Date: Thu, 23 Jul 1998 14:52:19 -0400
From: John Bowker 
To: void
Subject: Caught between Campbells
Recently, I put together a nightvision camera out of parts and tools I had lying around the house.

It was easier than you'd expect; the data was out there on the web. I took apart an old digital camera, removed the IR filter, illuminated the room with a television remote whose code sheet had been lost in the clutter and had been deemed useless right up until that moment. Corners of the room I couldn't see with my naked eye were lit in sharp focus on the screen as I ate panzanella and played in the dark.

As I panned around the room, watching the camera react to different conditions, I thought again about something that occurred to me while reading the afterword to Time Out of Joint. The novel itself is one of Phillip K. Dicks less memorable ones, but the after piece by someone I'd never heard of brought some things into sharp focus. According to the writer, Dick had tremendous difficulty publishing during his lifetime, particularly during the sixties when John Campbell ruled the SF universe. His style didn't fit with the explained and explainable...the Heinleinian philosophy of "If it can't be explained with numbers, it's fiction". He was frequently rejected as a result. Intuition, rather than reason, probing the untouchable rather than defining it, these were not the things that Campbell wanted.

I came to maturity reading the generation that came after, writers like Ellison, Sturgeon, Robinson, and perhaps most importantly George Lucas who started me on the path toward those others in the first place. Lucas took his stories from the works of another Campbell, Joseph, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces , one of many other works analyzing the myths that bind human experience together. When I think about the last six years, and the way my own brain processes have changed, this is the metaphor that makes the most sense: I've become caught between Campbells. The world has become one not just of ideas but of tangibles that define those ideas. Some of the sciences behind those tangibles are, and may always be outside my reach, but the ones I can grasp have rewired my thinking. In some ways it's a good thing. It pays for my life, and it has opened a part of the world to me I couldn't see with my prior thought patterns. At the same time, I've lost a large part of the intuitive, right-brained world in which I spent the previous 20 years of my life. There are times when I miss it.

Which brings me, for no particular reason, to Quartz, a toy that sits on top of my monitor at work. He's reminescent of The Thing in some of his weirder incarnations, a hulking bruiser all volcanic rock and sharp clear plastic quartz fragments protruding from his body at odd angles. His face wears a strangely sardonic grin, perhaps in recognition of his own ridiculousness. He's the perfect desk toy, big, heavy, and pleasant to fiddle with while talking on the phone.

Last night I made a visit to Radio Shack. I dremeled and soldered. I fiddled with switches and a multimeter. I burned my fingers on small parts, picked up too soon after being touched by the iron.

Quartz still stands proudly on my monitor and aside from a small battery cable nestled among the conduits of his powersuit, he looks pretty much the same. He's a creature of the fantastic, something that never existed, and to the Campbellian way of thinking never could. Laws of physics and our knowledge of biology and chemistry all weigh in against him. He's a Joseph Campbell creation, a creature of supernatural strength and invunerability, but wearing a grin that suggests even the greatest physical defenses are no shield against the pains of the heart.

But then, the room is darkened and the camera turned on. Suddenly he's a starburst. An explosion of IR from LEDs inside his torso shines through all of his protrusions, lighting every corner of the room. On this plane, 1.25 volts are creating electromagnetic radiation at 880 nanometers, a wavelength invisible to the naked eye. I'll never know what awesome energies I've unleashed in his universe, although his grin is still there telling me he's pleased with the results. There are visible and invisible worlds. Seeing into either requires only time and the right tools.

I'm feeling pretty good.