When the writer and director Nicholas Meyer was first approached about the possibility of working on the sequel to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, his initial response was: “Star Trek? Is that the one with the guy with the pointy ears?” Meyer, who tells this story in his engaging memoir The View from the Bridge, went on to cleverly stage the opening scene of Wrath of Khan—which is probably the one movie, aside from Vertigo, that I’ve discussed more often on this blog than any other—so that those ears are literally the first thing we see, in a shot of a viewscreen taken from over Spock’s shoulder. Elsewhere, I’ve spoken at length about how Meyer’s detachment from the source material resulted in by far the best movie in the franchise, and one of the most entertaining movies I’ve ever seen: because he wasn’t beholden to the original series, he was free to stock it with things he liked, from the Horatio Hornblower novels to A Tale of Two Cities. But it’s revealing that he latched onto those ears first. As the reaction to Leonard Nimoy’s death last week amply proved, Spock was the keystone and entry point to that entire universe, and our love for him and what he represented had as much to do with his ears as with what was going on in the brain between them.
These days, Spock’s ears are so iconic that it can be hard to recognize how odd they once seemed. Spock was one of the few elements to survive from the original series pilot “The Cage,” and even at the time, the network was a little perturbed: it raised concerns over his allegedly satanic appearance, which executives feared “would scare the shit out of every kid in America.” (They would have cared even less for Gene Roddenberry’s earliest conceptions, in which Spock was described as having “a slightly reddish complexion.”) Accordingly, the first round of publicity photos for the show were airbrushed to give him normal ears and eyebrows. In any event, of course, Spock didn’t scare kids, or ordinary viewers—he fascinated them. And those ears were a large part of his appeal. As Meyer intuitively understood, they were a fantastic piece of narrative shorthand, a signal to anyone flipping through channels that something interesting was happening onscreen. Spock’s ears said as much about the show’s world and intentions as Kirk’s opening voiceover, and they did so without a word of dialogue.
Yet they wouldn’t have been nearly as effective if they hadn’t served as the visual introduction to a character who revealed greater depths the moment he began to speak. Spock was ostensibly a creature of pure logic, but he was much more, as Roger Ebert noted in his original review of Wrath of Khan:
The peculiar thing about Spock is that, being half human and half Vulcan and therefore possessing about half the usual quota of human emotions, he consistently, if dispassionately, behaves as if he possessed very heroic human emotions indeed. He makes a choice in Star Trek II that would be made only by a hero, a fool, or a Vulcan.
And while Robert Anton Wilson once claimed, with a straight face, that Spock was an archetypal reincarnation of the Aztec god Mescalito, whose pointed ears also appear on Peter Pan and the Irish leprechaun, his truest predecessor is as close as Victorian London. Meyer—whose breakthrough as a novelist was The Seven Per-Cent Solution—was the first to explicitly make the connection between Spock and Sherlock Holmes, whom Spock obliquely calls “an ancestor of mine” in The Undiscovered Country. Both were perfect reasoning machines, but they used logic to amplify, rather than undercut, their underlying qualities of humanity. “A great heart,” as Watson says, “as well as…a great brain.”
There’s a lesson here for storytellers of all kinds, and like most such examples, it’s easy to explain and all but impossible to replicate. Spock began as a visual conceit that could be grasped at once, deepened over time into a character whose basic qualities were immediately comprehensible and intriguing, and then became much more, aided in no small part by a magnificent performance by Nimoy. The autism advocate Temple Grandin has spoken of how much of herself she saw in Spock, a logical being trying to make his way in a world of more emotional creatures, and there’s no question that many Star Trek fans felt the same way. Spock, at least, carried his difference openly, and those who wear Starfleet pins on their lapels or don pointed ears at conventions are quietly allying themselves with that sense of otherness—which turns, paradoxically, into a sense of identity. “Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most human,” Kirk says at the end of Wrath of Khan, and what feels like a contradiction gets at something more profound. Humanity, whether in reality or in fiction, is something we have to earn with every choice we make. Spock’s journey as a character was so compelling that it arguably saved Star Trek three times over, and neither the franchise or science fiction as we know it would be the same if we hadn’t heard the story through his ears.
Well, I think these things just arrive from a combination of calculations in your mind that are not conscious, and the elimination, and suddenly one thing fits the pattern. It’s like grinding a key until it fits. And when that fits you think, “Oh, this is it!”
If upon reading the notices in the newspapers after the first night it is found that different critics take exception to different scenes, you can safely predict a successful run.
If the critics unanimously take exception to one particular scene it is advisable to move that scene to a more conspicuous place in the program.
