Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for September 2016

Loving the alienator

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Donald Trump

For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?

—Mark 8:36

Whether or not you’re a believer, you eventually end up with your own idea of who Jesus might have been. I like to think of him as the ultimate pragmatist. If you accept his central premise—that the kingdom of heaven, whatever it is, is something that is happening right now—then his ethical system, as impossible as it might seem for most of us to follow, becomes easier to understand. It’s about eliminating distractions, focusing on what really counts, and removing sources of temptation before they have a chance to divert us from the true goal. Poverty, as Michael Grant puts it in Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, is a practical solution to a concrete problem: “Excessive wealth might be a positive disadvantage, since its too lavish enjoyment could distract its possessors from the overriding vital matter at hand.” And as Grant observes elsewhere:

Certainly, “blessed are the meek”…but that is because “they shall inherit the earth.” Since nothing less than this is at stake, a contentious spirit is wholly out of place, for it will only distract attention and energy from the preeminent task. It is not even worth hating your enemies…In the urgent circumstances, Jesus believed, it was a sheer waste of time. Love them instead, just as much as you love everyone else; pray for those who persecute you, turn the other cheek. For why not avoid hostilities and embroilments which, beside the infinitely larger issue, are ultimately irrelevant and distracting?

“Love your enemies,” in other words, is nothing but sensible advice. Which doesn’t it make it any easier to do it for real, rather than merely paying it lip service, when it strikes us as inconvenient.

Take the case of Donald Trump. It’s fair to say that I feel less love toward Trump than I do toward any other American public figure of my lifetime. At my best, I just want to go back to the days when I could safely ignore him; at my worst, I want him to suffer some kind of humiliating, career-ending comeuppance, although I’m well aware that real life rarely affords such satisfactions. (If anything, it’s more likely to give us the opposite.) I’m also uncomfortably conscious that this is exactly the kind of reaction that he wants to evoke from me. It’s a victory. No matter what happens in this election, Trump has added perceptibly to the world’s stockpile of hate, resentment, and alienation. Hating him and what he stands for is easy; what isn’t so easy is trying to respond in ways that don’t merely feed into the cycle of hatred. The answer—and I wish it were different—is right there in front of us. We’re told to love our enemies. Jesus, the pragmatic philosopher, knew that there wasn’t time for anything else. But when I think about doing the same with Trump, I feel a bit like Meg Murry in A Wrinkle in Time, when she realizes that love is the only weapon that will work against IT, the hideous brain that rules the planet of Camazotz:

If she could give love to IT perhaps it would shrivel up and die, for she was sure that IT could not withstand love. But she, in all her weakness and foolishness and baseness and nothingness, was incapable of loving IT. Perhaps it was not too much to ask of her, but she could not do it.

The italics, as always, are mine. It isn’t too much to ask. But it’s one thing to acknowledge this, and quite another to grant that we’re obliged to do it for someone like Donald Trump.

The Simpsons episode "Brush with Greatness"

So here’s my best shot. Trump grew up wanting nothing more than to please his own demanding father. Early in his career, he was just one real estate developer among many. He ended up concluding that the only values worth pursuing were the acquisition of money and power, abstracted from any possible benefit except as a way of keeping score. What’s worse, he received plenty of validation that his assumptions were correct. He’s never had any reason to grow or change. Instead, as we all do, he’s become more like himself as he’s aged, while categorizing the human beings around him as sources of income, enemies, or potential enablers. Behind his bluster, he’s deeply insecure, as we all are. He refuses to take responsibility for his actions, he can’t admit a mistake, and he blames everyone but himself when things go wrong. (When he says that the first debate was “rigged” because someone tampered with his mike and the moderator was against him, I’m reminded of what David Mamet says in On Directing Film: “Two reasons are equal to no reasons—it’s like saying: ‘I was late because the bus drivers are on strike and my aunt fell downstairs.’”) He seems unhappy. It’s hard to imagine him taking pleasure in reading a book, preparing a meal, or really anything aside from trolling the electorate and putting his name on buildings and planes. He appears to have no affection for anyone or anything, except perhaps his own children. And he’s the creation of forces that even he can’t control. He’s succeeded beyond his wildest expectations, but only by becoming the full-time monster that was only there in flashes before. Trump uses the system, but it also uses him. He has transformed himself into exactly what he hopes people want him to be, and he’s condemned to do it forever. And when the end comes—”As it must to all men,” the newsreel narrator reminds us in Citizen Kane—he’ll have to ask himself whether it was worth it.

I know that this comes perilously close to what the onlookers say after seeing Marge Simpson’s nude portrait of Mr. Burns: “He’s bad, but he’ll die. So I like it.” But it’s the best I can do. I can’t love Trump, but I can sort of forgive him, and pity him, for becoming what he was told to be, and for abandoning what makes us human and valuable—empathy, compassion, humility—in favor of an identity assembled from who we are at our worst. In a way, I’m even grateful to him, for much the same reason that George Saunders expressed in The New Yorker: “Although, to me, Trump seems the very opposite of a guardian angel, I thank him for this: I’ve never before imagined America as fragile, as an experiment that could, within my very lifetime, fail. But I imagine it that way now.” If Trump didn’t exist, it would have been necessary to invent him. He’s a better cautionary tale than any I could have imagined, because he won the trappings of success at a spiritual cost that isn’t tragic so much as deeply sad. He’s like Charles Foster Kane, without any of the qualities that make Kane so misleadingly attractive. When I think of the abyss of his ego, which draws like a battery on the love of his supporters and flails helplessly in every other situation, it feels like the logical extension of a career spent in the pursuit of wealth and celebrity divorced from any other consideration beyond himself. Like all mortals, Trump had exactly one chance to live a meaningful life, with greater resources than most of us ever get, and this is what he did with it. The closest I can come to loving him is the acknowledgment that I might have done the same, if I had been born with his circumstances and incentives. He’s not so different from me, as I fear I might have been in his shoes. And if I love Trump, in some weird way, it’s because I’m thankful I’m not him.

