The Sorcerers’ Apprentices

on January 27, 2014

The birth of a new vision is the most mysterious aspect of the entire cycle. It is rooted in higher knowledge and the ability of the imagination to conjure something out of nothing, and though its spoor can be followed a certain distance, it ultimately vanishes into the mists of individual inspiration.

When the creative imagination vision came into being in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it seemed to spring out of nowhere in many different places at once and in a variety of forms. That sudden flowering was something of an illusion, however. The seeds of creative imagination had been planted within the nurturing soil of the chaos vision a full generation earlier and had germinated there slowly until the mainstreaming of chaos sent out a signal that it was the season for them to sprout.

Many of those seeds can even be traced back to a single point of origin — a small group of science fiction writers who in the late 1930s and early 40s set themselves to reconciling the wild, improvisational nature of chaos with the scientific assumption of a cosmos ruled by unvarying natural law.

The underlying premises of chaos and scientific materialism had never been particularly compatible, but until that time nobody had tried to believe in both of them at once. The conflict arose only because faith in science had flagged for a time after World War I — leading many people to see the universe as alien and chaotic — and had then been strongly renewed in the 1930s. So the question arose of which was to be master.

The recurring pattern of the cycle of visions would have made the conflict inevitable under any circumstances, but the specific terms on which it was played out were set by two extraordinary masters of higher knowledge: H.P. Lovecraft and John W. Campbell.

Lovecraft was the preeminent representative of the chaos vision in the 1920s and early 30s, when a new image of the universe of space, time, and dimension was emerging out of a combination of chaos and an early, mystical version of holism. In his stories for Weird Tales, Lovecraft put his stamp on that universe, and though later science fiction writers might hope to bring it under the sway of science and reason, they would have to go through Lovecraft to make good their claim.

Lovecraft’s influence remained strong even after his death in 1937, in part because of his extraordinary generosity. In his final years, he had corresponded at great length with other writers, had encouraged aspiring writers, and had made the beings and concepts of his Cthulhu Mythos freely available for use by anyone who wanted to join in the game.

John W. Campbell might appear at first glance to have been the anti-Lovecraft. He had spent the 1930s as a writer of high-tech space epics and visionary science fiction before becoming editor of Astounding Stories in the same year as Lovecraft’s death. He quickly renamed the magazine Astounding Science Fiction, swept out all the occult garbage and low-level pulp adventure, and set it firmly on the path of scientific plausibility.

But despite surface appearances, Campbell was in a strange way Lovecraft’s heir. He may have approached the Lovecraftian universe from an engineering perspective, but he was deeply indebted to it. For example, his story “Who Goes There?” (1938), which was one of the last pieces of fiction he wrote before devoting himself entirely to editing, was seemingly directly inspired by Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness,” which had been published in Astounding just two years earlier

In Campbell’s story, a scientific expedition to Antarctica discovers a hostile shapeshifting alien frozen in the ice, unwisely thaws it out, and then has to prevent it from taking over the world. The scientists’ first hysterical reactions mirror Lovecraft’s conviction that supernatural horror arises from “that most terrible conception of the human brain — a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”

But Campbell had a different outcome in mind. He clearly approved of the idea that the laws of Nature could be a defense against the daemons of unplumbed space, but he refused to agree that those laws were subject to “a malign and particular suspension.” Instead, his scientists decide that “this isn’t wildly beyond what we already know. It’s just a modification we haven’t seen before. It’s as natural, as logical, as any other manifestation of life. It obeys exactly the same laws.” And they proceed to use those laws to identify the monster’s weaknesses and then destroy it.

As an editor, Campbell displayed the same kind of generosity as Lovecraft, freely sharing his insights with anybody who would hold still for them. In particular, he fed his writers story ideas that would continue the project of claiming the vast Lovecraftian cosmos in the name of science fiction. Even Isaac Asimov’s most famous early story, “Nightfall,” was a product of this process.

