Isaac Asimov Recalls the Golden Age of Science Fiction (1937–1950)

In this short clip, Isaac Asi­mov dis­cuss­es the gold­en age of sci­ence fic­tion, which began in 1937 (and end­ed in 1950) when John W. Camp­bell Jr. took over as edi­tor of the mag­a­zine Astound­ing Sci­ence Fic­tion. Pri­or to Campbell’s edi­tor­ship, most sci-fi sto­ries were pub­lished in the “pulps,” and were in Asimov’s words “heav­i­ly adven­ture-fla­vored” because under­paid writ­ers often wrote in sev­er­al gen­res in order to com­pete in an over­crowd­ed mar­ket­place for escapist sto­ries of romance, war, jun­gle and sea adven­tures, and hor­ror tales. Unlike most of the “pulp” writ­ers, Camp­bell was a sci­en­tist who stud­ied physics at MIT and Duke, not to men­tion a pro­lif­ic writer of fic­tion. (Many of Campbell’s nov­els and short sto­ries are avail­able in full-text as ePUB and PDF files here).

Campbell’s ascen­sion was a water­shed moment for the genre since his “engi­neer­ing atti­tude” gave him a high regard for writ­ers of sci­ence fic­tion who under­stood the sci­ence of the day and could por­tray sci­en­tists authen­ti­cal­ly while still hav­ing the free­dom to “extrap­o­late wild­ly.” Astound­ing pub­lished some of the ear­li­est sto­ries by Asi­mov, Robert Hein­lein (an ear­ly sto­ry, pub­lished under the name “Anson Mac­Don­ald” in 1941 is here), and L. Ron Hub­bard. The rela­tion­ship between Camp­bell and Hub­bard is a fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ry. Camp­bell pub­lished a very ear­ly ver­sion of what would become the found­ing text of Sci­en­tol­ogy in March 1950, and he claimed to be an ear­ly sup­port­er of Hubbard’s “sci­ence of dia­net­ics.”

Camp­bell is a com­pli­cat­ed fig­ure. In addi­tion to sup­port­ing Hubbard’s ideas, writer Har­lan Elli­son has claimed that Camp­bell was an adher­ent of pseu­do­science who would “believe any­thing,” and he appar­ent­ly held some very objec­tion­able racist and far right polit­i­cal views which he cham­pi­oned in his edi­to­ri­als and which made Asi­mov uncom­fort­able, as Asi­mov writes in his intro­duc­tion to the gold­en age col­lec­tion Astound­ing: John W. Camp­bell Memo­r­i­al Anthol­o­gy. Nev­er­the­less, Asi­mov acknowl­edges Camp­bell as a “Father of Sci­ence Fic­tion” who was indis­pens­able in bring­ing the genre out of the pulp era.

J. David Jones is cur­rent­ly a doc­tor­al stu­dent in Eng­lish at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and a co-founder and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Guer­ni­ca / A Mag­a­zine of Arts and Pol­i­tics.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Free Sci­ence Fic­tion Clas­sics on the Web: Hux­ley, Orwell, Asi­mov, Gaiman & Beyond

A Trip to the Moon (1902): Where Sci Fi Movies Began

Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Writers

“If it sounds like writ­ing,” says Elmore Leonard, “I rewrite it.”

Leonard’s writ­ing sounds the way peo­ple talk. It rings true. In nov­els like Get ShortyRum Punch and Out of Sight, Leonard has estab­lished him­self as a mas­ter styl­ist, and while his char­ac­ters may be lowlifes, his books are received and admired in the high­est cir­cles. In 1998 Mar­tin Amis recalled vis­it­ing Saul Bel­low and see­ing Leonard’s books on the old man’s shelves. “Bel­low and I agreed,” said Amis, “that for an absolute­ly reli­able and unstint­ing infu­sion of nar­ra­tive plea­sure in a prose mirac­u­lous­ly purged of all false qual­i­ties, there was no one quite like Elmore Leonard.”

