Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“Get the money!”

leave a comment »

“Let me give you a word of advice, young man,” [Henny Youngman] said. “Nem di gelt…Get the money. What we do—writing jokes and telling jokes—looks easy, especially when we do it well. It isn’t. It’s hard and the people who hire us make a lot of money off what we do. So always make sure you get paid. Don’t be afraid to get the money. Ask for it up front and ask for as much as you can get. Club owners…TV producers…they’re all crooks, trying to get out of paying us for what we do. Nem di gelt.”

I thanked him, and promised I would remember to nem di gelt, and he went on for his second show.

A few months later, someone told me a story about Henny Youngman which I believe is true. It was about what Henny would do when he was home in New York and found himself unbooked on a Saturday night. He would take his fiddle and go to some hotel that had banquet rooms. He’d consult the daily directory in the lobby and find a party—usually a bar mitzvah reception—and he would go up to the room and ask to speak to whoever was paying for the affair. “I’m Henny Youngman,” he would tell that person. “I was playing a date in another banquet room here and one of the waiters suggested you might want to have me do my act for your gathering here.” He would negotiate whatever price he could get—$200, $500, preferably in cash—and he would do his act for them.

That was Henny Youngman. I have no idea where is today but I’ll bet he’s telling jokes. And I’ll bet he got paid in advance.

Mark Evanier, in The Comic Buyer’s Guide

Written by nevalalee

March 24, 2018 at 7:30 am

The Martian Way

with one comment

In these divided times, the one position that seems to consistently transcend party lines is that we should really get our act together and go to Mars. This is particularly true if you happen to be president. Toward the end of his first term, George W. Bush called for a return to the moon, which would serve as a way station for “human missions to Mars and to worlds beyond,” and then he pretty much never brought it up again. Shortly before the last presidential election, when he probably should have been focusing on other matters, Obama wrote in an opinion piece that the “clear goal vital to the next chapter of America’s story in space” would be a manned mission to Mars. As for Trump, his views are more or less what you’d expect. Earlier this month, in a speech at Miramar Air Station in San Diego, he expressed enthusiasm for space, in his own inimitable way: “Very soon we’re going to Mars. You wouldn’t be going to Mars if my opponent won, that I can tell you. You wouldn’t even be thinking about it.” In the same speech, Trump also voiced his support for the idea of, well, starship troopers:

My new national strategy for space recognizes that space is a war-fighting domain, just like the land, air, and sea. We may even have a “Space Force”—develop another one. Space Force. We have the Air Force; we’ll have the Space Force. You know, I was saying it the other day because we’re doing a tremendous amount of work in space. I said, “Maybe we need a new force, we’ll call it the Space Force.” And I was not really serious, and then I said what a great idea, maybe we’ll have to do that. That could happen. That could be the big breaking story.

The week after Trump gave this speech, I happened to come across a passage in The Scientific Estate by the political scientist Don K. Price, which was first published in 1965. After lamenting the lack of participation in public policy by scientists in democratic nations, Price writes: “Science fiction…is a form of literature unwisely neglected by students of politics. On something like the theory that if I could write a nation’s songs I would be glad to let someone else write its laws, I am inclined to think that it is the space cadets of the comic strip—and their fictional counterparts back to Jules Verne or even Daedalus—who have fired our enthusiasm for the race with the Russians to the moon.” He’s probably right. But then he goes on to make a striking assertion:

That enthusiasm is certainly shared on both sides of the Iron Curtain. But with a difference, and a difference that may be more important to the future of our political system than the amount of money that we spend on space exploration. The difference is that the Soviet space cadet, in sharp contrast to his opposite number in Western science fiction, seems to be very conscious not only that he is in a race for prestige or power with another country, but that he has discovered the key to the use of the scientific method in human affairs. This is the materialist dialectic, which is supposed not merely to let the communist system make the best use of science in technical matters, but to give the scientific intellect a generally dominant role in the society of the future.

