Thursday, January 14, 2010

Deprogramming "Master Control"

Back in the 1960s, you weren't a proper member of science fiction's "New Wave" movement unless you had written about computers taking over the world, from Philip K. Dick's "Vulcan's Hammer" to D. F. Jones' "Colossus" to Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream". The Doctor and Captain Kirk both ran into plenty of megalomaniacal computers on television, and David Bowman famously had to deactivate the murderous HAL 9000 computer in the film "2001: A Space Odyssey".

The cybernetic dictatorship trope, however, predates the actual invention of computers by a few decades, going back to E. M. Forster's 1909 story "The Machine Stops". It was given a boost after World War I with Karel Čapek's 1921 play R.U.R., which gave the world the word "robot" and a new variant on the golem legend. When science fiction became an established genre in the American pulp magazines, out-of-control mechanical men were a popular trope, but there was also the occasional overbearing immobile thinking machine, such as the Machine from Miles J. Breuer's 1932 story "Mechanocracy" and the Central Control in Harl Vincent's 1940 story "Master Control".

If it weren't for the old-fashioned Gernsback Era-style language it was written in, "Master Control" would be indistinguishable from its New Wave descendants. Vincent's Central Control operates from the same motives of hatred and cruelty as Ellison's AM, and the regimented society it creates could serve as a model for those of Landru and the Oracle of the People. Of course, being a Gernsback Era writer, Vincent ended his story with Hardy destroying the Central Control and freeing the people of Manhattan from its cruel tyranny.

While Vincent's earlier stories would focus on a single hero such as Cliff Barron of "Thia of the Drylands", or a duo like Peter Canfield and Albert Peyton of "The Barrier", the narrative situation in "Master Control" is more complex. The story begins by focusing on the scientist-hero-revolutionary Fowler Scott, with Hardy being just one of the pawns in his master plan. Over the course of the story, however, the two characters exchange roles, as Scott suffers a series of reversals ending in his death, while Hardy steps up to take his place. In the end, it is Hardy who completes the plan, mastering Scott's technology, defeating the Central Control, and assuming leadership of Scott's following.

Finally, there is the curious affair of Pinky Collins. Two months before "Master Control" appeared in Astonishing Stories, Vincent published a story called "High-Frequency War" in the older, more established, more prestigious, better-paying Astounding Science-Fiction, a story whose central character is a wizened drifter named Pinky. It's hard to believe that mere coincidence led to two similar characters with the same name appearing in two different stories by the same writer within two months of each other.

Here's what I think happened: I think Vincent wrote "Master Control" first and submitted it to Astounding editor John W. Campbell. Campbell rejected it, but in his long, detailed rejection letter to Vincent (and Campbell was addicted to long, detailed rejection letters), told him that Pinky was the story's most intersting character and that Vincent ought to make him the central character. Vincent responded by building the story "High-Frequency War" around a similar character, also named Pinky, and that story Campbell accepted. Meanwhile, Frederik Pohl had just started editing Astonishing and was soliciting stories from established writers, so Vincent sent him "Master Control" and Pohl accepted it.

This is pure speculation on my part, but is it true? Well, Vincent and Campbell both passed away about forty years ago, but Pohl is still around, and even has his own blog. So, Fred, if you're out there, and you happen to read this, and you happen to know the answer, please drop me a line.

1 comment:

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

It's hard to believe that mere coincidence led to two similar characters with the same name appearing in two different stories by the same writer within two months of each other.

The economics of the penny-a-work pulp author surely play a role in this. Nice detective work!