Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The logic of the ouija board

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Ouija board

The fact that ouija board automatism is more likely with groups than with individuals is significant in itself. Even if we assume that some proportion of the people in groups are actually cheating, there still seems to be a much greater likelihood of successful automatism in these social settings. [William James] observed that in the case of automatic writing, “two persons can often make a planchette or bare pencils write automatically when neither can succeed alone.” This is, of course, a usual feature of the experience of table turning and tilting as well…

When people work the ouija planchette together, for instance, or sit at a table to make the table turn, they may find that their slight movements combine with the other person’s movements, sometimes producing stillness but other times yielding new misdirected movements or amplifications as well. This is compounded when, as the co-actors make these minute and unconscious adjustments for each other, they don’t know just what part of the action they personally have created. With this obscured monitoring, the group performs a mystery dance, a collective automatism that occurs when no one has conscious and specific knowledge of what self or others are doing.

Daniel M. Wegner, The Illusion of Conscious Will

Written by nevalalee

December 3, 2016 at 7:30 am

The analytical laboratory

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The Martian

Over the last few months, there’s been a surprising flurry of film and television activity involving the writers featured in my upcoming book Astounding. SyFy has announced plans to adapt Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in the Strange Land as a miniseries, with an imposing creative team that includes Hollywood power broker Scott Rudin and Zodiac screenwriter James Vanderbilt. Columbia is aiming to reboot Starship Troopers with producer Neal H. Mortiz of The Fast and the Furious, prompting Paul Verhoeven, the director of the original, to comment: “Going back to the novel would fit very much in a Trump presidency.” The production company Legendary has bought the film and television rights to Dune, which first appeared as a serial edited by John W. Campbell in Analog. Meanwhile, Jonathan Nolan is apparently still attached to an adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, although he seems rather busy at the moment. (L. Ron Hubbard remains relatively neglected, unless you want to count Leah Remini’s new show, which the Church of Scientology would probably hope you wouldn’t.) The fact that rights have been purchased and press releases issued doesn’t necessarily mean that anything will happen, of course, although the prospects for Stranger in a Strange Land seem strong. And while it’s possible that I’m simply paying more attention to these announcements now that I’m thinking about these writers all the time, I suspect that there’s something real going on.

So why the sudden surge of interest? The most likely, and also the most heartening, explanation is that we’re experiencing a revival of hard science fiction. Movies like Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, and Arrival—which I haven’t seen yet—have demonstrated that there’s an audience for films that draw more inspiration from Clarke and Kubrick than from Star Wars. Westworld, whatever else you might think of it, has done much the same on television. And there’s no question that the environment for this kind of story is far more attractive now than it was even ten years ago. For my money, the most encouraging development is the movie Life, a horror thriller set on the International Space Station, which is scheduled to come out next summer. I’m tickled by it because, frankly, it doesn’t look like anything special: the trailer starts promisingly enough, but it ends by feeling very familiar. It might turn out to be better than it looks, but I almost hope that it doesn’t. The best sign that a genre is reaching maturity isn’t a series of singular achievements, but the appearance of works that are content to color inside the lines, consciously evoking the trappings of more visionary movies while remaining squarely focused on the mainstream. A film like Interstellar is always going to be an outlier. What we need are movies like what Life promises to be: a science fiction film of minimal ambition, but a certain amount of skill, and a willingness to copy the most obvious features of its predecessors. That’s when you’ve got a trend.

Jake Gyllenhaal in Life

The other key development is the growing market for prestige dramas on television, which is the logical home for Stranger in a Strange Land and, I think, Dune. It may be the case, as we’ve been told in connection with Star Trek: Discovery, that there isn’t a place for science fiction on a broadcast network, but there’s certainly room for it on cable. Combine this with the increased appetite for hard science fiction on film, and you’ve got precisely the conditions in which smart production companies should be snatching up the rights to Asimov, Heinlein, and the rest. Given the historically rapid rise and fall of such trends, they shouldn’t expect this window to remain open for long. (In a letter to Asimov on February 3, 1939, Frederik Pohl noted the flood of new science fiction magazines on newsstands, and he concluded: “Time is indeed of the essence…Such a condition can’t possibly last forever, and the time to capitalize on it is now; next month may be too late.”) What they’re likely to find, in the end, is that many of these stories are resistant to adaptation, and that they’re better off seeking out original material. There’s a reason that there have been so few movies derived from Heinlein and Asimov, despite the temptation that they’ve always presented. Heinlein, in particular, seems superficially amenable to the movies: he certainly knew how to write action in a way that Asimov couldn’t. But he also liked to spend the second half of a story picking apart the assumptions of the first, after sucking in the reader with an exciting beginning, and if you aren’t going to include the deconstruction, you might as well write something from scratch.

