Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for July 2018

The Illuminatus

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Over the last few months, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about Robert Anton Wilson, the late author whom I’d be comfortable describing as one of my intellectual heroes. There was a time when I seriously considered writing a book about his life, and I’m not sure that I won’t try it eventually. Wilson may not have had the range or the depth of the greatest science fiction writers, but at his best, he was at least their equal as a craftsman, infinitely funnier, and probably more sane. He was one of the few people to ever make it seem cool to be an agonistic, and his skepticism, which was genuine, makes much of what goes by that name these days seem like its own form of closemindedness. Wilson’s stated goal, which shouldn’t diminish his considerable merits as a pure entertainer, was “to try to get people into a state of generalized agnosticism, not agnosticism about God alone but agnosticism about everything.” He achieved this, notably, not by preaching to the converted or by humorlessly attacking those with whom he disagreed, but by constructing elegant intellectual games that he presented with such a straight face that you weren’t sure whether or not he was kidding. The most famous is deservedly the 23 enigma, in which he followed William S. Burroughs in “finding” that number in everything from biblical chronology to the life of the gangster Dutch Schultz. (It’s been a while since I was conscious of it operating in my own life, but I notice now that Astounding is scheduled to be released on October 23, which is the anniversary of the day on which Schultz was shot.)

But what I like the most about Wilson, who was supremely confident and stylish on the page, is that he knew that he didn’t have all the answers. Oddly enough, this isn’t always true within science fiction, which deals by definition in uncertainty. The four subjects of Astounding could be infuriatingly sure of themselves, and unlike Campbell or Heinlein, when Wilson said he only wanted to raise questions, you could believe him. His attitude didn’t reflect a lack of intelligence, rigor, or strong opinions, but the exact opposite. The 23 enigma itself is a virtuoso piece of performance art on both the potential and the limits of cleverness, while in The Illuminatus Trilogy, Wilson and Robert Shea say of the related Law of Five:

All phenomena are directly or indirectly related to the number five, and this relationship can always be demonstrated, given enough ingenuity on the part of the demonstrator…That’s the very model of what a true scientific law must always be: a statement about how the human mind relates to the cosmos.

Wilson’s ingenuity shines through every page that he ever wrote, and he had such an abundance of it that he became intensely skeptical of where it led. As a result, he never used his position of authority to present his ideas as authoritative—which is a temptation that few other science fiction writers have managed to resist.

And when you look at Wilson’s actual beliefs, what you find can be a little surprising. He opens the revised edition of Cosmic Trigger, which is probably his single best book, what seems like a definitive statement: “Many people still think I ‘believe’ some of the metaphors and models employed here. I therefore want to make it even clearer than ever before that I DO NOT BELIEVE ANYTHING.” For once, however, he’s being disingenuous. Wilson may not believe anything, but he’s come to some provisional conclusions about what matters, and you find them throughout his work. For instance, he writes of the editorial stance of Playboy magazine, where he used to run the letters column: “This position is straight old-fashioned mind-your-own-business John Stuart Mill libertarianism, and (since that is my philosophy as well as Hefner’s) I enjoyed the work immensely.” A few pages later, he writes of his introduction to the underground writer Kerry Thornley:

We were both opposed to every form of violence or coercion against individuals, whether practiced by governments or by people who claimed to be revolutionaries…At times we discussed free-floating libertarian communes in international waters, which in my case gave birth to the anarchist submarine fantasy in Illuminatus, and, later, to enthusiastic support of the Space Migration plans of [Timothy] Leary and Prof. Gerard O’Neill.

Wilson describes Cosmic Trigger itself as an account of “a process of deliberately induced brain change,” and much of the book is devoted to a sympathetic discussion of Leary’s “SMI²LE” program: “SM (Space Migration) + I² (Intelligence Increase) + LE (Life Extension).”

In other words, Wilson was a libertarian transhumanist with an interest in space travel, seasteading, and life extension, including cryonics. You know what that sounds like to me? It sounds like Peter Thiel—and I can’t stand Peter Thiel. And the difference isn’t just that the latter is a billionaire preparing his own survival plan, although that’s certainly part of it. I’m not a libertarian, but I have nothing against the other elements in that program, as long as they’re combined with an awareness of other urgent problems and of how most people want to live their lives. Yet it really comes down again to the question of uncertainty. Our most prominent contemporary futurists can come across as curiously resistant to questioning, doubt, or criticism—which Wilson recognized as central to such thinking. When you’re talking about immortality, space colonization, and brain engineering, it seems reasonable to start by acknowledging how little we know or can foresee, as well as the strong possibility that we might be totally wrong. It might also help to show a sense of humor. And I frankly don’t associate any of these qualities with most of the public figures driving our current conversation about the future, who hate and resent being questioned. (It’s impossible to imagine Wilson ever lashing out with the toxic insecurity that we’ve seen in Elon Musk, who looks smaller and more Trumpian by the day.) It’s also significant that neither Wilson nor Leary were in a position to benefit financially from the changes that they advocated. We desperately need to think about the future, but we can’t afford to be humorless about it, and in these troubled times, I miss the man who was able to write on his blog five days before his death: “I look forward without dogmatic optimism but without dread. I love you all and I deeply implore you to keep the lasagna flying. Please pardon my levity, I don’t see how to take death seriously. It seems absurd.”

