Alec Nevala-Lee

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Exploring “The Proving Ground,” Part 1

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The Seasteading Institute

Note: My novella “The Proving Ground,” which was first published in the January/February 2017 issue of Analog, is being reprinted this month in Lightspeed Magazine. It will also be appearing in the upcoming edition of The Year’s Best Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois, and is a finalist for the Analytical Laboratory award for Best Novella. This post on the story’s conception and writing originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on January 9, 2017. 

Usually, whenever I start working on a story, I try to begin with as few preconceptions about it as possible. Years ago, in a post called “The Anthropic Principle of Fiction,” I made the argument that the biggest, most obvious elements of the narrative—the setting, the characters, the theme—should be among the last things that the writer figures out, and that the overall components should all be chosen with an eye to enabling a pivotal revelation toward the end. This isn’t true of all plots, of course, but for the sort of scientific puzzle stories in which I’ve come to specialize, it’s all but essential. Mystery writers grasp this intuitively, but it can be harder to accept in science fiction, perhaps because we’ve been trained to think in terms of worldbuilding from an initial premise, rather than reasoning backward from the final result. But both are equally legitimate approaches, if followed with sufficient logic and imagination. As I wrote in my first treatment of the subject:

Readers will happily accept almost any premise when it’s introduced in the first few pages, but as the story continues, they’ll grow increasingly skeptical of any plot element that doesn’t seem to follow from that initial set of rules—so you’d better make sure that the world in which the story takes place has been fine-tuned to allow whatever implausibilities you later decide to include.

Which led me to formulate a general rule: The largest elements of the story should be determined by its least plausible details.

I still believe this. For “The Proving Ground,” however, I broke that rule, along with an even more important one: it’s the first and only story that I’ve ever written around an explicit political theme. Any discussion of this novella, then, has to begin with the disclaimer that I don’t recommend writing this way—and if the result works at all, it’s because of good luck and more work than I ever hope to invest in a short story again. (I write most of my stories in about two weeks, but “The Proving Ground” took twice that long.) Fortunately, it came out of a confluence of factors that seem unlikely to repeat themselves. A friend of mine was hoping to write a series of freelance editorials about climate change, and she asked me to come on board as a kind of unofficial consultant. She began by giving me a reading list, and I spent about a month working my way through such books as The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein, Windfall by McKenzie Funk, and Don’t Even Think About It by George Marshall. Ultimately, we didn’t end up working together, mostly because we each got distracted by other projects. But it allowed me to think at length about what I still believe is the central issue of our time, and even though I didn’t come away with any clear answers, it provided me with plenty of story material. Climate change has been a favorite subject of science fiction for decades, but the result tends to take place after sea levels have already risen, and I wanted to write something that was in my wheelhouse—a story set in the present or near future that tackled the theme using the tools of suspense.

Windfall by McKenzie Funk

I ended up focusing on an idea that I first encountered in Funk’s Windfall. The Marshall Islands are among the countries that are the most threatened by global warming, as well as one of the most likely beneficiaries of climate-change reparations from more developed nations. In order to qualify for reparations, however, they have to fulfill the legal definition of a country, which means that they need to have land—when it’s precisely for the loss of that land that they hope to be compensated. It’s easy to imagine them caught in a regulatory twilight zone, with rising sea levels erasing their territory, while also depriving them of the sovereign status from which they could initiate proceedings in the international court system. Funk does a nice job of laying out the dilemma, and it could lead to any number of stories. A different writer, for instance, might have taken it as the basis for a dark, bitter satire. That isn’t a mode in which I’m comfortable operating, though, and I was more intrigued by another detail, which is that one of the proposed solutions to the territorial problem is a seastead, or an artificial island that would allow the Marshallese to maintain their claim to statehood. This struck me as a good backdrop for whatever story I ended up writing, and although I could have started it at a point in which a seastead had already been built, it seemed more promising to begin when it was still under construction. Science fiction is often structured around a major engineering project, both because it allows for future technology to be described in a fairly organic way and because it can be used to create the interim objectives and crises that a story needs to keep moving. (It also provides a convenient stage on which the competent man—or woman—can shine.)