In 2006 Leonard appeared on BBC Two’s The Cul­ture Show to talk about the craft of writ­ing and give some advice to aspir­ing authors. In the pro­gram, shown above, Leonard talks about his deep appre­ci­a­tion of Ernest Hem­ing­way’s work in gen­er­al, and about his par­tic­u­lar debt to the 1970 crime nov­el The Friends of Eddie Coyle, by George V. Hig­gins. While explain­ing his approach, Leonard jots down three tips:

  • “You have to lis­ten to your char­ac­ters.”
  • “Don’t wor­ry about what your moth­er thinks of your lan­guage.”
  • “Try to get a rhythm.”

“I always refer to style as sound,” says Leonard. “The sound of the writ­ing.” Some of Leonard’s sug­ges­tions appeared in a 2001 New York Times arti­cle that became the basis of his 2007 book, Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writ­ing. Here are those rules in out­line form:

  1. Nev­er open a book with the weath­er.
  2. Avoid pro­logues.
  3. Nev­er use a verb oth­er than “said” to car­ry dia­logue.
  4. Nev­er use an adverb to mod­i­fy the verb “said.”
  5. Keep your excla­ma­tion points under con­trol!
  6. Nev­er use the words “sud­den­ly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  7. Use region­al dialect, patois,  spar­ing­ly.
  8. Avoid detailed descrip­tions of char­ac­ters.
  9. Same for places and things.
  10. Leave out the parts read­ers tend to skip.

You can read more from Leonard on his rules in the 2001 Times arti­cle. And you can read his new short sto­ry, “Ice Man,” in The Atlantic.

Mars Rover, Curiosity, Will Face Seven Minutes of Terror on August 5

In the video above, NASA engi­neers explain the extreme­ly pre­cise cal­cu­la­tions gov­ern­ing the land­ing of Curios­i­ty, the sev­enth Mars Rover since the failed Sovi­et Mars 2 and 3 mis­sions in 1971. Launched in Novem­ber of 2011, Curios­i­ty is sched­uled to touch down in Gale Crater at exact­ly 10:31PM Pacif­ic time, this August 5th. Using dra­mat­ic com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed imagery, the video shows the rover’s approach as it breach­es the atmos­phere and hur­tles toward the sur­face of the plan­et in sev­er­al com­pli­cat­ed stages, a descent that takes exact­ly sev­en min­utes. The engi­neers call this span of time “sev­en min­utes of ter­ror”; since the sig­nal delay from the space­craft to earth is four­teen min­utes, NASA engi­neers must wait an addi­tion­al sev­en min­utes after its entry to learn whether the entire­ly-com­put­er-guid­ed craft has made it safe­ly to the sur­face or crashed and burned. Since it’s speed­ing down from the upper atmos­phere at 13,000 miles an hour and heat­ing up to 1600 degrees, their fears are cer­tain­ly war­rant­ed. And fear may be a sym­bol­i­cal­ly appro­pri­ate emo­tion­al response to a plan­et named for the ancient god of war, with moons named Pho­bos and Diemos—“fear” and “ter­ror,” respec­tive­ly.

The Mars pro­gram has had sev­er­al false starts and a his­to­ry very much root­ed in the Cold War space race. Dur­ing the the 1960s, the U.S. and USSR sent com­pet­ing fly­by and orbiter mis­sions to the red plan­et, but it wasn’t until July 4, 1997 that NASA was able to land a func­tion­ing rover, the Pathfind­er, on the sur­face. A British-led attempt to land anoth­er rover, Bea­gle 2, was a fail­ure, but NASA suc­cess­ful­ly land­ed Spir­it in Jan­u­ary, 2004.  Sad­ly, Spir­it became mired in the thick sand of the planet’s sur­face and could not be freed. Spir­it’s twin, Oppor­tu­ni­ty, made a suc­cess­ful land­ing two weeks lat­er and has con­tin­ued to oper­ate with­out seri­ous inci­dent, save peri­ods of down­time over the Mars win­ter, when its solar pan­els can­not col­lect enough sun­light to pow­er it. Intend­ed to find signs of water on the plan­et, Oppor­tu­ni­ty has made dis­cov­er­ies that pro­vide clues to the geo­log­i­cal his­to­ry of Mars. After its ninth year of work, NASA’s only func­tion­ing rover is begin­ning to show its age. NASA engi­neers hope the S.U.V.-sized Curios­i­ty will sur­vive its ordeal and con­tin­ue the work of its pre­de­ces­sors, seek­ing more signs of water, and maybe find­ing signs of life.