My knowledge of Soviet science fiction is regrettably close to zero, so I can’t speak to this argument directly. But I can venture a few observations within my own limited circle of expertise. The idea that the protagonist of science fiction “has discovered the key to the use of scientific method in human affairs” sounds a lot like John W. Campbell, who wanted nothing more than to turn sociology and psychology into provinces of engineering, which would allow scientists to have “a generally dominant role” in the enlightened age to come. Dianetics was conceived as a social movement as well as a therapeutic one, with Campbell and L. Ron Hubbard both openly envisioning a world that would be run by “clears.” A decade earlier, the Foundation series had taken the idea of a science of history and politics to its ultimate conclusion. (Comparisons have often been made between psychohistory and dialectical materialism, to the point where Asimov later felt obliged to state: “I have never read anything by Marx. I have never read anything written about Marxian economics or philosophy.” He was protesting too much—in his late teens, he described himself as a communist, at least to his friends in the Futurians. But any resemblance between the two theories was due less to any direct influence than to their shared dream of a comprehensive science of civilization.) When Price published his book, it may well have been true, as he writes, that “as Isaac Asimov has noted, most contemporary science fiction in America is not utopian, but anti-utopian.” But this was partially a reaction to the optimistic mood of the Campbell years, and the individuals who actually worked on the space program consisted in large part of scientists and engineers who came of age during the golden age of Astounding, just as the next generation would be shaped by the Heinlein juveniles.

It seems perfectly plausible, in short, that science fiction “fired our enthusiasm” for the space race, which both America and Russia came to be see as an expression of national power. The extent to which science fiction inspired us to go to the moon in the first place is up for debate—Campbell certainly believed that it did, and I’d argue that we’re only talking about going to Mars, which otherwise doesn’t seems like an urgent priority, because science fiction got there first. And it’s fair to say that we place an emphasis on manned spaceflight primarily because of the stories that it allows us to tell to ourselves. As I’ve argued before, science fiction set stories in space because it made an exciting backdrop for adventure stories, and it was only after the genre started to take itself seriously as a predictive literature that it began to seem like part of our collective destiny. Even now, its appeal is primarily emotional, not scientific, and if Mars appears so prominently in the rhetoric of our presidents, it’s because its usefulness as a narrative symbol goes beyond politics. (Trump’s proposed budget, significantly, eliminated numerous scientific programs at NASA, including the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope and many earth science missions, while sparing the Space Launch System rocket and Orion crew capsule. The spending bill recently passed by Congress, by contrast, maintains or increases the current levels of funding.) Presidents tell stories to themselves and to the rest of us, and you can learn a lot from how they appropriate the images that their predecessors have used. For Trump, who otherwise displays minimal interest or understanding of science, a mission to Mars fulfills the same role as a border wall or a military parade. It’s a symbol of power, or a plot point in a story in which America plays the role of the competent man. When we hear it from Trump, this seems obvious. But maybe it was never anything else.

Written by nevalalee

March 23, 2018 at 10:19 am

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

Written by nevalalee

March 23, 2018 at 7:30 am

The believer

leave a comment »

Note: Spoilers follow for “My Struggle IV,” the eleventh season finale of The X-Files

There are times when I think that The X-Files was the most important thing that ever happened to me. I’m not saying that it carries much weight compared to getting married or having a kid, but as far as pop culture is concerned, if you wanted to go back in time and remove just one piece to cause the maximal change in my life, you couldn’t do any better than this. If I had never seen The Red Shoes or read Jorge Luis Borges or even listened to the Pet Shop Boys, I’d be immeasurably poorer for it, but my overall biography would be more or less unchanged. The X-Files, by contrast, was a determining factor in how I spent my time for years. I wrote fanfic throughout high school and college. My first published short story, “Inversus,” was basically a straight casefile with the names changed, and only a timely rejection of my second effort from Analog editor Stanley Schmidt kept me from trying to turn it into a series. Of all the stories that I’ve published since, at least half fall comfortably into that formula. My three novels don’t have any paranormal elements, but they represented a conscious attempt to recover some of the magic of two government agents unraveling a conspiracy, and even Astounding is a project that never would have occurred to me if I hadn’t spent most of my life writing science fiction in one form or another. Which is all to say that if you managed to distract me so that I didn’t watch “Squeeze” on September 24, 1993—or even “Humbug” a year and a half later—most of this goes away, or at least gets transformed into a form so different that I wouldn’t be able to recognize it.

Yet it’s also a little embarrassing for me to admit this, not just because The X-Files wasn’t always a good show, even in its prime, but also because I don’t remember much about it. It had the longest run of any science fiction series in the history of television, with two hundred and eighteen episodes and two feature films. That’s a staggering amount of content, and it means that there’s more to know about Mulder and Scully, in theory, than about the main characters of any comparable franchise. In practice, that isn’t how it worked out. There are maybe two dozen episodes of the series that I plan on watching again, along with about fifty more that I remember fairly well. The rest consist of a single image, a vague impression, a logline, or more often nothing at all. Most of the mytharc, in particular, has disappeared entirely from my memory. And one of the problems with last night’s season finale—which probably marks the end to the entire series—is that it assumes that its viewers care about elements that the show flagged as important, but never really meant anything to the audience. I don’t recall much about William, or Mulder’s family drama, and I barely even remember Agent Reyes. These are clearly all things that should matter to the characters, and there’s no question that that loss of their child was the major event in Mulder and Scully’s lives. But it isn’t real to me, which is why I spent most of the episode asking myself why it had to be about this at all. (In any case, there’s already a perfect finale to the show, and it’s called “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat.”)