I decided, then, that this was going to be a story about the construction of a seastead in the Marshall Islands, which was pretty specific. There was also plenty of available but obscure background material, ranging from general treatments of the idea in books like The Millennial Project by Marshall T. Savage—which had been sitting unread on my shelf for years—to detailed proposals for seasteads in the real world. (The obvious example is The Seasteading Institute, a libertarian pipe dream funded by Peter Thiel, who has since gone on to even more dubious ventures. But it generated a lot of useful proposals and plans along the way, as long as you treat it as the legwork for a science fiction story, rather than as a project on which you’re hoping to get someone to actually spend fifty billion dollars.) As I continued to read, however, I became uncomfortably aware that I had broken my one rule. Instead of working backward from a climax, I was moving forward from a setting, on the assumption that I’d find something in my research that I could turn into a proper story. It isn’t impossible, but it also isn’t an approach that I’d recommend: not only does it double the investment of time required, but it increases the chances that you’ll distort the facts to fit them into the framework that you’ve imposed on yourself. In this instance, I think I pulled it off, but there’s no guarantee that I will again. “The Proving Ground” took a lot of wrong turns, and it was only through sheer good fortune that I was able to find a story that I felt able to write. Tomorrow, I’ll talk more about how I nearly followed one potential premise into a dead end, and how I found myself writing the story, to my surprise, as an homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.

Exploring “The Proving Ground,” Part 1

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The Seasteading Institute

Note: Over the next three days, I’ll be discussing the origins of my novella “The Proving Ground,” the cover story for the January/February 2017 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. You can purchase a copy and read a long excerpt of it here.  

Usually, whenever I start working on a story, I try to begin with as few preconceptions about it as possible. Years ago, in a post called “The Anthropic Principle of Fiction,” I made the argument that the biggest, most obvious elements of the narrative—the setting, the characters, the theme—should be among the last things that the writer figures out, and that the overall components should all be chosen with an eye to enabling a pivotal revelation toward the end. This isn’t true of all plots, of course, but for the sort of scientific puzzle stories in which I’ve come to specialize, it’s all but essential. Mystery writers grasp this intuitively, but it can be harder to accept in science fiction, perhaps because we’ve been trained to think in terms of worldbuilding from an initial premise, rather than reasoning backward from the final result. But both are equally valid approaches, if followed with sufficient logic and imagination. As I wrote in my first treatment of the subject:

Readers will happily accept almost any premise when it’s introduced in the first few pages, but as the story continues, they’ll grow increasingly skeptical of any plot element that doesn’t seem to follow from that initial set of rules—so you’d better make sure that the world in which the story takes place has been fine-tuned to allow whatever implausibilities you later decide to include.

Which led me to formulate a general rule: The largest elements of the story should be determined by its least plausible details.

I still believe this. For “The Proving Ground,” however, I broke that rule, along with an even more important one, which is that you should resist building stories around an explicit political theme. Any discussion of this novella, then, has to begin with the disclaimer that I don’t recommend writing this way—and if the result works at all, it’s because of good luck and more work than I ever hope to invest in a short story again. (I write most of my stories in about two weeks, but “The Proving Ground” took twice that long.) Fortunately, it came out of a confluence of factors that seem unlikely to repeat themselves. A friend of mine was hoping to write a series of freelance editorials about climate change, and she asked me to come on board as a kind of unofficial consultant. She began by giving me a reading list, and I spent about a month working my way through such books as The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein, Windfall by McKenzie Funk, and Don’t Even Think About It by George Marshall. Ultimately, we didn’t end up working together, mostly because we each got distracted by other projects. But it allowed me to think at length about what I still believe is the central issue of our time, and even though I didn’t come away with any clear answers, it provided me with plenty of story material. Climate change has been a favorite subject of science fiction for decades, but the result tends to take place after sea levels have already risen, and I wanted to write something that was in my wheelhouse—a story set in the present or near future that tackled the theme using the tools of suspense.