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September 30, 2016 at 9:28 am

Quote of the Day

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September 30, 2016 at 7:30 am

A little string in the green wave

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Virginia Woolf

“Happiness is to have a little string onto which things will attach themselves,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary on April 20, 1925. She continues:

For example, going to my dressmaker in Judd Street, or rather thinking of a dress I could get her to make, and imagining it made—that is the string, which as if it dipped loosely into a wave of treasure brings up pearls sticking to it. Poor Murphy [her secretary] is in the glumps, owing to Leonard’s fiery harshness—each of which epithets he would most certainly deny. She has no string dipping into the green wave: things don’t connect for her, and add up into those entrancing bundles which are happiness. And my days are likely to be strung with them.

If Woolf thought that her moments in the upcoming days were likely to connect into “the entrancing bundles” that make happiness, it’s in part because she was entering an eventful period in her career: The Common Reader was published shortly after she wrote those words, followed a month later by Mrs. Dalloway. And most writers can relate to the kind of anticipation that she describes in the same entry: “What will happen is some intensities of pleasure, some profound plunges of good. Bad reviews, being ignored, and then some delicious clap of compliment.”

What Woolf is really describing here, I think, is the way in which a writer’s awareness of a work in progress can heighten and bring out the meaning of the everyday. This kind of matrix, which allows mundane events to arrange themselves into a larger pattern, isn’t unique to writers, of course, and we all feel the same sort of cognitive charge whenever we’re engaged in a project of personal importance. For a writer, though, the sense of a hidden structure that gives a shape to the disconnected routines of daily life can be particularly intense, especially at peak points in the creative process. You see connections that weren’t there before, and isolated details seem to fit into the story that you’re telling, while also telling you stories about themselves. Woolf’s wry attentiveness turns something as ordinary as going to the dressmaker into a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end—which I suspect is one reason why many of us go shopping for things we don’t need. It provides the tiny dose of structure that we crave, and if we can purchase it cheaply enough, it turns into a reliable source of consolation that has nothing to do with the object of desire itself. The act of buying alone can’t give more than a momentary satisfaction, but when we treat it as part of a longer string, it can be as valid a building block toward happiness as any other. In the passage above, Woolf goes on to write: “But really what I should like would be to have £3 to buy a pair of rubber-soled boots, and go for country walks.” She’s making fun of herself a little, but she’s also getting at something very real.

The Common Reader

In Woolf’s diary, the “little string” is a fishing line that plunges into the green wave of the sea, and she often returned to similar images to describe a writer’s relationship with the world. In a letter to Vita Sackville-West, she described composing an essay as preparing “a net of words” that will come down on the idea in an hour or so of work. And in A Room of One’s Own, she wrote:

Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible; Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, seem to hang there complete by themselves. But when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers that these webs are not spun in midair by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to the grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.

This passage feels like the flip side of the diary entry with which I began. Instead of pearls on a string, health and money and houses are “grossly material things” made by human beings who suffer as they spin their webs. The attachment to life is still there, but it grows tragic when seen in a different light. And while you could say that Woolf saw these attachments one way or another depending on her mood, both points of view are basically correct. A writer’s connection to the world is a source of both happiness and frustration—and especially, as Woolf noted, for women. 

All we can do, then, is play out that length of string and watch it get tangled up, for better or for worse. After you’ve been writing for a few years, you feel as if you’ve experienced every possible interaction between life and work: you can use one to escape from the other, or pursue both with a clear head, or feel them vibrate together as one. When I’m deeply absorbed in a writing project, I’ll sometimes look up and feel surprised by facts that I’ve temporarily forgotten—that I’m a husband and father, that I have a body, that I need to attend to the many small obligations that are the lot of a suburban American. (If I were a certain kind of realistic novelist, I’d spin these things directly into fiction, but as it stands, they sometimes feel like they have nothing to do with me, when they’re really all I am.) On rough days, I feel lucky that I have plenty of work to keep me busy; on good days, I feel much the same way. When I look back, I’m often surprised to realize that I was working diligently on one project or another at some of the lowest points of my life, and how easy it can be to compartmentalize it. But as Woolf implies, that’s an illusion, too. Whether we like it or not, work seeps into life, and vice versa, and they both take on a larger meaning that they wouldn’t have in isolation. It’s probably best when we aren’t conscious of this, and we go about our business as artists and rational actors without worrying about what each half has to do with the other. We make the string; we can’t control what sticks to it. Woolf knew this, too. But she also understood that we have no choice but to live in the green wave.

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September 29, 2016 at 8:51 am

Quote of the Day

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Jamie Zawinski

I think one of the most important things, for me anyway, when building something from the ground up…is, as quickly as possible, getting the program to a state that you, the programmer, can use it. Even a little bit. Because that tells you where to go next in a really visceral way.

Jamie Zawinski, to Peter Seibel in Coders at Work

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September 29, 2016 at 7:30 am

Astounding Stories #18: “Noise Level”

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Noise Level

Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

On March 31, 1952, the science fiction editor John W. Campbell wrote a long letter to his friend Robert A. Heinlein. It began: “I’ve got an idea that may appeal to you as a starting point for a yarn. If so—I’d love it. If not—lemme know, and I’ll try it on someone else.” Campbell went on to describe the plot in great detail, from its initial premise to its concluding twist, which was unusual in itself: he often pitched ideas to writers, but he was generally happiest when the author came back to him with something he wasn’t expecting. In this case, however, he clearly wanted a story written to order. Here’s how it started:

The top scientists of the country are called into closed, secret session. One of the top men of the National Research Council gets up and explains. Joseph Quincy Doakes, a twenty-eight-year-old physicist, came to the Council and claimed he had an antigravity device. His technical knowledge was definitely of the highest order, but he was an insufferable egotist. He refused to tell anything about it until they’d seen it work. He gave a demonstration, a personal flying device. It worked.