Written by nevalalee

July 16, 2018 at 9:12 am

Quote of the Day

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The ideal, for me, is to obtain right away what will work—and without retouches. If they are necessary, it falls short of the mark. The immediate is chance. At the same time it is definitive. What I want is the definitive by chance.

Jean-Luc Godard, to Andrew Sarris in Interviews with Film Directors

Written by nevalalee

July 16, 2018 at 7:30 am

Opening with a fight

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A play begins when a world in some state of equipoise, always uneasy, is broken into by a happening. Since it is not equipoise we have paid to see, but the loosing and binding of an evening’s disorder, the sooner the happening the better; these plays open fast…If the happening has an impact in itself—a ghost at midnight makes a certain claim on our attention—so much sooner will we join in the play. It is hardly by chance that so many openings are violent. The playwright who was my teacher said he liked to open a play “with a fight” because it awoke not only the audience’s interest but his own.

William Gibson, Shakespeare’s Game

Written by nevalalee

July 15, 2018 at 7:30 am

The final secret

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Tim Leary was here last week, lecturing at UC Berkeley. The news arrived that his appeal had been rejected by the New Orleans court and he might have to go back to jail again. Tim didn’t let anybody know about this (I found out from the only person in the room when the news came on the phone); Tim continued to radiate humor, cheer and optimism…Two hours later, at the door, Tim was stopped by one of our guests with a final question before he left. “What do you do, Dr. Leary, when somebody keeps giving you negative energy?”

Tim grinned that special grin of his that so annoys all his critics. “Come back with all the positive energy you have,” he said. And then he dashed off to the car, to the airport, to the next lecture…and to God-knows-what fate in the fourteenth year of his struggle with the legal system.

And so I learned the final secret of the Illuminati.

Robert Anton Wilson, Cosmic Trigger: The Final Secret of the Illuminati

Written by nevalalee

July 14, 2018 at 7:30 am

Critical thinking

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When you’re a technology reporter, as my wife was for many years, you quickly find that your subjects have certain expectations about the coverage that you’re supposed to be providing. As Benjamin Wallace wrote a while back in New York magazine:

“A smart young person in the Valley thinks being a reporter is basically being a PR person,” says one tech journalist. “Like, We have news to share, we’d like to come and tell you about it.” Reporters who write favorably about companies receive invitations to things; critics don’t. “They’re very thin-skinned,” says another reporter. “On Wall Street, if you call them a douchebag, they’ve already heard seventeen worse things in the last hour. Here, if you criticize a company, you’re criticizing the spirit of innovation.”

Mike Isaac of the New York Times recently made a similar observation in an interview with Recode: “One of the perceptions [of tech entrepreneurs] is A) Well, the press is slanted against us in some way [and] B) Why aren’t they appreciating how awesome we are? And like all these other things…I think a number of companies, including and especially Uber, get really upset when you don’t recognize the gravitas of their genius and the scope of how much they have changed.” Along the same lines, you also sometimes hear that reporters should be “supporting” local startups—which essentially means any company not based in Silicon Valley or New York—or businesses run by members of traditionally underrepresented groups.

As a result, critical coverage of any kind can be seen as a betrayal. But it isn’t a reporter’s job to “support” anything, whether it’s a city, the interests of particular stakeholders, or the concept of innovation itself—and this applies to much more than just financial journalism. In a perceptive piece for Vox, Alissa Wilkinson notes that similar pressures apply to movie critics. She begins with the example of Ocean’s 8, which Cate Blanchett, one of the film’s stars, complained had been reviewed through a “prism of misunderstanding” by film critics, who are mostly white and male. And Wilkinson responds with what I think is a very important point:

They’re not wrong about the makeup of the pool of critics. And this discussion about the demographic makeup of film critics is laudable and necessary. But the way it’s being framed has less helpful implications: that the people whose opinions really count are those whom the movie is “for.” Not only does that ignore how most movies actually make their money, but it says a lot about Hollywood’s attitude toward criticism, best revealed in Blanchett’s statement. She compared studio’s “support” of a film—which means, essentially, a big marketing budget—with critics’ roles in a film’s success, which she says are a “really big part of the equation.” In that view, critics are mainly useful in how they “support” movies the industry thinks they should like because of the demographic group and audience segment into which they fall.

