At the start of the 1940s, a dramatic change was taking place in the nature of science fiction.  SF of the Thirties had been wildly romantic and imaginative, featuring Flash Gordon-style space opera, Lovecraftian horror stories, and apocalyptic visions in which the Earth might hatch like an egg or the entire space-time continuum melt into primordial glop.  In contrast, the science fiction which followed billed itself as a realistic literature of the future -- serious, plausible, and rigorously fact-based.

In retrospect, both kinds of science fiction -- romantic and realistic -- can be seen as having their uses, their virtues, and their limitations.  But in the Forties and Fifties, the new, plausible SF seemed like a great advance.  It was called "modern science fiction" to distinguish it from everything that had come before, and it almost completely swept away all earlier forms.

The master designer of modern science fiction was a young SF writer named John W. Campbell.  As a brash twenty-year-old, Campbell had made a name for himself by turning out galactic epics of super-science in imitation of E.E. Smith.  But he was never really comfortable with the conventions of Thirties SF, and when he become editor of Astounding Science-Fiction in 1937, he lost no time in undertaking a major reformulation of its contents.

At first, he focused on clearing out the obvious junk -- cliched mad scientist stories, really dumb space opera, and fuzzy romances of lost Atlantis -- in favor of more-or-less realistic depictions of near-future technology and space exploration.  But as the seriousness of Campbell's intentions became apparent, he began attracting new authors, like Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, who could turn out the radically innovative and thought-provoking stories he really wanted.

The years from 1939 to 1945, when Campbell was performing his work of alchemical transformation, are generally considered the Golden Age of twentieth century science fiction.  And the precise time and place where the Golden Age began is most often pinpointed as the July 1939 issue of Astounding.

The cover of that crucial issue featured an illustration for "Black Destroyer," the first science fiction story published by A.E. van Vogt.  In this story, a typically over-the-top Thirties plot-line -- in which a party of space explorers on a distant planet is attacked by an almost invulnerable being that aims to seize their ship and take over the galaxy -- was brilliantly restated in the calm, level-headed tones that would come to characterize modern science fiction.  Van Vogt's name may be less well known today than Heinlein's or Asimov's, but he has actually had a far greater influence on contemporary SF, particularly in the visual media, than either of them.

For example, the struggles with powerful aliens that are central to most of Van Vogt's earliest stories have been widely imitated.  "Black Destroyer" is an obvious model for many episodes of the original Star Trek.  Its sequel, "Discord in Scarlet," was the basis of a successful lawsuit for plagiarism by van Vogt against the movie Alien.  The shape-shifting creature in "Vault of the Beast" is probably the prototype of the android in Terminator 2 -- there is even one scene where it disguises itself as part of the floor before rising up and attacking a passerby.

From dealing with superpowered aliens, Van Vogt moved on to consider advanced humans.  He was the first SF writer to express the concept of a prime directive against meddling with less developed races -- and also the first to criticize its limitations.  Various stories in which Van Vogt speculated on the nature of superior beings and their responsibilities to ordinary humanity, can be recognized as the ultimate sources of the persecuted mutants of X-Men comics, the Time Lords of Dr. Who, the immortals of Highlander, the telepaths of Babylon 5, and the amnesiac superman of Dark City.  Similar themes and characters in Japanese anime and video games (such as Akira and Final Fantasy 7) are clearly inspired by Van Vogt as well.

Finally, the reality-doubting mode of SF also had its origin in van Vogt's stories, and traces of his influence -- often filtered through Philip K. Dick -- can be seen in everything from Total Recall to The X-Files to The Truman Show.

The second noteworthy piece of fiction in that July 1939 issue was "Trends" by Isaac Asimov, his third published story and first in Astounding.  Asimov was only nineteen at the time, and "Trends" was awkwardly written.  Its most distinctive aspect was its firm conviction that the history of the future would be shaped more by social forces than by scientific advances.  Essentially the same message was also the basis of Robert Heinlein's first story, "Lifeline," which would be published by Campbell one month later.  This conviction, like Van Vogt's no-nonsense approach to alien menaces, would become a defining attitude of modern science fiction.

The appearance of these three groundbreaking stories by three powerful new writers was the reason why the summer of 1939 was later proclaimed as the dawn of a new era in SF.  Science fiction of the Thirties had quailed before the unknown powers of science, of the scientific universe, and of scientifically advanced beings.  But the SF of the Forties would grow increasingly confident that human knowledge, human adaptability, and just plain human orneriness were more than a match for anything the cosmos might throw at us.

Under John Campbell's guidance, science fiction would increasingly become human-centered instead of science-centered.  Science would still be important, but only as a source of  human knowledge and power and not as an independent factor.  Stories would deal with the discovery, exploration, and exploitation of new worlds, rather than with alien invaders, cosmic disasters, or out-of-control inventions.  Future history would be about humans imposing their will on the universe -- for better or for worse -- and would exclude the possibility of the universe imposing its will upon us.