The scientists are shown filmed footage of the test at an airfield, with the inventor flying miraculously toward the sky—until something goes wrong. There’s a malfunction, the inventor crashes from five hundred feet, and he’s killed at once, with the antigravity device itself reduced to a smoking ruin.

As soon as the presentation is over, the scientists are informed that their assignment is to reproduce Doakes’s discovery, whatever the hell it was. Unfortunately, Doakes was so paranoid about his ideas being stolen that he left no record of his work: no notes, no diagrams, no trace of the underlying theory. All that remains is a nearly indecipherable audio recording of a brief explanation that he gave on the airfield that day, only a few words of which are audible. The scientists are each given a copy of the tape, along with unlimited resources and funding, and ordered to get cracking: “We need that device.” Eventually, after much feverish work, they manage to reconstruct a working antigravity machine using these meager clues, in defiance of all known laws of physics. And here’s the kicker, as Campbell told it to Heinlein:

The whole thing [is] one hundred percent fake. The purpose being this: a situation has been established wherein the top physicists of the nation have had firmly, solely planted on them these two propositions: an antigravity device can be made [and] we have to make it…With twenty brilliant minds, stored with vast quantities of data related to the problem, running wide open and under pressure to glean the necessary facts—with a whispering, noise-loaded voice in their ears, the voice of a dead man who did it—the half-heard, and nine-tenths guessed concepts he speaks—the tremendous straining concentration to find that hidden answer—

And you know, Bob, that same basic mechanism should work for a lot of other things!

In other words, it was a hoax designed to make the scientists to devote their best efforts to solving a problem that they otherwise would have dismissed out of hand. (As Norton Juster puts it so movingly in The Phantom Tollbooth: “So many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.”)

Noise Level

Heinlein ultimately passed on the idea, and Campbell eventually gave it to Raymond F. Jones, who wrote it up as a novelette that was published under the title “Noise Level” in the December 1952 issue of Astounding. It’s a wonderful story in its own right, and Jones adds a lot of nice touches that aren’t there in Campbell’s original pitch. For example, the scientists are taken to what they’re told was the home of the device’s late inventor, whose name in the finished version is Dunning. The house has a beautiful tinkerer’s lab, a machine shop, and a strange pair of libraries: one filled with physics and engineering titles, the other with books about astrology, the occult, and Eastern mysticism. As one of the scientists says disbelievingly: “It isn’t possible…that Dunning owned and understood both of these libraries.” Later, when asked why they included “the stuff on Babylonian mysticism, astrology, and the rest of that crud,” an organizer of the hoax explains:

The whole project was set up to be as noisy as possible…We didn’t know how to produce antigravity, so we gave you a picture of a man who did, and made it as noisy as possible to loosen up your own noise filters on the subject. I offered you a dose of omniscient noise on the subject of antigravity, and the one inescapable conclusion that it had been done.

By “omniscient noise,” he’s referring to the idea, discussed earlier on, that pure noise—a completely random sequences of pulses—contains all possible messages and information, and that our ability to understand it depends on the mental filters that we’ve set up. Give a team of geniuses a source of raw noise and loosen up their filters, the story argues, and they can figure out just about anything, as long as they’re convinced that it’s possible.

And while “Noise Level” doesn’t bear Campbell’s name, it’s still one of the most personal statements he ever allowed into print. (It’s especially revealing that he originally approached Heinlein with the premise. Heinlein had written up a few of Campbell’s ideas before, in stories like “Sixth Column,” “Solution Unsatisfactory,” and “Universe,” but he hadn’t done so for over a decade. The fact that Campbell tried pitching the idea to his single best writer, even though it was highly unlikely that Heinlein would take it, tells us how important it was to him.) One of the first problems that occurs to anyone who studies Campbell is how the same man who was almost singlehandedly responsible for the rise of hard science fiction could also endorse such concepts as dianetics, psionics, the Hieronymus Machine, and the Dean Drive. You could say that Campbell genuinely believed that these phenomena existed; that he wanted to be responsible for popularizing a major discovery that would rival atomic power and space travel; that he saw them as a way to maintain science fiction’s status as a frontier literature; or that he wanted to challenge scientific orthodoxy by feeding it some of the most outrageous concepts imaginable. To some extent, all of these interpretations are accurate. But I’d like to think that Campbell revealed his true motivations in “Noise Level,” and that he spent his last two decades at the magazine deliberately trying to make his ongoing experiment with his readers as noisy as possible. Like the two libraries in Dunning’s house, Astounding ran hard science fiction side by side with pieces on psychic powers and dowsing, and many readers couldn’t understand how Campbell could believe in both. Maybe he did—but he also wanted to give his readers the chaotic raw material that they needed to expand their way of thinking. Whether or not he succeeded is another question entirely. But he thought it would take them to the stars.

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September 28, 2016 at 9:33 am

Quote of the Day

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Kip Thorne

Simplicity is the touchstone in finding new physical laws…If it’s elegant, then it’s a rough rule of thumb [that] you’re on the right track.

Kip Thorne, on Closer to Truth

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September 28, 2016 at 7:30 am

Tales from The Far Side

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"They're lighting their arrows!"

Last week, I finally saw The Revenant. I know that I’m pretty late to the party here, but I don’t have a chance to watch a lot of movies for grownups in the theater these days, and it wasn’t a film that my wife particularly wanted to see, so I had to wait for one of the rare weekends when she was out of town. At this point, a full review probably isn’t of much interest to anyone, so I’ll confine myself to observing that it’s an exquisitely crafted movie that I found very hard to take seriously. Alejandro G. Iñárittu, despite his obvious visual gifts, may be the most pretentious and least self-aware director at work today—which is one reason why Birdman fell so flat for me—and I would have liked The Revenant a lot more if it had allowed itself to smile a little at how absurd it all was. (Even the films of someone like Werner Herzog include flashes of dark humor, and I suspect that Herzog actively seeks out these moments, even if he maintains a straight face.) And it took me about five minutes to realize that the movie and I were fundamentally out of sync. It happened during the scene in which the fur trappers find themselves under attack by an Arikara war party, which announces itself, in classic fashion, with a sudden arrow through a character’s throat. A few seconds later, the camera pans up to show more arrows, now on fire, arcing through the trees overhead. It’s an eerie sight, and it’s given the usual glow by Emmanuel Lubezki’s luminous cinematography. But I’ll confess that when I first saw it, I said to myself: “Hey! They’re lighting their arrows! Can they do that?”

It’s a caption from a Far Side cartoon, of course, and it started me thinking about the ways in which the work of Gary Larson has imperceptibly shaped my inner life. I’ve spoken here before about how quotations from The Simpsons provide a kind of complete metaphorical language for fans, like the one that Captain Picard learns in “Darmok.” You could do much the same thing with Larson’s captions, and there are probably more fluent speakers alive than you might think. Peanuts is still the comic strip that has meant the most to me, and I count myself lucky that I grew up at a time when I could read most of Calvin and Hobbes in its original run. Yet both of these strips, like Bloom County, lived most vividly for me in the form of collections, and in the case of Peanuts, its best years were long behind it. The Far Side, by contrast, obsessed me on a daily basis, more than any other comic strip of its era. When I was eight years old, I spent a few months diligently cutting out all the panels from my local paper and pasting them into a scrapbook, which is an impulse that I hadn’t felt before and haven’t felt since. Two decades later, I got a copy of The Complete Far Side for Christmas, which might still be my favorite present ever. Every three years so, I get bitten by the bug again, and I spend an evening or two with one of those huge volumes on my lap, going through the strip systematically from beginning to end. Its early years are rough and a little uncertain, but they’re still wonderful, and it went out when it was close to its peak. And when I’m reading it in the right mood, there’s nothing else in the world that I’d rather be doing.

"Think there are any bears in this old cave?"

A gag panel might seem like the lowest form of comic, but The Far Side also had a weirdly novelistic quality that I’ve always admired as a writer. Larson’s style seemed easy to imitate—I think that every high school newspaper had a strip that was either an homage or outright plagiarism—but his real gift was harder to pin down. It was the ability to take what feels like an ongoing story, pause it, and offer it up to readers at a moment of defining absurdity. (Larson himself says in The Prehistory of The Far Side: “Cartoons are, after all, little stories themselves, frozen at an interesting point in time.”) His ideas stuck in the brain because we couldn’t help but wonder what happened before or afterward. Part of this because he cleverly employed all the usual tropes of the gag cartoon, which are fun precisely because of the imaginative fertility of the clichés they depict: the cowboys singing around a campfire, the explorers in pith helmets hacking their way through the jungle, the castaway on the desert island. But the snapshots in time that Larson captures are both so insane and so logical that the reader has no choice but to make up a story. The panel is never the inciting incident or the climax, but a ticklish moment somewhere in the middle. It can be the gigantic mailman knocking over buildings while a dog exhorts a crowd of his fellows: “Listen! The authorities are helpless! If the city’s to be saved, I’m afraid it’s up to us! This is our hour!” Or the duck hunter with a shotgun confronted by a row of apparitions in a hall of mirrors: “Ah, yes, Mr. Frischberg, I thought you’d come…but which of us is the real duck, Mr. Frischberg, and not just an illusion?”

As a result, you could easily go through a Far Side collection and use it as a series of writing prompts, like a demented version of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. I’ve occasionally thought about writing a story revolving around the sudden appearance of Professor DeArmond, “the epitome of evil among butterfly collectors,” or expanding on the incomparable caption: “Dwayne paused. As usual, the forest was full of happy little animals—but this time something seemed awry.” It’s hard to pick just one favorite, but the panel I’ve thought about the most is probably the one with the elephant in the trench coat, speaking in a low voice out of the darkness of the stairwell:

Remember me, Mr. Schneider? Kenya. 1947. If you’re going to shoot at an elephant, Mr. Schneider, you better be prepared to finish the job.

Years later, I spent an ungodly amount of time working on a novel, still unpublished, about an elephant hunt, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it was inspired by this cartoon, I’m also not prepared to say that it wasn’t. I should also note Larson’s mastery of perfect proper names, which are harder to come up with than you might think: “Mr. Frischberg” and “Mr. Schneider” were so nice that he said them twice. It’s that inimitable mixture of the ridiculous and the specific that makes Larson such a model for storytellers. He made it to the far side thirty years ago, and we’re just catching up to him now.

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September 27, 2016 at 8:58 am

Quote of the Day

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David Mamet

What do you do when you are pushing your luck beyond its limits? You must behave like a good philosopher and ask what axiom you must infer that you are acting under. Having determined that, you ask if this axiom, in the long run, will leave you a winner…If the axiom which you are acting under is not designed to make you money, you may find that your real objective at the game is something else: you may be trying to prove yourself beloved of God.

David Mamet, “Things I Have Learned Playing Poker on the Hill”

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September 27, 2016 at 7:30 am

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A pause and a silence

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Harold Pinter

Interviewer: You’re very clear about the differences between a pause and a silence. The silence is the end of a movement?

Pinter: Oh, no! These pauses and silences! I’ve been appalled. Occasionally when I’ve run into groups of actors, normally abroad, they say a silence is obviously longer than a pause. Right. Okay, so it is. They’ll say, this is a pause, so we’ll stop. And after the pause we’ll start again. I’m sure this happens all over the place and thank goodness I don’t know anything about it. From my point of view, these are not in any sense a formal kind of arrangement. The pause is a pause because of what has just happened in the minds and guts of the characters. They spring out of the text. They’re not formal conveniences or stresses but part of the body of action. I’m simply suggesting that if they play it properly they will find that a pause—or whatever the hell it is—is inevitable. And a silence equally means that something has happened to create the impossibility of anyone speaking for a certain amount of time—until they can recover from whatever happened before the silence.