J. David Jones is cur­rent­ly a doc­tor­al stu­dent in Eng­lish at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and a co-founder and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Guer­ni­ca / A Mag­a­zine of Arts and Pol­i­tics.

Woody Allen Lives the “Delicious Life” in Early-80s Japanese Commercials

Some­times I think the only real advan­tage of Amer­i­can celebri­ty would be the offers to act in Japan­ese tele­vi­sion com­mer­cials. We’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured James Brown pitch­ing Nissin noo­dles, Har­ri­son Ford’s Japan­ese-speak­ing spots for Kirin Beer remain beloved pop-cul­tur­al arti­facts, and evi­dent­ly Jodie Fos­ter sends cos­met­ics and cof­fee fly­ing off the shelves. Sofia Cop­po­la even built her film Lost in Trans­la­tion around a Hol­ly­wood actor, por­trayed with unfor­get­table res­ig­na­tion by Bill Mur­ray, vis­it­ing Tokyo to shoot a Sun­to­ry Whisky ad. Above you’ll find a series of com­mer­cials from the ear­ly eight­ies for the Japan­ese depart­ment store Seibu, fea­tur­ing none oth­er than Woody Allen. He arranges his desk, paints cal­lig­ra­phy, winc­ing­ly receives some kind of mox­i­bus­tion treat­ment, and makes a pur­chase from a vend­ing machine embla­zoned with a pic­ture of him­self, all while a singer (as far as my lim­it­ed Japan­ese allows me to under­stand) rat­tles off a list of durable and edi­ble goods.

When these spots first aired, many Japan­ese view­ers did­n’t rec­og­nize Allen. Accord­ing to a con­tem­po­rary Lake­land Ledger arti­cle, Seibu’s mar­keters planned it that way, intend­ing to intro­duce him to Japan them­selves as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of their sen­si­bil­i­ty : “Respond­ing to the decline in the youth mar­ket, Seibu want­ed the store rep­re­sent­ed by ‘an adult’ [ … ] With his mul­ti­ple tal­ents, Mr. Allen seemed ide­al to per­son­i­fy Seibu’s mul­ti­ple fea­tures.” In each of these clips, Allen presents (and the singer sings) the Japan­ese phrase “おいしい生活,” which I read as “deli­cious life,” which the Ledger arti­cle trans­lates as “taste­ful life,” and which one YouTube com­menter trans­lates as “deli­cious lifestyle.” (“The sweet life” might con­vey a sim­i­lar idea.) For evi­dence of this cam­paign’s cul­tur­al impact, look no fur­ther than Japan’s title for the Woody Allen film, released near­ly twen­ty years lat­er, that we know as Small Time Crooksおいしい生活. Woody, you’ve done Lon­don, you’ve done Barcelona, you’ve done Paris, you’ve done Rome — has­n’t the time come to take your cam­era to Tokyo?

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Best Japan­ese Com­mer­cial Ever? James Brown Sells Miso Soup

Woody Allen on The Dick Cavett Show Cir­ca 1970

David Lynch’s Sur­re­al Com­mer­cials

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

The LEGO Turing Machine Gives a Quick Primer on How Your Computer Works

This past Sat­ur­day, we cel­e­brat­ed the cen­ten­ni­al of Alan Turing’s birth by pre­sent­ing two films that explore the life and achieve­ments of the great mathematician/father of com­put­er sci­ence: Dan­ger­ous Knowl­edge and Break­ing the Code. Today, before the anniver­sary fades into the back­ground, let us send one more film your way — this one a “short doc­u­men­tary” that brings Tur­ing’s famous com­put­ing machine to life. The device, as Tur­ing imag­ined it in 1936, was meant to sim­u­late the log­ic of com­put­er algo­rithms, reveal­ing the extent and lim­its of what can be com­put­ed. Tur­ing nev­er built the machine. He only offered a con­cep­tu­al blue­print. But two researchers at the Cen­trum Wiskunde & Infor­mat­i­ca in Ams­ter­dam have kind­ly recre­at­ed the Tur­ing Machine with LEGO, and then pro­duced a short film demon­strat­ing how the machine car­ries out the most basic func­tions of your com­put­er. Watch it go.

