Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Contemplating the Sphinx

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History is a catalog of endings, but poetry speaks of being, of beginnings…Poetry tends to have an ambivalent relationship toward any temporal function to which it is assigned. Unlike most other human endeavors, at certain moments, often its best ones, it cloaks itself in obscurity, withdraws from everyday life and takes the form of a static, receptive object. A process made to be acted upon, germinative, wood and oxygen waiting to be ignited by a determinant, though not necessarily parallel, flash of thought. And this is how it transcends history and is not only to be recognized and remembered, but contemplated, like the Sphinx.

Nick Piombino, “Writing and Remembering”

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November 18, 2018 at 7:30 am

Clinging to the iceberg

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One of the things always looming is that I have a reputation as a money writer and—this sounds very bullshitty—I’ve never written for money. By which, I don’t mean that I am artistic and pure. What I mean is, money has happened. It’s gone along with what I’ve written—especially in film. And I like to think one of the reasons for that is I’ve wanted to do what I’ve done. I have gotten very few compliments that I treasure in my life, but one of them is from Stanley Donen, a wonderful director who is now out of repute…He said, “You’re very tough.” And I said, “Why?” And he said, “Because you cost a lot, and you have to want to do it.” I think that’s true, and I treasure that, because I do have to want to do it. I think that’s true basically of almost everybody I know in the picture business that’s above the water level on the iceberg. We’re all clinging to the iceberg, and the water level is rising constantly…

The other compliment which I treasure is from a friend of mine. These are the only two. A friend of mine said to me, “Whatever part of you is a writer you really protect.” It seems to me that’s essential, because the minute you start getting involved with reviews, or interviews…or hype on movies, or any kind of extracurricular lecturing or answering fan letters or any kind of stuff like that—it has nothing to do with writing. And you can begin to become Peter Bogdanovich and believe your own press clippings, and then it’s disaster time. It seems to me that it’s essential to maintain a low profile and go about your business as quietly as possible.

William Goldman, to John Brady in The Craft of the Screenwriter

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November 17, 2018 at 7:30 am

A Fuller Life

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I’m pleased to announce that I’ve finally figured out the subject of my next book, which will be a biography of the architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably know how much Fuller means to me, and I’m looking forward to giving him the comprehensive portrait that he deserves. (Honestly, that’s putting it mildly. I’ve known for over a week that I’ll have a chance to tackle this project, and I still can’t quite believe that it’s really happening. And I’m especially happy that my current publisher has agreed to give me a shot at it.) At first glance, this might seem like a departure from my previous work, but it presents an opportunity to explore some of the same themes from a different angle, and to explore how they might play out in the real world. The timelines of the two projects largely coincide, with a group of subjects who were affected by the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, and the social upheavals of the sixties. All of them had highly personal notions about the fate of America, and Fuller used physical artifacts much as Campbell, Asimov, and Heinlein employed science fiction—to prepare their readers for survival in an era of perpetual change. Fuller’s wife, Anne, played an unsung role in his career that recalls many of the women in Astounding. Like Campbell, he approached psychology as a category of physics, and he hoped to turn the prediction of future trends into a science in itself. His skepticism of governments led him to conclude that society should be changed through design, not political institutions, and like many science fiction writers, he acted as if all disciplines could be reduced to subsets of engineering. And for most of his life, he insisted that complicated social problems could be solved through technology.

Most of his ideas were expressed through the geodesic dome, the iconic work of structural design that made him famous—and I hope that this book will be as much about the dome as about Fuller himself. It became a universal symbol of the space age, and his reputation as a futurist may have been founded largely on the fact that his most recognizable achievement instantly evoked the landscape of science fiction. From the beginning, the dome was both an elegant architectural conceit and a potent metaphor. The concept of a hemispherical shelter that used triangular elements to enclose the maximum amount of space had been explored by others, but Fuller was the first to see it as a vehicle for social change. With design principles that could be scaled up or down without limitation, it could function as a massive commercial pavilion or as a house for hippies. (Ken Kesey dreamed of building a geodesic dome to hold one of his acid tests.) It could be made out of plywood, steel, or cardboard. A dome could be cheaply assembled by hand by amateur builders, which encouraged experimentation, and its specifications could be laid out in a few pages and shared for free, like the modern blueprints for printable houses. It was a hackable, open-source machine for living that reflected a set of tools that spoke to the same men and women who were teaching themselves how to code. As I noted here recently, a teenager named Jaron Lanier, who was living in a tent with his father on an acre of desert in New Mexico, used nothing but the formulas in Lloyd Kahn’s Domebook to design and build a house that he called “Earth Station Lanier.” Lanier, who became renowned years later as the founder of virtual reality, never got over the experience. He recalled decades later: “I loved the place; dreamt about it while sleeping inside it.”