But the eleventh season as a whole exceeded my expectations to an extent that I’m grateful that it exists. Apart from “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster,” the tenth season was uniformly painful to watch—it left me feeling humiliated that I’d invested so much of my life into this series, and nobody, aside from Gillian Anderson and Darin Morgan, seemed to have any idea what they were doing. This past season had one great episode (“Forehead Sweat”) and one that came close (“Rm9sbG93ZXJz”), and apart from the opener and closer, which were disasters, the rest ranged from merely watchable to pretty good. Duchovny looked healthier and more relaxed, there were some nice sentimental moments between the two leads that elevated even routine installments, and there was even an attempt to stir some fresh voices into the mix. The fact that the show seems to be ending now is regrettable, but maybe it’s the best possible outcome. And I can even live with the finale, which offers up a winning bingo card of Chris Carter’s worst impulses. It separates Mulder and Scully for most of its runtime; it scrambles the chronology for no apparent reason; it dwells on pointless action and violence; it drops every plot thread that it raises; it spoils a nice fakeout by repeating it just a few minutes later; and its idea of a happy ending is having Scully announce that she’s pregnant again. (“It’s all she’s good for,” my wife remarked dryly.) But it at least it was bad in all the usual ways, without going out of its way to invent new ones, as much of last season did. And as Scully once said about Robert Patrick Modell, I won’t let it take up another minute of my time.

But The X-Files is a lot like life itself—which is only to say that my relationship to it maps onto everything else that matters. If the golden age of science fiction is twelve, as the fan Peter Graham allegedly said, then the show came along at just the right time to change me forever. If I had been born a few years earlier or later, or if I had been watching a different network, it might have been something else. As it turned out, I got sucked into a show that lasted for the quarter of a century that happened to coincide with most of my teens, twenties, and thirties. If I don’t remember a lot of it, well, I can’t recall much about college or the first two years of being a father, either. I just have bits and pieces, which are enough to make up my memories. Dana Scully is my favorite character on television, but my picture of her is assembled from the handful of episodes that understood what made her special, rather than the countless others that abused or misused her to an extent that we’re only just starting to acknowledge. I view her from only one angle, as I do with most of the people in my life, and I see what I want to believe. Like Darin Morgan, I’ve come to identify more with Mulder as I’ve gotten older, not as an action hero, but as the guy who started his career in a basement and ended it nowhere in particular. But you also have to imagine Mulder, like Sisyphus, as happy. I can’t sum up The X-Files in one sentence, but these days, I see it as a show about how to relate with intelligence and grace to a world that remains unknowable, indifferent, and too complicated to change. Maybe it starts with finding someone you love. The finale wasn’t about this, of course. But it never really had to be.

Written by nevalalee

March 22, 2018 at 9:01 am

Quote of the Day

with one comment

Written by nevalalee

March 22, 2018 at 7:30 am

The Road to Foundation

with 5 comments

As I’ve recounted here before, on August 1, 1941, Isaac Asimov was riding the subway to John W. Campbell’s office in New York when the history of science fiction changed forever. In his memoir In Memory Yet Green, Asimov, who was twenty-one at the time, recalls the moment at which he first conceived of what became the Foundation series:

On the way down I racked my brain for a story idea. Failing, I tried a device I sometimes used. I opened a book at random and then tried free association, beginning with whatever I saw. The book I had with me was a collection of the Gilbert and Sullivan plays. I opened it to Iolanthe—to the picture of the Fairy Queen throwing herself at the feet of Private Willis, the sentry. Thinking of sentries, I thought of soldiers, of military empires, of the Roman Empire—of the Galactic Empire—aha!

For reasons that I’ll discuss below, I’m reasonably sure that the illustration that Asimov describes is the one reproduced above, which was drawn by the lyricist W.S. Gilbert himself. And what strikes me the most about this anecdote now is the fact that Asimov looked at this particular picture, ignored the Fairy Queen entirely, and turned it into a series in which no women of any consequence would appear for years. To make a slightly facetious comparison, if I were a therapist giving Asimov the Thematic Apperception Test, in which the subject is asked to look at a picture and make up a story about it, this is the point at which I would sit up slightly in my chair.

