Anthopology 101: They Blinded Us...With SCIENCE! 1
By Bud Webster
Ah, sweet science, whose clarion call rings loud in the ear of...well, not nearly enough people to suit me. We need more science in every phase of our lives, in every stratum of our society; we need more working scientists in every possible nook and cranny of American (and world!) culture, if only to balance out the phone solicitors and mimes. And you can quote me on that.
This time around, we look at three books, two from the '60s and one from the '80s, all with a scientific theme. "Well, duh," I hear you say, "this is, after all, science fiction." However, this isn't as "duh" as you might think; this particular trio of titles contains stories either written by scientists or specifically chosen to highlight the sciences. And aren't you a little old to be using the word "duh," anyway?
Four years isn't much in the scope of human history I know people who flunked out of college in less time but if those four years happen to be between 1962 and 1966, a lot gets crammed in, especially in the sciences.
Niel Bartlett got all noble on us; Unimation showed Capek how it was really done; Maarten Schmidt went into the red big time and gave us the name for a pretty good color TV; Kemeny and Kurtz showed us all how BASIC computers were; and Rachel Carson gave us all a lot to worry about.
Much of it, however, didn't even happen here, but, appropriately enough for our purposes, Out There. We got a probe to Venus or thereabouts, but the USSR lost theirs; Carpenter, Glenn, Schirra, and Cooper went around and around, but Valentina Tereshkova-Nikolayeva arrived fashionably late (and stayed up longer than the boys did); Borman, Lovell, Schirra and Stafford rendezvoused, but not to play golf; and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, both destined for greatness, scored big for the Gemini team. Not a bad four years. As far as the '80s go, I trust you to remember.
There was, of course, a lot of other history going on back then, not the least of which was the loss of a president and the subsequent elevation of a pretty good pop group to mega-stardom, but this time around, the watchword is...well, you know.
I've said much about Groff Conklin, both here and elsewhere (for that matter, anywhere I'm given half a chance and any encouragement at all), so I'll mention only that Great Science Fiction by Scientists (Collier Books, 1962) was his 22nd anthology, the first of five he would do for Collier's (he would also write the entry on science fiction for Collier's Encyclopedia), and a bit more than half-way through his career as SF anthologist, for all that he'd only live another six years2.
With that as (slight) intro, here's the table of contents (with the author's disipline indicated):
On Science Fiction by Scientists - Groff Conklin
"What If..." - Isaac Asimov (biochemist)
"The Ultimate Catalyst" - Eric Temple Bell (mathematician)
"The Gostak and the Doshes" - Miles J. Breuer, M.D. (medical doctor)
"Summertime on Icarus" - Arthur C. Clarke (generalist?)
"The Neutrino Bomb" - Ralph S. Cooper (nuclear physicist)
"Last Year's Grave Undug" - Chan Davis (mathematician)
"The Gold-Makers" - J. B. S. Haldane (geneticist/biologist)
"The Tissue-Culture King" - Julian Huxley (biologist)
"A Martian Adventure" - Willy Ley (generalist?)
"Learning Theory" - James V. McConnell (psychologist)
"The Mother of Necessity" - Chad Oliver (archaeologist)
"John Sze's Future" - John R. Pierce (electronics engineer)
"Kid Anderson" - Robert S. Richardson (astronomer)
"Pilot Lights of the Apocalypse" - Dr. Louis N. Ridenour (nuclear physicist)
"Grand Central Terminal" - Leo Szilard (biophysics)
"The Brain" - Norbert Wiener (mathematician/cyberneticist)
Here, Conklin goes far afield indeed, even more so than usual. Although the genre magazines are certainly represented, so are mainstream periodicals such as Fortune (Ridenour) and Vogue (Clarke, where it appeared under the title "The Hottest Piece of Real Estate in the Solar System"). But Conklin hacked his way even farther into the undergrowth than that, scoring from Technical Engineering News (Weiner, as by "W. Norbert"), University of Chicago Magazine (Szilard), and even The Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory News (Cooper). This is not to mention the Huxley piece, originally in The Yale Review for April 1926 and later reprinted by Gernsback in the August 1927 Amazing.
Unsatisfied with even that stretch of unplowed stfnal ground, though, he managed to get a couple of new stories. Of the six originals he'd publish in his 22-year career, two of them (by mathematician Chan Davis and electronics engineer John R. Pierce) are in this book. He'd reprinted Davis before, of course, and would use another Pierce story in 1966's Science Fiction Oddities, but how did he manage to get new work from them?
