Lesson 5: Evolution Continues

Lesson Objectives
After completing this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Discuss the continuing growth of science fiction magazines through the 1930s and 1940s, particularly the influence of John W. Campbell’s magazine Astounding.
  • Identify key ways in which the outgrowth of science fiction novels from the magazine format influenced the structure and content of early science fiction novels.

The World of Null-A, by A. E. van Vogt
More than Human, by Theodore Sturgeon

The dozen years between 1938 and 1950 are generally recognized as the “Golden Age of Science Fiction.” During these years the first major science fiction editor began developing the first modern science fiction magazine, the first modern science fiction writers, and, indeed, modern science fiction itself.

The editor was John W. Campbell; the magazine was Astounding Stories, a name which soon became Astounding Science Fiction and then, later, Analog Science Fiction & Fact as the magazine evolved. Campbell had already achieved some fame as a writer of galactic epics and as an author whose stories focused their concerns on society and on the philosophical, economic, psychological, and sociological aspects of change.

As the editor of the leading science fiction magazine—a pulp magazine, to be sure, but Campbell did not think of it as a pulp magazine, and few of its writers and readers felt that the meanness of the form diminished the value of the contents—Campbell had the opportunity to translate his vision of science fiction into reality through the work of other writers.

Creating a new kind of magazine was not an easy job. Astounding paid the best rates in the field, but in the late thirties that was only a cent a word or occasionally a bit more. Other science fiction magazines advertised rates of a penny a word but often paid less for longer stories and did not always pay until publication; the confession magazines, which demanded considerably less of a writer, paid two or three times as much.

A penny a word was enough to interest the dedicated writer, but seldom the serious literary artist, and only a few writers could sell enough or write fast enough to make writing science fiction a full-time career. The majority were part-time writers who worked full-time at other occupations; these writers were probably less skilled than professional writers, but more involved with what they were writing. Campbell, it is clear, not only was willing to make do with part-time writers, he welcomed them—particularly those with technical information, scientific training, and the ability to see their dramatic implications.

He had to triumph over other limitations as well. Hardly had he got started when World War II intervened. Science fiction, like other nonmilitary activities, was forced to make do for five years as writers went off to military service or related fields; and the paper shortage threatened, or killed off, many magazines. Unknown, Astounding’s offbeat sister fantasy magazine, expired after a meteoric three-year run..

Despite the challenges, Campbell’s magazine prospered. In 1939 he introduced readers to Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, and A. E. van Vogt, and experienced writers such as L. Sprague de Camp, Clifford Simak, and Jack Williamson became regular contributors to Astounding. All of these would be named Grand Masters by the Science Fiction Writers of America (except for Theodore Sturgeon, who died before he could be honored).

Van Vogt would contribute a couple of dozen stories and six serialized novels to Astounding before he stopped writing in 1950 to join L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics movement. One of his most significant works was The World of Null-A, which used semanticist Alfred Korzybski’s Science and Sanity as a theoretical background for a wild intellectual adventure story about non-Aristotelian thinking and how it might unleash the human intellect and its marvelous powers. In the process, van Vogt made Science and Sanity a bestseller.

Van Vogt learned his craft from the authors of 1930s books on writing commercial short stories such as Uzzell and Gallishaw. In a 1947 essay for Of Worlds Beyond, a symposium edited by Lloyd Eshback, van Vogt passed along his strategy of writing in 800-word scenes and throwing into each scene whatever new idea he had come up with. The result was what James Blish called “the extensively recomplicated story,” and The World of Null-A is a good example. Readers find the twists and turns of the narrative so compelling that they may not be able to understand what has happened, and why it has happened, until the end—and sometimes not even then.

Van Vogt wrote about the unrealized and untapped powers of the human mind, including telepathy, telekinesis, teleportation, hypnotism, and sheer intellect—which may have been why Dianetics appealed to him—and made them plausible by the difficulty and determination of the search and their application. He didn’t so much build his stories on science as evoke the scientific method, and he treated science as a fairy tale for materialists.

In Brian Aldiss’s term, van Vogt’s fiction lay at the “dreaming pole” of science fiction. When Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote in “Locksley Hall” of “nourishing a youth sublime / with the fairy tales of science and the long result of time,” he might have been describing van Vogt’s kind of science fiction. Yet another description might be Arthur C. Clarke’s “Third Law”: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” (In van Vogt’s case, the technology in question was generally mental, although it might be noted that The World of Null-A also anticipates cloning.)

