Celebrated writer Jake Arnott has just published his new novel, a thrillingly ideas-packed tale of spies, SF writers, cult leaders, rocket scientists, astronauts, UFO spotters, magicians, astrologists, film makers, rock stars, artists, actors, adulterers and unrequited lovers, all woven into a web where truth and illusion meet. Here, in a unique article written for bookoxygen, he reveals some of its background.
High Art and Pulp Fiction: A Quantum Theory of Literature
‘Those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory,’ wrote the physicist Nils Bohr, ‘cannot possibly have understood it.’ There has been much debate about the influence of this unknowable idea on twentieth-century fiction. Perhaps literature itself creates its own uncertainty principle.
As ‘high culture’ tentatively engaged with this new paradigm, the ‘low culture’ of the pulps was jumping in feet-first with its own wild thought experiments. The late 1930s and early 1940s saw the ‘golden age’ of science fiction, when magazines such as Astounding nurtured a whole generation of writers all too eagerly convinced by Einstein’s dictum that ‘imagination is more important than the truth’ and thrilled by the novelty and shock value of particle physics. A significant group of them regularly met at Robert Heinlein’s SF salon in Los Angeles known as the Mañana Literary Society. Of their number Jack Williamson wrote a groundbreaking story, ‘The Legion of Time’, which, though heavily freighted with pulp clichés, contained a new and highly influential idea – of points in time so delicately balanced that ‘backwards causation’, some kind of intervention from the future, could determine whether we end up in utopia or dystopia – like the double slit experiment where a single unit of light can appear either as a wave or a particle depending on how it is observed.
The world was by then finely balanced between opposing forces and ideologies. Until December 1941, America was an observer in a series of cataclysmic points of divergence, political and military, in Europe, the Far East and North Africa, and this was reflected in its new pulp subculture. SF writers of this time are obsessed with alternate futures and even counterfactual histories. In 1942 a curious crime novel was published, rather splendidly titled Rocket to the Morgue. Written by Anthony Boucher, an honorary member of the group, it is a roman-a -clef set amid the Mañana Literary Society in 1941. Featuring fictional doppelgangers of Heinlein, Williamson, and even a young L.Ron Hubbard (he was at that time an aspiring SF writer), Rocket to the Morgue provides a fascinating insight into the inner workings of this group, their influences and inspirations. In the book, a character based on Heinlein suggests the astonishing conclusion to the conundrum of the multiple possibilities of a single event. When asked about the global situation, if there will be ‘one world if totalitarianism goes unchecked or another if it is defeated’, he replies: ‘There will be one world where it goes unchecked andanother in which it is defeated.’
This notion of multiple worlds and diverging time-lines where ‘every alternate implies its own future’ is startlingly reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges’ story ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ which features a labyrinth whose ‘forking paths’ are junctions in time rather than space, and a novel that attempts to describe a world where all possible outcomes of an event occur simultaneously. This seminal work was first published in 1941, the year in which Boucher’s Rocket to the Morgue is set. Of course this is the date of the original Spanish version, so there’s no reason to suggest that the Mañana group were aware of it, no certain link except perhaps in a quantum sense where one particle can influence another without the need for intermediate agents joining the objects in space – until one considers that this story, his first to be published in English, was translated by the same Anthony Boucher.
‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ entered the canon of Anglo-Saxon literature in 1948, in the August edition of The Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Here was a work of formal elegance rendering quantum theory concepts on the nature of time in a precise verbal formula presented as a pulp detective story. Borges’ international recognition as a literary titan remained in the future, decades away. In this moment of uncertainty his work exists in two states: of high art and of low art culture.
In the 1950s Anthony Boucher became editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction where he mentored a young contributor called Philip K. Dick. At that point Dick was struggling to establish himself as a ‘serious’ writer as well as submitting his strange fantasies to Boucher and writing SF novelettes for Ace Books. This would sustain him, he reasoned, until he could produce a work that would gain proper critical recognition. But he came to appreciate the encouragement and urbane manner of his erstwhile editor. ‘I discovered that a person could not only be mature, but mature and educated, and still enjoy SF,’ he later recalled of Boucher.
Dick’s breakthrough novel was meant to be The Man in a High Castle, set in a counterfactual world where the Axis powers have won WWII (a premise that has since become something of a sub-genre). Like Borges, Dick explores the co-existence of multiple realities. There is a story within the story where the Allies have won, which seems an echo of the notion of two simultaneous worlds mentioned in Rocket to the Morgue. Published as a literary hardback in 1962, Man in a High Castle was well reviewed and considered as a mainstream experimental novel. But sales were poor and the paperback rights were eventually sold to an SF imprint. Dick was to struggle throughout his career for kudos beyond the genre ghetto and only after his death has his genius been fully recognized.
This, then, is the quantum theory of literature: of multiple possibilities of meaning and backwards causation that can transform forgotten pulp stories into modern classics; the uncertainty principle of criticism – where the very act of observation can influence the nature of its matter.