Windfall by McKenzie Funk

I ended up focusing on an idea that I first encountered in Funk’s Windfall. The Marshall Islands are among the countries that are the most threatened by global warming, as well as one of the most likely beneficiaries of climate-change reparations from more developed nations. In order to qualify for reparations, however, they have to fulfill the legal definition of a country, which means that they need to have land—but it’s precisely for the loss of that land that they hope to be compensated. It’s easy to imagine them caught in a regulatory twilight zone, with rising sea levels erasing their territory, while also depriving them of the sovereign status from which they could initiate proceedings in the international court system. Funk does a nice job of laying out the dilemma, and it could lead to any number of stories. A different writer, for instance, might have taken it as the basis for a dark, bitter satire. That isn’t a mode in which I’m comfortable operating, though, and I was more intrigued by another detail, which is that one of the proposed solutions to the territorial problem is a seastead, or an artificial island that would allow the Marshallese to maintain their claim to statehood. This struck me as a pretty good backdrop for whatever story I ended up writing, and although I could have started it at a point in which a seastead had already been built, it seemed more promising to begin when it was still under construction. Science fiction is often structured around a major engineering project, both because it allows for future technology to be described in a fairly organic way and because it can be used to create the interim objectives and crises that a story needs to keep moving. (It also provides a convenient stage on which the competent man can shine.)

I knew, then, that this was going to be a story about the construction of a seastead in the Marshall Islands, which was pretty specific. There was also plenty of background material available, ranging from general treatments of the idea in books like The Millennial Project by Marshall T. Savage—which had been sitting unread on my shelf for years—to detailed proposals for seasteads in the real world. (The obvious example is The Seasteading Institute, a libertarian pipe dream funded by Peter Thiel, who has since gone on to even more dubious ventures. But it generated a lot of useful proposals and plans along the way, as long as you treat it as the legwork for a science fiction story, rather than as a project on which you’re hoping to get someone to actually spend fifty billion dollars.) As I continued to read, however, I became uncomfortably aware that I had broken my one rule. Instead of working backward from a climax, I was moving forward from a setting, on the assumption that I’d find something in my research that I could turn into a proper story. It isn’t impossible, but it also isn’t an approach that I’d recommend: not only does it double the investment of time required, but it increases the chances that you’ll distort the facts to fit them into the framework that you’ve imposed on yourself. In this instance, I think I pulled it off, but there’s no guarantee that I will again, and as it happens, I’ve just finished and submitted a new story in which I’m frankly not sure if it works. “The Proving Ground” took a lot of wrong turns, and it was only through sheer good fortune that I was able to find a story that I felt able to write. Tomorrow, I’ll talk more about how I nearly followed one potential premise into a dead end, and how I found myself writing the story, much to my surprise, as an homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.

Exploring “The Proving Ground,” Part 3

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Alfred Hitchcock

Note: My novella “The Proving Ground,” which was first published in the January/February 2017 issue of Analog, is being reprinted this month in Lightspeed Magazine. It will also be appearing in the upcoming edition of The Year’s Best Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois, and is a finalist for the Analytical Laboratory award for Best Novella. This post on the story’s conception and writing originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on January 11, 2017. 

In the famous book-length interview Hitchcock/Truffaut, the director François Truffaut observes of The Birds: “This happens to be one picture, I think, in which the public doesn’t try to anticipate. They merely suspect that the attacks by the birds are going to become increasingly serious. The first part is an entirely normal picture with psychological overtones, and it is only at the end of each scene that some clue hints at the potential menace of the birds.” And Alfred Hitchcock’s response is very revealing:

I had to do it that way because the public’s curiosity was bound to be aroused by the articles in the press and the reviews, as well as by the word-of-mouth talk about the picture. I didn’t want the public to become too impatient about the birds, because that would distract them from the personal story of the two central characters. Those references at the end of each scene were my way of saying, “Just be patient. They’re coming soon.”