As it happens, the recent spike of action on the adaptation front has coincided with another announcement. Analog, the laboratory in which all these authors were born, is cutting back its production schedule to six double issues every year. This is obviously intended to manage costs, and it’s a reminder of how close to the edge the science fiction digests have always been. (To be fair, the change also coincides with a long overdue update of the magazine’s website, which is very encouraging. If this reflects a true shift from print to online, it’s less a retreat than a necessary recalibration.) It’s easy to contrast the game of pennies being played at the bottom with the expenditure of millions of dollars at the top, but that’s arguably how it has to be. Analog, like Astounding before it, was a machine for generating variations, which needs to be done on the cheap. Most stories are forgotten almost at once, and the few that survive the test of time are the ones that get the lion’s share of resources. All the while, the magazine persists as an indispensable form of research and development—a sort of skunk works that keeps the entire enterprise going. That’s been true since the beginning, and you can see this clearly in the lives of the writers involved. Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert, and their estates became wealthy from their work. Campbell, who more than any other individual was responsible for the rise of modern science fiction, did not. Instead, he remained in his little office, lugging manuscripts in a heavy briefcase twice a week on the train. He was reasonably well off, but not in a way that creates an empire of valuable intellectual property. Instead, he ran the lab. And we can see the results all around us.

Quote of the Day

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Isaac Asimov

Writing isn’t all inspiration and free flow. You do have to ask yourself pretty mechanical questions, such as, “What do I do with this character now that I’ve taken the trouble to make use of him?”

Isaac Asimov, The Early Asimov

Written by nevalalee

December 2, 2016 at 7:00 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

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“Now show me something else…”

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Richard Burton in Hamlet

In 1964, John Gielgud directed Richard Burton in a famous stage production of Hamlet, in a collaboration that inspired intense interest, record box office, and mixed reviews. (The story goes that Burton and Peter O’Toole had agreed that they should each play Hamlet under the direction of either Gielgud or Laurence Olivier, with a coin toss deciding who ended up with whom.) In the book John Gielgud: A Celebration, we hear of a surprising piece of advice that the director gave to his actors:

William Redfield, the actor playing Guildenstern, revealed that he and others in the cast were alarmed to find that Gielgud as a director didn’t concern himself with “the play’s circumstances but only with its effects.” Gielgud quoted his old mentor Harley Granville-Barker to them in an attempt to encourage them to pace, shape, and color their performance rather than relying exclusively on circumstance and absolute psychological truth. “Granville-Barker once said to me, ‘You’ve already shown me that—now show me something else.’ It was a wonderful direction for me because I tend to be monotonous. After that, I always made sure that each scene I played had a different color, a new shape. Even the lines should change every few moments or so. If I do one line this way, then the next should be that way, and then the next should change and the next. It’s good to keep the audience off balance, you know—always interested—perhaps even a bit confused.”

Gielgud obviously deserves to be taken seriously, but it still comes off as a peculiar piece of direction. It helps, perhaps, to remember the context. In the early sixties, the influence of Brando, Lee Strasberg, and the Method school of acting—which was nothing if not concerned with “circumstance and absolute psychological truth”—was at its peak. What Gielgud is advocating here is a return to the classic British tradition of fakery, in which a few good tricks of voice, gesture, and mannerism go a long way. As Olivier put it: “I’m afraid I do work mostly from the outside in. I usually collect a lot of details, a lot of characteristics, and find a creature swimming about somewhere in the middle of them.” (The two great living masters of this approach are Anthony Hopkins, and, notably, Kevin Spacey, an American who outdoes even his British predecessors when it comes to sheer technical cleverness.) What Gielgud proposes is even more mechanical. In asking that each line reading be a little different from the one before it, he comes precariously close to endorsing the “superficial variety” that the Futurists saw as a feature of the theater of imbeciles:

For instance, to make one act a day, another an evening, another deep night; to make one act pathetic, another anguished, another sublime…Or else have the actors constantly move around from sitting to standing, from right to left, and meanwhile vary the dialogue to make it seem as if a bomb might explode outside at any moment…when actually nothing is going to explode until the end of the act.