However, Campbell’s primary sandbox for reconfiguring Lovecraftian concepts was Unknown, which he launched in 1939 as a fantasy companion to Astounding.

Campbell would tell his writers, “For Astounding I want stories which are good and logical and possible. For Unknown, I want stories which are good and logical.” That formula provided a template for a wide range of authors to reconcile the materials of traditional fantasy and horror with Campbell’s own pragmatic, engineering approach. But it also gave a smaller number of writers license to engage in the more ambitious undertaking of addressing the tension between chaos and scientific materialism.

There were several ways of approaching that project. The most straightforward, which might be called the laws-of-magic approach, was based on the assumption that even though chaos might challenge the laws of nature as we know them, an expanded version of those laws would bring chaos back into line. Using that rationale, L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt produced a series of short novels in which 20th century Americans travel into various fantasy realms and quickly outdo the locals in magical expertise by applying the scientific method.

A second and more complicated approach is exemplified by Robert Heinlein’s “Waldo” (1942), which I previously discussed here and here. This extremely ambivalent story (which Campbell accepted for Astounding rather than Unknown because Heinlein was already a superstar) suggests that chaos theoretically holds the power to trump scientific law — but also that it’s prudent to keep the lid on as tightly as possible:

“Waldo was not emotionally wedded to Absolute Order as Rambeau had been; he was in no danger of becoming mentally unbalanced through a failure of his basic conceptions; nevertheless, consarn it, it was convenient for things to work the way one expected them to. On order and natural law was based predictability; without predictability it was impossible to live. Clocks should run evenly; water should boil when heat is applied to it; food should nourish, not poison. … Chaos was insupportable — it could not be lived with.”

Heinlein’s and de Camp’s solutions would both have an impact on later SF, but there was a third approach, based on a crucial shift in perception, that was ultimately more fruitful than either. The essence of that shift was to forget about scientific materialism altogether and associate chaos instead with holism.

In the holism vision, the universe was not a random collection of dead matter but a living web of interconnections in which consciousness played a central role and there was room for unusual powers of mind and even outright magic. Lovecraft’s own fiction had interwoven chaos with holism, and so did the stories of two young writers from his circle of correspondents, Henry Kuttner and Fritz Leiber, who found their way to Astounding and Unknown.

Leiber’s first published story, “Two Sought Adventure,” appeared in Unknown in 1939. It pitted two treasure-hunting rogues, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, against a tower that at first appears to be haunted by a monstrous guardian but turns out to be itself a being of living stone that goes mad when Fafhrd disrupts the jewels that provide its “inorganic consciousness.”

Leiber was not immediately able to recapture this pitch-perfect mixture of chaos and holism, and for the next two decades otherworld fantasy largely followed in the path of de Camp and Heinlein. Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions (1953). for example, combined the laws-of-magic story with an eternal struggle between Law and Chaos.

But in the countercultural Sixties, the model Leiber had provided became an inspiration for younger writers like Michael Moorcock — who also added in a strong element of the emerging horizontalism vision. That line of development would lead by the end of the Seventies to the potent fusion of chaos magic and anarchism that remains highly significant today.

However, the line that can be traced through Leiber and heroic fantasy is not the only one that points towards the birth of the creative imagination vision. Henry Kuttner was far more prolific in the 1940s than Leiber, more successful at shaping his materials to pass muster as science fiction, and more influential on a variety of genres.

Kuttner was not considered at the time to be among the first rank of SF authors. He often appeared careless and derivative, satisfied to pick up ideas from other writers — notably Robert Heinlein — and put his own spin on them with little concern for scientific rigor.

But in retrospect, much of what he was about can be seen as deliberate subversion. He embraced chaos, didn’t care whether the universe could be mastered, and had an ingrained hatred of authority that expressed itself in an enthusiasm for granting superpowers to the poor and excluded. And that was exactly what it took to be a begetter of new visions.

(To be continued)

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