Harold Pinter, in an interview with Mel Gussow

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September 26, 2016 at 7:38 am

The poet on the desert island

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W.H. Auden

Rhymes, meters, stanza forms, etc., are like servants. If the master is fair enough to win their affection and firm enough to command their respect, the result is an orderly happy household. If he is too tyrannical, they give notice; if he lacks authority, they become slovenly, impertinent, drunk, and dishonest.

The poet who writes “free” verse is like Robinson Crusoe on his desert island: he must do all his cooking, laundry, and darning for himself. In a few exceptional cases, this manly independence produces something original and impressive, but more often the result is squalor—dirty sheets on the unmade bed and empty bottles on the unswept floor.

W.H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand

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September 25, 2016 at 7:30 am

The exact placing of a comma

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Paul Valéry

It happened at certain stages in my life that poetry became a way of cutting myself off from the world…It is no bad thing if certain men have the strength of mind to attach more value and significance to determining a remote decimal number, or to the exact placing of a comma, than to the most resounding of news items, the most terrible catastrophe, or even to their own lives…

To outlaw the arbitrary: to shut out accidents, politics, the chaos of events, and the fluctuations of fashion; to attempt to draw from oneself some work more exquisite than one might have hoped for; to find strength in oneself not to be satisfied with less than prolonged struggles, to set about a passionate quest for the solving of problems imperceptible to most people, in defiance of the headlong rush, the distractions (however affecting) that intrude from the outside world—this is something that appeals to me…In circumstances so appalling, what could be done except to endure, destitute as one was of any means of action that might cope with the extraordinary commotion of a world gone mad?

Paul Valéry, Collected Works

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September 24, 2016 at 7:30 am

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Hollywood confidential

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Curtis Hanson

Curtis Hanson, who died earlier this week, directed one movie that I expect to revisit endlessly for the rest of my life, and a bunch of others that I’m not sure I’ll ever watch again. Yet it’s those other films, rather than his one undisputed masterpiece, that fascinate me the most. L.A. Confidential—which I think is one of the three or four best movies made in my lifetime—would be enough to secure any director’s legacy, and you couldn’t have blamed Hanson for trying to follow up that great success with more of the same. Instead, he delivered a series of quirky, shaggy stories that followed no discernible pattern, aside from an apparent determination to strike out in a new direction every time: Wonder Boys, 8 Mile, In Her Shoes, Lucky You, Too Big to Fail, and Chasing Mavericks. I’ve seen them all, except for the last, which Hanson had to quit halfway through after his health problems made it impossible for him to continue. I’ve liked every single one of them, even Lucky You, which made about as minimal an impression on the world as any recent film from a major director. And what I admire the most about the back half of Hanson’s career is its insistence that a filmmaker’s choice of projects can form a kind of parallel narrative, unfolding invisibly in the silences and blank spaces between the movies themselves.

There comes a point in the life of every director, in fact, when each new film is freighted with a significance that wasn’t there in the early days. Watching Bridge of Spies recently, I felt heavy with the knowledge that Spielberg won’t be around forever. We don’t know how many more movies he’ll make, but it’s probably more than five and fewer than ten. As a result, there’s a visible opportunity cost attached to each one, and a year of Spielberg’s time feels more precious now than it did in the eighties. This sort of pressure becomes even more perceptible after a director has experienced a definitive triumph in the genre for which he or she is best known. After Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese seemed anxious to explore new kinds of narrative, and the result—the string of movies that included The Age of Innocence, Kundun, Bringing Out the Dead, and Hugo—was sometimes mixed in quality, but endlessly intriguing in its implications. Years ago, David Thomson wrote of Scorsese: “His search for new subjects is absorbing and important.” You could say much the same of Ridley Scott, Clint Eastwood, or any number of other aging, prolific directors with the commercial clout to pick their own material. In another thirty years or so, I expect that we’ll be saying much the same thing about David Fincher and Christopher Nolan. (If a director is less productive and more deliberate, his unfinished projects can end up carrying more mythic weight than most movies that actually get made, as we’re still seeing with Stanley Kubrick.)

Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce in L.A. Confidential

Hanson’s example is a peculiar one because his choices were the subject of intense curiosity, at least from me, at a much earlier stage than usual. This is in part because L.A. Confidential is a movie of such clarity, confidence, and technical ability that it seemed to herald a director who could do just about anything. In a way, it did—but not in a manner that anyone could have anticipated. Hanson’s subsequent choices could come off as eccentric, and not after the fashion of Steven Soderbergh, who settled into a pattern of one for himself, one for the masses. The movies after Wonder Boys are the work of a man who was eager to reach a large popular audience, but not in the sense his fans were expecting, and with a writerly, almost novelistic approach that frustrated any attempt to pin him down to a particular brand. It’s likely that this was also a reflection of how hard it is to make a modestly budgeted movie for grownups, and Hanson’s filmography may have been shaped mostly by what projects he was able to finance. (This also accounts for the confusing career of his collaborator Brian Helgeland, who drifted after L.A. Confidential in ways that make Hanson seem obsessively focused.) His IMDb page was littered with the remains of ideas, like an abortive adaptation of The Crimson Petal and the White, that he was never able to get off the ground. His greatest accomplishment, I suspect, was to make the accidents of a life in Hollywood seem like the result of his own solitary sensibilities.    

Yet we’re still left with the boundless gift of L.A. Confidential, which I’ve elsewhere noted is the movie that has had the greatest impact on my writing life. (My three published novels are basically triangulations between L.A. Confidential, Foucault’s Pendulum, and The Day of the Jackal, with touches of Thomas Harris and The X-Files, but it was Hanson, even more than James Ellroy, who first taught me the pleasures of a triple plot.) It has as many great scenes as The Godfather, and as deep a bench of memorable performances, and it’s the last really complicated story that a studio ever allowed itself. When you look at the shine of its images and the density of its screenplay, you realize that its real descendants can be found in the golden age of television, although it accomplishes more in two and a half hours than most prestige dramas can pull off in ten episodes. It’s a masterpiece of organization that still allows itself to breathe, and it keeps an attractive gloss of cynicism while remaining profoundly humane. I’m watching it again as I write this, and I’m relieved to find that it seems ageless: it’s startling to realize that it was released nearly two decades ago, and that a high school student discovering it now will feel much as I did when I saw Chinatown. When it first came out, I was almost tempted to undervalue it because it went down so easily, and it took me a few years to recognize that it was everything I’d ever wanted in a movie. And it still is—even if Hanson himself always seemed conscious of its limitations, and restless in his longing to do more.

