Now let me tell you a very sad and very funny story. A while back, Randy Garrett was staying at my place. We worked in the same room, and we were both writing stories aimed at Analog. Enjoying ourselves in the process, we both included private jokes for the other guy’s benefit, and one thing I did was make a minor character, an Air Force Colonel who showed up in the last three pages of the story, the spitting image of John W. Campbell, betting Randy that Campbell would never notice it. I described the guy as looking like Campbell, talking like Campbell, and thinking like Campbell.
We brought our respective stories in at the same time, handed them to the great man, and both went back the next week because he wanted revisions on both stories. I forget what he wanted Randy to change in his story, but I’ll never in the world forget what he wanted done with mine: He wanted me to make the Colonel the lead character. I did it. Eighteen thousand words. Four hundred and fifty dollars.
(P.S. That’s the story he wanted a sequel to. He really liked that Colonel.)
(P.P.S. It was a better story the first time, when it was only fourteen thousand words. If I was going to rewrite, I wanted more money, so I padded four thousand unnecessary words into it. It makes for duller reading, but frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.)
From Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You, by Donald E. Westlake.
The major nodded, unruffled. He’d known Jim Brice for twelve years. He understood that the colonel’s abruptness wasn’t so much the result of a nasty personality as it was the result of his single-minded desire to get the job done. The major realized that no offense was intended, and so no offense was taken.
“I’ll do the job,” he told the colonel. “Or at least I’ll take a healthy stab at it.”
“A healthy stab isn’t enough. I want that boy’s ability out on the surface, where I can get some use out of it.”
“You talk as though you owned him,” the major chided gently.
“I do,” said the colonel. “I own his ability, at any rate. Or I will, once you dig it out for me.”
“I’ll get the use of it,” said the colonel. “I can’t teleport myself, but I don’t have to, not if I have someone else who can do it for me. I’ll get the use of his ability, and what’s that if it isn’t ownership?”
“If I didn’t know you better,” the major said, “I’d think you were power-mad.”
“Not power-mad. Power-hungry. That I am. I have a job to do, and a tricky job, and I need all the power I can get in order to do that job. And I need the power locked up in that boy’s mind.”
“Us slaves do okay,” said Ed Clark, grinning.
“I own his ability,” said the colonel, pointing at Ed. “I get to use it through him, and he doesn’t feel as though I’m some sort of evil mastermind. Do you, Ed?”
“Sure I do,” said Clark, the grin even broader than before. “But it’s worth it, to get to wear civvies and eat in the BOQ.”
“It’s a pity,” said the colonel, “that brains and psi-talent don’t always go together.”
“Simple Simon met a psi-man,” said Clark.
Look Before You Leap is an 18,000 word novella by Donald Westlake, that was first published in Analog in May of 1962. It’s only recently become available in ebook form (if you’ve got Kindle Unlimited, you can read it for free, otherwise it’s $2.99). Westlake goes into some detail about its origins in that passage up top, taken from his bile-laden polemic against the entire genre of science fiction that was published in the fanzine Xero (which I will again remind you can be read in The Getaway Car), and which I talked about in more depth in my review of Anarchaos.
This is not a review of that story. You want a review? Okay. Not terrible. Kind of dull. Westlake said as much. He was right. It was probably a much better story when he first submitted it to John W. Campbell, but still far from a classic (honestly, I think Anarchaos is the only really first-rate straight-up SF Westlake ever wrote, mainly because he wrote it as a hard-boiled detective story, as well as a savage critique of anarchism/libertarianism). Purely on its own merits, this story is not worth going over in any great detail.
But having finally read it recently, I feel like it sheds quite a bit of light on the next novel I’m reviewing, one of Westlake’s longest works, certainly one of his most complex, and, you know, look before you leap.
Analog: Science Fiction and Fact began as Astounding Stories in 1930, piggybacking off Hugo Gernsback’s pioneering Amazing Stories, which launched in 1926. It was under the editorship of John W. Campbell that the title was changed to Astounding Science-Fiction in 1938, and to say that Campbell was the single most influential figure in the SF genre overall might be something of an understatement. He might be the most influential figure in genre fiction, period. Not so much for what he wrote himself (though every time you watch the latest remake of The Thing, he goes there), but for what he got others to write on his behalf, and perhaps most of all for what still others wrote in reaction to him. He was the kind of man who inspired extremely strong reactions in people, and they weren’t always positive. To say the absolute least.
(Mr. Campbell was the first truly powerful figure in the SF genre to insist that his writers know something about science and technology and incorporate that knowledge into their stories–his own knowledge in this area can perhaps be gauged by the fact that he renamed his magazine Analog in 1960, getting rid of the juvenile ‘Astounding’ he’d always hated–doing this at the very dawn of the digital revolution in computing that he was probably largely unaware of to the day he died. But it sounded cool. And I guess you could argue all fiction is analog. I don’t think Campbell ever made that argument, though. He strikes me as a very digital personality. Not someone who went in for middle grounds, gradations of truth.)