Hitchcock continues: “This is why we have an isolated attack on Melanie by a sea gull, why I was careful to put a dead bird outside the schoolteacher’s house at night, and also why we put the birds on the wires when the girl drives away from the house in the evening. All of this was my way of saying to the audience, ‘Don’t worry, they’re coming. The birds are on their way!’”

I kept this advice constantly in mind while plotting “The Proving Ground,” which is the closest that I’ve come to an outright homage to another work of art. (My novelette “Inversus” contains many references to Through the Looking-Glass, but the plot doesn’t have anything in common with the book, and the parallels between “The Whale God” and George Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant” didn’t emerge until that story was almost finished.) I knew that I had to quote from the movie directly, if only to acknowledge my sources and make it clear that I wasn’t trying to put anything over on the reader, which is also why I open it with an epigraph from Daphne du Maurier’s original short story. When I tried to figure out where to put those references, however, I realized that it wasn’t just a matter of paying tribute to my inspiration, but of drawing upon the very useful solutions that Hitchcock and screenwriter Evan Hunter had developed for the same set of problems. Any story about a series of bird attacks is going to confront similar challenges. You have to build up to it slowly, saving the most exciting moments for the second half, which leaves you with the tricky question of what to do in the meantime. Hitchcock and Hunter had clearly thought about this carefully, and by laying in analogous beats at approximately the same points, I was able to benefit from the structure that they had already discovered. “The Proving Ground” follows The Birds overtly in only a handful of places—the first attack on Haley, the sight of the birds perching on the trellises of the wind tower, the noiseless attack in the supply shed, the mass assault on the seastead, and Haley inching through the silent ranks of birds at the end. But they all occur at moments that play a specific role in the story.

Tippi Hedren in The Birds

The result taught me a lot about the nature of homage. I was well aware that “The Proving Ground” wasn’t the first attempt to draw on The Birds to deliver an environmental message, and I even thought about including an explicit reference to Birdemic, which is one of my favorite bad movies. If there’s a difference between the two, and I hope that there is, it’s that I ended up at The Birds in a roundabout fashion, after realizing that it lent itself nicely to the setting and themes at which I had independently arrived. At that point, I had already filled out much of the background, so I was able to use Hitchcock’s movie as a kind of organizing principle to keep this unwieldy mass of material under control. It wasn’t until I actually sat down and started to write it that I realized how big it was going to be: it became a novella, although just barely, and the longest thing I’d ever published in Analog. This was partially due to the fact that the background had to be unusually detailed, and the story would only make sense if I devoted sufficient space to the geography of the Marshall Islands, its environmental situation, and the physical layout of the seastead. I also had to sketch in the political situation and provide some historical context, not just because it was interesting in itself, but because it clarified the logic behind the protagonist’s actions—the Marshallese have had to deal with the problem of reparations before, and Haley is very mindful of this. This meant adding several thousand words to a story that might have played just as well as a novelette, at least from the point of view of pure action, and I found that the structure I borrowed from Hitchcock allowed it to read as a unified whole, rather than as a collection of disparate ideas united only by the setting.

This became particularly helpful after the circle of associations expanded yet again, to encompass the history of the atomic bomb tests that the United States government conducted at Bikini Atoll. I hadn’t planned to set the story on Bikini itself, but it eventually became clear that it was the obvious setting, simply from the point of view of the logistics of the seastead. An atoll provides a natural breakwater against waves—Bikini is even mentioned by name in the relevant section in Patri Friedman’s book on seasteading—and the location had other advantages: it was uninhabited but livable, with plenty of infrastructure and equipment left behind from the nuclear tests. Placing the seastead there added another level of resonance to the story, and instead of trying to reconcile the different elements, I ended up placing the components from The Birds side by side with the material about Bikini, just to see what happened. As it turned out, the two halves complemented each other in surprising ways, and I didn’t need to tease out the connections. “The Proving Ground,” as the title implies, is about a proof of concept: the Marshall Islands were chosen for Operation Crossroads because they were remote and politically vulnerable, and they end up as a test case for the seastead for similar reasons. Haley tries to use the lessons of the first incident to guide her response to the second, but the birds have other plans. In both du Maurier and Hitchcock, the attacks are left unexplained, while in this story, they’re an unanticipated side effect of a technological solution to a social and ecological problem. Any attempt at an explanation would have ruined the earlier versions, but I think it’s necessary here. The birds are an accidental but inevitable consequence of a plan that initially failed to take them into account. And that’s how they ended up in this story, too.