One of van Vogt’s techniques was to take contemporary devices or terminology to their logical extreme. In the first chapter of The World of Null-A, one of the characters asks for a lie detector. It is wheeled in, and it says that Gilbert Gosseyn (note the significance of the name) is lying.

Van Vogt also delighted in the narrative “doubletake,” as at the end of the first part of the novel when Gosseyn is shot dead. A similar “doubletake” is the revelation that the people who do best on the Games Machine tests get to go to Venus, while those who do less well become President of Earth. These strategies require readers to continually re-examine their assumptions. In the worldview of science fiction, to paraphrase Socrates, “The unexamined belief is not worth holding.”

Theodore Sturgeon, on the other hand, gained his reader’s involvement by the care with which he portrayed his characters, by their outcast status, by their need for love, and by his skulled use of language.. Sturgeon once called Roger Zelazny “the lapidary” because of the way he used just the right word in the right place, but the term could be just as easily applied to Sturgeon himself.

Sturgeon had become well known as a short story writer for John W. Campbell’s magazines Astounding and Unknown, but he would achieve his greatest recognition for the stories he wrote for two other magazines that appeared in Campbell’s wake: Horace Gold’s Galaxy and Tony Boucher’s Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Sturgeon began writing novels in 1950 with The Dreaming Jewels and followed that in 1953 with what many consider his masterpiece, More Than Human.

More Than Human began as a novella, “Baby Is Three,” published in Galaxy in 1952. On the strength of its popularity, Sturgeon was approached by mainstream publisher Farrar Strauss to turn the novella into a novel. Rather than expanding it, he wrote a preliminary novella, “The Fabulous Idiot,” and a sequel novella, “Morality,” and these three stories were combined to create the novel.

Like The World of Null-A, More Than Human deals with discovering and liberating the hidden powers of the human mind, and, insofar as it concerns itself with the superman (“more than human”), it invokes the issue of evolution. Unlike Wells, who saw the perils of evolution, The World of Null-A and More Than Human hold out the prospect that humanity can develop new powers and enhanced skills. Just as homo sapiens created technology, literature, philosophy, art, and civilization, so superman can create still greater and more marvelous—and more unpredictable—accomplishments.

Sturgeon’s different vision was that the superman would be a group of talents that complemented each other, discovered how to co-exist, and then learned to make moral choices as a sort of gestalt superman. “The Fabulous Idiot” describes how the handicapped Lone finds the outcasts and brings them together into the more than human configuration. “Baby Is Three” describes how Gerry faces the problem of keeping the gestalt group together and functioning as it matures, as well as how he liberates it from Miss Kew’s warped supervision. “Morality” deals with how the gestalt develops a moral sense.
Writing Assignment 5
Consider some or all of the following questions and submit a brief (approximately 500-word-long) writing assignment. Your assignment need not be formal, but it should demonstrate comprehension of the required readings and a well-developed understanding of how this lesson's material relates to the development of the science fiction genre.

  • Both The World of Null-A and More than Human started as something other than a traditional novel: The World of Null-A as a serial when original novels were almost impossible to publish (although van Vogt’s serials were among the first published as novels by mainstream publishers, as well as fan publishers), and More Than Human as a novella. How did the serial nature of The World of Null-A influence its form? Can you identify where the first two parts of the three-part serial ended? Why did they break there?
  • The Galaxy novella “Baby Is Three” ends when Gerry realizes that he can deal with Miss Kew, that he hasn’t killed her; the novel section ends with the realization that it is okay that he has killed her. Why did Sturgeon change the ending? What does “The Fabulous Idiot” add to “Baby Is Three?” What does “Morality” add?
  • What is “Null-A”? What is the climactic demonstration of its power? Why has Lavoisseur created the Gosseyns (if you can figure it out)? Who created the Games Machines and why? Why does van Vogt have all police power removed from the city for the Games? Logically? Strategically? What is the impact of Gosseyn’s death at the end of first part of the novel? How does it set up his later suicide attempt? Why does Gosseyn have to hypnotize himself in order to attempt suicide? (John C. Wright has written a sequel to the three Null-A novels called The Null-A Continuum [Tor Books, 2008] that provides many answers to the questions van Vogt left unanswered; they may not be van Vogt’s answers or your answers.)
  • Can you identify the three parts of More Than Human with Freud’s theory of the three parts of the human psyche? Do you think Sturgeon had this in mind?

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