You can find more infor­ma­tion on the build­ing and inner-work­ings of the LEGO Tur­ing Machine here.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Com­put­er Sci­ence Cours­es

Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty to Cre­ate a Lego Pro­fes­sor­ship

Two Scenes from Stan­ley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Recre­at­ed in Lego

New “Women of NASA” Lego Immor­tal­izes the STEM Con­tri­bu­tions of Sal­ly Ride,  Mar­garet Hamil­ton, Mae Jemi­son & Nan­cy Grace Roman

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Mathematics Made Visible: The Extraordinary Mathematical Art of M.C. Escher

The eye and the intel­lect play off one anoth­er in sur­pris­ing and beau­ti­ful ways in the art of M.C. Esch­er. Where the Renais­sance mas­ters used shad­ing and per­spec­tive to cre­ate the illu­sion of three-dimen­sion­al depth on two dimen­sion­al sur­faces, Esch­er turned those tricks in on them­selves to cre­ate puz­zles and para­dox­es. He manip­u­lat­ed our fac­ul­ties of per­cep­tion not sim­ply to please the sens­es, but to stim­u­late the mind.

His cool, ana­lyt­ic ten­den­cy was appar­ent from the start. “Mau­rits Esch­er is a good graph­ic artist,” wrote the head­mas­ter of the Haar­lem School of Archi­tec­ture and Dec­o­ra­tive Arts in 1922, the year of Escher’s grad­u­a­tion, “but he lacks the right artis­tic tem­pera­ment.

His work is to too cerebral–neither emo­tion­al nor lyri­cal enough.” Escher’s work became even more cere­bral over time, as it grew in geo­met­ric sophis­ti­ca­tion. In describ­ing what went into the cre­ation of his wood­cuts and engrav­ings, Esch­er wrote:

The ideas that are basic to them often bear wit­ness to my amaze­ment and won­der at the laws of nature which oper­ate in the world around us. He who won­ders dis­cov­ers that this is in itself a won­der. By keen­ly con­fronting the enig­mas that sur­round us, and by con­sid­er­ing and ana­lyz­ing the obser­va­tions that I had made, I end­ed up in the domain of math­e­mat­ics. Although I am absolute­ly inno­cent of train­ing or knowl­edge in the exact sci­ences, I often seem to have more in com­mon with math­e­mati­cians than with my fel­low artists.

The affin­i­ty between Esch­er and math­e­mati­cians is described in the scene above from the the BBC doc­u­men­tary, The Math­e­mat­i­cal Art of M.C. Esch­er. “Math­e­mati­cians know their sub­ject is beau­ti­ful,” says Ian Stew­art of the Uni­ver­si­ty of War­wick. “Esch­er shows us that it’s beau­ti­ful.”

If the BBC clip whets your appetite, be sure to watch Meta­mor­phose: M.C. Esch­er, 1898–1972, a 2002 doc­u­men­tary by Jan Bro­driesz. The one-hour film gives an excel­lent overview of the Dutch artist’s life and work, and fea­tures a rare inter­view with Esch­er, along with scenes of him cre­at­ing his art. If you’re a fan of Esch­er, this film is a must-see.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Math Cours­es

M.C. Escher’s Per­pet­u­al Motion Water­fall Brought to Life: Real or Sleight of Hand?

Inspi­ra­tions: A Short Film Cel­e­brat­ing the Math­e­mat­i­cal Art of M.C. Esch­er

Magician Marco Tempest Dazzles a TED Audience with “The Electric Rise and Fall of Nikola Tesla”

Mar­ry­ing form and con­tent, Swiss magi­cian Mar­co Tem­pest uses the rel­a­tive­ly new tech­nol­o­gy of pro­jec­tion map­ping to illu­mi­nate sev­er­al vignettes of Niko­la Tes­la, the Ser­bian inven­tor of alter­nat­ing cur­rent, the hydro­elec­tric dam, and hun­dreds of oth­er nec­es­sary, fan­tas­tic, and some­times trag­i­cal­ly unre­al­ized tech­nolo­gies. Over the course of the 20th cen­tu­ry, Tes­la was over­shad­owed by his one­time employ­er, Thomas Edi­son, who is giv­en cred­it for Tesla’s most famous ideas. Edi­son has emerged from his­to­ry as less a sci­en­tist than a ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist, arch-mar­keter, and pop­u­lar­iz­er of oth­er, smarter people’s ideas (those of film­mak­ing team the Lumiere Broth­ers, for exam­ple), while Tesla’s rep­u­ta­tion as a mys­tic genius has only grown since his death in rel­a­tive obscu­ri­ty and absolute pover­ty in 1943.

