Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for May 23rd, 2018

The osmotic experience

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“When I was a kid, I was a science fiction freak,” Jimmy Webb says in an interview in the book Songwriters on Songwriting. Webb, who is best remembered today for writing “Wichita Lineman” and “MacArthur Park,” tells the interviewer Paul Zollo:

I remember one Sunday that I was sitting in my dad’s church. He was a Baptist preacher. I was sitting about halfway back and I had a science fiction novel snugged up under my Baptist hymnal and I was reading away. My dad was preaching a mighty sermon. He looked back and I guess the sight of me in this pious pose must have struck him as altogether unlikely. He said, “Jimmy, what are you doing back there? Come down here right now.” So I took that long walk down the aisle of the church to the front. He said, “Stand up right here.” I turned around and faced the congregation. He said, “Tell this congregation what you’re reading.” So I had to say, “Martian Chronicles, sir.”

And what I like best about this story, which dates from around 1958, is that there isn’t anything about Webb’s career—aside from the song “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress,” which he admits he took directly from Heinlein—that would particularly stamp him as shaped by science fiction. He might have been changed by it in ways that aren’t immediately visible, but then again, he didn’t need to be. Unlike the readers of an earlier period, to be a science fiction “freak” in the late fifties, you didn’t need to be an obsessive outsider living in a city big enough to sustain a vibrant fan community. You could just be a twelve-year-old kid from Oklahoma.

As it happened, I didn’t go looking for that anecdote from Webb—I found it while I was randomly browsing in a book that I already owned. Just a few hours later, I came across a reference to the pulps in another unlikely place, the “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. The speaker is the Reverend James E. Post, a chaplain who served as a character witness for the killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickock in 1960. After the jury retires to deliberate, the Reverend Post says to a handful of the other attendees:

“Sometimes I despair. Sometimes I think old Doc Savage had the right idea.” The Doc Savage to whom he referred was a fictional hero popular among adolescent readers of pulp magazines a generation ago. “If you boys remember, Doc Savage was a kind of superman. He’d made himself proficient in every field—medicine, science, philosophy, art. There wasn’t much old Doc didn’t know or couldn’t do. One of his projects was, he decided to rid the world of criminals. First he bought a big island out in the ocean. Then he and his assistants—he had an army of trained assistants—kidnapped all the world’s criminals and brought them to the island. And Doc Savage operated on their brains. He removed the part that holds wicked thoughts. And when they recovered they were all decent citizens. They couldn’t commit crimes because that part of their brain was out. Now it strikes me that surgery of this nature might really be the answer to—”

At that point, the jury returns to sentence Smith and Hickock to death by hanging, so we don’t know what else the Reverend Post might have said about Doc Savage, whose creator, John Nanovic, worked out of an office at Street & Smith Publications next to the one occupied by John W. Campbell.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve repeatedly found myself coming across this kind of material, usually while thinking about something else entirely. While reading Saul Bellow’s Herzog, I found a reference to Isaac Asimov; shortly afterward, I opened my copy of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test to a random page and saw a mention of Stranger in a Strange Land, which I’d completely forgotten was there. You could say that these are instances of the synchronicity that Robert Graves describes in his account of researching The White Goddess: “Though I had no more than one or two of the necessary books in my very small library the rest were soon sent, unasked for, by poet friends or tumbled down into my hands from the shelves of a secondhand seaside bookshop.” If that’s the case, it’s a somewhat cruel sort of coincidence, since it’s too late in the publication process for any of it to end up in Astounding—unless I manage to sneak it into the paperback. But it isn’t all that mysterious. All of these examples date from a window of roughly a decade in which science fiction was quietly embedded in the mainstream, either through the memories of the fans who had encountered it at a younger age, like the Reverend Post, or because contemporary readers were discovering authors like Asimov or Bradbury. A while back, in my discussion of Charles Manson, I wrote that he was influenced by Heinlein and Hubbard only in the sense that he was “influenced” by the Beatles: “Manson was a scavenger who assembled his notions out of scraps gleaned from whatever materials were currently in vogue, and science fiction had saturated the culture to an extent that it would have been hard to avoid it entirely, particularly for someone who was actively searching for such ideas. On some level, it’s a testament to the cultural position that both Hubbard and Heinlein had attained.” And that’s true of all the examples that I’ve just mentioned.

But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t significant, or that they aren’t clues to a larger pattern that I’m just starting to grasp. I still think that science fiction has influenced the inner life of our culture in ways that aren’t always obvious, and that the full picture can only be glimpsed by assembling such pieces. While I was writing Astounding, I often thought back to a passage from On the Road, another work from the same period, which I once seriously thought about using as an epigraph. It’s from the sequence in which Sal and Dean wander into an all-night movie theater in Detroit, where they end up repeatedly watching a singing cowboy picture and Background to Danger with George Raft, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre, until the double feature takes up permanent residence in Sal’s brain:

We saw them waking, we heard them sleeping, we sensed them dreaming, we were permeated completely with the strange Gray Myth of the West and the weird dark Myth of the East when morning came. All my actions since then have been dictated automatically to my subconscious by this horrible osmotic experience.

For me, this is the most—and maybe the only—authentic passage in the entire book, in that it hints at the way in which such stories can seem more real than our own lives: “I heard big Greenstreet sneer a hundred times; I heard Peter Lorre make his sinister come-on; I was with George Raft in his paranoiac fears; I rode and sang with Eddie Dean and shot up the rustlers innumerable times.” I think that we all know what Kerouac means, even if we don’t often speak of it. There’s an entire secret history of America to be constructed out of these fragments. And in the meantime, all I can do is gather the evidence.

Written by nevalalee

May 23, 2018 at 8:51 am

Quote of the Day

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There are pragmatic reasons for using convention in architecture, but there are expressive justifications as well…Through unconventional organization of conventional parts [the architect] is able to create new meanings within the whole. If he uses convention unconventionally, if he organizes familiar things in an unfamiliar way, he is changing their contexts, and he can use even the cliché to get a fresh effect. Familiar things seen in an unfamiliar context become perceptually new as well as old.

Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture

Written by nevalalee

May 23, 2018 at 7:30 am

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