The Sci-Fi Author that Might Have Been…


…and featuring a debut story by Linus Pauling?

Along with detective stories, crossword puzzles and the occasional walk, reading science fiction was Linus Pauling’s primary form of leisure.  The hundreds of dog eared sci-fi monthlies spanning multiple decades in his personal library (used to good effect by a past Resident Scholar of ours) are testament to a keen interest in the genre.  It was not until recently, however, that we learned of Pauling’s one-time interest in dabbling as a fiction writer himself.

From an October 1992 interview with Thomas Hager, conducted in support of his 1995 biography, Force of Nature:

Thomas Hager: Do you continue to have an interest in science fiction now?

Linus Pauling: Yes, I subscribe to two of the science fiction journals. Argosy and Science Fiction and Science Fact, the two principle science fiction journals I subscribe to, and I usually read them. The serials sometimes are just too long, I don’t bother to read them. And of course the problem is first the characters have been changing recently. Instead of being adventure science fiction stories, they are sort of sexual relations science fiction stories – the way with novels, too. I don’t read novels anymore either except for old ones that I re-read. And then the science fiction stories, the plots all seem to me to be old ones that I have read before. Sometimes it seems to me that the stories aren’t so interesting as they were in the old days.

TH: Well, that’s probably true. You’ve been reading them long enough, they repeat.

LP: Yes, for years I thought I would write a science fiction story based upon the idea that one can have life essentially identical with life on earth which is based on DNA and proteins and amino acids, but with other handedness. In my General Chemistry or College Chemistry freshman chemistry text, I have a footnote about Alice in Wonderland, or I have a page or two about right-handed and left-handed molecules. And I quote Alice in Wonderland saying, ‘But would looking glass milk be good for me?’ And I said of course it wouldn’t be. It would be made of D-amino acids. And someone who had been converted to the dextral form would not be able to eat anything unless he could get food made of D-amino acids… And couldn’t get married and have children unless he could find a wife who had also been. Well I was going to have a catastrophe in the ship going through space. Some sort of catastrophe that changed everything from left-handed to right-handed.

Extracted from "College Chemistry," 3rd edition, 1964.

Extracted from “College Chemistry,” 3rd edition, 1964.

TH: Now do you remember what sort of catastrophe it would’ve been?

LP: No. Well, it’s pretty hard for a scientist to invent a catastrophe that would do that. It had to be a catastrophe somehow involving multiple worlds, not just a shockwave. Because you would have to have angular momentum, chirality, and it’s very hard even to convert L-alanine to D-alanine, for example.

TH: If you lifted an L-being out of the third dimension into the fourth dimension and turned them over and put them back, would that…?

LP: Oh yes. Surely that’s exactly what people who have written about multi-dimensional space had said or the man who wrote Flatland. You could do that in three dimensions and go back to two dimensions.

TH: I wonder, but I’m trying to think, would that result in that sort of inversion in that…?

LP: Oh yes, well, if you had a scalene triangle, three edges unequal to one another, three edges all different, and turn it over, it goes from being a right-handed to a left-handed.

TH: So in any case, that’s an interesting idea. It is too bad you never finished that.

LP: Yes, well of course, one complaint about some science fiction writers is that their handling of interpersonal relationships is poor. This is a complaint I had of E. T. Bell‘s science fiction books. He wrote two or three science fiction books under the pseudonym John Taine. And they were mildly interesting from the science, sort of. Not more interesting than books or stories by many science fiction writers. Mildly interesting, but the handling of personal, interpersonal relationships was very poor. Of course, good science fiction stories depend to a considerable extent on the personal relationships, just as good novels do.

TH: Do you feel that would have been a weakness if you had tried writing one?

LP: Well, I thought I recognized the need for including a good story of this sort inside of the story, but I’m not sure that I could do it. But the main thing is I never have had time. There are always scientific problems that I am trying to solve and that interest me more.

Pauling's personal collection of science fiction periodicals, as housed in the OSU Libraries Special Collections & Archives Research Center.

Pauling’s personal collection of science fiction periodicals, as housed in the OSU Libraries Special Collections & Archives Research Center.