Richard Burton and John Gielgud

But it’s important to remember the point of the exercise. Gielgud wants the audience to be “always interested—perhaps even a bit confused,” which is the ideal state for watching a play, particularly Shakespeare. As anyone who has ever seen a bad production of Hamlet can attest, if you aren’t actively engaged by it, all of that rich, overly familiar language has a way of smearing together into one long Elizabethan blur. Gielgud’s approach is designed to keep the audience awake, and also to create the optimum degree of alertness for processing the reversals of the dialogue. Shakespeare uses contradiction as a practical tool: his characters, especially Hamlet, are always questioning and overhearing themselves, and the mood can change drastically within a single line. When Hamlet says “About, my brain!”, he’s only drawing attention to his own rapid twists of emotion and perception. (In many cases, those quick tonal shifts stand for the larger patterns of the drama itself. At the beginning of The Winter’s Tale, when Leontes switches so unexpectedly from warmth toward his wife and friend to icy jealousy, it sets us up for the even greater contrast between the scenes in Sicilia and Bohemia.) But it takes a certain attentiveness for this to register, and Gielgud’s approach amounts to a kind of training for the audience, so that it becomes more aware of the variety in the text itself.

And like all the best theatrical tricks, it ultimately forces the actor and director to go deeper, until they arrive at the same psychological truth that the Method sought from a different direction. Elsewhere, Gielgud listed the essential qualities of a Shakespearean director:

Industry, patience…sensitivity, originality without freakishness, a fastidious ear and eye, some respect for, and knowledge of, tradition, a feeling for music and pictures, color and design: yet in none of these, I believe, should he be too opinionated in his views and tastes. For a theatrical production, at every stage of its preparation, is always changing, unpredictable in its moods and crises.

This kind of flexibility is crucial for finding the truth of a scene, and the remarkable thing about the tonal experimentation that Gielgud encouraged in his actors is that, when honestly pursued, it leads to the exact mindset that he describes above. You can’t be too dogmatic or opinionated when you’ve been conditioned to try something different each time. Not every experiment pays off, but in the process, you’ve turned yourself into a machine for generating variations, and the best ones survive, in a kind of natural selection, to live on in performance. The result, which proceeds from the outside in, looks a lot like what the Method discovered by going from the inside out. And as long as the result is truthful, it doesn’t matter how you got there.

Quote of the Day

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Archibald Hill

Luck, commonly so called, generally depends on whether our eyes and ears and minds are open when the unusual thing happens…The completely unintelligible thing [is what] leads most frequently to important discovery.

Archibald Hill, The Ethical Dilemma of Science

Written by nevalalee

December 1, 2016 at 7:30 am

Living off the grid

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Note: Details are given below for the solution to today’s New York Times crossword.

A week ago, I subscribed to the New York Times crossword puzzle. I’m still not at a point where I can read the news for more than a few minutes without becoming consumed by rage, so I’ve been looking for something else to fill my spare time. Fortunately, I’ve got plenty of work to do, but there are always gaps, and you can only read The A.V. Club or even The Lisle Letters for so long. The crossword seemed like a pretty good idea, especially when I caught a deal on the price of an annual subscription—it’s just twenty bucks for the entire year. And it felt a bit like coming home. There was a brief period about a decade ago in which I loved doing crosswords: I could reliably finish a Monday puzzle in two to three minutes and a Saturday puzzle in under half an hour, and I even attended the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in 2008, after they switched venues to a hotel within walking distance of my apartment in Brooklyn. At my peak, I was studying lists of the most common obscure words (ETUI, ASTA, and the rest), venturing into the world of cryptics and acrostics, and even constructing a few puzzles of my own, including a notoriously difficult one that was given out to the guests at my wedding. Eventually, I burned out, and since I don’t have much time for hobbies, I hadn’t gone back to it until a few days ago.