Exploring “The Proving Ground,” Part 2

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The Seasteading Institute

Note: My novella “The Proving Ground,” which was first published in the January/February 2017 issue of Analog, is being reprinted this month in Lightspeed Magazine. It will also be appearing in the upcoming edition of The Year’s Best Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois, and is a finalist for the Analytical Laboratory award for Best Novella. This post on the story’s conception and writing originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on January 10, 2017. 

The editor John W. Campbell once pointed out that an industrial safety manual is really the perfect handbook for a saboteur—if you just do the opposite of whatever it says. You see the same mindset in a lot of science fiction, which is often founded on constructing an elaborate futuristic scenario and then figuring out all the things that could possibly go wrong. This is central to most forms of storytelling, of course, but it takes on an added resonance in a genre that purports to tell us how the future will look, and at times, it can be hard to distinguish between the author’s own feelings on the subject and the conflict required for a good story. If dystopias seem more common than utopias, this may be less a prediction than a shrewd narrative choice, and it frequently leads to a streak of what looks like technophobia even in writers who seem otherwise inclined to celebrate all that technology can accomplish. (This is especially true when you start out with the intention of writing a thriller. In the case of someone like Michael Crichton, it can be difficult to tell where his instincts as a novelist leave off and his genuine pessimism begins. Nothing goes right in Jurassic Park, but this has less to do with chaos theory than with the conventions of suspense.) When I started work on “The Proving Ground,” I had a wealth of information at my disposal from the seasteading movement, much of which was devoted to arguing that an ocean colony would be viable and safe. But it also provided me with a list of story ideas, as soon as I began to read it with an eye to the worst that could happen.

For instance, in an online book about seasteading by Patri Friedman, the former executive director of Peter Thiel’s Seasteading Institute, we read: “The ocean is a dangerous environment. There are massive waves, hurricanes, and even pirates.” Taken out of context, this is either an argument for risk mitigation or a line from a pitch to Jerry Bruckheimer. And while I didn’t think much about the possibility of pirates—although for the life of me I can’t remember why—I spent a long time looking into waves and hurricanes. A hurricane or typhoon seemed like a better prospect, mostly because it provided more of a natural buildup than a wave, and it would be easier to structure a story around it. I even read The Perfect Storm from cover to cover to see if it would spark any ideas. What I ultimately concluded was that there was probably a good story to be told about a seastead that was hit by a hurricane, and that if I could work out the logistics, it would be pretty exciting. But it felt more like a disaster movie, and so did most of the other possibilities that I explored for damaging or destroying my seastead. (Looking back at my notes, it seems that I also briefly considered building a plot around a sabotage attempt, which seems a little lazy.) The trouble was that all of these crises were imposed from the outside, and none seemed to emerge naturally from the premise of climate change in the Marshall Islands. So after almost a week of pursuing the hurricane angle, I gave it up, which is a long time to devote to a wrong turn.

