The Early Days of a Better Nation

Monday, December 31, 2018

Astounding revelations

Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, Alec Nevala-Lee, 2018, Dey St.

I was given this book for Christmas, started reading it on Boxing Day, and finished it yesterday. So this is not a review. Instead, it's a few reflections provoked by reading the book. You can read about the book, with links to many rave reviews, here. I can only add my enthusiastic recommendation.

The first surprise, for me, was the sub-title. I knew, of course, that Hubbard was a popular pulp SF writer before he became otherwise famous. I knew too that Campbell had been keen on Hubbard's original discovery of the secret of life, Dianetics. Until I read Astounding I had no idea at all that Hubbard was in his SF heyday as big a name as the other three. Nor did I realise just how much Campbell put into Dianetics, the book, and dianetics, the movement.

I'm just old enough to have read Campbell editorials in Analog more or less live – a friend in Greenock High School lent me a stack of then-recent back issues. I had read a bit about Campbell, so I knew he was a legendary editor. The writers I most looked up to looked up to him. His distinctly right-wing musings and his brusque manner of thought meshed perfectly with the attitudes I'd already picked up from Heinlein and other Golden Age writers. It's sobering (as well as, in a way, inspiring) to see the extent to which what I thought of as 'the science-fictional outlook' (basically, that the world is best approached as an engineering problem) was constructed by a handful of Campbellian cadre back in the 1940s. The trouble is that though these guys inspired lots of people to become scientists or engineers, they could be a little slapdash in their own constructions. One Analog editorial that sticks in my mind was about how little we knew of Mars from limited, local sampling of its soil. Campbell pointed out that some minerals on Earth are so rare they're only known from one location: for instance, greenockite, found only in and around Greenock. This (I've just learned), is not quite true. The mineral isn't found only in Greenock, it wasn't discovered in Greenock, and it's not named after the town of Greenock.

Among Campbell's more respectable enthusiasms was General Semantics, which it seems both he and Hubbard got via Heinlein. The most famous and overt influence of General Semantics on science fiction was A. E. Van Vogt's novel The World of Null-A, but smatterings of the jargon were widespread in Golden Age SF – I recall 'time-binding' from Fritz Leiber as well as Heinlein, 'the map is not the territory' from all over, and the solemn declaration that 'A difference that makes no difference is no difference' from the mouth of Spock in one of James Blish's novelizations.

As reading Astounding has reminded me, I may have got a stronger dose of General Semantics myself as a by-product of its prominence in SF. Possibly fed up with my third-hand blather on the topic, my English teacher, Joan Woods, shoved at me her well-thumbed copy of Language in Thought and Action by S. I. Hayakawa. I read it over a summer holiday and it did me a power of good. The notion of 'extensional orientation' (very roughly, paying a lot more attention to the world around you and paying a lot less respect to your current ideas about it) was almost literally an eye-opener.

It turns out you can learn quite a lot about Earth from local observation in Greenock.


"A difference that MAKES no difference IS no difference" comes originally from William James.

Well, James actually said: "There can BE no difference anywhere that does not MAKE a difference elsewhere." ("What Pragmatism Means," 1907)

But the difference between the two versions make no difference, so ....

Thanks, Roderick! I was careful not to attribute the quote to Korzybski, but if memory serves, Spock does. Anyone got a copy to hand of _Spock Must Die!_ by James Blish?

I remember the same phrase used in "Running Blind" by Desmond Bagley, a cold war spy thriller. The hero is a Scottish ex spy who meets his old nemesis KGB agent. In the ensuing trash talk KGB agent calls him "English", the Russian replies with that very same quote.
All very ironic now of course...

Spock definitely uses the line in "Spock Must Die!" (that's where I first came across the line, around age 12 or so) but I don't recall his attributing it to anybody. But my copy, like most of my books, is packed away in some inaccessible box somewhere.

Researching the Campbell period a few years ago (for my book Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry), I too was struck by just how significant both Dianetics and General Semantics were in that body of work. People look at Van Vogt's Null-A, for instance, and think of it as an exception to Campbell's hard sf orientation, but that's because they don't get how seriously Campbell took those ideas. To Van Vogt (and Campbell), Null-A was serious science fiction.

Incidentally, these very public enthusiasms (along with Campbell's other big enthusiasm, psi) seem to have got Campbell a lot of grief at the time from other science fiction writers, editors, critics. Reading Earl Kemp's 1961 "Who Killed Science Fiction?" one sees a lot of famous figures blaming Campbell's obsessions for the perceived decline of the genre.

The whole issue of whether these ideas were good or bad for science fiction apart, it did seem to me that the tendency to these ideas fit in with Campbell's notorious politics (and Heinlein's), especially their elitism and anti-Communism-the exaltation of super-powerful, evolved individuals over the common herd they saw with such contempt; and their propensity for looking to individual transcendence rather than social change as the way out of or through the problems facing humanity. (I remember Hubbard remarking in some prefatory material to Battlefield Earth that he took up sf writing to help fund his researches, which he claimed he thought might be a way out of the crisis facing the world in the '30s.)

You can find Kemp's fanzine complete, here. (With so many of the Big Names of that time getting in their two cents, it's fascinating as history.)

Thanks, Nader. And sorry to all I've taken so long to reply - I need to fix notifications.

As a rather predictable result of reading Astounding (the book) I've bought a short popular introduction to General Semantics (Drive Yourself Sane by Kodish & Kodish) and a secondhand copy of the old Language in Thought and Action by Hayakawa, which is interesting to revisit. I've also bought The World of Null-A, which I've never read.

Meanwhile, I have the link, and your book on Kindle.

Thank you for your reply! And hope my book proves worth your while!

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Ken. This is not about your blog. I am responding to your request to communicate with someone made in your Aeon article. Your ending sentence was, "But is she right? I’d like to know." I'd be happy to discuss it with you.

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Heinlein does not seem to have explicitly avowed the influence of Benjamin Lee Whorf, as he did that of Korzybski, but I've wondered for some time if Whorf was one of his inspirations, in particular for the ideas about language and worldview in Stranger in a Strange Land. I have a collection of essays by Whorf that were originally published in a magazine issued by MIT, which Heinlein might well have been reading. Whorf was big on how different languages program the brain with different worldviews, which turns up in a fair number of SF works—not just Heinlein but Vance (The Languages of Pao) and Delaney (Babel-17), for example; the influence of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in its day might be compared to the influence of Julian Jaynes's speculations on more recent science fiction and fantasy (Harry Turtledove's Between the Rivers being a memorable example).

This theme of "how different languages program the brain with different worldviews" is also, of course, taken up more recently in Ted Chiang's work.

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