The Two-Sided Coin

on June 10, 2014

I’ve spent the past several entries trying to pin down the relationship between the simple, straightforward visions of reality that I’ve been discussing at this blog for the last several years and the much murkier and more elusive “underground stream.”

The visions are relatively easy to define, since each one is organized around a limited set of premises and conclusions designed to relate a particular area of practical experience — scientific, social, or personal — to a mystical sense of oneness.

The underground stream, in contrast, has no firm philosophical structure, but it does display certain persistent characteristics. The most obvious is a tendency to perceive existence in terms of occult forces: magical or psychic powers, a world in which invisible spirit beings or unsuspected aliens surround us on every hand, and conspiracies both sinister and benign. It also has a distinctive emotional tonality which ranges from mistily dreamlike to lushly romantic to darkly paranoid.

However, there are times when the visions and the underground stream are so closely aligned that they appear as two sides of the same coin.

One recent example would be the use of the word “cyberpunk” in the 1980s. On one hand, the “cyber” part can be seen as referring to the holism vision, in which networks of all sorts are considered the fundamental units of reality, while the “punk” part evokes the streetwise, anarchic aspect of the horizontalism vision. But it would be equally true to say that “cyber” speaks to the magical dreamscapes of cyberspace and “punk” to the genre’s conspiratorial, film noir ambiance.

A similar duality is apparent in 1940s science fiction — but there it applies not just to the stories but to the writers themselves.

The profound metamorphosis of attitudes and assumptions in that period was localized to an extraordinary degree in one particular time and place — southern California on the eve of World War II — and specifically in the loose group of SF writers that grandly styled itself the Mañana Literary Society.

A description in rational terms of the group and its purposes can be found in a letter that John W. Campbell, the editor of Astounding and Unknown, wrote to A.E. van Vogt in October 1942:

Before I forget to mention it, there’s a book coming out soon that I think you’ll want to get — if they permit importation of books into Canada. It’s called Rocket To The Morgue, a mystery novel by “H.H. Holmes” — who is Wm. A.P. White, who writes, also, under the name Anthony Boucher. I don’t know whether you know about the Manana Literary Society or not. Anyway, it was a group of science-fiction and fantasy authors in and around Hollywood-Los Angeles area which Bob Heinlein more or less semi-organized as a way of getting new authors for me. He was a big help; through that loose, really 90% social group he found and got started into fantasy-science-fiction for me Anthony Boucher himself, Cleve Cartmill, Roby Wentz and one or two others. The group worked over Hank Kuttner ’til he turned into Lewis Padgett, a damn site better author. Ed Hamilton, Jack Williamson, L. Ron Hubbard and Julius Schwartz, author’s agent in the science-fiction field, were all members. The thing sort of broke up after Dec. 7 [1941] because so many went elsewhere.

It’s no surprise that Campbell’s obsessive search for new authors would have provided the initial stimulus for the group’s formation. It also makes sense that he would have chosen Heinlein as its chief organizer and that he would credit its influence with turning the indifferent pulp hack Henry Kuttner into the witty and innovative Lewis Padgett.

But it’s also apparent that there were forces at work which were beyond Campbell’s ken and had little to do with his grand literary project of bringing the galaxy under human control.

For one thing, the Mañana Literary Society was full of writers whose strongest affinities were with a very non-Campbellian style of science fantasy. Hamilton and Williamson had begun their careers in Weird Tales in the 1920s. Two other members whose names Campbell omits — C.L. Moore, who had recently married Henry Kuttner, and Leigh Brackett, who would later marry Edmond Hamilton — were the the leading practitioners of which might be loosely described as occult interplanetary pulp adventure.

Kuttner himself had started off as a writer for Weird Tales and a member of H.P. Lovecraft’s circle of correspondents, and though he might be prepared to pick up clues from Campbell, Heinlein, or de Camp, his true objective was to apply the Lovecraftian sense of a living universe to the cosmos that Campbell was doing his best to domesticate.

However, the name that is most glaringly absent from Campbell’s list is that of the pioneering rocket engineer and occultist Jack Parsons.

It’s an open question whether Parsons’ occult interests had any direct influence on the group. He did once haul Williamson and Cleve Cartmill off to a Crowleyite Gnostic Mass, though neither one was particularly impressed. And in the late 40s, he and Hubbard would get up to all sorts of occult hijinks together. But the most intriguing point of contact involves the book that Campbell recommended to van Vogt, Rocket to the Morgue.