Conklin answers this question in his introductions to the stories. In Davis's case, the story had been written but not submitted anywhere; when Conklin approached him for a story, Davis gave him "Last Year's Grave Undug." Much the same was true for John R. Pierce's "John Sze's Future." Sent out under Pierce's "J. J. Coupling" penname, which he used in writing articles for Astounding from the mid-1940s through the early '50s, it remained unsold until he showed it to Conklin, who liked it and bought it. He also used a Chad Oliver story which had originally seen publication in Oliver's 1955 Ballantine collection, Another Kind, and I should mention for completeness that Ley's story originally appeared with the title "At the Perihelion" in the February 1937 Astounding as by Robert Willey, and was the first of only four SF stories the noted science writer and rocketeer would write.3
In his introduction to the book, Conklin muses about the seeming contradiction that more scientists don't write SF; one would think it would be a natural thing for, say, a thermo-dynamicist in the throes of theorizing to take pen in hand (well, keyboard in lap, then) and pound those theories out in the form of a novelette or some such. But Conklin comes to the conclusion that when scientists do, in fact, get into the kind of speculatively creative frame of mind SF writers need in order to create a story, the result is science, not science fiction. Author and mathematician Vernor Vinge agrees: "For example, in athletics, you rarely see world-class baseball and - say - basketball talents combined in the same person. Being world class at anything involves a degree of perfectionism, talent, and inclination that does not transfer easily."
Perhaps this is as it should be; even pure research is arguably more practical than 17,000 words in a fiction magazine or anthology, and one hopes that a scientist's time is worth more than a dime a word at best. Or, back in the day, two cents or less.
The book covers some 35 years, from 1926 (Huxley's only fiction story, apparently) to the two originals, and was obviously not intended to represent the state of the scientific art, but rather an overview of speculative writing done by working scientists over the decades.
The same thing cannot be said of Time Probe: The Sciences in Science Fiction (Delacorte 1966); of the eleven stories here, only four can be rightly said to have been written by scientists, with a couple of others by writers with varying degrees of training as engineers. Not that this book is any less representative of the subject, mind you, just not as heavily populated by active scientists, and in all fairness, the purpose of these stories is to highlight the sciences, not the practitioners.
As such, the contents indicate that it's a complete success:
Introduction: Science and Science Fiction - Arthur C. Clarke
"'And He Built a Crooked House'" - Robert A. Heinlein (mathematics)
"The Wabbler" - Murray Leinster (cybernetics)
"The Weather Man" - Theodore L. Thomas (meteorology)
"The Artifact Business" - Robert Silverberg (archaeology)
"Grandpa" - James H. Schmitz (exobiology)
"Not Final!" - Isaac Asimov (astronomy)
"The Little Black Bag" - C. M. Kornbluth (medicine)
"The Blindness" - Philip Latham (astronomy)
"Take a Deep Breath" - Arthur C. Clarke (physiology?)
"The Potters of Firsk" - Jack Vance (metalurgy?)
"The Tissue-Culture King" - Julian Huxley (biology)
(Note, please, that the Huxley is the only story that appears in both the earlier books. Note also that the parenthetical classifications for the Clarke and Vance stories are a tad questionable is a story ostensibly on the subject of surviving the vacuum of space about physiology, or a story about the use of living humans to make glass art really about metalurgy? I'll leave that up to the reader.)
Before I go any further, let's give full credit where credit is due. Although Sir Arthur Clarke did supervise the selection of the stories, as well as writing the introductory material, the stories were initially chosen by Robert Silverberg. This "ghost editing" is not as uncommon as you might suppose; in earlier installments, I've written about Robert A. Heinlein's anthology, Tomorrow, the Stars, actually assembled by Fred Pohl and Judith Merril, and about the two Ballantine anthologies titularly edited by horror host John Zacherley, but most probably done by Betty Ballantine. Silverberg recalls:
"Scott Meredith, who was my agent as well as Arthur's, asked me to do the actual editing work on the book - i.e. to pick most or maybe all of the stories, and get a manuscript together...I shared in the income from the book and got the incidental benefit of being able to suggest one of my own stories for it."
This collaborative editorship might have proven problematical; Clarke's primary residence, after all, was Sri Lanka, and this was well before long-range courier delivery was commonplace, especially between hemispheres. Delacorte may very well have faced hefty long-distance phone/fax bills, were it not that Clarke had a permanent room at the Hotel Chelsea in Manhattan and spent much of his time there. Silverberg also lived in NYC, and Clarke frequently visited, going through Silverberg's collection of old SF magazines, with Silverberg's then-wife, Barbara, feverishly photo-copying tear-sheets.