This has obvious affinities to the attitude that we often see among tech startups, perhaps because they’re operating under similar conditions as Hollywood. They’re both risky, volatile fields that depend largely on perception, which is shaped by coverage by a relatively small pool of influencers. It’s true of books as well. And it’s easy for all of them to fall into the trap of assuming that critics who aren’t being supportive somehow aren’t doing their jobs.

But that isn’t true, either. And it’s important to distinguish between the feelings of creators, who can hardly be expected to be objective, and those of outside players with an interest in an enterprise’s success or failure, which can be emotional as much as financial. There are certain movies or startups that many of us want to succeed because of what they say about an entire industry or culture. Black Panther was one, and it earned a reception that exceeded the hopes of even the most fervent fan. A Wrinkle in Time was another, and it didn’t, although I liked that movie a lot. But it isn’t a critic’s responsibility to support a work of art for such reasons. As Wilkinson writes:

Diversifying that pool [of critics] won’t automatically lead to the results the industry might like. Critics who belong to the same demographic group shouldn’t feel as if they need to move in lockstep with a movie simply because someone like them is represented in it, or because the film’s marketing is aimed at them. Women critics shouldn’t feel as if they need to ‘support’ a film telling a woman’s story, any more than men who want to appear to be feminists should. Black and Latinx and Asian critics shouldn’t be expected to love movies about black and Latinx and Asian people as a matter of course.

Wilkinson concludes: “The best reason to diversify criticism is so that when Hollywood puts out movies for women, or movies for people of color, it doesn’t get lazy.” I agree—and I’d add that a more diverse pool of critics would also discourage Hollywood from being lazy when it makes movies for anyone.

Diversity, in criticism as in anything else, is good for the groups directly affected, but it’s equally good for everybody. Writing of Min Jin Lee’s novel Pachinko, the author Eve L. Ewing recently said on Twitter: “Hire Asian-American writers/Korean-American writers/Korean folks with different diasporic experiences to write about Pachinko, be on panels about it, own reviews of it, host online roundtables…And then hire them to write about other books too!” That last sentence is the key. I want to know what Korean-American writers have to say about Pachinko, but I’d be just as interested in their thoughts on, say, Jonathan Franzen’s Purity. And the first step is acknowledging what critics are actually doing, which isn’t supporting particular works of art, advancing a cause, or providing recommendations. It’s writing reviews. When most critics write anything, they thinking primarily about the response it will get from readers and how it fits into their career as a whole. You may not like it, but it’s pointless to ignore it, or to argue that critics should be held to a standard that differs from anyone else trying to produce decent work. (I suppose that one requirement might be a basic respect or affection for the medium that one is criticizing, but that isn’t true of every critic, either.) Turning to the question of diversity, you find that expanding the range of critical voices is worthwhile in itself, just as it is for any other art form, and regardless of its impact on other works. When a piece of criticism or journalism is judged for its effects beyond its own boundaries, we’re edging closer to propaganda. Making this distinction is harder than it looks, as we’ve recently seen with Elon Musk, who, like Trump, seems to think that negative coverage must be the result of deliberate bias or dishonesty. Even on a more modest level, a call for “support” may seem harmless, but it can easily turn into a belief that you’re either with us or against us. And that would be a critical mistake.

Quote of the Day

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It must be emphasized that design, of every kind, is a matter of trial and error. There are always some trial assumptions which no calculation or drawing can verify. Men cannot foresee the future. Design, like war, is an uncertain trade, and we have to make the things we have designed before we can find out whether our assumptions are right or wrong. There is no other way to find out. When we modify our prototype, it is, quite flatly, because we guessed wrong. It is eminently true of design that if you are not prepared to make mistakes, you will never make anything at all. “Research” is very often a euphemism for trying the wrong ways first, as we all must do.