Boucher’s novel was a murder mystery set against the backdrop of what is recognizably the Mañana Literary Society and featuring characters based on its leading members. The dominating figure in the group was closely modeled on Heinlein. One character was a composite of Hamilton and Williamson and another combined elements of Kuttner and Cartmill. The individual based on Hubbard was a slippery enough item to briefly become the leading suspect in the murder. And the designer of the experimental rocket that turns into a murder weapon when the victim is shoved into the path of a test firing was based on Parsons.

Here’s Boucher’s introduction to his Parsons equivalent:

For Hugo Chantrelle was an eccentric scientist. In working hours at the California Institute of Technology he was an uninspired routine laboratory man; but on his own time he devoted himself to those peripheral aspects of science which the scientific purist damns as mumbo-jumbo, those new alchemies and astrologies out of which the race may in time construct unsurmised wonders of chemistry and astronomy.

The rocketry of Pendray, the time-dreams of Dunne, the extra sensory perception of Rhine, the sea serpents of Gould, all these held his interests far more than any research conducted by the Institute. He was inevitably a member of the Fortean Society of America, and had his own file of unbelievable incidents.

However, there’s something very strange about this description, because it doesn’t sound at all like Parsons. Far from being an “uninspired routine laboratory man,” Parsons was a co-founder at Caltech of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. And on the occult side, he was no mere collector of Forteana but the head of the California branch of the Ordo Templi Orientis.

Presumably Boucher — who was a Roman Catholic and whose detective protagonist often collaborated on tough cases with a nun — found it expedient to edit out Parson’s actual heresies and substitute an unlikely fusion of rocketry and the Loch Ness monster.

But the serendipitous result was a character who appears to have served as the prototype for Kuttner’s own eccentric scientist, Gallegher, who first appeared in the Lewis Padgett story “Time Locker,” published in Astounding in January 1943:

Gallegher played by ear, which would have been all right had he been a musician — but he was a scientist. A drunken and erratic one, but good. He’d wanted to be an experimental technician, and would have been excellent at it, for he had a streak of genius at times. Unfortunately, there had been no funds for such specialized education, and now Gallegher, by profession an integrator machine supervisor, maintained his laboratory purely as a hobby.

When I wrote about “Time Locker” a couple of years ago — in an entry contrasting the elitism of Heinlein’s “Waldo” with Kuttner’s persistent attempts to subvert authority — I looked into what it would have meant in 1943 to be an “integrator machine supervisor.” It turned out that it was as close as you could get to being a computer programmer in the days before programmable computers, and that led me to conclude:

Once we start to think of Gallegher as the prototypical computer programmer, it inevitably follows that in his brilliantly intuitive after-hours tinkering, he is also the prototype of the computer hacker.” …

And that is extremely important, because we live today in the world that Heinlein imagined. We are governed by a self-proclaimed meritocracy of political and corporate leaders who claim the right to make decisions for the rest of us and are prepared to lie, keep secrets, bend the law, suspend the normal operations of democracy, and call out the full force of the police at a moment’s notice in order to maintain their power.

And at the same time, the most determined opponents of this illegitimate usurpation of authority are Gallegher’s many offspring — the hackers, do-it-yourself inventors, and wacky pranksters who have no troops at their disposal, no worldly fortunes, and whose only strength lies in their ability to draw upon the power of higher knowledge.

I’ve been thinking about that ongoing conflict ever since — and it’s one of the issues I’ve been attempting to address in the current series of entries. In terms of the visions, it’s the difference between Heinlein’s fear of the horizontalism vision and Kuttner’s embrace of it.

But if it isn’t Gallegher alone but also the enigmatic figure of Jack Parsons who should be considered the prototypical hacker, then we’re dealing not just with horizontalism but with the magics of the underground stream. And if that is so, the conflict takes on a very different aspect.

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Read the Previous Entry: The Chasm
Read the Next Entry: Searching for the Dawn

One Response to “The Two-Sided Coin”

  1. allynh says:

    When you talk about “two sides of a coin” don’t forget the “edge” of the coin. The “edge” of the coin is what drives the dichotomy of the two sides. Think about it. HA!

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