During his lifetime, Fuller was one of the most famous men in America, and he managed to become an idol to both the establishment and the counterculture. In the three decades since his death, his reputation has faded, but his legacy is visible everywhere. The influence of his geodesic structures can be seen in the Houston Astrodome, at Epcot Center, on thousands of playgrounds, in the dome tents favored by backpackers, and in the emergency shelters used after Hurricane Katrina. Fuller had a lasting impact on environmentalism and design, and his interest in unconventional forms of architecture laid the foundation for the alternative housing movement. His homegrown system of geometry led to insights into the biological structure of viruses and the logic of communications networks, and after he died, he was honored by the discoverers of a revolutionary form of carbon that resembled a geodesic sphere, which became known as fullerene, or the buckyball. And I’m particularly intrigued by his parallels to the later generation of startup founders. During the seventies, he was a hero to the likes of Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, who later featured him prominently in the first “Think Different” commercial, and he was the prototype of the Silicon Valley types who followed. He was a Harvard dropout who had been passed over by the college’s exclusive social clubs, and despite his lack of formal training, he turned himself into an entrepreneur who believed in changing society through innovative products and environmental design. Fuller wore the same outfit to all his public appearances, and his personal habits amounted to an early form of biohacking. (Fuller slept each day for just a few hours, taking a nap whenever he felt tired, and survived mostly on steak and tea.) His closest equivalent today may well be Elon Musk, which tells us a lot about both men.

And this project is personally significant to me. I first encountered Fuller through The Whole Earth Catalog, which opened its first edition with two pages dedicated to his work, preceded by a statement from editor Stewart Brand: “The insights of Buckminster Fuller initiated this catalog.” I was three years old when he died, and I grew up in the shadow of his influence in the Bay Area. The week before my freshman year in high school, I bought a used copy of his book Critical Path, and I tried unsuccessfully to plow through Synergetics. (At the time, this all felt kind of normal, and it’s only when I look back that it seems strange—which tells you a lot about me, too.) Above all else, I was drawn to his reputation as the ultimate generalist, which reflected my idea of what my life should be, and I’m hugely excited by the prospect of returning to him now. Fuller has been the subject of countless other works, but never a truly authoritative biography, which is a project that meets both Susan Sontag’s admonition that a writer should try to be useful and the test that I stole from Lin-Manuel Miranda: “What’s the thing that’s not in the world that should be in the world?” Best of all, the process looks to be tremendously interesting for its own sake—I think it’s going to rewire my brain. It also requires an unbelievable amount of research. To apply the same balanced, fully sourced, narrative approach to his life that I tried to take for Campbell, I’ll need to work through all of Fuller’s published work, a mountain of primary sources, and what might literally be the largest single archive for any private individual in history. I know from experience that I can’t do it alone, and I’m looking forward to seeking help from the same kind of brain trust that I was lucky to have for Astounding. Those of you who have stuck with this blog should be prepared to hear a lot more about Fuller over the next three years, but I wouldn’t be doing this at all if I didn’t think that you might find it interesting. And who knows? He might change your life, too.

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November 16, 2018 at 8:50 am

Quote of the Day

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November 16, 2018 at 7:30 am

The tunnel and the labyrinth

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Last week, the publisher Alfred A. Knopf released The William H. Gass Reader, a dense, beautiful volume of almost nine hundred pages devoted to one of the strangest, most serious, and most uncompromising writers of our time. (As I’ve noted here before, Gass’s The Tunnel may have more to say about our era than any other novel.) I hope to discuss it in detail soon, but today, I want to focus on the essay “Imaginary Borges and His Books,” in which Gass takes on my favorite author, whom he admires, but only with strong reservations. After quoting a line in which Borges hints at his fondness for Ralph Waldo Emerson, Gass writes acidly:

Emerson? Many of Borges’s other enthusiasms are equally dismaying, like the Russians’ for Jack London, or the symbolist poets’ for Poe; on the whole they tend to be directed toward obscure or marginal figures, to stand for somewhat cranky, wayward, even decadent choices: works at once immature or exotic, thin though mannered, clever rather than profound, neat instead of daring, too often the products of learning, fancy, and contrivance to make us comfortable; they exhibit a taste that is still in its teens, one becalmed in backwater, and a mind that is seriously intrigued by certain dubious or jejune forms, forms which have to be overcome, not simply exploited: fantastic tales and wild romances, science fiction, detective stories, and other similar modes which, with a terrible theological energy and zeal, impose upon implausible premises a rigorous gamelike reasoning.

For now, I’ll pass over the disparaging reference to science fiction—because Gass isn’t quite finished yet. He disapprovingly continues: “Thus for this minutely careful essayist and poet it’s not Aristotle, but Zeno, it’s not Kant, but Schopenhauer; it’s not even Hobbes, but Berkley, not Mill or Bradley, but—may philosophy forgive him—Spencer; it’s Dunne, Beckford, Bloy, the Cabalists; it’s Stevenson, Chesterton, Kipling, Wells and William Morris, Browne and De Quincey Borges turns and returns to, while admitting no such similar debt to James, Melville, Joyce, and so on.”

At this point, I could point out that Borges is also one of our most fascinating modern interpreters of such authors as Shakespeare, Cervantes, and especially Dante—but that would simply be playing Gass’s own game, which he’s amply qualified to win. It’s better, I think, to consider what Borges does in practice with these writers, which Gass declines to specify. Take this passage, for instance, which Borges liked so much that he used it in two different essays:

Stevenson (“A Chapter on Dreams”) tells of being pursued in the dreams of his childhood by a certain abominable “hue” of the color brown; Chesterton (The Man Who Was Thursday) imagines that at the western borders of the world there is perhaps a tree that is more or less than a tree; and that at the eastern borders, there is something, perhaps a tower, whose very shape is wicked. Poe, in his “MS Found in a Bottle,” speaks of a southern sea where the ship itself will grow in bulk like the living body of the seaman; Melville devotes many pages of Moby-Dick to an elucidation of the horror of the unbearable whiteness of the whale.

Borges is using these examples to explain the idea of the unheimlich, but along the way, he does much more. These lines appear in a passage in which Borges suggests that William Beckford, author of the novel Vathek, conjures up a more frightening hell than Dante, and the collage of supporting images that he provides here implies that there’s something fundamental in life—its uneasiness, its uncanniness—that we find more clearly in Poe and Chesterton than in any of the supposedly greater writers that Gass would evidently prefer to read. And I suspect that Borges is right.

In fact, nearly all of Gass’s objections can be refuted by looking at the use to which Borges actually puts his materials. While discussing The Book of Imaginary Beings, in which Borges defines mythical creatures from Bahamut to the Simurgh, Gass writes: “Most of these beasts are mechanically made—insufficiently imaginary to be real, insufficiently original to be wonderful or menacing…There’s no longer a world left for these creatures to inhabit—even our own world has expelled them—so that they seem like pieces from a game we’ve forgotten how to play.” I could reply by saying that I’ve been thinking of Bahamut—the gigantic fish that holds up the world in Islamic cosmology—for most of my life. But it would be even better to respond with a few lines from an essay that Borges wrote shortly after the Nazis entered Paris:

Nazism suffers from unreality, like Erigena’s hell. It is uninhabitable; men can only die for it, lie for it, wound and kill for it. No one, in the intimate depths of his being, can wish it to triumph. I shall risk this conjecture: Hitler wants to be defeated. Hitler is blindly collaborating with the inevitable armies that will annihilate him, as the metal vultures and the dragon (which must have known that they were monsters) collaborated, mysteriously, with Hercules.

This is an unforgettable passage, and it depends enormously on Borges’s intuitive ability to zero in on the “metal vultures,” rather than, say, the Erymanthian Boar, which serve as a more effective symbol than any realistic image ever could. As Borges writes elsewhere of another imaginative writer: “How can these fantasies move me, and in such an intimate manner? All literature (I would dare to answer) is symbolic; there are a few fundamental experiences, and it is unimportant whether a writer, in transmitting them, makes use of the ‘fantastic’ or the ‘real,’ Macbeth or Raskolnikov, the invasion of Belgium in August 1914 or an invasion of Mars.”

Borges is speaking here of The Martian Chronicles, of which he continues: “In this outwardly fantastic book, Bradbury has set out the long empty Sundays, the American tedium, and his own solitude.” This comes very close to what Borges notes of his own achievement in his lecture “The Argentine Writer and Tradition”:

For many years, in books now fortunately forgotten, I tried to compose the flavor, the essence, of the outskirts of Buenos Aires; naturally I abounded in local words…Then, about a year ago, I wrote a story called “Death and the Compass,” which is a kind of nightmare, a nightmare in which elements of Buenos Aires appear, deformed by the horror of the nightmare…After the story was published, my friends told me that at last they had found the flavor of the outskirts of Buenos Aires in my writing. Precisely because I had not abandoned myself to the dream, I was able to achieve, after so many years, what I once sought in vain.

Borges’s greatness lies precisely in his ability to find the deeper psychological truth in those very genres, like detective stories or speculative fiction, that Gass thinks should be “overcome.” And part of that gift lies in his genius—which he shares with Proust, an author with whom he might seem to have little else in common—to integrate his mature talents with the mood of the fantasy stories that he read as a child. (Gass dismisses his taste as “still in its teens,” but it would be more accurate to call them the tastes of a boy of twelve, or the golden age, which is something very different.) Gass asks incredulously: “And what about those stories which snap together at the end like a cheap lock? with a gun shot? Is this impish dilettante the same man who leaves us so often uneasily amazed?” He doesn’t name any titles, but any list of such works has to include “Death and the Compass,” one of the most essential short stories of the century, and perhaps also “The Garden of Forking Paths,” which was first translated into English by Anthony Boucher for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. These qualities aren’t incidental to Borges’s work, as Gass seems to believe, but the indispensable building blocks of his labyrinth. And if this is the dream, or nightmare, in which we’ve all found ourselves, Borges is still the best guide that we have.

Quote of the Day

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We [are] obsessed with our own lives, which lives being now language, the emphasis has moved. The emphasis is persistently centric, so that where once one sought a vocabulary for ideas, now one seeks ideas for vocabularies.

Lyn Hejinian, “If Written is Writing”

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November 15, 2018 at 7:30 am

The end of an era

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On July 11, 1971, the science fiction editor John W. Campbell passed away quietly at his home in New Jersey. When he died, he was alone in his living room, watching Mexican wrestling on the local Spanish channel, which was his favorite television show. (I should also note in passing that it was a genre with deep affinities to superhero culture and comic books.) Word of his death quickly spread through fandom. Isaac Asimov was heartbroken at the news, writing later of the man whom he had always seen as his intellectual father: “I had never once thought…that death and he had anything in common, could ever intersect. He was the fixed pole star about which all science fiction revolved, unchangeable, eternal.” For the last decade, Analog had been on the decline, and Campbell was no longer the inescapable figure he had been in the thirties and forties, but it was impossible to deny his importance. In The Engines of the Night, Barry N. Malzberg spends several pages chronicling the late editor’s failings, mistakes, and shortcomings, but he concludes unforgettably:

And yet when I heard of Campbell’s sudden death…and informed Larry Janifer, I trembled at Janifer’s response and knew that it was so: “The field has lost its conscience, its center, the man for whom we were all writing. Now there’s no one to get mad at us anymore.”

Tributes appeared in such magazines as Locus, and Campbell’s obituary ran in the New York Times, but the loss was felt most keenly within the close community of science fiction readers and writers—perhaps because they sensed that it marked an end to the era in which the genre could still be regarded as the property of a small circle of fans.

I thought of this earlier this week, when the death of Stan Lee inspired what seemed like a national day of mourning. For much of the afternoon, he all but took over the front page of Reddit, which is an achievement that no other nonagenarian could conceivably have managed. And it’s easy to draw a contrast between Lee and Campbell, both in their cultural impact and in the way in which they were perceived by the public. Here’s how Lee is described in the book Men of Tomorrow:

His great talent, in both writing and life, was to win people’s affection. He was raised to be lovable by a mother who worshipped him. “I used to come home from school,” said Stan, “and she’d grab me and fuss over me and say, ‘You’re home already? I was sure today was the day a movie scout would discover you and take you away from me!’” She told Stan that he was the most handsome, most talented, most remarkable boy who’d ever lived. “And I believed her!” Stan said. “I didn’t know any better!” Stan attacked the world with a crooked grin and a line of killer patter. No one else in comics ever wanted to badly to be liked or became so good at it. He was known as a soft touch on advances, deadlines, and extra assignments. Even people who didn’t take him seriously as an editor or writer had to admit that Stan truly was a nice guy.

This couldn’t be less like Campbell, who also had a famous story about coming home from school to see his mother—only to be confronted by her identical twin, his aunt, who hated him. He claimed that this memory inspired the novella that became The Thing. And while I’m not exactly a Freudian biographer, it isn’t hard to draw a few simple conclusions about how these two boys might have grown up to see the world.

Yet they also had a surprising amount in common, to the point that I often used Lee as a point of comparison when I was pitching Astounding. Lee was over a decade younger than Campbell, which made him nearly the same age as Isaac Asimov and Frederik Pohl—which testifies both to his longevity and to how relatively young Campbell and Asimov were when they died. Lee’s first job in publishing was as an assistant in the comics division of the pulp publisher Martin Goodman, presumably just a few steps away from Uncanny Tales, which suggests that he could just as easily have wound up in one as well as the other. He became the interim comics editor at the age of nineteen, or the same age as Pohl when he landed his first editing job. (I’m not aware of Lee crossing paths with any of my book’s major figures during this period, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they moved in the same circles in New York.) Like Campbell, Lee’s legacy is conventionally thought to consist of moving the genre toward greater realism, better writing, and more believable characters, although the degree to which each man was responsible for these developments has been disputed. Both also cultivated a distinct voice in their editorials and letters columns, which became a forum for open discussion with fans, although they differed drastically in their tones, political beliefs, and ambitions. Campbell openly wanted to make a discovery that would change the world, while Lee seemed content to make his mark on the entertainment industry, which he did with mixed success for decades. It can be hard to remember now, but there was a long period when Lee seemed lost in the wilderness, with a sketchy production company that filed for bankruptcy and pursued various dubious projects. If he had died in his seventies, or just after his cameo in Mallrats, he might well have been mourned, like Campbell, mostly by diehard fans.

Instead, he lived long enough to see the movie versions of X-Men and Spider-Man, followed by the apotheosis of the Marvel Universe. And it’s easy to see the difference between Campbell and Lee as partially a matter of longevity. If Campbell had lived to be the same age, he would have died in 2005, which is a truly staggering thought. I have trouble imagining what science fiction would have been like if he had stuck around for three more decades, even from the sidelines. (It isn’t hard to believe that he might have remained a fixture at conventions. The writer and scholar James Gunn—not to be confused with the director of Guardians of the Galaxy—is almost exactly Stan Lee’s age, and I sat down to chat with him at Worldcon two years ago.) Of course, Campbell was already estranged from many writers and fans at the time of his death, and unlike Lee, he was more than willing to alienate a lot of his readers. It seems unlikely that he would have been forgiven for his mistakes, as Lee was, simply out of the affection in which he was held. If anything, his death may have postponed the reckoning with his racism, and its impact on the genre, that otherwise might have taken place during his lifetime. But the differences also run deeper. When you look at the world in which we live today, it might seem obvious that Lee’s comics won out over Campbell’s stories, at least when measured by their box office and cultural impact. The final installment in E.E. Smith’s Galactic Patrol was published just a few months before the debut of a character created by the science fiction fans Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, but you still see kids dressed up as Superman, not the Gray Lensman. That may seem inevitable now, but it could easily have gone the other way. The story of how this happened is a complicated one, and Lee played a huge part in it, along with many others. His death, like Campbell’s, marks the end of an era. And it may only be now that we can start to figure out what it all really meant.

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