the best thrillers tend to fall apart on closer examination, but if we’re emotionally engaged, we don’t care.

Take Vertigo, for instance. This is easily the greatest of all thrillers, and one without which a movie like Unknown might not even exist, but it contains so many implausibilities—among other things, how Madeline managed to disappear from her hotel room, and how anyone could be sure that Scotty wouldn’t make it to the top of the bell tower—that we can thank it for the term “fridge logic” itself: Hitchcock referred to such moments as “icebox” scenes, since they start to bother you “after you’ve gone home and start pulling cold chicken out of the icebox.” And the greater the thriller, the more likely we are to discover such problems, if only because we’re drawn to revisit it more than once. If there are numerous elements of The Usual Suspects that I no longer believe, it’s only because I’ve seen it over thirty times. By any measure, then, the movie succeeded.

So why can’t I forgive the plot problems in Unknown? The issue is one of delay: if Unknown had managed to postpone my objections until even five minutes after the closing credits, I would have enjoyed it more. As it stands, I found myself annoyed by its implausibilities long before the end of the movie, at which point fridge logic becomes a simple plot hole. That delay of five minutes may seem like a small thing, but it’s no different than any act of sleight of hand, in which a few seconds of misdirection can make all the difference. A movie like Unknown is a reminder that ordinary professionalism can take a movie ninety percent of the way, but the last ten percent requires something more. And that last bit of effort, as Hitchcock and Demme know, is what pushes a plot hole out of the movie and safely into the fridge.

Written by nevalalee

August 26, 2011 at 9:14 am

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