David Pye, The Nature of Design

Written by nevalalee

July 13, 2018 at 7:30 am

Life during wartime

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Over the last few days, I’ve been reading Maker of Patterns, the new “autobiography through letters” of the legendary physicist Freeman Dyson. Normally, I’m not all that interested in collections of a famous person’s correspondence—I’d rather see them used as primary sources for a more systematic biography—but Dyson was an unusually eloquent writer, and his retrospective commentary, which appears throughout the book, is loaded with insight and good stories. I expect to bring it up here more than once, but for now, I’d like to focus on the opening section, which covers Dyson’s years as a college student at Cambridge during World War II. The German bombing of England provided the relentless drumbeat to his life there, as it did in London, where his father, the composer Sir George Dyson, was serving as the director of the Royal College of Music. Dyson quotes a letter written by Hazel Bole, who was a student at the time:

I was fire-watching on the roof during the air raids. We students were there to throw sand on the incendiary bombs which the German bombers were raining down on us. One night I grabbed the large bucket, and someone else grabbed it too. I let go, and in a sudden flash of fireball I saw Sir George grinning at me.

Yet events in the wider world play less of a role in this part of the book than you might expect. As Dyson observes: “In these letters written during the darkest years of the war, the war is hardly mentioned.”

Part of this was due to the fact that Dyson was only seventeen years old at the time. Shortly after his arrival in Cambridge, he wrote to his family: “I find there is no compulsion, or even suggestion, for me to do anything in the way of duty, military or civil, until I have to register.” He later joined the Home Guard and the fire service, but his duties remained nominal, even as they provided occasional reminders of the horrific possibilities that they were designed to anticipate. Dyson wrote in another letter: “I was unexpectedly one morning appointed ‘staircase marshal’ which means that I have to look after my staircase, put out bombs and carry out corpses, if a bomb happens to burst within twenty yards of us. All my duties have amounted to so far is trying to get a stirrup-pump mended by plumbers who know nothing about it.” (He helpfully explains: “The stirrup-pump was standard equipment during the war for putting out fire-bombs. It stood in a bucket filed with water and pumped the water into a hose that was directed at the fire. It was hand-operated and needed no electricity. I never had a chance to use it.”) Even when the war came to his doorstep, his role was a limited one:

Sometimes a German bomber, having lost its way, would fly over Cambridge and drop a couple of bombs. One of these bombs fell on the student union just across the street from my bedroom in Trinity College. Since I belonged to our college fire service, I was ready to spring into action. But the college authorities told us that our job was to protect the historic buildings of the college. We were not allowed to cross the street. So we stood idly watching while the union building burned down.

Yet his removal from the war was also a revealing psychological choice. In a remarkable note, Dyson describes his father’s attitude:

Both at Winchester College [where Dyson attended high school] and at the Royal College, the war that began for England in 1939 hit us hard. We knew that we were in it for the long haul, with no end in sight, with a high probability that little that we valued would survive. And yet in a paradoxical way, our response to the war in both places was to ignore it as far as possible. My father in London, and our teachers in Winchester, understood that the best way to show our contempt for Hitler was to continue making music and to continue studying Latin and Greek, as if Hitler did not exist. My father said to the students in London in 1940, “All we have to do is behave halfway decently, and the whole world will come to our side.” That was his way of fighting Hitler…In Cambridge, just as in London and in Winchester, the way to defend England was to make sure that there would be something in England worth defending.

Reading this now, it’s easy to see the limits of the conviction that the world would rally around the side that tried to “behave halfway decently.” But there’s also something to be said for the importance of writing music and studying the classics during wartime. Even at moments of danger and uncertainty, life—or culture—can be about more than one thing, and acknowledging this is a crucial part of retaining our humanity when it seems the most threatened.

On some level, you could take Sir George Dyson’s mindset as an attempt to justify his reluctance to upend his life during the war, and you might be right. But he wasn’t wrong about the stakes involved. In a letter from 1943, Freeman Dyson wrote home: “I wish I had been in London for the air raid; there is nothing that makes me so happy as a display of fireworks. It seems they have given up the idea of a Baedeker raid on Cambridge, which is a pity.” He was referring to a series of raids undertaken by Germany in retaliation for the bombing of the historic town of Lübeck, of which the propagandist Baron Gustav Braun von Stumm said: “We shall go out and bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker guide.” (Goebbels, revealingly, was incensed by the statement, which undercut the official story that the response was a justified retaliation for “terror” by the British.) The values represented by the Dysons, both father and son, were genuinely under attack, and their continuation during the war was an affirmation of their dignity and significance. And when the time came to serve in other ways, Dyson was ready. As he writes tersely in his memoirs: “After leaving Cambridge in 1943, I spent two years working as a civilian in the operational research reaction of Bomber Command. The headquarters were in a forest north of High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire. Our job was to demolish German cities and kill as many German civilians as possible. We killed about four hundred thousand, ten times as many as the Germans had killed in Britain.” Dyson has memorably described his experience there elsewhere, but he doesn’t talk about it here. And for the two years that he worked on the war effort, he wrote no letters home at all.

Written by nevalalee

July 12, 2018 at 8:55 am

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