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September 23, 2016 at 8:30 am

Quote of the Day

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Tom Stoppard

I think that in the future I must stop compromising my plays with this whiff of social application. They must be entirely untouched by any suspicion of usefulness. I should have the courage of my lack of convictions.

Tom Stoppard, quoted in The New Yorker

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September 23, 2016 at 7:30 am

The Importance of Writing “Ernesto,” Part 3

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My short story “Ernesto,” which originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, has just been reprinted by Lightspeed. To celebrate its reappearance, I’ll be publishing revised versions of a few posts in which I described the origins of this story, which you can read for free here, along with a nice interview.

In an excellent interview from a few years ago with The A.V. Club, the director Steven Soderbergh spoke about the disproportionately large impact that small changes can have on a film: “Two frames can be the difference between something that works and something that doesn’t. It’s fascinating.” The playwright and screenwriter Jez Butterworth once made a similar point, noting that the gap between “nearly” and “really” in a photograph—or a script—can come down to a single frame. The same principle holds just as true, if not more so, for fiction. A cut, a new sentence, or a tiny clarification can turn a decent but unpublishable story into one that sells. These changes are often so invisible that the author himself would have trouble finding them after the fact, but their overall effect can’t be denied. And I’ve learned this lesson more than once in my life, perhaps most vividly with “Ernesto,” a story that I thought was finished, but which turned out to have a few more surprises in store.

When I was done with “Ernesto,” I sent it to Stanley Schmidt at Analog, who had just purchased my novelette “The Last Resort.” Stan’s response, which I still have somewhere in my files, was that the story didn’t quite grab him enough to find room for it in a rather crowded schedule, but that he’d hold onto it, just in case, while I sent it around to other publications. It wasn’t a rejection, exactly, but it was hardly an acceptance. (Having just gone through three decades of John W. Campbell’s correspondence, I now know that this kind of response is fairly common when a magazine is overstocked.) I dutifully sent it around to most of the usual suspects at the time: Asimov’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and the online magazines Clarkesworld and Intergalatic Medicine Show. Some had a few kind words for the story, but they all ultimately passed. At that point, I concluded that “Ernesto” just wasn’t publishable. This was hardly the end of the world—it had only taken two weeks to write—but it was an unfortunate outcome for a story that I thought was still pretty clever.

A few months later, I saw a call for submissions for a independent paperback anthology, the kind that pays its contributors in author’s copies, and its theme—science fiction stories about monks—seemed to fit “Ernesto” fairly well. The one catch was that the maximum length for submissions was 6,000 words, while “Ernesto” weighed in at over 7,500. Cutting twenty percent of a story that was already highly compressed, at least to my eyes, was no joke, but I figured that I’d give it a try. Over the course of a couple of days, then, I cut it to the bone, removing scenes and extra material wherever I could. Since almost a year had passed since I’d first written it, it was easy to see what was and wasn’t necessary. More significantly, I added an epigraph, from Ernest Hemingway’s interview with The Paris Review, that made it clear from the start that the main character was Hemingway, which wasn’t the case with the earlier draft. And the result read a lot more smoothly than the version I’d sent out before.

It might have ended there, with “Ernesto” appearing without fanfare in an unpaid anthology, but as luck would have it, Analog had just accepted a revised version of my novelette “The Boneless One,” which had also been rejected by a bunch of magazines in its earlier form. Encouraged by this, I thought I’d try the same thing with “Ernesto.” So I sent it to Analog again, and it was accepted, almost twelve months after my first submission. Now it’s being reprinted more than four years later by Lightspeed, a magazine that didn’t even exist when I first wrote it. The moral, I guess, is that if a story has been turned down by five of the top magazines in your field, it probably isn’t good enough to be published—but that doesn’t mean it can’t get better. In this case, my rule of spending two weeks on a short story ended up being not quite correct: I wrote the story in two weeks, shopped it around for a year, and then spent two more days on it. And those last two days, like Soderbergh’s two frames, were what made all the difference.

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September 22, 2016 at 8:19 am

Quote of the Day

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John von Neumann

I think that it is a relatively good approximation to truth—which is much too complicated to allow anything but approximations—that mathematical ideas originate in empirics. But, once they are conceived, the subject begins to live a peculiar life of its own and is…governed by almost entirely aesthetical motivations. In other words, at a great distance from its empirical source, or after much “abstract” inbreeding, a mathematical subject is in danger of degeneration. Whenever this stage is reached the only remedy seems to me to be the rejuvenating return to the source: the reinjection of more or less directly empirical ideas.

John von Neumann, quoted in The Works of the Mind

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September 22, 2016 at 7:30 am

The Importance of Writing “Ernesto,” Part 2

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For Whom the Bell Tolls

My short story “Ernesto,” which originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, has just been reprinted by Lightspeed. To celebrate its reappearance, I’ll be publishing revised versions of a few posts in which I described the origins of this story, which you can read for free here, along with a nice interview.

Deadlines are useful for a writer, which is why I generally try to write my short stories in about two weeks. There’s also a pragmatic reason for this: I usually have a delivery date for a much larger project hanging over my head, and I can’t justify taking too much time away for something that I’m mostly just writing for my own satisfaction. Even for its own sake, though, it’s good to get into the habit of turning around finished stories, from initial conception to final draft, in as compressed a timeframe as possible. (In practice, after all the submissions, rejections, and revisions, the process isn’t nearly as straightforward as it sounds, although sometimes, as with “Kawataro,” it comes fairly close. I’ve also learned—the hard way—that it’s wise to let the manuscript cool off for a couple of weeks before taking one final pass.) It’s a self-imposed schedule, but it’s one that I try hard to meet. Which is how I found myself in the unenviable position of having to learn as much as possible about Ernest Hemingway and write a story about him from scratch in something like ten working days.

