Looked at the Right Way It Becomes Still More Complicated

Poul Anderson? Arthur Koestler? Anonymous?

poul08Dear Quote Investigator: The following statement has been called Anderson’s Law and Koestler’s motto:

I have yet to see any problem, however complicated, which, when you looked at it in the right way, did not become still more complicated.

The words have been attributed to the prominent science fiction author Poul Anderson and the influential literary figure Arthur Koestler. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: In April 1957 Poul Anderson published a novelette titled “Call Me Joe” in the magazine “Astounding Science Fiction”. The story concerned a paraplegic who was given the task of psionically controlling an artificially constructed creature who was located on the planet Jupiter with its challenging environment. The tale has been reprinted frequently and appeared in prestigious collections of the “Hall of Fame” and “Masterpieces” variety. Curiously, the plot and situation displayed several parallels with the enormously popular movie “Avatar”. 1

One character named Jan Cornelius complained that he was visiting the satellite research station near Jupiter on a simple mission that should only take a few weeks, but he was required to spend 13 months waiting for a return spaceship to Earth. A scientist on the station named Arne Viken replied as follows. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

“Are you sure it’s that simple?” asked Viken gently. His face swiveled around, and there was something in his eyes that silenced Cornelius. “After all my time here, I’ve yet to see any problem, however complicated, which when you looked at it the right way didn’t become still more complicated.”

The popular modern version of this quotation differed slightly. The original employed the contractions “I’ve” and “don’t”. Also, it used the phrase “the right way” instead of “in the right way”. Arthur Koestler did include an instance of the saying in one of his books in 1967, but he did not claim credit; instead, he ascribed the words to Poul Anderson.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1962 the science fiction author, editor, and critic Damon Knight assembled a retrospective collection called “A Century of Science Fiction”, and he included Anderson’s tale; the quotation was unaltered. 3

In 1967 Arthur Koestler released a philosophical work about human psychology titled “The Ghost in the Machine”. The fourth chapter used a version of the quotation credited to Anderson as an epigraph; however, the two contractions in the original were expanded: 4

I have yet to see any problem, however complicated, which when you looked at it the right way did not become still more complicated.
POUL ANDERSON

In 1969 the periodical “New Scientist” published an article by scientist William Thorpe titled “Reductionism v. Organicism” that included an instance of the saying attributed to Anderson. This version differed slightly form the original, but it has now become the most common. Some important reference works for quotations cited this instance, e.g., “The Macmillan Dictionary of Quotations” (1989), “The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations” (1993), and “Random House Webster’s Quotationary” (2001): 5 6 7

I have yet to see any problem, however complicated, which, when you looked at it in the right way, did not become still more complicated.
POUL ANDERSON

In the 1970s the saying appeared in various newspapers, but sometimes small alterations were made. For example, in 1973 a paper in West Virginia published the following under the title “Thought For Today”. The name “Poul” was transformed into “Paul”, and the word “looked” became “look”: 8

I have yet to see any problem, however complicated, which, when you look at it the right way, did not become still more complicated.—Paul Anderson

In 2013 the saying appeared in an expanded edition of “The Official Rules” by Paul Dickson. An informant named Jack Womeldorf had relayed the piece of wisdom to Dickson and within the book it was labeled “Anderson’s Law”: 9

Anderson’s Law. I have yet to see any problem, however complicated, which, when you look at it in the right way, did not become still more complicated. (Writer Poul Anderson; JW.)

JW. Jack Womeldorf, Washington, D.C.

In conclusion, Poul Anderson coined this statement in the pages of “Astounding Science Fiction” in 1957. QI recommends using the 1957 instance. Arthur Koestler also used a version of the saying, and he helped to popularize it, but he properly credited Anderson.

Image Notes: Fractal pattern from WikiImages at Pixabay. Reduced-size low-resolution image of the cover of the April 1957 issue of “Astounding Science Fiction” containing the story “Call Me Joe” by Poul Anderson.

(Great thanks to Faz Khan whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Dennis Lien for verifying the key 1957 citation. Thanks also to Kerry Webb and Ivan Van Laningham. Acknowledgment to excellent researcher Dave Hill who traced the saying to “Call Me Joe” by Poul Anderson before QI did. Hill runs the website “WIST: Wish I’d Said That!” which presents a valuable collection of quotations and citations.)

Notes:

  1. Website: io9, Article Title: Did James Cameron Rip Off Poul Anderson’s Novella?, Article Author: Lauren Davis, Date: October 26, 2009, Website description: “io9 is a daily publication that covers science, culture, and the world of tomorrow”. (Accessed io9.comon June 15, 2015) link
  2. April 1957, Astounding Science Fiction, Edited by John W. Campbell Jr., Call Me Joe by Poul Anderson, Start Page 8, Quote Page 12, Published by Street & Smith Publications, New York. (Verified on paper; great thanks to Dennis Lien)
  3. 1963 (Copyright 1962), A Century of Science Fiction, Edited by Damon Knight, Call Me Joe by Poul Anderson, Start Page 302, Quote Page 306, Dell Publishing Co., New York. (Reprint of 1962 edition from Simon and Schuster, New York) (Verified with scans)
  4. 1968 (Copyright 1967) The Ghost in the Machine by Arthur Koestler, (Epigraph of Chapter 4), Quote Page 59, Published by The Macmillan Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1989, The Macmillan Dictionary of Quotations, Section: Research, Quote Page 483, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
  6. 1993, The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations, Edited by Robert Andrews, Section: Problems, Quote Page 734, Column 1, Columbia University Press, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  7. 2001, Random House Webster’s Quotationary, Editor Leonard Roy Frank, Section: Problems & Solutions, Quote Page 659, Random House, New York. (Paperback edition; Verified on paper)
  8. 1973 August 19, Beckley Post-Herald The Raleigh Register, Thought For Today, Quote Page 6, Column 1, Beckley, West Virginia. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 2013, The Official Rules: 5,427 Laws, Principles, and Axioms to Help You Cope by Paul Dickson, (Expanded edition), Quote Page 11, Dover Publications: Courier Corporation (Google Books Preview)