Nor was this a casual, one-off arrangement: "I worked with Arthur around that time on revisions of one or two of his other books - non-fiction items about space, one of them for YA readers and I think one for adults. He was busy with his scuba work and needed a collaborator," Silverberg says. So, the two men knew each other over and above their agency connection, and had already worked together.
Silverberg and Clarke stayed closer to home than Conklin did, drawing eight of their choices from Astounding/Analog4 and one each from Fantastic Universe and Infinity. Leaving aside the Huxley, Time Probe covers only 21 years to Conklin's 35, but contains more classic stories; the Asimov, Kornbluth and Heinlein have been reprinted many times, as have the Clarke and Leinster yarns.
In his introduction, Clarke wryly alludes to the problem of finding stories that haven't been used over and over:
"Robots, Invaders From Space, Time Travel, Mutants all these classic themes have already been employed to give coherence to collections (most of them edited by Groff Conklin)."
Clear reference is made here to four specific Conklin anthologies, if you classify robots as "Thinking Machines" and time travel as an "Adventure in Dimensions." However, Clarke may not have been aware of Conklin's own science-themed book, as he goes on to say:
"In this volume, the pattern is a very simple one, though to the best of my knowledge it has not been used before. These stories have all been selected because they illustrate some particular aspect of science or technology preferably a striking or unfamiliar one."
So, okay, to split a hair not too finely, Conklin's stated theme was SF by scientists, and Clarke's was SF about science. A minor difference, perhaps, but I do think that Clarke would have given the earlier book a nod had he known about it, if only to highlight the difference.
But enough of that, let's consider the stories. Of the ten, six or seven can be deemed classic, with the rest not very far behind at all. The Heinlein and Kornbluth stories alone are worth having the books for, assuming you don't have them anywhere else already, and even if you're a Vance fan, you probably don't have "The Potters of Firsk," so there's another reason to track this one down.
As I write this, there are probably more working/teaching scientists and engineers successfully writing science fiction than at almost any other time since Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories first appeared in April of 1926. Planetary astronomer Geoffrey Landis works for NASA, as does astrophysicist Yoji Kondo (who writes under the name Eric Kotani); Greg Benford is a plasma physicist and teaches at the University of California at Irvine; Tom Easton is a theoretical biologist; Stanley Schmidt, currently editor at Analog, that long-time bastion of all that is nuts-and-bolts, and author of (among others) Newton and the Quasi-Apple, has a PhD in physics; David Brin has a doctorate in space physics; Stephen Baxter, G. David Nordley and Wil McCarthy are engineers; the late Charles Sheffield was a physicist; Vernor Vinge teaches mathematics at San Diego State; and biologist Joan Slonczewski teaches at Kenyon College. This list is, I hasten to say, not in the least exhaustive. Jerry Pournelle, Larry Niven, Greg Egan, Catherine Asaro, Joe Haldeman: the plethora of number-crunchers, rocket scientists, star-gazers, physicists and plain old hairy-eared engineers who augment and sometimes equal or surpass their science-guy incomes by writing SF is...well, I was going to say astronomical, but I'll spare you. This time.
All of which brings us to Great Science Fiction Stories by the World's Great Scientists5, edited by Isaac Asimov with Martin Greenberg and Charles Waugh, and published by Donald I. Fine some twenty years after the two earlier books: 1985 to be precise. It features stories by several of those mentioned in the paragraph above, along with others whose connections to the sciences are less well-known, and although there is some auctorial cross-over with the two earlier books, none of the stories repeat.
The collaborative history of Asimov and Greenberg is a subject worth examining at length which takes it beyond our purview here and now, unfortunately, as space considerations prevent it. In fact, they became much more than simply collaborating editors. In I, Asimov, for example, the author devotes an entire chapter to Greenberg, saying, "Marty has, on some occasions, said that he considers me a surrogate father....It's not too grotesque a thought...I must admit that I feel somewhat as though he is my son." Certainly, Greenberg embraced the relationship: "It was wonderful. We became such close friends that we talked every night (there must have been a couple of exceptions) for the last twelve years of his life." I find myself envious, and I'm positive I'm not the only one.
Filial sentiments aside, I find it more than remarkable that, in the fifteen years between their first meeting and Asimov's passing, they did more than 100 anthologies together, frequently with a third collaborating editor, in this case Charles Waugh.