Tippi Hedren in The Birds

I was saved by an idea that came from an altogether different direction. One of the first things I had to decide was when the story would be set, both in the chronology of the seastead itself and in the world as a whole. Was the seastead under construction, or had it been occupied for years or decades? Were we talking about a scenario in which the threat of rising sea levels was still a distant one, or had it already happened? And what was taking place elsewhere? I spent a while looking into the various proposals that have been floated for the technological mitigation of global warming, such as the idea of releasing sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight back into space. (Even if it wasn’t central to the story, it seemed like it might make a good ironic counterpoint to the plot. The Marshall Islands probably won’t survive, no matter what else we do in the meantime.) I was especially interested in iron fertilization, in which tiny pellets of iron are released into the oceans to encourage the growth of plankton that can suck up carbon dioxide. It’s unclear how well this works, however and there are other potential issues, as I found in a paper with the unpromising title “Iron enrichment stimulates toxic diatom production in high-nitrate, low-chlorophyll areas.” In particular, it can lead to high levels of pseudonitzschia, a plankton species that produces the poison domoic acid, which accumulates in fish and squid. And it turned out that the Marshall Islands leased its offshore waters in the nineties to a private company to conduct iron fertilization on a limited scale, before it was outlawed as a form of illegal dumping.

At this point, I presumably had a vague idea that it might be possible to build a story around iron fertilization in the Marshall Islands and an ensuing outbreak of domoic acid poisoning, which can cause seizures and death. But then I came across a paper that proposed that a similar outbreak might have been responsible for the unexplained incident on August 18, 1961, in which the towns of Capitola and Santa Cruz in California were attacked by mobs of seabirds—an event that also caught the eye of Alfred Hitchcock. Which meant that I knew the following facts:

  1. The Marshall Islands once contracted with a company to perform a series of iron fertilization experiments.
  2. Iron fertilization has been linked to increased levels of pseudonitzschia, which produces domoic acid.
  3. Domoic acid can cause brain damage in seabirds that eat contaminated fish and squid, and it may have been responsible for the attack that inspired The Birds.

Needless to say, I immediately forgot all about my hurricane. If there’s one thing I love about being a writer, it’s when a long process of shapeless research and daydreaming suddenly crystalizes into a form that seems inevitable, and this felt about as inevitable as it gets. Somebody was going to write this story eventually, and I figured that it might as well be me. Tomorrow, I’ll describe how I brought The Birds to the Marshall Islands, and why I ended up combining it with the ghosts of Bikini Atoll.

Written by nevalalee

March 6, 2018 at 8:32 am

Exploring “The Proving Ground,” Part 3

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Alfred Hitchcock

Note: I’m discussing the origins of my novella “The Proving Ground,” the cover story for the January/February 2017 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. You can purchase a copy and read a long excerpt of it here.

In the famous book-length interview Hitchcock/Truffaut, the director François Truffaut observes of The Birds: “This happens to be one picture, I think, in which the public doesn’t try to anticipate. They merely suspect that the attacks by the birds are going to become increasingly serious. The first part is an entirely normal picture with psychological overtones, and it is only at the end of each scene that some clue hints at the potential menace of the birds.” Alfred Hitchcock’s response is very revealing:

I had to do it that way because the public’s curiosity was bound to be aroused by the articles in the press and the reviews, as well as by the word-of-mouth talk about the picture. I didn’t want the public to become too impatient about the birds, because that would distract them from the personal story of the two central characters. Those references at the end of each scene were my way of saying, “Just be patient. They’re coming soon.”

Hitchcock continues: “This is why we have an isolated attack on Melanie by a sea gull, why I was careful to put a dead bird outside the schoolteacher’s house at night, and also why we put the birds on the wires when the girl drives away from the house in the evening. All of this was my way of saying to the audience, ‘Don’t worry, they’re coming. The birds are on their way!’”