So how did it feel? Picking up a crossword puzzle again after so long is sort of like tuning into a soap opera that you haven’t watched since college: you’re amazed that they’ve kept cranking them out in the meantime, and astonished at how little has changed. All the stock clues and answers greeted me like old friends, and I note that the puzzle still leans heavily on such hoary fallback options as MAITAI, NEHI, and AFLAC. The only difference, really, is me—I’m rusty. I’m lucky if I finish a Monday puzzle in five minutes, let alone three, and I’ll often find an error or two after I’m done. Fortunately, I’m more conscious of my limits than I used to be. When I attended the tournament all those years ago, I arrived, as I’m sure many novices do, with the secret hope that maybe I’d surprise everyone and win the whole thing. It was a dream that lasted roughly halfway through my first puzzle, when I saw that the solvers around me were finishing before I’d even had a chance to read through a third of the clues. It’s a humbling experience. Crosswords, in their oddball way, are an objective test of skill, at least for the community of people who have spent an inordinate amount of time solving and thinking about them. If the same handful of names tend to end up in the winner’s circle, it’s because there’s minimal luck involved, at least when you average it out over seven puzzles.

The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

And while I’m certainly not the first person to note this, a crossword embodies many of the tools, in miniature form, that we use to solve larger problems. When I first tackle a puzzle—like the one in today’s paper by Molly Young—I begin by scanning clues quickly, starting at 1-Across, until I find a way in. Here, it happened to be “Preceder of Barbara or Clara” (SANTA), just because it was the first obvious one I saw. It’s an arbitrary starting point that serves as the seed from which a unique route through the crossword unfolds. (No two solving paths are the same, although it would be interesting to track the processes of expert solvers and see if any patterns emerge.) I already had a hunch, after reading the clue “New push-up bra from Apple?”, that all of the theme answers would begin with the letter “I,” and fortunately, I was right. After getting ILIFT, the northwest corner was a piece of cake. I caught a lucky break with “British P.M. between Churchill and Macmillan,” because I’ve been watching Jeremy Northam play Anthony EDEN on The Crown. The rest unfolded organically, following the path of least resistance, until it finally encountered a few rough spots that didn’t succumb right away. Today, for me, these were the northeast and southeast corners.  At that point, you just have to stare at the same few clues, cycling between them until something clicks, and after I realized that “It can help you get a leg up” was OTTOMAN, I was basically done.

In the end, I didn’t make any mistakes, and my solving time was well within my historical average. (I won’t say how long it took me, because sharing your crossword times is like telling somebody how much money you make: anyone who solved it more quickly than you did won’t care, and anyone who took longer will just get annoyed.) And the process is roughly analogous to my approach to tackling any creative problem. I look for the easiest way in, try for one good guess toward the beginning, follow the most intuitive route, seek out catalysts, fall back on experience and old tricks, and rely on luck for the rest. If this were a Friday or Saturday puzzle, it would also include a much larger component of brute force, wrong turns, and frustration. I don’t necessarily think that the result makes you more creative: it’s such a hermetic, closed universe, with its own rules, that it doesn’t open onto anything more. And the correlation between skill here and meaningful talent elsewhere is unreliable at best. But as a short-term, self-contained, single-serving reminder of those basic capabilities, they have real value. They aren’t the only puzzles in life that you should try to solve, and when pursued too far, they can lead to a dead end—like any hobby. Still, at a time when so many dilemmas loom with no obvious solution, it’s consoling, maybe even sustaining, to spend time on puzzles that you know have an answer, in a world defined by black and white.

Written by nevalalee

November 30, 2016 at 8:27 am

Quote of the Day

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Portrait of Gustave Flaubert by Eugène Giraud

Great art is scientific and impersonal. One should, by an effort of the spirit, transport oneself into the characters, not draw them to oneself. That, at any rate, is the method.

Gustave Flaubert, in a letter to George Sand

Written by nevalalee

November 30, 2016 at 7:30 am

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