If, on the other hand, no particular critic dislikes any particular scene and they all write praising the production, it either means that you have such a good show that they haven’t the face to attack it, or such a bad show that they like it. In either case it will probably be a failure.
Carefully examined a good—an interesting—style will be found to consist in a constant succession of tiny, unobservable surprises…
The catalog of an ironmonger’s store is uninteresting as literature because things in it are all classified and thus obvious: the catalog of a farm sale is more interesting because things in it are contrasted. No one would for long read: “Nails, drawn wire, 1/2 inch, per lb…; nails do., 3/4 inch, per lb…; nails, do., inch, per lb…” But it is often not disagreeable to read desultorily: “Lot 267, Pair rabbit gins. Lot 268, Antique powder flask. Lot 269, Malay Kris. Lot 270, Set of six sporting prints by Herring. Lot 271, Silver caudle cup…” For that, as far as it goes, has the quality of surprise.
Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “Assuming the afterlife exists, in what fictional world do you want to spend it?”
Years ago, whenever I thought about the possibility of an afterlife, I’d find myself indulging in a very specific fantasy. After my death, I’d wake up lying on a beach, alone, dressed for some reason in a dark suit pretty much like the one Kyle MacLachlan wore on Twin Peaks. The world in which I’d find myself would be more or less like our own, except maybe a little emptier, and as I explored it, I’d gradually come into contact with other departed souls who had awoken into much the same situation. We’d be curious about who or what had brought us here, but the answers wouldn’t be obvious, and we’d suspect that we were all part of some kind of ongoing test or game, the rules of which were still obscure. And we’d spend the rest of eternity trying to figure out what, exactly, we were supposed to be doing there. (I’m not the first to imagine something like this: Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld series is based on a similar premise. And much later, I was amazed to find the same image in the opening scenes of A Matter of Life and Death by Powell and Pressburger, in which the airman played by David Niven—who isn’t really dead, although he doesn’t know this yet—wakes up to find himself on a beach in Devon. He thinks he’s in heaven, and he’s pleased to meet a dog there: “I’d always hoped there would be dogs.”)
What’s funny, of course, is that what I’ve described isn’t so far from the world in which we’ve actually found ourselves. We’re all born into an ongoing story, its meaning unknown, and we’re left to explore it and figure out the answers together. The difference is that we enter it as babies, and by the time we’re old enough to have any agency, we’ve already started to take it for granted. There’s a window of time in childhood when everything in the world is exciting and new—I’m seeing my daughter go through it now—but most of us slowly lose it, as our lives become increasingly governed by assumptions and routine. That’s a necessary part of growing older: as a practical matter, if we faced every day as another adventure, we’d quickly burn ourselves out, although not before rendering ourselves unbearable to everyone else we knew. Yet there’s also a tremendous loss here, and we spend much of our adult lives trying to recapture that magic in a provisional fashion. Part of the reason I became a novelist was to consciously reinvigorate that sense of possibility, by laboriously renewing it one story at a time. (If writers often seem unduly obsessed with death, it’s partially because the field attracts people of that temperament: we’re engaged either in constructing a kind of literary immorality for ourselves or in increasing the number of potential lives we can experience in the limited time we have.)
On a similar level, when we fantasize about spending our afterlives in Narnia or the Star Trek universe, we’re really talking about recapturing that sense of childlike discovery with our adult sensibilities and capacities intact. This planet is as wondrous as any product of fantasy world-building, but by the time we have the freedom and ability to explore it, we’ve been tied down by other responsibilities, or simply by a circumscribed sense of the possibilities at our disposal. So much speculative fiction—or really fiction of any kind—is devoted to rekindling the sense of wonder that we should, in theory, be able to feel just by looking all around us, if we hadn’t gotten so used to it. Video games of the open world variety are designed to reignite some of that old curiosity, and there’s even an entire subreddit devoted to talking about the real world as if it were a massively multiplayer online game, with billions of active players. It’s a cute conceit, but it’s also a reminder of how little we take advantage of the potential that life affords. If this were a game, we’d be constantly exploring, talking to strangers, and poking our heads into whatever byways caught our interest. Instead, we tend to treat it as if we were on rails, except in those rare times when the range of possibilities seems to expand for everyone, as it did to Wordsworth during the French Revolution: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.”