It would be natural to assume that Asimov left the majority of the work to Greenberg (and any third editor), simply signing off of their choices without any real input on his part, in essence allowing his name to sell the book. Natural, perhaps, but mistaken; Asimov addresses this very thing in I, Asimov, his final autobiographical volume:
"All the stories are sent to me and I read them over carefully, since I have veto rights and any story I don't like is instantly eliminated...I then write a more or less elaborate introduction to the anthology and, very often, headnotes for each story...There would appear to be some people who are of the opinion that my sole function in these anthologies is to let my name be used and that I get a free ride. This is not so. Any anthology on my list is one for which I have done significant work."
Greenberg confirms this: "This is entirely correct - Isaac read every story I sent him and rejected some of them." The process would become SOP for the two: Asimov would choose the final table of contents, Greenberg would clear the permissions and write the contracts, and then Asimov would write the introduction and any headnotes. Plenty of work to go around, I'd say.
But, granted that Greenberg and Waugh are extremely knowledgeable about SF, to what degree were they qualified to choose stories by scientists, especially those which bear out the talents of those scientists to write non-technically? Greenberg addresses that: "...[Asimov] also suggested authors (rather than specific stories) for particular themes....As I recall, the three of us compiled a list of scientists, and then Charles and I dug out stories..." This, of course, makes sense; Asimov would have been far more conversant with which of his fellow scientists wrote SF (and, for that matter, how many of his fellow writers had training in the post-alchemical arts), and would have been in a solid position to make such suggestions. Greenberg's and Waugh's skills lay in tracking the suggestees down and assembling a table of contents. As a division of labor, it was extremely successful, although I daresay that the task of tracking down and obtaining rights and writing contracts took more actual time, especially if Asimov read as fast as he wrote.
Let's look at the end product before we go much further (again, with the author's specialty indicated):
Introduction - Isaac Asimov
"White Creatures" - Gregory Benford (plasma physicist)
"The Singing Diamond" - Robert L. Forward (physicist)
"Publish and Perish" - Paul J. Nahin (electrical engineer)
"Skystalk" - Charles Sheffield (physicist)
"The Universal Library" - Kurd Lasswitz (physics); trans. by Willy Ley
"Long Shot" - Vernor Vinge (mathematician)
"Blackmail" - Fred Hoyle (astronomer
"Jeannette's Hands" - Philip Latham (astronomer, pseud. of R. S. Richardson)
"The Warm Space" - David Brin (space physicist)
"The Wind from the Sun" - Arthur C. Clarke (generalist?)
"Industrial Accident" - Lee Correy (engineer, pseud. of G. Harry Stine)
"Choice" - John R. Pierce (electronics engineer)
"The Winnowing" - Isaac Asimov (biochemist)
"Dr. Snow Maiden" - Larry Eisenberg (electronics engineer)
"On the Fourth Planet" - J. F. Bone (veterinary medicine)
"Learning Theory" - James V. McConnell (psychologist)
"Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death" - James Tiptree, Jr. (psychologist, pseud. of Alice Sheldon)
"Transfusion" - Chad Oliver (archaeologist)
"In the Beginning" - Morton Klass (anthropologist)
"Modulation in All Things" - Suzette Haden Elgin (linguist)
"The Bones of Charlemagne" - Mario A. Pei (linguist)
Twenty-one stories here, ten more than the Clarke and five more than the Conklin, and not at all shabby quality-wise, either. In fact, we have quite a broad selection of disciplines and styles, not to mention sources: not only are the more traditional markets certainly well-represented, with six stories coming from Astounding/Analog, three from F&SF, three from the Galaxy/If axis, and a classic Clarke story from Boys' Life (always a reliable font of good SF in my youth), but there's one apiece from those upstart, whipper-snapper magazines, Omni and Destinies. In addition, there are three stories from original anthologies, including the magnificent Tiptree.
Of those twenty-one, only six have been reprinted more than once or twice, and only two - the Tiptree and the Clarke can be called "classic." This is not a value judgement against the other authors or their stories, but the fact that a couple of decades just don't go as far as they used to; in the 21st Century, twenty years just isn't enough time for the rest of them to have made their bones, and there are fewer chances for reprints these days.
As far as the choices go, and how they were made, author Benford sheds some more light:
"I did take part in crosstalk with Marty Greenberg and Isaac about possible stories. I think I recommended the Nahin & Forward & Hoyle - good work that show[s] how difficult translating science into readable fiction is, and the gains from being grounded in the subject, so that the way scientists talk and think matters, and their intricate social patterns (highly competitive, narrow, with social skills patterned on a demure, strict and self-effacing face, hiding rampant ambition) must be seen to be understood. Not easy."