I kept this advice constantly in mind while plotting out “The Proving Ground,” which is the closest I’ve come to an outright homage to another work of art. (My novelette “Inversus” contains many references to Through the Looking-Glass, but the plot doesn’t have anything in common with the book, and the parallels between “The Whale God” and George Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant” didn’t emerge until that story was almost finished.) I knew that I had to quote from the movie directly, if only to acknowledge my sources and make it clear that I wasn’t trying to put anything over on the reader, which is also why I open it with an epigraph from Daphne du Maurier’s original short story. When I tried to figure out where to put those references, however, I realized that it wasn’t just a matter of paying tribute to my inspiration, but of drawing upon the very useful solutions that Hitchcock and screenwriter Evan Hunter had developed for the same set of problems. Any story about a series of bird attacks is going to confront similar challenges. You have to build up to it slowly, saving the most exciting moments for the second half, which leaves you with the tricky question of what to do in the meantime. Hitchcock and Hunter had clearly thought about this carefully, and by laying in analogous beats at approximately the same points, I was able to benefit from the structure that they had already discovered. “The Proving Ground” follows The Birds overtly in only a handful of places—the first attack on Haley, the sight of the birds perching on the trellises of the wind tower, the noiseless attack in the supply shed, the mass assault on the seastead, and Haley inching through the silent ranks of birds at the end. But they all occur at moments that play a specific role in the story.

Tippi Hedren in The Birds

The result taught me a lot about the nature of homage. I was well aware that “The Proving Ground” wasn’t the first attempt to draw on The Birds to deliver an environmental message, and I even thought about including an explicit reference to Birdemic, which is one of my favorite bad movies. If there’s a difference between the two, and I hope that there is, it’s that I ended up at The Birds in a roundabout fashion, after realizing that it lent itself nicely to the setting and themes at which I had independently arrived. At that point, I had already filled out much of the background, so I was able to use Hitchcock’s movie as a kind of organizing principle to keep this unwieldy mass of material under control. It wasn’t until I actually sat down and started to write it that I realized how big it was going to be: it became a novella, although just barely, and the longest thing I’d ever published in Analog. This was partially due to the fact that the background had to be unusually detailed, and the story would only make sense if I devoted sufficient space to the geography of the Marshall Islands, its environmental situation, and the physical layout of the seastead. I also had to sketch in the political situation and provide some historical context, not just because it was interesting in itself, but because it clarified the logic behind the protagonist’s actions—the Marshallese have had to deal with the problem of reparations before, and Haley is very mindful of this. This meant adding several thousand words to a story that might have played just as well as a novelette, at least from the point of view of pure action, and I found that the structure I borrowed from Hitchcock allowed it to read as a unified whole, rather than as a collection of disparate ideas united only by the setting.

This became particularly helpful after the circle of associations expanded yet again, to encompass the history of the atomic bomb tests that the United States government conducted at Bikini Atoll. I hadn’t planned to set the story on Bikini itself, but it eventually became clear that it was the obvious setting, simply from the point of view of the logistics of the seastead. An atoll provides a natural breakwater against waves—Bikini is even mentioned by name in the relevant section in Patri Friedman’s book on seasteading—and the location had other advantages: it was uninhabited but livable, with plenty of infrastructure and equipment left behind from the nuclear tests. Placing the seastead there added another level of resonance to the story, and instead of trying to reconcile the different elements, I ended up placing the components from The Birds side by side with the material about Bikini, just to see what happened. As it turned out, the two halves complemented each other in surprising ways, and I didn’t need to tease out the connections. “The Proving Ground,” as the title implies, is about a proof of concept: the Marshall Islands were chosen for Operation Crossroads because they were remote and politically vulnerable, and they end up as a test case for the seastead for similar reasons. Haley tries to use the lessons of the first incident to guide her response to the second, but the birds have other plans. In both du Maurier and Hitchcock, the attacks are left unexplained, while in this story, they’re an unanticipated side effect of a technological solution to a social and ecological problem. Any attempt at an explanation would have ruined the earlier versions, but I think it’s necessary here. The birds are an accidental but inevitable consequence of a plan that initially failed to take them into account. And that’s how they ended up in the story, too.

Exploring “The Proving Ground,” Part 2

with 2 comments

The Seasteading Institute

Note: I’m discussing the origins of my novella “The Proving Ground,” the cover story for the January/February 2017 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. You can purchase a copy and read a long excerpt of it here.  