The patriach. The father figure. Rigid. Demanding. Overbearing. Domineering. Egocentric. Yes, more than a bit power-mad (even though his only real power was over struggling wordsmiths trying to pay their bills). Perpetually endeavoring to impose his own personal Weltanschauung on every single writer who ever submitted a story to him. Also a fierce advocate for pseudoscience of all kinds; spiritual father to both Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard, a committed apologist for racial supremacism and slavery (a much misunderstood institution, in his view).
(Gee, you think this might possibly be a guy who’d rub a young Donald E. Westlake the wrong way?)
Basically, when you see a story, in any medium, that deals with some elite group of specially talented people fighting the forces of evil or whatever, you’re probably seeing the very long shadow of John W. Campbell to a greater or lesser extent. He didn’t invent the idea of The Superman (superheroes were already a thing before he took the reins at Astounding, and of course Nietzsche was a thing long before that), but he popularized it, systematized it, normalized it.
And a whole lot of very good stories came out of that, along with many more bad ones, but to him in particular probably goes the credit/blame for our cultural obsession with outsider groups, splinter cells of ultra-nerds, at odds with the mediocrity of everyday society in some way, plugging into The Matrix in order to upend it. “Fans are Slans!” was the slogan boldly chanted at the conventions (very different from what we have today–lots of ideas, no Hollywood whoring or cosplay), and A.E. Van Vogt’s novel Slan, about a telepathic mutant super-scientist, who begins as a lone rebel, and ends as leader of a triumphant revolution that overthrows homo stupidicus, was instigated and overseen by John W. Campbell, first saw print in Astounding Science Fiction in 1940. Frank Herbert’s Dune began as a serial in Analog in the early 60’s.
A very long shadow indeed. And all relating to Campbell’s personal obsession with finding ways to convincingly portray supermen (highly evolved humans, not beneficent aliens in tights) in fiction. He was particularly interested in supermen with psychic abilities–telepathy, telekinesis, teleportation, precognition, etc. ‘Psi-talent’ was the kind of term he’d use when drumming the need for more stories of this nature into his writers. And for this reason, Westlake took to using the derisive term ‘psupermen’ to describe the classic Campbell-type character. The ‘p’ is silent, of course.
(You can read much more about Mr. Campbell and his Psupermen in a chapter from Brian Attebery’s deceptively titled Decoding Gender in Science Fiction–I say deceptively because the book is actually well worth perusing, in spite of the pernicious whiff of post-modernism that title emits. Maybe the publisher pushed it on him. The market for something like that is pretty much entirely limited to college campuses these days. Google Books leaves out a few pages, as it so annoyingly tends to do, but most of it’s there. I couldn’t get the link quite right, but just click on Page 62 and you’re there.)
Now there were different ways to respond to Campbell’s obsession–one was to agree with it, become a disciple sitting starry-eyed at his feet. Another was to pretend to agree with it, pander to it in order to sell a story to pay your rent (which Westlake self-admittedly did, and he did this with other pulp editors as well, such as Frederick Pohl).
A third path, which Westlake didn’t take back then, (because he was frustrated with the SF genre, tired of the lousy pay-rates and overbearing editors, and increasingly convinced he didn’t really know how to write a good story in that genre) was to satirize it. Turn it on its head. Take it to its illogical extremes, show how absurd the whole psuperman thing really was. Philip K. Dick often did that–suppose the psuperman was actually a corrupt morally inferior being, who just happened to have superpowers, but otherwise had no real value to society, and was actually a destructive and/or oppressive force within it?
Even Isaac Asimov, a lifelong friend and admirer of Campbell’s, created perhaps the ultimate evil psuperman in The Mule–the main villain of the Foundation Trilogy, who temporarily derails the Foundation’s work of rebuilding galactic civilization with his ability to exert mass mind control over vast distances. His psi-tyranny is only ended by the fact that he’s unable to procreate, making him an ultimately doomed pathetic creature. Superior abilities won’t necessarily make you a superior being.
In fact, they never do, because there’s no such thing. Darwinian evolution, which Campbell, like so many before and since, blindly worshiped without really understanding how it works, isn’t about creating superior beings, superior races. It’s about adapting to change in the environment, and change never stops. There is no final perfect form, for humanity or anything else. Social Darwinism is a corruption of evolutionary science, no matter what futuristic finery you dress it up in.
Octavia Butler and other non-male non-white authors went another way that Campbell would have hated most of all–what if the first real ‘psuperman’ was (for example) a black woman? (I’m thinking here of the Patternist novels, particularly Mind of my Mind.) What if the overseeing mentor who created her was a diabolical disembodied psychic vampire who preyed on his own children?