This inability to live outside our own limits explains why the problem of boredom is one that all creators of speculative afterlives, from Dante to Mark Twain, have been forced to confront, with mixed results. Even eternal bliss might start to feel like a burden if extended beyond the heat death of the universe, and to imagine that we’ll merely be content to surrender ourselves to that ecstasy also means giving up something precious about ourselves. Dante’s vision of purgatory is compelling because it turns the afterlife into a learning process of its own—a series of challenges we need to surmount to climb that mountain—and his conception of paradise is significantly less interesting, both poetically and theologically. But if we can start to see heaven as a place in which that sense of childlike discovery is restored, only with full maturity and understanding, it starts to feel a lot more plausible. And, more practically, it points a way forward right now. As Wordsworth says later in the same poem:
[They] were called upon to exercise their skill,
Not in Utopia, subterranean fields,
Or some unsecreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us,—the place where in the end
We find our happiness, or not at all!
That revolution, like most utopian ideals, didn’t end as most of its proponents would have wished. But in this life, in incremental ways, it’s the closest thing we have to paradise. Or to put it even more vividly: “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
A writer should sit down and write only when he feels cold as ice.
Occasionally, I’ll catch myself talking about writing as if it were nothing more than a collection of tricks. It’s much more than that, of course—there’s inspiration, intuition, and hard work involved, although there are tricks that apply to these aspects as well. And there’s always the danger that craft itself can turn into a crutch, or a way of avoiding a story’s deeper implications, once a writer has acquired enough dexterity to paper over lapses of logic or imagination. Yet if I’ve focused primarily on the tricks here, it’s for good reason. For one thing, it’s easier to find something relatively new to say each day about the technical aspects of writing: if I were more focused on inspiration and motivation, I’d end up writing the same post over and over again. And the world is already filled with books on writing that seem designed to do little more than urge aspiring authors to believe in themselves. There’s absolutely a place for this, and I’ve long benefited from words of encouragement from writers as different as John Gardner, Annie Dillard, and Stephen King. In the long run, though, most writers figure out the why for themselves; it’s the how that keeps them from taking their work to completion.
And craft has pleasures and consolations of its own. Writing is about a lot of things, but it’s largely a matter of creating a certain kind of awareness, both toward the world itself and toward other works of fiction. When you’re in the middle of writing a novel, you look at the people, places, and situations around you in a way that doesn’t have a parallel anywhere else; an ongoing project turns the brain into a kind of magnet, drawing bits and pieces of material that would have gone unnoticed if there hadn’t been a place to put them. What sets the great noticers, like Nabokov and Updike, apart from the others is that they don’t seem able to turn it off, even if they aren’t working on a particular story. For the rest of us, that quality is heightened when we’re tackling something specific: it makes us just a little more conscious, a little more aware. But an understanding of writing’s technical side—which really only emerges after we’ve written a novel or two of our own—goes a long way toward maintaining that level of awareness in the meantime. In art, as in science, we’re more likely to notice something interesting if we have a general idea of what we’re trying to find, and a lot of craft boils down to recognizing something useful when we see it.
Once you’ve been writing for long enough, you naturally start to pick up on details of appearance, incident, or behavior that might come in handy one day, but craft also teaches you to pay attention to things that are a little more abstract: a way of describing something, a structure that creates suspense, a scene or character type that you can appropriate and apply to a more concrete problem. Often I’ll be watching a movie or reading a book, absorbed but not particularly excited, and find that my interest is suddenly much higher than it was before. At such times, it helps to step back and try to figure out what happened. I vividly remember watching the great Argentine movie The Secret in Their Eyes, for instance, and feeling a spike in suspense during a scene when two characters illegally enter the house of a suspect in search of a piece of evidence. The entire sequence is charged with tension, and it isn’t hard to see why: even if they aren’t caught in the act, the real possibility remains that they will be, and everything that happens—even exposition—is more interesting as a result. I filed this away, and later, when it came time to write a new scene for The Icon Thief, I had Powell do much the same thing, knowing that it would probably hold the reader’s attention.
That’s the kind of trick I like, and once you start looking for them consciously, it adds a new layer of interest to every work of fiction you experience. When I saw the recent adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I felt a similar surge in interest during the great scene—taken almost exactly from the original novel, which I hadn’t read at that point—in which Peter Guillam, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, steals a file from the archives of his own intelligence agency. It’s a nifty sequence that involves good timing, quick improvisation, and the substitution of one folder for another, and it’s basically a set piece, in its original sense: a scene that could be lifted from one story and inserted into another without much in the way of modification. It doesn’t matter what the folder contains; the beats of the sequence would remain exactly the same. I liked it so much, in fact, that I felt no compunction in using it in Chapter 10 of Eternal Empire, in which Maddy has to steal a binder from the office in which she works. Shrewd readers will probably see the parallels, and might even see it as an homage, when it’s more a case of using a good trick at the right time. Any decent novel, of course, is more than the sum of its tricks. But they’re often necessary for us to obtain what we need, like Guilliam, without getting caught…