In the later Forties, this humanistic trend was widely proclaimed as signifying a major increase in credibility and maturity, a shift in values that might even gain science fiction acceptance as serious literature.  There were a few dissenting critics -- fans of the older, more romantic style of SF -- who charged modern science fiction with having lost its "sense of wonder," but they were never able to define precisely what that meant.  The phrase seemed vague at best, and at worst like a lame excuse for promoting stories that were implausible, juvenile, and badly written.  By 1950, those stories, authors, and magazines that did not conform to the new standards were disappearing from the field, and within a few more years, the triumph of modern science fiction was complete.

Fifty years have now passed, and modern science fiction has remained the dominant form of SF.  In all that time, it has changed only slightly, and the basic Campbellian paradigm has never been superseded.  Its premises were seriously questioned only once, in the middle 1960's, when many younger writers grew restive with the bias of modern science fiction towards realism and plausibility and began to incorporate more romantic and fantastic elements into their stories, often drawing on pre-Campbellian SF for inspiration.  Towards the end of the Sixties, the general political and literary conservatism of the field came under attack as well.

This generational conflict raged fiercely for a while, but when the dust had settled modern science fiction was still standing.  Attitudes had changed somewhat.  Post-Sixties SF has been  less techno-realistic, more politically correct, and more open to occasional stylistic experimentation.  But the central assumptions of SF remain those established in the Forties by Heinlein, Asimov, and van Vogt.

Stories are still overwhelmingly about the future development of humankind -- about coping with tomorrow's technology, about the challenges of galactic exploration or the problems of galactic empire, about dealing with a variety of exotic aliens (on our own terms, not on theirs), and about the emergence of Homo superior.  Science is still the supreme source of human power.  Victories are still achieved by some combination of rational analysis, freedom from primitive emotional attachments, and superior firepower.

Quite frankly, the whole enterprise seems to have gone awfully stale.

However, there is one advantage to this staleness, and that is that it makes it easy to see at last exactly what was gained and what was lost in the transition of 1939.  What was gained was an illusion of control -- the self-flattering belief that there was nothing in the universe we couldn't figure out and get the better of.  What was lost was the wonder we feel in the presence of mystery.

A desire to be in control of things was not unreasonable at that particular moment.  In the early Twentieth Century, Western culture had fallen prey to a bad case of the whim-whams, the immediate result of becoming aware of just how vast and powerful the cosmos was and just how little of it we understood.  The Lovecraftian horror stories and apocalyptic visions of the Thirties were a product of that painfully heightened awareness.  The space epics of E.E. Smith and the young John W. Campbell were a first attempt to counter it by invoking human mastery of super-science as a source of knowledge and power sufficient to ward off any imaginable cosmic threat.

The modern science fiction that Campbell developed in the Forties depended on a more subtle version of this same faith in scientific knowledge.  Instead of mile-long spaceships and planet-crunching weapons, the heroes of Campbell's new SF owed their dominance to their ability to pry open any technological system -- to get under the hood, figure out how it worked, make it do what they wanted, and (if necessary) even turn it back upon its makers.

In story after story, Campbell's writers implied that human understanding could match the awesome power of the cosmos at any point by tapping into that cosmic power itself.  This was an absolutely brilliant philosophical strategy, a kind of mental aikido for engineers, a Western equivalent of the martial arts strategy of using your opponent's own strength against him.  But it  remained limited in many ways by the prevailing assumptions of the culture.

Probably the greatest of those cultural limitations was the idea that the human mind stands entirely outside the physical universe, a concept which goes back to the beginnings of modern science in the 17th century.  This philosophical dualism had seemed reassuring at first, since it enabled people to pride themselves that they weren't really subject to the powerful new laws of nature that science was unveiling.  However, by the end of the 19th century, an unpleasant negative implication was becoming apparent -- that humans might find themselves completely alone and isolated in an universe that they could neither understand nor control.

This sense of cosmic alienation was the primary source of horror for H.P. Lovecraft.  It was also the cause of anxiety in the apocalyptic SF stories of the Thirties and was capable of adding a note of tension to even the simplest space opera.  The galactic epics of Smith and Campbell represented an attempt to counter this cosmic anxiety by asserting the unlimited power of the human mind over the material universe -- an assertion that was never fully convincing because it was supported only by completely imaginary super-science.

However, implicit in many of the the most popular SF stories of the Thirties was the germ of a far more useful philosophical reorientation.  This was the idea that the line separating mind and matter should be drawn, not between humans and the rest of the universe, but between sentient beings of every kind and non-sentient nature.  That idea would become the bedrock of modern science fiction.

In modern science fiction, unlike the SF which came before it, other sentient beings, no matter how alien they initially appear, can always be understood and dealt with.  That was the central message of van Vogt's early stories.  At the same time, we are free to manipulate and exploit lesser beings and non-living matter without fear of any unpleasant consequences except those which may result from our own fear or greed.  That was the message of Asimov's "Trends" and Heinlein's "Life-line."

In the wake of this shift, there were two great themes to be explored.  One involved humans learning to deal as equals with aliens, robots, mutants, and intelligent animals.  The other had to do with the rewards and dangers of our ever-increasing control over the physical universe.  These two themes have been at the heart of almost all modern science fiction.  Modern fantasy has followed the same pattern, as well, its primary concerns being magic as a form of technology and the advantages of getting along chummily with elves and dwarves and the occasional dragon.