Recently, it occurred to me to try to figure out which book Asimov was carrying on the train that day, if only because it’s interesting to dig into what a writer might have been reading at a given moment. The great model here is John Livingston Lowes’s The Road to Xanadu, which obsessively connects the imagery of “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to the travel narratives that Samuel Coleridge was studying at the time. Asimov, it’s worth noting, was skeptical of Lowes’s approach:

I tried reading the book in my youth, but gave up. It could only interest another Coleridge scholar. Besides, I saw no point to it. Granted that the phrases already existed scattered through a dozen books, they existed for everybody. It was only Coleridge who thought of putting them together, with the necessary modifications, to form one of the great poems of the English language. Coleridge might not have been a hundred percent original but he was original enough to make the poem a work of genius.

But this kind of search can be diverting in itself, and it didn’t take me long to conclude that Asimov’s book was likely to have been Plays and Poems of W.S. Gilbert, which was published by Random House in 1932. As far as I can tell, it’s one of only two books available at the time that included both the lyrics to Iolanthe and the illustrations by Gilbert, and it would have been easy to find. (The other is a book titled Authentic Libretti of the Gilbert and Sullivan Operas, which was published a few years later to coincide with a tour by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, and it doesn’t look like something that Asimov would have brought on the subway.)

The edition, as it happens, is available online for free, and it can be amusing to left through it while keeping the young Asimov in mind. This isn’t literary criticism, exactly, but a kind of scholarly reverie, and it’s valuable primarily for the chain of associations that it evokes. The book opens with a lengthy introduction by Deems Taylor, a music critic and occasional member of the Algonquin Round Table, and I’d like to think that Asimov would have seen aspects of himself in it. For example, here’s Taylor on Gilbert’s early years as a writer:

For a time, his writings, although voluminous, attracted no attention whatsoever. He tried everything—reporting, dramatic criticism, editorials, weekly news letters to provincial papers, political polemics, essays—all the forms of quotidian literature that flow from the pen of any young person who vaguely “wants to write” (a sentence that, appropriately, has no object). The results were financially negligible. Nor did he have the meagre satisfaction of knowing that there were those who were watching him, believing in him. Nobody was watching a young journalistic hack who was no different from scores of his fellows except that he combined a gift for saying cutting things with a complete inability to refrain from saying them.

This sounds a lot like Asimov in the days when he was trying to break into Astounding, and as I thought more about Gilbert and Sullivan themselves, who brought out the best in each other, I saw them for the first time as shadows of Asimov and Campbell in the thirties, of whose partnership the former once wrote: “Campbell and I, in those first three years of my writing career—the crucial and formative ones—were a symbiotic organism.”

But the section that intrigues me the most comes near the end of the introduction. Speaking fondly of the characters of HMS Pinafore, The Mikado and all the rest, Taylor writes:

As this gay, silly, endearing crew skip upon the stage, the sum of all that they say is always the same thing; and it is a romantic thing: That the light of pure reason casts grotesque shadows; that a world in which there is nothing but the letter of the law, and the logical conclusion, and the inevitable deduction, and the axiomatic fact, and the rational course of conduct, is, in the last account, a ridiculous one. Looking at their world, in which there is everything but the truth that lies beyond logic, we perceive that it is, in more ways than one, an impossible world.

It’s hard for me to read this now without reflecting that Asimov was just moments away, as he rode the train to Campbell’s office, from conceiving nothing less than “a world in which there is nothing but the letter of the law, and the logical conclusion, and the inevitable deduction, and the axiomatic fact, and the rational course of conduct,” which would end up dominating much of the rest of his life. And while I’m no expert on Gilbert and Sullivan, viewing the Foundation series through that lens seems like a promising approach. Asimov, as I’ve noted elsewhere, never seems to have been particularly interested in psychohistory, which was mostly Campbell’s invention, and he was more conscious of its limitations than many of its fans are. (In The End of Eternity, Asimov describes a similar group of scientists as a collection of “psychopaths.”) And what Taylor writes of these operettas applies just as well to many of the stories that they inspired: “The sky has cleared, the problems solve themselves, and everything has suddenly turned out all right. Every fundamental axiom of human motive and conduct has been outraged, and we are delighted.”

Quote of the Day

with one comment

I started looking in the trash cans of science for such [fractal] phenomena, because I suspected that what I was observing was not an exception but perhaps very widespread. I attended lectures and looked in unfashionable periodicals, most of them of little or no yield, but once in a while finding some interesting things. In a way it was a naturalist’s approach, not a theoretician’s approach. But my gamble paid off.

Benoit Mandelbrot, quoted by James Gleick in Chaos

Written by nevalalee

March 21, 2018 at 7:30 am

%d bloggers like this: