Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The boundary regions

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Norbert Wiener

It is these boundary regions of science which offer the richest opportunities to the qualified investigator. They are at the same time the most refractory to the accepted techniques of mass attack and the division of labor. If the difficulty of a physiological problem is mathematical in essence, ten physiologists ignorant of mathematics will get precisely as far as one physiologist ignorant of mathematics, and no further. If a physiologist who knows no mathematics works together with a mathematician who knows no physiology, the one will be unable to state his problem in terms that the other can manipulate, and the second will be unable to put the answers in any form that the first can understand.

Dr. [Arturo] Rosenblueth has always insisted that a proper exploration of these blank spaces on the map of science could only be made by a team of scientists, each a specialist in his own field but each possessing a thoroughly sound and trained acquaintance with the fields of his neighbors; all in the habit of working together, of knowing one another’s intellectual customs, and of recognizing the significance of a colleague’s new suggestion before it has taken on a full formal expression. The mathematician need not have the skill to conduct a physiological experiment, but he must have the skill to understand one, to criticize one, and to suggest one. The physiologist need not be able to prove a certain mathematical theorem, but he must be able to grasp its physiological significance and to tell the mathematician for what he should look.

Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics

Written by nevalalee

February 19, 2017 at 7:30 am

The simplicity of excitement

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Graham Greene

Excitement is simple: excitement is a situation, a single event. It mustn’t be wrapped up in thoughts, similes, metaphors. A simile is a form of reflection, but excitement is of the moment when there is no time to reflect. Action can only be expressed by a subject, a verb, and an object, perhaps a rhythm—little else. Even an adjective slows the pace or tranquilizes the nerve. I should have turned to Stevenson to learn my lesson: “It came all of a sudden when it did, with a rush of feet and a roar, and then a shout from Alan, and the sound of blows and someone crying as if hurt. I looked back over my shoulder, and saw Mr. Shuan in the doorway crossing blades with Alan.” No similes or metaphors there, not even an adjective. But I was too concerned with “the point of view” to be aware of simpler problems, to know that the sort of  novel I was trying to write, unlike a poem, was not made with words but with movement, action, character. Discrimination in one’s words is certainly required, but not love of one’s words—that is a form of self-love, a fatal love which leads a young writer to the excesses of Charles Morgan and Lawrence Durrell, and, looking back to this period of my life, I can see that I was in danger of taking their road. I was only saved by failure.

Graham Greene, A Sort of Life

Written by nevalalee

February 18, 2017 at 7:30 am

A Hawk From a Handsaw, Part 3

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Hermann Göring with falcon

Over the last few days, I’ve been doing my best Robert Anton Wilson impression, and, like him, I’ve been seeing hawks everywhere. Science fiction is full of them. Skylark of Space, which is arguably the story that kicked off the whole business in the first place, was written by E.E. Smith and his friend Lee Hawkins Garby, who is one of those women who seem to have largely fallen out of the history of the genre. Then there’s Hawk Carse, the main character of a series of stories, written for Astounding by editors Harry Bates and Desmond W. Hall, that have become synonymous with bad space opera. And you’ve got John W. Campbell himself, who was described as having “hawklike” features by the fan historian Sam Moskowitz, and who once said of his own appearance: “I haven’t got eyes like a hawk, but the nose might serve.” (Campbell also compared his looks to those of The Shadow and, notably, Hermann Göring, an enthusiastic falconer who loved hawks.) It’s all a diverting game, but it gets at a meaningful point. When Wilson’s wife objected to his obsession with the 23 enigma, pointing out that he was just noticing that one number and ignoring everything else, Wilson could only reply: “Of course.” But continued to believe in it as an “intuitive signal” that would guide him in useful directions, as well as an illustration of the credo that guided his entire career:

Our models of “reality” are very small and tidy, the universe of experience is huge and untidy, and no model can ever include all the huge untidiness perceived by uncensored consciousness.

We’re living at a time in which the events of the morning can be spun into two contradictory narratives by early afternoon, so it doesn’t seem all that original to observe that you can draw whatever conclusion you like from a sufficiently rich and random corpus of facts. On some level, all too many mental models come down to looking for hawks, noting their appearances, and publishing a paper about the result. And when you’re talking about something like the history of science fiction, which is an exceptionally messy body of data, it’s easy to find the patterns that you want. You could write an overview of the genre that draws a line from A.E. van Vogt to Alfred Bester to Philip K. Dick that would be just as persuasive and consistent as one that ignores them entirely. The same is true of individuals like Campbell and Heinlein, who, like all of us, contained multitudes. It can be hard to reconcile the Campbell who took part in parapsychological experiments at Duke and was editorializing in the thirties about the existence of telepathy in Unknown with the founder of whatever we want to call Campbellian science fiction, just as it can be difficult to make sense of the contradictory aspects of Heinlein’s personality, which is something I haven’t quite managed to do yet. As Borges writes:

Let us greatly simplify, and imagine that a life consists of 13,000 facts. One of the hypothetical biographies would record the series 11, 22, 33…; another, the series 9, 13, 17, 21…; another, the series 3, 12, 21, 30, 39…A history of a man’s dreams is not inconceivable; another, of the organs of his body; another, of the mistakes he made; another, of all the moments when he thought about the Pyramids; another, of his dealings with the night and the dawn.

It’s impossible to keep all those facts in mind at once, so we make up stories about people that allow us to extrapolate the rest, in a kind of lossy compression. The story of Arthur C. Clarke’s encounter with Uri Geller is striking mostly because it doesn’t fit our image of Clarke as the paradigmatic hard science fiction writer, but of course, he was much more than that.

The Falcon Killer

I’ve been focusing on places where science fiction intersects with the mystical because there’s a perfectly valid history to be written about it, and it’s a thread that tends to be overlooked. But perhaps the most instructive paranormal encounter of all happened to none other than Isaac Asimov. In July 1966, Asimov and his family were spending two weeks at a summer house in Concord, Massachusetts. One evening, his daughter ran into the house shouting: “Daddy, Daddy, a flying saucer! Come look!” Here’s how he describes what happened next:

I rushed out of the house to see…It was a cloudless twilight. The sun had set and the sky was a uniform slate gray, still too light for any stars to be visible; and there, hanging in the sky, like an oversize moon, was a perfect featureless metallic circle of something like aluminum.

I was thunderstruck, and dashed back into the house for my glasses, moaning, “Oh no, this can’t happen to me. This can’t happen to me.” I couldn’t bear the thought that I would have to report something that really looked as though it might conceivably be an extraterrestrial starship.

When Asimov went back outside, the object was still there. It slowly began to turn, becoming gradually more elliptical, until the black markings on its side came into view—and it turned out to be the Goodyear blimp. Asimov writes: “I was incredibly relieved!” Years later, his daughter told the New York Times: “He nearly had a heart attack. He thought he saw his career going down the drain.”

It’s a funny story in itself, but let’s compare it to what Geller writes about Clarke: “Clarke was not there just to scoff. He had wanted things to happen. He just wanted to be completely convinced that everything was legitimate.” The italics are mine. Asimov, alone of all the writers I’ve mentioned, never had any interest in the paranormal, and he remained a consistent skeptic throughout his life. As a result, unlike the others, he was very rarely wrong. But I have a hunch that it’s also part of the reason why he sometimes seems like the most limited of all major science fiction writers—undeniably great within a narrow range—while simultaneously the most important to the culture as a whole. Asimov became the most famous writer the genre has ever seen because you could basically trust him: it was his nonfiction, not his fiction, that endeared him to the public, and his status as a explainer depended on maintaining an appearance of unruffled rationality. It allowed him to assume a very different role than Campbell, who manifestly couldn’t be trusted on numerous issues, or even Heinlein, who convinced a lot of people to believe him while alienating countless others. But just as W.B. Yeats drew on his occult beliefs as a sort of battery to drive his poetry, Campbell and Heinlein were able to go places where Asimov politely declined to follow, simply because he had so much invested in not being wrong. Asimov was always able to tell the difference between a hawk and a handsaw, no matter which way the wind was blowing, and in some ways, he’s the best model for most of us to emulate. But it’s hard to write science fiction, or to live in it, without seeing patterns that may or may not be there.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

February 17, 2017 at 7:30 am

A Hawk From a Handsaw, Part 2

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Detail from the cover of the January 1974 issue of Analog

Yesterday, I mentioned the series of incidents from the early seventies that the writer Robert Anton Wilson memorably described as “some mysterious hawks that follow Uri Geller around.” Geller, the Israeli magician and purported telepath, claimed to be in contact with an alien entity that three other men—Saul-Paul Sirag, Andrija Puharich, and Ray Stanford—believed they had seen in the form of a hawk. A few months after his own encounter, in which he thought he saw Geller turn into a bird of prey, Sirag was startled to see the Kelly Freas cover of the January 1974 issue of Analog, which depicted a man with a hawklike helmet and the last name “Stanford” embroidered over his breast pocket. The story, “The Horus Errand” by William E. Cochrane, follows a psychic named Stanford as he attempts to guide the consciousness of a deceased millionaire through its reincarnation into the body of a newly born infant, only to lose track of his client along the way. (There are shades of Heinlein’s I Will Fear No Evil, which had been published a few years earlier.) Egyptian imagery plays a significant role in the plot, with Stanford comparing his task to that of the mythological Isis, who gathered up the pieces of the dead Osiris and used them to conceive their son Horus. An enormous modern pyramid serves as a backdrop to the action. Decades later, the real Ray Stanford, who was associated with research into unidentified flying objects, provided a sketch, pictured below, of what he said was the real insignia on the famous spacecraft seen in Socorro, New Mexico on April 24, 1964 by police officer Lonnie Zamora. It looks a lot like a pyramid.

In itself, it isn’t surprising to see Egyptian symbolism turning up repeatedly in these contexts. Such images are popular for much the same reason that a character in Foucault’s Pendulum says you find pyramids on both sides of the Atlantic: “Because the wind produces dunes in the shape of pyramids and not in the shape of the Parthenon.” (Another character responds: “I hate the spirit of the Enlightenment.”) But the timing is suggestive for other reasons. We can start with Andrija Puharich, the parapsychological researcher who introduced Geller to a large popular audience. In his book Uri, which presents Geller as a kind of messiah figure who draws his abilities from extraterrestrial sources, Puharich describes a few hawk encounters of his own. He had traveled to Tel Aviv to study Geller, and he quickly became convinced of the other man’s powers. While driving through the countryside on New Year’s Day of 1972, Puharich saw two white hawks, followed by others at his hotel two days later:

At times one of the birds would glide in from the sea right up to within a few meters of the balcony; it would flutter there in one spot and stare at me directly in the eyes. It was a unique experience to look into the piercing, “intelligent” eyes of a hawk. It was then that I knew I was not looking into the eyes of an earthly hawk. This was confirmed about 2 P.M. when Uri’s eyes followed a feather, loosened from the hawk, that floated on an updraft toward the top of the Sharon Tower. As his eye followed the feather to the sky, he was startled to see a dark spacecraft parked directly over the hotel.

Geller insisted that there weren’t any hawks in Israel, and that the birds had been sent to protect them. “I dubbed this hawk ‘Horus’ and still use this name each time he appears to me,” Puharich concludes, adding that he saw it on two other occasions.

The Socorro Symbol

As it turns out, there are, in fact, hawks in Israel, and based on a few minutes of research and Puharich’s description—a two-foot wingspan, with gray plumage and a white underside with “darker stippling”—I think they might have been Eurasian sparrowhawks, which are sometimes observed around Tel Aviv. But the most striking point goes unspoken. Puharich’s book is set during a period of heightened tension between Israel and Egypt, and much of the action revolves Geller allegedly receiving information from a higher power about a pending Egyptian invasion. During a hypnotic trance on December 1, 1971, Geller heard the message: “Plans for war have been made by Egypt, and if Israel loses, the entire world will explode into war.” Similarly, in a second session: “In Khartoum and in Egypt there may be many dead. Sadat will be taken by his officers. Syria will attack. Jordan will not intervene. There will be many Egyptian soldiers in Jordan. You, you are the only one to save mankind.” Puharich spent much of his visit praying for peace, and ultimately, no attack took place, with the strong implication that Geller’s efforts had something to do with averting it. When the Yom Kippur War did break out on on October 6, 1973, Geller and Puharich consulted their extraterrestrial source, who replied: “The fight and the war will be fought just like an ordinary war. This war had to come, and they shall fight it out alone. You are not needed this time.” Earlier in the book, Puharich writes:

If [a cosmic being] wishes to appear to some earth person, it chooses a form suitable to the local taste. In ancient Egypt the sun god, Ra, for example, was said to appear in the form of a hawk called Hor, or as corrupted by the Greeks, Horus.

But as far as I can tell, neither Puharich nor Geller comment on the incongruity of a cosmic entity reaching out to an Israeli psychic in 1971 in the form of the Egyptian god of war.

If interest in paranormal phenomena tends to spike during times of uncertainty, it isn’t all that strange that it would draw upon Egyptian symbolism in a decade when global anxieties were shifting toward the Middle East. But there’s one other instance I want to mention. In 1956, the science fiction writers Damon Knight and Judith Merril organized the first Milford Science Fiction Writers’ Conference, which drew such authors as Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, and L. Sprague de Camp. Also in attendance was Cyril Kornbluth, who brought along a young woman, Jane Roberts, whom Knight describes as “slender and dark, thin to the point of emaciation,” with “enormous dark eyes.” During the conference, Kornbluth invited Knight, James Blish, and Algis Budrys to join him in Roberts’s hotel room. Here’s how Knight, in his book The Futurians, describes what occurred there:

I have often wished I had asked Cyril what he really had in mind and what he expected to happen. My memories of what did happen are fragmentary. I remember that after a while Jane was sitting on a straight chair with the rest of us grouped together, and that she went into a trance and prophesied. I have forgotten every word of what she said. Still later we were grouped in a tight circle with our arms around each other; all the lights had been turned out except one dim one; it may have been a candle. Cyril was expressing his misery, and I began to sob, feeling as I did so that I was crying as his surrogate. We left the meeting with a feeling of closeness that went beyond friendship.

Two years later, Kornbluth was dead of a heart attack, while Budrys subsequently denied that the incident had ever taken place. As for Jane Roberts, she later became famous for channeling “an energy personality” that first received widespread attention in a series of books published in the early seventies. The personality called itself Seth—which, of course, is the name of the Egyptian god who was the enemy of Horus. Tomorrow, I’ll do what I can to make sense of all this, and I’ll also talk about its relevance today, when a different kind of Israeli hawk seems to be making a comeback.

Quote of the Day

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John Cheever

In the last ten or twenty years, there has been a rush on the part of many writers to insinuate themselves into the middle class, to live like bank clerks and to eschew any outward sign of disorder; a splendid maneuver, it seems to me, as long as the writer realizes that this is an act of espionage, that this is intended to put him in a position to observe the mores of his natural enemies.

John Cheever, The Letters of John Cheever

Written by nevalalee

February 16, 2017 at 7:30 am

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A Hawk From a Handsaw, Part 1

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Uri Geller

I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.


In the summer of 1974, the Israeli magician and purported psychic Uri Geller arrived at Birkbeck College in Bloomsbury, London, where the physicist David Bohm planned to subject him to a series of tests. Two of the scheduled observers were the writers Arthur Koestler and Arthur C. Clarke, of whom Geller writes in his autobiography:

Arthur Clarke…would be particularly important because he was highly skeptical of anything paranormal. His position was that his books, like 2001 and Childhood’s End, were pure science fiction, and it would be highly unlikely that any of their fantasies would come true, at least in his own lifetime.

Geller met the group in a conference room, where Koestler was cordial, although, Geller says, “I sensed that I really wasn’t getting through to Arthur C. Clarke.” A demonstration seemed to be in order, so Geller asked Clarke to hold one of his own housekeys in one hand, watching it closely to make sure that it wasn’t being swapped out, handled, or subjected to any trickery. Sure enough, the key began to bend. Clarke cried out, in what I like to think was an inadvertent echo of one of his most famous stories: “My God, my eyes are seeing it! It’s bending!”

Geller went on to display his talents in a number of other ways, including forcing a Geiger counter to click at an accelerated rate merely by concentrating on it. (It has been suggested by the skeptic James Randi that Geller had a magnet taped to his leg.) “By that time,” Geller writes, “Arthur Clarke seemed to have lost all his skepticism. He said something like, “My God! It’s all coming true! This is what I wrote about in Childhood’s End. I can’t believe it.” Geller continues:

Clarke was not there just to scoff. He had wanted things to happen. He just wanted to be completely convinced that everything was legitimate. When he saw that it was, he told the others: “Look, the magicians and the journalists who are knocking this better put up or shut up now. Unless they can repeat the same things Geller is doing under the same rigidly controlled conditions, they have nothing further to say.”

Clarke also told him about the plot of Childhood’s End, which Geller evidently hadn’t read: “It involves a UFO that is hovering over the earth and controlling it. He had written the book about twenty years ago. He said that, after being a total skeptic about these things, his mind had really been changed by observing these experiments.”

The Horus Errand

It’s tempting to think that Geller is exaggerating the extent of the author’s astonishment, but here’s what Clarke himself wrote about it:

Although it’s hard to focus on that hectic and confusing day at Birkbeck College in 1974…I suspect that Uri Geller’s account in My Story is all too accurate…In view of the chaos at the hastily arranged Birkbeck encounter, the phrase “rigidly controlled conditions” is hilarious. But that last sentence is right on target, for [the reproduction of Geller’s effects by stage magicians] is precisely what happened…Nevertheless, I must confess a sneaking fondness for Uri; though he left a trail of bent cutlery and fractured reputations round the world, he provided much-needed entertainment at a troubled and unhappy time.

Geller has largely faded from the public consciousness, but Clarke—who continued to believe long afterward that paranormal phenomena “can’t all be nonsense”—wasn’t the only science fiction writer to be intrigued by him. Robert Anton Wilson, one of my intellectual heroes, discusses him at length in the book Cosmic Trigger, in which he recounts the strange experience of his friend Saul-Paul Sirag. The year before the Birkbeck tests, Sirag was speaking to Geller when he saw the other man’s head turn into a “bird of prey,” like a hawk: “His nose became a beak, and his entire head sprouted feathers, down to his neck and shoulders.” (Sirag was also taking LSD at the time, which Wilson neglects to mention.) The hawk, Sirag thought, was the form assumed by an extraterrestrial intelligence that was allegedly in contact with Geller, and he didn’t know then that it had appeared in the same shape to two other men, including a psychic named Ray Stanford and another who had nicknamed it “Horus,” after the Egyptian god with a hawk’s head.

It gets weirder. A few months later, Sirag saw the January 1974 issue of Analog, which featured the story “The Horus Errand” by William E. Cochrane. The cover illustration depicted a man wearing a hawklike helmet, with the name “Stanford” written over his breast pocket. According to one of Sirag’s friends, the occultist Alan Vaughan, the character even looked a little like Ray Stanford—and you can judge the resemblance for yourself. Vaughan was interested enough to write to the artist, the legendary Kelly Freas, for more information. (Freas, incidentally, was close friends with John W. Campbell, to the point where Campbell even asked him to serve as the guardian for his two daughters if anything ever happened to him or his wife.) Freas replied that he had never met Stanford in person or knew how he looked, but that he had once received a psychic consultation from him by mail, in which Stanford said that “Freas had been some sort of illustrator in a past life in ancient Egypt.” As a result, Freas began to employ Egyptian imagery more consciously in his work, and the design of the helmet on the cover was entirely his own, without any reference to the story. At that point, the whole thing kind of peters out, aside from serving as an example of the kind of absurd coincidence that was so close to Wilson’s heart. But the intersection of Arthur C. Clarke, Uri Geller, and Robert Anton Wilson at that particular moment in time is a striking one, and it points toward an important thread in the history of science fiction that tends to be overlooked or ignored. Tomorrow, I’ll be writing more about what it all means, along with a few other ominous hawks.

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