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Guest Editorial

The Art of Noise

by Alec Nevala-Lee

Note: This essay reveals the ending of the story “Noise Level” by Raymond F. Jones, which is reprinted in this issue.

When I was researching my book Astounding, which is largely a biography of the editor John W. Campbell, I often returned to a special subset of stories from this magazine that seem to be secretly about the project of science fiction itself. One is Theodore Sturgeon’s “Microcosmic God” (April 1941), which imagines a biochemist who creates a race of tiny creatures to solve scientific problems, in an idealized analogy for Campbell’s relationship with his writers. Another is “E for Effort” by T.L. Sherred (May 1947), which uses a quintessential gimmick—a technique for making a visual record of the past—as the basis for a darker exploration of what might happen when a form of entertainment evolves into a means of changing society.

But there’s a third story, which first appeared in December 1952, that might be the most intriguing of them all. It isn’t as well known as the others, but it’s one of my top ten of all time, and I sometimes think that it might be my very favorite. I’ve also found that it sticks in the memories of readers who wouldn’t be able to come up with the title offhand. Every so often, a fan asks online if anyone remembers the name of the story in which a team of scientists is fooled by a military hoax into developing an antigravity device. As my friend Bill Higgins said in response to one such query on Twitter: “This is a perennial question, and, as you guys have already figured out, the answer always turns out to be Raymond F. Jones’s ‘Noise Level.’”

And its origins are equally fascinating. On March 31, 1952, Campbell wrote 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 opened with the contention that the human brain naturally screens out useless or irrelevant information using a set of noise filters, which need to be loosened occasionally to allow for truly innovative thinking. He went on to describe a plot in which the nation’s brightest scientists are tricked into “reconstructing” an antigravity machine built by a dead—and fictitious—inventor, a notion that may have been inspired by a sentence by the cyberneticist Norbert Wiener: “Once a scientist attacks a problem which he knows to have an answer, his entire attitude is changed.”

The fact that Campbell approached Heinlein at all is tremendously revealing. Heinlein had written up stories based on the editor’s suggestions before, but not for over a decade, and the two men were already drifting apart. If Campbell went first to Heinlein, who was unlikely to accept, it was because the idea meant a lot to him, and he wanted to offer it to the best writer he had ever known. Not surprisingly, Heinlein passed, and Campbell went with his second choice, which turned out to be a great decision. Heinlein would have made the story his own, while Raymond F. Jones could be trusted to write it up more or less as the editor had conceived it.

Although Jones might not be a household name today—his most famous work was the novel that was adapted into the movie This Island Earth—he was a valued contributor to the magazine. He had been interested at an early stage in dianetics, the “modern science of mental health” that Campbell developed with L. Ron Hubbard, and in the years that followed, the editor sent him long letters about psychology, drugs, and his own troubled childhood. In pitching his proposed plot to Heinlein, Campbell referred specifically to Jones’s story “Fifty Million Monkeys” (October 1943), which featured a premise—a search for information using a machine that can generate every possible combination of ideas—that independently explored many of the same themes as Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Library of Babel.”

Jones was a clever and resourceful writer, and he added many nice touches to the outline of what became “Noise Level,” particularly when it came to the details of the hoax itself. In a key scene, the scientists are given a tour of the house of the nonexistent Dunning, the alleged inventor of antigravity, which includes a chemistry lab, a machine shop, and two libraries, the first with books on physics and engineering, the second with works on “astrology, spiritualism, mysticism, religion, sunspot data, and levitation.” One of the scientists refuses to believe what he sees: “It isn’t possible...that Dunning owned and understood both of these libraries.”

When the hoax’s organizer is later asked why he included “the stuff on Babylonian mysticism, astrology, and the rest of that crud,” he responds, “The whole pattern was set 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.” Along the way, the scientists are forced to abandon their most fundamental beliefs, including Einstein’s equivalence principle, which leads to the final breakthrough. As Campbell wrote to Heinlein: “And you know, Bob, that same basic mechanism should work for a lot of other things!”

Campbell undoubtedly believed it, and the entire story can be understood as a veiled declaration of intent. Astounding Science Fiction was the editor’s ongoing experiment with his readers, and over the next two decades, he made it as noisy as possible, with articles on psychic machines, dowsing, astrology, and even a notorious space drive. Much like the hoaxers of “Noise Level,” he wanted to a major discovery to emerge from the magazine, and he decided that the best approach would be to systematically loosen the noise filters of his audience, even if he sacrificed his reputation for technical accuracy. As one of Jones’s characters observes: “In the skull of each of us is only a single individual, and anyone examined closely enough can be found to have a remarkably consistent goal, no matter how apparently erratic his activities.”

This was certainly true of Campbell, and if his strategy ultimately failed, it was in part because he had a few unexamined filters of his own. It’s hard to read “Noise Level” these days without noticing that it contains at least one offensive cultural depiction and that the protagonists of this “noisy” experiment are strikingly homogenous. They’re all men; they’re all scientists or engineers; and there’s little doubt that both Campbell and Jones pictured them all as white. In other words, they look a lot like most of the writers of Astounding—and Campbell assumed that both projects, the fictional and the real, could be overseen by one man, despite their supposed lack of constraints. His idea of noise turned out to be dangerously limited, and even as he launched a crusade against scientific orthodoxy, when it came to other crucial matters, he was unable to see past his own assumptions.

Even at the time, it was clear that Campbell pushed back relentlessly against forms of noise that he couldn’t control. On September 30, 1963, after a heated exchange of letters on racial segregation, Isaac Asimov wrote to Campbell, “In fact, John, I think you’re on my side and as soon as you get it through your head that the Negroes are the way-out people facing the authoritarianism of Big Whitedom, you’re going to come charging out to fight on the side of the Negro, as you have staunchly borne the standards for everything from dianetics to Krebiozen.” Campbell was much less interested in questioning his existing views on race than he was in advocating for Krebiozen, a discredited cancer treatment, and for obvious reasons—it was easier to focus on his preferred definition of noise.

He was also concentrating on the wrong kind of problem. The hard truth is that science fiction has a very mixed track record when it comes to anticipating technology, but it’s unsurpassed as a tool for exploring social issues. It can loosen up the noise filters of its readers, teaching them to see their own culture in new ways, but only when it accommodates a wide range of voices. In an alternate universe, Campbell might have concluded that his project could only succeed—on the terms that he had expressly set for himself—if he devoted the same energy that he had channeled into so many wild causes into building a diverse circle of writers. And perhaps he would have addressed this challenge more forcefully if he had been persuaded that it was possible.

In the end, instead of submitting to a single controlling hand, the genre became large enough to encompass the noise of the world itself, which can’t be contained within any one experiment. Yet I still love “Noise Level,” and I want to believe that science fiction can shatter our preconceptions, freeing us to seek “a proper answer to any problem you care to investigate.” To attain this ideal, however, we need to move past much of what Campbell represented—which is surely no harder than it would be for most physicists to abandon the equivalence principle. And we owe it to ourselves to honestly confront the legacy of the man who remains, for better or worse, the most instructive and cautionary figure in all of science fiction, if only to glimpse, as Jones writes, “the point at which genius ends and nonsense begins.”


Alec Nevala-Lee was a 2019 Hugo and Locus Award Finalist for Astounding (Dey Street Books/
HarperCollins), which was named one of the year's best nonfiction books by The Economist.

Copyright © 2020 Alec Nevala Lee

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