Butler, a profound and complex intellect, never thought that kind of development in human evolution would mean the dawning of some golden age. It would just mean change, for change’s own sake, and much of that change would be for the worse, if not necessarily all of it. The psuperhuman might well be impossible to categorize as good or evil. But good and evil would still mean something. Might doesn’t make right. All life matters. Not just life that has satisfied some biased evolutionary meddler’s artificially arrived at standards of perfection. Eugenics is the worst pseudoscience of all. Because nobody is qualified to say what adaptations are beneficial over time. Only evolution itself can make that determination.
The best stories John W. Campbell inspired, I would say, were the stories that were rebelling against him, deepening and subverting his borrowed ideas, while still working within the general set of fictional tropes he’d helped establish. Using the tools he’d given them to tear down the prison he’d built for them. The old story. Fathers and Sons (and frequently Daughters).
Man, I really do not want to talk about Westlake’s story, do I? Well I do, but again, not at length, because it’s not the point. The point is that he threw in a John W. Campbell caricature at the end of a story he submitted to Analog as a joke–and Campbell took it seriously, insisted that this character become the real hero of the piece, that his POV be shown to be the correct one. He did to Westlake what he’d done to countless young authors before. Force him to get with the program. Change his vision in exchange for a few hundred bucks–after all, Westlake could already wear civvies, and I don’t think he particularly wanted to eat at the Bachelor Officers Quarters (what BOQ stands for, in case you didn’t know).
All I can read is the version that Campbell published. A young man named Jeremy, doing a stint in the Air Force, lonely and homesick, placed in a situation of extreme stress during a training exercise, suddenly finds himself at home–then back at the base. He reports the experience, not entirely believing it himself. But Colonel Brice, the Professor Xavier of military intelligence (only without any extra power of his own, unless you count hubris), was monitoring him and all the other guinea pigs, and knows he really did disappear for a moment.
So for most of the story, the young hero, so clearly modeled after Westlake himself, his own conflicted feelings about his time in the Air Force, is manipulated, not told that he really did teleport, prodded and tested by ethically conflicted military psychiatrists (under orders from Brice), forced to question his own sanity, until he finally discovers how to use his untapped mental powers (which he reasons were a product of evolution, and that his uncle had them as well,but most people never discover them, because teleportation is so frightening and disorienting).
At which point he joins Brice’s little cabal of psuperman (a telekinetic and a remote viewer), all of them destined for a mission of vital importance that is never really spelled out. If there’d been sequels, probably it would have been. Campbell would have doubtless shelled out for more, as long as his crusty alter-ego was in the mix. But no sequel to Look Before You Leap was ever written.
Westlake wasn’t interested in enabling the old man’s fantasies any further. He wrote his polemical farewell to the genre for Xero, which certainly made it impossible for him to ever submit anything to Analog until Campbell’s death in 1971, and possibly afterwards. The money just wasn’t that good. Insufficient compensation for him to go on writing what he didn’t remotely believe, that being Westlake’s precise definition of a hack.
It was both a decision made for both creative and economic purposes, as he said in that piece. Writing mysteries, he was able to appease both his own need for self-expression while still meeting the demands of magazine editors and publishing houses. He wasn’t very good in either genre to start with, he knew that. In the Mystery genre he was able to gradually progress towards a more three-dimensional mode of storytelling. But when it came to science fiction, as he discussed in his response to reader letters reacting to his original piece–
On those few occasions when I thought I’d taken a small step forward, I was immediately returned to Start, either by a No Sale, or a slant-oriented revision. The Campbell story about the Colonel is a fine instance. (It was in the May issue of Analog, to answer the questions). In the original the Colonel showed up at the end of the story. There was no secret organization of psupermen in the Air Force. The point of view never deviated from Jeremy. It was a story about a person. God knows it was no masterpiece, but it was a story. (In this connection, Harry Warner Jr’s idea that the Colonel was a “real living characterization” just ain’t so. Analog is full of Secret Societies with Strange Powers, and the Colonel under one name or another, runs them all. You will find this same character in spy stories. He’s the chief of Counter-Intelligence, the hero phones him in Washington every once in a while, and his name is Mac.) At any rate, I for one am more interested in a person, who suddenly and shatteringly learns he is a teleport, who doesn’t want to be a teleport, and who more than half suspects he’s lost his mind, who struggles through the problems thus created–aggravated by the fact that he can neither control nor repeat the initial teleportation–and works things out to some sort of solution or compromise with the world, than I am in all the Secret Societies and Mystical Powers in the Orient. But the writing and rewriting of the story kept me vigorously marching in place, back there at stage one.
I have a small quibble here–that character he refers to, that the Colonel quite certainly is one form of (and 007’s ‘M’ would be another)–isn’t yet another to be seen in the Continental Op stories of Dashiell Hammett?