My first, crucial decision was that the story could not be narrated by Hemingway himself. Not only would this have demanded more psychological detail that I was prepared to handle, but it also raised sticky questions of style. If the story were told from Hemingway’s point of view, it would be hard to avoid falling into clichéd imitation or parody, which, aside from the inherent inadvisability of writing bad Hemingway, wasn’t a prospect that appealed to me. (Although I hadn’t read it at the time, “The Hemingway Hoax” by Joe Haldeman is also one of those stories that makes it unwise to attempt this sort of thing with a straight face for at least a couple of decades.) I also felt that it would be distracting for the reader. The obvious solution, then, was to tell the story through the eyes of a comparatively anonymous but intelligent narrator, a Watson who could speak in my own voice. The fact that the story was a mystery, involving some big investigative leaps by Hemingway himself, was another reason to keep him at arm’s length: as Conan Doyle, and even Poe, understood, the last thing you want is a narrator who is always commenting on his own clever deductions.

Ernest Hemingway

With that in mind, I set to work, constrained both by my schedule and by the contents of the Sulzer Regional branch of the Chicago Public Library. I read the relevant chapters of Carlos Baker’s Hemingway: A Life Story and A.E. Hotchner’s Papa Hemingway, consulted books on the Spanish Civil War, and carefully studied maps of the country between Segovia and Madrid. The most useful material, inevitably, came from Hemingway’s own work. My most valuable source was The Fifth Column, Hemingway’s unproduced play about the war, along with his short stories from the same period, which gave me hints for locations, dialogue, and bits of business, like the cupboard full of contraband canned goods that Hemingway kept in his room at the Hotel Florida. I also drew heavily on For Whom the Bell Tolls, his novel about the Segovia offensive, although because time was running out, I ended up reading only a few sections of the book, filling in the rest—like a high school student with a test the next day—with the movie.

The result, once I organized my notes and wrote the story, wasn’t a perfect picture of Hemingway, but it was a serviceable sketch on which the reader could project his or her own impressions. Hemingway was a man of notorious contradictions, and when you compound this with his fame, it means that everyone has a different idea of who he was. As long as I didn’t get in the reader’s way, much of my work was already done. (I found it amusing, a year after writing the first draft of “Ernesto,” to see Woody Allen’s version in Midnight in Paris, as embodied by Corey Stoll. Despite the presence of Clive Owen and editor Walter Murch, unfortunately, I never made it all the way through Philip Kaufman’s Hemingway & Gellhorn, which covers much of the same period I wrote about here.) I hit my deadline, and after two weeks, I was done—and I suspect that it’s a better story because it was written so quickly, which prevented me from doubting or overthinking it. But it wouldn’t see print for almost two more years. Tomorrow, I’ll explain why.

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September 21, 2016 at 8:10 am

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September 21, 2016 at 7:30 am

The Importance of Writing “Ernesto,” Part 1

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My short story “Ernesto,” which originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, has just been reprinted by Lightspeed. To celebrate its reappearance, I’ll be publishing revised versions of a few posts in which I described the origins of this story, which you can read for free here, along with a nice interview. Please note that this post reveals details about the ending. 

Readers of the story “Ernesto” might reasonably assume that I have a strong interest in the career of Ernest Hemingway. The central character, after all, is a thinly veiled version of the young Hemingway, with a dash of Sherlock Holmes, investigating what initially appears to be a paranormal mystery in the Madrid of the Spanish Civil War. At first glance, it might even seem like a work of Hemingway fanfic, like Bradbury’s “The Kilimanjaro Device,” or Joe Haldeman’s far darker and more sophisticated “The Hemingway Hoax.” (Science fiction writers have always been drawn to Hemingway, who certainly had a lot to say about the figure of the competent man.) In fact, although I live in Hemingway’s hometown of Oak Park, and my daughter has learned to recognize his face on the omnipresent signs that have been posted near the library, he’s a writer I’ve always found hard to like, if only because his style and preoccupations are so radically removed from mine. And the chain of events that led me to write about him is my favorite example from my own career of what I’ve elsewhere called the anthropic principle of fiction, or how a story is never really about what it seems.

“Ernesto” emerged, like many of my stories, from an idea sparked by a magazine article. In this case, it was a piece in Discover by the science writer Jeanne Lenzer about the work of Dr. William Coley, the nineteenth-century surgeon who experimented with bacterial infections, especially erysipelas, as a treatment for cancer. Around the same time, another article in the same magazine had started me thinking about a story about the investigation of miracles by the Catholic Church. And while that particular notion didn’t go anywhere, I ended up settling on a related premise: a mystery about a series of apparently miraculous cures that are actually due to the sort of cancer immunotherapy that Coley had investigated. The crucial step, it seemed, was to find an appropriate figure of veneration, ideally a Catholic saint, around whom I could build the story. And it took only a few minutes of searching online to come up with a viable candidate: St. John of the Cross, the Spanish mystic of the sixteenth century, who died of erysipelas. No other historical figure, as far as I could see, fit all the criteria so well.

Here, then, I had the germ of a story, which could be described in a single sentence: a number of visitants to the tomb of St. John of the Cross are cured of cancer, in what seems like a miracle, but is really due to the side effects of an erysipelas infection. (I knew that there were a few holes in the science here, but I was confident I could work my way around them.) At this point, however, I became conscious of a problem. Since the story was supposed to be a mystery along the lines of The X-Files, I couldn’t have the solution be obvious from the beginning, and I was pretty sure that any modern doctor would be able to tell fairly quickly that a patient was suffering from erysipelas. To delay this revelation, and to mislead the reader, I had to keep my patients away from the hospital for as long as possible, which implied that I couldn’t set the story in the present day. This meant that I was suddenly looking at a period piece that was set in Spain, although not so far in the past that I couldn’t talk about Coley’s work. Which led me, by a logical process of elimination, to the Spanish Civil War.

