L’Sprague De Camp: Iconoclast!

Posted by | Filed under Characters, Science Fiction | Sep 12, 2015 | Tags: , | No Comments

De Camp, a native of New York City, was one of the leading early figures in science fiction, getting his start in the 1930s and 1940s at the same time as colleagues such as Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Lester del Rey, and Frederik Pohl. John W. Campbell, the influential editor of Astounding Science Fiction magazine, pointed to de Camp’s stories as an example of the kind of science fiction he was looking for.

They were based on imaginative but careful and reasonable extrapolation from contemporary science. De Camp was known for his erudition (especially about history), scientific accuracy; polished writing, and “swashbuckling” style.

decmAlthough best known as a fiction writer, de Camp was a meticulous researcher who brought his interests in science, history, and archaeology and his background as an engineer (B.S. in aeronautical engineering from California Institute of Technology in 1930; masters from Stevens Institute of Technology in 1933) to his nonfiction works. During World War II, de Camp, Heinlein, and Asimov independently worked on research projects at the Materials Laboratory of the Naval Air Experimental Station at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. “For three-and-a-half years, Heinlein, Asimov, and I navigated desks and fought the war with flashing slide rules,” de Camp later wrote.

(In a letter to me in June 1981, de Camp addressed claims in a newly published crank book, The Philadelphia Experiment, that during World War II scientists at the Philadelphia Navy Yard had developed a way to make a ship invisible. He pointed to how he, Asimov, and Heinlein were all there. “If any experiment remotely resembling that described by Messrs. Berlitz and Moore had taken place. I am sure we should have heard about it. I need hardly say that we heard not a word, nor was any of our own work along such lines.”)

De Camp’s book Ancient Engineers, published in several editions, chronicles the ingenuous methods engineers throughout history (Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greek, Hellenistic, early and late Roman, Oriental, and European engineers) used in constructing great works and monuments. According to a current list on Barnes & Noble’s Web site, Ancient Engineers is his best-selling in-print book.

For Great Cities of the Ancient World (1972) he traveled thousands of miles over several years to study thirteen ancient sites. Citadels of Mystery (1964, with Catherine) explored twelve wonders of the ancient world; the back cover of the 1989 Ballantine edition described him as “a man with the mind of an archaeologist, the heart of an adventurer, and the soul of Indiana Jones.”

Several of his books were about fringe-science and pseudoscience. Among them are Lost Continents: The Atlantis Theme in History, Science, and Literature, described as “the most derailed study ever compiled of lost continent mythology”; Spirits, Stars, and Spells (1966, with Catherine), about magic and occultism; The Ragged Edges of Science (Owlswick Press, 1980), a collection of articles on the borderland between “the bright-lit land of science on one side, and the dark domain of magic, occultism, and pseudoscience on the other”; and The Fringe of the Unknown (Prometheus 1983), another collection of articles on borderline or controversial matters in science and technology. It included chapters on Mad Men of Science, Orthodoxy in Science, Hoaxes in Science, and Little Green Men from Afar.

In 1995, Prometheus published his The Ape-Man Within, a book of social anthropology that considered why people behave in such unreasonable, ineffective ways, exploring how viewing others as adversaries had been a survival trait in our primitive past.

In “The Uses of Credulity,” he considered that “when a characteristic like human credulity becomes so widespread in a species, we must suspect that it plays a part in enabling the species to survive, even though we may not know what that function is.” He said some credulity is necessary for people to embrace an ideology, and ideology “is one of the lubricants, like liquor and hypocrisy, that enable men to live together….” Yet ideologies can and often do get out of hand. “So we must continue to combat the more destructive ideologies. The scientific debunker’s job may be compared to that of the trash collector. The fact that the garbage truck goes by today does not mean that there will not be another load tomorrow. But if the garbage were not collected at all, the results would be much worse. …”


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