Hammett was possibly Westlake’s supreme literary model, certainly his biggest influence in this stage of his career. The Op was Hammett’s most important contribution to mystery fiction, and the Op has to report back to The Old Man, head of the San Francisco office of the Continental Detective Agency (frequently referred to throughout Westlake’s fiction). To a certain extent, the Op is merely The Old Man’s sometimes-rebellious pawn–who nonetheless never quits the agency, as Hammett eventually quit the Pinkertons.
The Op hates and to some extent fears The Old Man. He fears he might become his boss someday, thinks of him as a mere simulacra of a human being, all identity subsumed by the company they both work for. The Old Man certainly isn’t a hero of the Op stories, we don’t see a lot of him, but he’s always there, and to some extent, that makes the Op a more believably flawed figure than Sam Spade or Ned Beaumont (and Nick Charles, as Westlake knew well, is a former company man who has lost his identity by quitting his job, driving him to depression and drinking–maybe there’s no escape for a company man, not even a beautiful heiress who adores him).
He’s not a true independent, the Op. He’s not merely wedded but welded to his job. Westlake, of course, wanted to write about independents. Mere hirelings tend not to fare well in his stories (neither do private detectives, as a general rule–hmmm).
And it may well be that it was, in part, his experiences with Campbell and similarly controlling editors in the 50’s and early 60’s that confirmed him in this predilection. However, it’s not only Campbell he’s reacting to here. He’s also rebelling against Hammett. He doesn’t want any Old Man pulling the strings in the background, even though that conflict adds depth to the Op that Hammett’s other detectives mainly lack.
To be a true Westlake hero means to pull your own strings (and in some cases, thwart or destroy anyone who tries to pull them for you). But in a way that is more believable than in Hammett’s later stories about independent operators. He’ll have to find other types of conflict for his heroes, to make them more credible. Because he can’t write about company men, cogs in a machine. Not unless it’s to mock them (as in I Gave At The Office). Because he could see too well how close he’d come to being a cog himself. Because he was always afraid it might still happen to him, if he didn’t find a way to succeed as an independent.
As few science fiction authors have, I might add–the other half of Westlake’s beef with the genre. Many authors succeeded as he had not, in working past the constraints that frustrated him, creating brilliantly individual work that satisfied both the genre’s demands and their personal muses–but rarely were they able to make a good living doing so. Philip K. Dick, whose literary estate is now highly lucrative to his heirs, lived at the edge of indigence for most of his adult life. To be sure, Jim Thompson had the same problem. Being an independent always comes at a high price, regardless of occupation. It’s for each independent to decide for him or herself how that price shall be paid, and in what coin.
And years later, having escaped the coils of Campbell and his cohorts, having created many amazing books, made many a compromise along the way to pay the bills, finding himself in a bit of a slump in the 80’s and early 90’s–Westlake made a very odd decision. He wrote a very long comic crime novel (his established niche) about a man who suddenly and shatteringly finds himself to be invisible. Who doesn’t want to be invisible (though it has certain short-term career-based advantages for him). He can’t control his newfound ability, and struggles through the problems it creates for him. He knew who he was–now he’s not so sure anymore.
And even though no Colonel-type figure knowingly created him, there are several aspiring Colonels in his life. And he’s got to escape them all (in which he shall have the aid of one hell of a woman). As Jeremy, in Look Before You Leap, could have quite easily escaped his Colonel, by simply vanishing into thin air, free as a bird, and I wonder if that’s how the original version of the story ended. If so, small wonder Campbell wanted it changed. Slaves should know their place.
Westlake’s primary model/antagonist in that novel was not John W. Campbell, though–it was a much earlier father of Science Fiction (much as he preferred the term ‘Scientific Romance’). H.G. Wells, like many a progenitor before and since, had nothing but contempt for his bastard stepchildren, loathed the science fiction of the pulps, wanted no credit for it at all. Frankenstein recoiling from his monster. Wells did that a lot. Idealists are born to be disappointed.
But in fact there was much that Wells and Campbell had in common, philosophically speaking. And much that Westlake wanted to say in reaction to that. And he did, under the guise of comedy, which is in fact the very medium Wells himself had employed in his book. A seemingly superficial adventure story may contain hidden depths. Appearances can be deceiving. What you see is not always what you get. Oh there’s going to be so many puns along that line.
“A Grotesque Romance” is the subtitle for the book Westlake used as a template for the next adventure in our queue. And Westlake’s book is all of that, and more. I have no idea how long this review is going folks. I’ll try to get Part 1 up sometime next week. In the meantime–Smoke ’em if you got ’em.
(Thanks once again to the Official Westlake Blog, for providing the artwork from Analog that accompanied Westlake’s story. A resource any independent operator like me can only thank the beneficent gods for).