But neither theme left any room for things out there which we could not either understand or manipulate -- and that produced a view of the universe which was essentially devoid of awe and wonder.

Much of the New Wave rebellion of the 1960's consisted of attempts to renew SF by returning to the pre-Campbellian assumption of an incomprehensible and alien cosmos.  But that meant retreating into an old-fashioned style of dualism rather than working to get beyond dualism entirely.  Since the New Wave never effectively challenged the fundamental assumptions of 20th century science fiction, it is no wonder that its legacy consisted of little more than cosmetic changes.

There is a more interesting way to approach the problem that baffled the New Wave writers, and that is to drop mind-matter dualism entirely while still keeping hold of Campbell's philosophical aikido.  If we do that, we may find that the Campbellian attitude implies yet another philosophical alternative -- the idea that we can understand the physical universe, to the extent we need to, not because we are superior to it, but because we are part of it.

To deal with the cosmos in the way that Campbell called for at his most far-seeing, you need love, intuition, and a great deal of humility.  One demonstration of this is to be found in the computer hackers who emerged at MIT in the late Fifties as a living embodiment of Campbell's philosophy of getting under the hood of the universe and tinkering.  Steven Levy's book Hackers tells us that one after another of them was drawn to computers by the promise of total control.  But it also tells us over and over that they were able to achieve ultimate mastery of their medium only by total submission to its demands.

If we follow out the implications of regarding ourselves as conscious agents of a great cosmic unfolding, we may even discover SF's lost sense of wonder.  The true source of wonder, I believe, is a sudden apprehension of something larger than oneself -- a fact which  Van Vogt alone among Campbell's writers seems to have recognized.

As an exercise in retrieving both our sense of wonder and our humility, it may help to consider a long-forgotten science-fact article from that same July 1939 issue of Astounding -- an article that today appears stranger, more mysterious, and more disconcerting than any of the fiction.

"Tools for Brains" is a sort of progress report as of 1939 on the machines that we now know as computers.  That in itself is intriguing, because most histories of computers only start with the developments of the 1940's.  The devices described in "Tools for Brains" are both older and odder than that.  They are distinctly recognizable as the forerunners of today's computers and yet at the same time, they seem radically Other -- as remote from us, and as bizarre, as the creatures of the Burgess Shale.

This article poses many challenges to our usual assumptions about progress, technology, and social change but two seem of particular significance..

One is that we normally assume that the people whose actions created the world we live in were deliberately attempting to bring our world into being.  In fact, they weren't.  They had agendas of their own, some of which now seem merely quaint while others are bizarre enough to induce culture shock if we encounter them unprepared..

The complement of this is the assumption that the world we see ourselves as building today is the world we'll get tomorrow.  That isn't true either.  After all, the people who read "Tools for Brains" when it was first published in 1939 thought they knew what the future would be like.  But they weren't imagining us -- they were imagining themselves, written large.  Their actual future was far stranger than they dared imagine or would have been prepared to hear about.  In just the same way, our actual future will be stranger than anything we dare imagine.

If the SF writers of 1939 could meet us today, they wouldn't necessarily want to claim us as their children..  If we could meet them, we wouldn't necessarily want to acknowledge them as our parents.

But if we are not their children -- then where did we come from?  If they did not invent us -- then who did?  If we are not created in their image, then in whose image are we created?  If we are not the product of the past -- then what forces did shape us?

Not only does "Tools for Brains" subvert the idea of an orderly progression from the past to the future, but it also undercuts any notion of human control.  In the history of computers, the design of each successive machine was always approached as a matter of rational thought and planning.  But the overall arc of development was never subject to anyone's direction, nor could it possibly have been plotted out in advance by any person or group of people involved..

It could almost seem that the whole enterprise was conducted on a need-to-know basis, as if it were a gigantic conspiracy, with bits and pieces being handed out to various experts to work on but with none of them knowing the whole.  A lot of processes in human history look like that, which is why conspiracy theorists are capable of claiming there is some ultimate mastermind behind the curtain who does know everything.  I don't share that idea.  I think it's just a matter of the way the universe works.

Certain participants may believe they are building a better machine to solve a particular problem.  Others may have a glimpse of some larger goal, like creating distributed systems in preference to hierarchical ones.  But what ultimately comes out of any process of invention and discovery depends not simply on what any -- or even all -- of the individuals involved put into it, but also on what the universe itself puts into it.

Another way of expressing this is to say that the universe as a whole is a creative partner in everything we do and not merely a passive medium on which we operate.  That's holism for you -- the real reason why any whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

On the other hand, the universe is not simply a sentient being that we can sit down and chat with about design criteria and project specifications.  To engage the universe whole-heartedly takes intuition, receptiveness, and adaptability.

And if we can embrace that message in all its implications, we may finally get beyond the limitations of tired old modern science fiction.

In the meantime, while you're thinking about it, you are invited to read and ponder Tools for Brains.

Return to The Geek History of the Universe
Return to Trogholm