The Rest is Noise

by Alec Nevala-Lee

In my article “The Campbell Machine,” [in the current issue on sale now]. which is based on a section from the upcoming book Astounding, I explore one of the stranger episodes in the history of Astounding Science Fiction—the sudden appearance in its pages of a succession of peculiar devices, known as “psionic machines,” that readers were invited to investigate for themselves. The most famous examples were the Hieronymus Machine, an assemblage of electrical components that could supposedly detect minerals or kill insects from a distance using nothing but a photograph, and its “symbolic” successor, which was said to perform many of the same functions with little more than a circle of cardboard, some black thread, and a drawing of a circuit diagram.

As I argue in the book, John W. Campbell, the longtime editor of the magazine, was drawn to these machines in part because of the death of his stepson Joe Kearney, who was tragically killed while driving alone on the New Jersey Turnpike on June 17, 1955. The year before, Campbell had looked into a psionic gadget devised by a Canadian inventor named Welsford Parker, and after Joe’s accident, which he blamed on highway hypnosis, he plunged into the subject even more aggressively. Psionics, he believed, could serve as a source of subjective data about the brain, which might shed light on the causes of his stepson’s crash, and he favored experimental machines that could be built according to a standard set of instructions, which seemed easier to study than telepathy or clairvoyance.

Parker’s device never made it into print, but Campbell became a dauntless supporter of the Hieronymus Machine, which was soon followed by others. In 1957, after the World Science Fiction Convention in London, the editor visited the laboratory of George de la Warr, who claimed to have constructed a machine that could diagnose illnesses and generate images of internal organs using a drop of blood—but only, it turned out, if the plates were handled by his lab assistant, who Campbell thought had unconscious psychic powers. He was equally enthusiastic about a medical device invented by a chiropractor named Ruth Drown in Los Angeles, but he mentioned them only in passing in the magazine, sensing that his readers would be unsettled by machines that acted on living things.


The coverage bothered such authors as Isaac Asimov, who recalled of an encounter with the Hieronymus Machine at Campbell’s home: “And that’s how great nonsense discoveries are made.”


But the editor’s true motivations may have been more complicated. As an undergraduate at M.I.T., Campbell had studied under Norbert Wiener, who later achieved worldwide fame as the founder of cybernetics. Campbell took a keen interest in his former professor’s work, and in 1950, he would have read the book The Human Use of Human Beings, in which Wiener wrote: “When we consider a problem of nature such as that of atomic reactions and atomic explosives, the largest single item of information which we can make public is that they exist. Once a scientist attacks a problem which he knows to have an answer, his entire attitude is changed.”

These words evidently set off a train of thought, and on March 31, 1952, Campbell wrote in a letter to Robert A. Heinlein: “I’ve got an idea that may appeal to you as a starting point for a yarn. If so—I’d love it. If not—lemme know, and I’ll try it on someone else.” Campbell, who often handed out premises to his writers, went on to outline the plot in unusual detail. In his proposed story, the top scientists of the country are called to a secret meeting, where they are told about a physicist who recently approached the National Research Council with what he claimed to be an antigravity device. The attendees are shown footage of a test at an air base, in which the inventor dons the gadget and flies miraculously into the sky—until something goes horrifically wrong. A malfunction sends him plummeting to the ground, and he is killed at once, while the device itself is reduced to a smoking ruin.

After the presentation ends, the scientists are informed that their assignment is to reproduce this discovery. Unfortunately, the inventor was paranoid about his ideas being stolen, and he left no record of his work, apart from an indecipherable audio recording. The scientists are each given a copy of the tape, along with unlimited funding, and ordered to get cracking: “We need that device.” With feverish effort, they reconstruct a working antigravity machine using these meager clues, in defiance of all known laws of physics. And here’s the kicker, as Campbell explained it to Heinlein: “The whole thing [is] 100% fake. . . . A situation has been established wherein the top physicists of the nation have had firmly, solidly planted on them these two propositions: an antigravity device can be made [and] we have to make it.”

In other words, it was all just a hoax to convince the scientists to devote themselves to solving a problem that they otherwise would have dismissed out of hand. Campbell concluded: “And you know, Bob, that same basic mechanism should work for a lot of other things!” He was speaking from experience. Years earlier, when L. Ron Hubbard approached him with the mental therapy that became known as dianetics, Campbell had been persuaded to take it seriously by Hubbard’s apparent psychological and physical improvement, as he recalled in another letter to Heinlein: “He told me he had found the secret of the problem of the mind—but more important he had found himself.” Or as Norton Juster later put it in The Phantom Tollbooth: “So many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.”

The notion clearly meant a lot to Campbell, who offered it to Heinlein, the best writer he had ever known, at a time when it was unlikely to be accepted—Heinlein had written stories based on the editor’s ideas before, including “Blowups Happen” and “Universe,” but he hadn’t done so in years, and the two men were already drifting apart. After Heinlein passed, Campbell gave it to a more willing author, Raymond F. Jones, who had been a prolific contributor to Astounding over the previous decade. They had corresponded frequently on dianetics and the mind, and Jones quickly wrote up the story as “Noise Level,” which was published in the issue dated December 1952.

“Noise Level” was surprisingly wonderful—it’s one of my ten favorite science fiction stories of all time—and Jones added many nice touches to the premise. In one scene, the scientists are taken to what they’re told was the house of Leon Dunning, the device’s late inventor, which includes a lab, a machine shop, and a weird pair of libraries—one filled with physics and engineering titles, the other with books about the occult. Later, when asked why they were given “the stuff on Babylonian mysticism, astrology, and the rest of that crud,” the hoax’s organizer explains: “The whole pattern was set up to be as noisy as possible. We didn’t know how to produce antigravity, so we gave you a picture of a man who did, and made it as noisy as possible to loosen up your own noise filters on the subject.”

And it might have been Campbell talking. The image of a library with two contrasting halves, one scientific, the other full of “crud,” is as fitting an emblem as I can imagine of the experience of subscribing to Astounding—and later Analog—during the last two decades of his editorship, in which such landmarks as Mission of Gravity and Dune alternated with articles on psionics, dowsing, astrology, and even a notorious antigravity drive. As one character in “Noise Level” protests: “It isn’t possible that Dunning owned and understood both of these libraries.” Many readers must have felt the same way—but I prefer to believe that Campbell told them exactly what he was doing. He had always wanted a great discovery to emerge from his magazine, and he decided that this was the best way to go about it. Astounding was nothing less than his ongoing experiment with fans, and he was about to make it as noisy as he possibly could.

 


 

alec-nevala-leeAlec Nevala-Lee is currently at work on the nonfiction book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, which will be released by Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, in 2018. His novels include The Icon Thief, City of Exiles, and Eternal Empire, all published by Penguin, and his stories have appeared in Analog, Lightspeed, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction. He lives with his wife and daughter in Oak Park, Illinois, and he blogs daily at www.nevalalee.com.

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