Tes­la has occu­pied a promi­nent place in pop­u­lar cul­ture for over two decades now: There was David Bowie’s per­for­mance as the inven­tor in 2006’s The Pres­tige, a 2001 biog­ra­phy sim­ply enti­tled Wiz­ard, and, of course, the suc­cess of very earnest 90s hair met­al band Tes­la. Fore­cast­ing the Tes­la revival, Orches­tral Maneu­vers in the Dark record­ed their song “Tes­la Girls” in 1984. A new Tes­la lega­cy to watch is the pio­neer­ing high-end elec­tric car com­pa­ny Tes­la Motors, found­ed by Pay­Pal bil­lion­aire Elon Musk. Whether or not Tes­la Motors’ expen­sive new ful­ly-elec­tric sedan lives up to its promise, Niko­la Tesla’s name lives as an exem­plar of ambi­tion, futur­ism, per­sis­tence, sci­en­tif­ic won­der, and as Mar­co Tem­pest demon­strates above, the impor­tance of enthu­si­as­tic show­man­ship.

J. David Jones is cur­rent­ly a doc­tor­al stu­dent in Eng­lish at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and a co-founder and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Guer­ni­ca / A Mag­a­zine of Arts and Pol­i­tics.

John Maynard Keynes Explains Cure to High Unemployment in His Own Voice (1939)

When some­one ques­tions the effec­tive­ness of Key­ne­sian eco­nom­ics, the obvi­ous reply is: Remem­ber World War II?

The British econ­o­mist John May­nard Keynes argued that there is a role for gov­ern­ment inter­ven­tion when aggre­gate demand for goods and ser­vices drops, as it did dur­ing the Great Depres­sion. With­out increased pub­lic spend­ing to make up for decreased pri­vate spend­ing, he said, an econ­o­my will slide into a vicious cir­cle of low demand and low out­put, ensur­ing a pro­longed peri­od of high unem­ploy­ment. Gov­ern­ment thrift at such times will only deep­en the prob­lem. “The boom, not the slump,” said Keynes, “is the right time for aus­ter­i­ty.”

In 1939 dark clouds of war were gath­er­ing over Europe, but Keynes saw a sil­ver lin­ing: an oppor­tu­ni­ty to prove his the­o­ry cor­rect. He believed that the mas­sive gov­ern­ment-fund­ed war mobi­liza­tion would final­ly give suf­fi­cient stim­u­lus to end the Great Depres­sion. On May 23 of that year Keynes gave his famous BBC radio address, “Will Re-arma­ment Cure Unem­ploy­ment?” He said, in part:

It is not an exag­ger­a­tion to say that the end of abnor­mal unem­ploy­ment is in sight. And it isn’t only the unem­ployed who will feel the dif­fer­ence. A great num­ber besides will be tak­ing home bet­ter mon­ey each week. And with the demand for effi­cient labor out­run­ning the sup­ply, how much more com­fort­able and secure every­one will feel in his job. The Grand Exper­i­ment has begun. If it works–if expen­di­ture on arma­ments real­ly does cure unemployment–I pre­dict that we shall nev­er go back all the way to the old state of affairs. Good may come out of evil. We may learn a trick or two, which will come in use­ful when the day of peace comes.

When the day of peace did come, the Great Depres­sion was over and Eng­land and Amer­i­ca were embarked on a long peri­od of ris­ing eco­nom­ic pros­per­i­ty. In these times of reces­sion and gov­ern­ment aus­ter­i­ty, it may be good to remem­ber some­thing else Keynes said in his radio address: “If we can cure unem­ploy­ment for the wast­ed pur­pos­es of arma­ments, we can cure it for the pro­duc­tive pur­pos­es of peace.”

You can find Keynes’ clas­sic work, The Gen­er­al The­o­ry of Employ­ment, Inter­est and Mon­ey, in our col­lec­tion of Free eBooks.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Hayek vs. Keynes Rap

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.