Of course, Asimov/Greenberg/Waugh had used the Nahin before in 1982's Space Mail Vol. II, and would use it again, but Benford's reasoning is apt as is his description of the odd milieu in which scientists are forced to exist and work.
He goes on to describe a writing process that must be common to any professional, scientist or non-, who writes in their sporadically-spare time:
"My story was written passionately, in one sitting (a trick I learned from Barry Malzberg), and by dictation. I was so busy with research I for a time wrote by dictation on Sundays, hand-corrected the typist's ms., and went with that draft. I wrote a completely different story, 'Doing Lennon,'6 the same way a week later. Demon energies."
(One7 restrains oneself from the suggestion that said demon might have something to do with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, but just barely, so count your blessings.)
Of course, at this point, you have to ask just how many of the above actually fit the definition of "working scientist"? All of them, certainly, trained as scientists, and most of them worked as such either in laboratories (private, military or academic) or in classrooms preparing newer generations of scientists. Is a scientist only "working" if s/he's doing pure research? Doc Smith certainly wouldn't think so, nor would John Campbell, and they'd be right. The average person's image of scientists - pouring blue/red/yellow liquids from flask to flask and nodding as they change color while photogenic glassware bubbles and fumes in the background - is about as universal as their image of writers, and probably just as accurate.
Not every discipline fits that errant notion, for all their validity; two of the stories, by Suzette Haden Elgin and Mario Pei, are based on linguistics nary a beaker or buret in sight. Ask Joe Lunchpail about linguistics, and he's likely to scratch his head and say, "Aren't they the band who did 'Sweet Dreams Are Made of This'?"
Elgin's "Modulation In All Things" was originally published as the epilog of her novel, At the Seventh Level. Her intention in writing the story was quite specific:
"The story was an attempt to write something scientifically respectable about a non-humanoid language. The allegedly ET languages that appear in science fiction are ordinarily indistinguishable from Terran languages. No matter how "exotic" their features appear to be, it's always possible for linguists to find one or more human languages that also have those features....The language that's described in "Modulation In All Things" was my attempt to describe a language that human beings would not be able to speak or understand without mechanical assistance of some kind, and it meets that requirement. "
It also meets every reasonable requirement as a science, our friend Mr. Lunchpail notwithstanding.
So, we have three books which, in their own ways, deliver as well on their promises as the vagaries of skill both of the writers and of the editors - would allow them to. It would seem to be a perfect concept, this scientists-writing-science-fiction idea, for all the impediments that either profession insists on placing in the path of the other. I've touched on the limitations as both writers and editors have seen them, and perhaps they are, in fact, insurmountable. I don't think we've seen more than one or two world-class chemists/astronomers/mathematicians/pick your discipline thus far who were also capable of writing world-class science fiction. The strictures of science, the time and effort it demands from not only the intellect but the physical being, take their toll on the few who might also want to add to a very different kind of Literature.
This doesn't mean that any of those who manage to do it, especially in this day and age, are acting as dilettantes; quite the opposite, in fact. SF readers are no longer tolerant of dilettantism, it just doesn't rock. And, in many cases, the authors are themselves SF readers and just as intolerant. If anything, they're far better at it than their predecessors, if only because of the example those pioneers set.
It's now twenty years or so after the Asimov book. If the universe is cyclic, then maybe we're due another, even more contemporary science-themed anthology. One can hope that perhaps editor Greenberg will find another biochemist, Erlenmeyer flask bubbling colorfully away in hand, with whom he can collaborate.
2In his 22 years as a SF/fantasy anthologist, fully a quarter of Conklin's output 10 titles came in the last four years of his life. True, they weren't the bricks he'd been able to do in the first four years or so, but at the time, there was no other anthologist in the field even close.
3All of which information should, I hope, help satisfy those people who are perpetually starved for biblio-tweakery. Like me. I love this stuff.
4And why was that? Well, let's face it the scientists have pretty much always gravitated to Campbell's magazine, its readership has long been techno-heavy. This is true even today. It didn't hurt that Campbell himself had a degree in physics from MIT and Duke.
5Bet you thought I'd forgotten, huh?
6Which appeared in the April 1975 Analog. Admit it; you love this stuff, too.
7Mary says with my size and ego, I should have said "Two."