And that’s how Hemingway entered the story—in the most roundabout way imaginable. When I began devising the plot, not only did I not have Hemingway in mind, but I didn’t even have a setting or a time period. The search for the right saint carried me to Spain, and the specifics of the story I wanted to tell led me to the Spanish Civil War, which would allow me to confuse the issue long enough to delay the solution. At the time, it felt almost random, but when I look back, it seems as mathematically necessary as the reasoning that Poe once claimed was behind the composition of “The Raven.” Once the essential foundations have been set, the writer’s imagination can begin to play, and it seemed to me that if I was going to tell a story about the Spanish Civil War, it pretty much had to include Hemingway. As Umberto Eco says in Foucault’s Pendulum: “Like soy sauce in Chinese dishes. If it’s not there, it’s not Chinese.” Within a few days of starting my research, then, I found myself facing the prospect of writing a story about Hemingway investigating a paranormal mystery in wartime Spain. I really wanted to do it. But I wasn’t sure that I could.

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September 20, 2016 at 7:32 am

The myth of experience

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Freeman Dyson

During World War II, the legendary physicist Freeman Dyson—who wasn’t even twenty years old at the time—served as a scientist with the Operational Research Section of the Royal Air Force Bomber Command, which attempted to use statistical methods to analyze and improve airborne operations. In his memoir Disturbing the Universe, Dyson tells the following story:

I was engaged in a statistical study to find out whether there was any correlation between the experience of a crew and their chance of being shot down. The belief of the Command, incessantly drummed into the crews during their training and impressed on the public by the official propaganda machine, was that a crew’s chance of surviving a mission increased with experience. Once you get through the first five or ten missions, the crews were told, you will know the ropes and you will learn to spot the German night fighters sooner and you will stand a much better chance of coming home alive. To believe this was undoubtedly good for the boys’ morale. Squadron commanders, all of them survivors of many missions, sincerely believed that they owed their survival to their personal qualities of skill and determination rather than to pure chance. They were probably right. It had been true in the early years of the war that experienced crews survived better.

Dyson notes that a study conducted before his arrival had confirmed the official doctrine of the importance of experience, and that its conclusions had been “warmly accepted” by everyone involved. When he took another look at the problem, however, the results weren’t as encouraging:

Unfortunately, when I repeated the study with better statistics and more recent data, I found that things had changed…My conclusion was unambiguous: the decrease in loss rate with experience which existed in 1942 had ceased to exist in 1944. There were still many individual cases of experienced crews by heroic efforts bringing home bombers so badly damaged that a novice crew in the same situation would almost certainly have been lost. Such cases did not alter the fact that the total effect of all the skill and dedication of the experienced flight crews was statistically undetectable. Experienced and inexperienced crews were mown down as impartially as the boys who walked into the German machine gun nests at the battle of the Somme in 1916.

So what happened? According to Dyson, the theory within the Operational Research Section, which later turned out to be correct, was that the sudden irrelevance of experience was due to the introduction of a new technological factor: the Schräge Musik, or upward-firing cannons, which Germany had recently installed on many of its fighter planes. Allied bomber crews had been trained to scan the sky for enemy fighters—but the area below the aircraft was a blind spot. And once the Germans had vertical guns, which could be aimed upward while the fighter approached quietly from below, the experience of the air crews became useless.

Schräge Musik

Before I finish this story, it’s worth reflecting on what it tells us so far. We’re naturally inclined to attribute successful outcomes to talent or experience, rather than luck, because it flatters us into thinking that we’re more in control of our lives than we really are. This is true of artists, hedge fund mangers, and—as the events of this year have emphatically demonstrated—career politicians, and it means that we need to be particularly skeptical of anecdotal evidence that makes experience seem more important than it actually is. There’s also the unavoidable fact that even if experience is genuinely useful, a simple technological change can make nonsense of it. The introduction of firearms into medieval Japan threatened to render an entire system of values meaningless overnight: a child with a gun could kill a samurai from a distance. (Instead of discarding their culture, the Japanese made what, in some ways, was a more sensible choice: they decided to proceed as if guns didn’t exist for as long as they possibly could.) Finally, there’s the implication that when this sort of crisis occurs, you can’t solve it by advancing along the same lines of progress as before. Instead, you have to throw out whole sections of the rulebook, which is what happened in Dyson’s case. The Operational Research Section proposed that the number of crew members in each fighter be reduced from seven to five, and that the two gun turrets be removed completely. This would lighten the plane and allow it to fly fifty miles an hour faster, an advantage that would more than make up for the loss of its gunners: in night combat, speed was a far more decisive factor than firepower.

Of course, there was no guarantee that any of this would work, but Dyson observes that it had one undeniable advantage: “Even if the change did not result in saving a single bomber, it would at least save the lives of the gunners.” When the group brought the proposal to their section chief, who would decide whether or not to pass it up the pipeline, this was the result:

Our chief took a dim view of our suggestion that bombers might survive better without gun turrets. This was not the kind of suggestion that the commander in chief liked to hear, and therefore our chief did not like it either. To push the idea of ripping out gun turrets, against the official mythology of the gallant gunner defending his crewmates, and against the massive bureaucratic inertia of the Command, would have involved our chief in a major political battle. Perhaps it was a battle he could not have hoped to win. In any case, the instinct of a career civil servant told him to avoid such battles. The gun turrets remained in the bombers, and the gunners continued to die uselessly until the end of the war.

As for the chief, according to Dyson, his prudent unwillingness to deliver bad news to his commander “earned him the expected promotion at the end of the war and led to the inevitable knighthood.” In other words, he successfully navigated a system of incentives that was designed to reward experience whether it deserved it or not—a bureaucracy. And from his point of view, he was right.

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September 19, 2016 at 8:29 am

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