The editor John W. Campbell once pointed out that an industrial safety manual is really the perfect handbook for a saboteur—you just do the opposite of everything it says. You see the same mindset in a lot of science fiction, which is often founded on constructing an elaborate futuristic scenario and then figuring out all the things that could possibly go wrong with it. This is central to most forms of storytelling, of course, but it takes on an added resonance in a genre that purports to tell us how the future will look. At times, it can be hard to distinguish between the author’s own views on the subject and the conflict required for a good story. It’s why dystopias are so much more common than utopias; why hubris is usually punished rather than rewarded; and why you frequently see a streak of what looks like technophobia even in writers who seem otherwise inclined to celebrate all that technology can accomplish. (This is especially true when you start out with the intention of writing a thriller. In the case of someone like Michael Crichton, it can be difficult to tell where his instincts as a novelist leave off and his genuine pessimism begins. Nothing goes right in Jurassic Park, but this has less to do with chaos theory than with the conventions of suspense.) When I started work on “The Proving Ground,” I had a wealth of information at my disposal from the seasteading movement, much of which was devoted to arguing that an ocean colony would be viable and safe. But along the way, it also inadvertently provided me with a list of story ideas, as soon as I began to read it with an eye to the worst that could happen.

For instance, in an online book about seasteading by Patri Friedman, the former executive director of Peter Thiel’s Seasteading Institute, we read: “The ocean is a dangerous environment. There are massive waves, hurricanes, and even pirates.” Taken out of context, this is either an argument for risk mitigation or a line from a pitch to Jerry Bruckheimer. And while I didn’t think much about the possibility of pirates—although for the life of me I can’t remember why—I spent a long time looking into waves and hurricanes. A hurricane or typhoon seemed like a better prospect, mostly because it provided more of a natural buildup than a wave, and it would be easier to structure a story around it. I even read The Perfect Storm from cover to cover to see if it would spark any ideas. What I ultimately concluded was that there was probably a good story to be told about a seastead that was hit by a hurricane, and that if I could work out the logistics, it would be pretty exciting. But it felt more like a disaster movie, and so did most of the other possibilities that I explored for damaging or destroying my seastead. (Looking back at my notes, it seems that I also briefly considered building a plot around a sabotage attempt, which seems a little lazy.) The trouble was that all of these crises were imposed from the outside, and none seemed to emerge naturally from the premise of climate change in the Marshall Islands. So after almost a week of pursuing the hurricane angle, I gave it up, which is a long time to devote to a wrong turn.

Tippi Hedren in The Birds

I was saved by an idea that came from an altogether different direction. One of the first things I had to decide was when the story would be set, both in the chronology of the seastead itself and in the world as a whole. Was the seastead under construction, or had it been occupied for years or decades? Were we talking about a scenario in which the threat of rising sea levels was still a distant one, or had it already happened? And what was taking place elsewhere? I spent a while looking into the various proposals that have been floated for the technological mitigation of global warming, such as the idea of releasing sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight back into space. (Even if it wasn’t central to the story, it seemed like it might make a good ironic counterpoint to the plot: the Marshall Islands probably won’t survive, no matter what else we do in the meantime.) I was especially interested in iron fertilization, in which tiny pellets of iron are released into the oceans to encourage the growth of plankton that can suck up carbon dioxide. It’s unclear how well this works, however and there are other potential issues, as I found in a paper with the unpromising title “Iron enrichment stimulates toxic diatom production in high-nitrate, low-chlorophyll areas.” In particular, it can lead to high levels of pseudonitzschia, a plankton species that produces the poison domoic acid, which accumulates in fish and squid. And it turned out that the Marshall Islands leased its offshore waters in the nineties to a private company to conduct iron fertilization on a limited scale, before it was outlawed as a form of illegal dumping.

At this point, I presumably had a vague idea that it might be possible to build a story around iron fertilization in the Marshall Islands and an ensuing outbreak of domoic acid poisoning, which can cause seizures and death. But then I came across a paper that proposed that a similar outbreak might have been responsible for the unexplained incident on August 18, 1961, in which the towns of Capitola and Santa Cruz in California were attacked by mobs of seabirds—an event that also caught the eye of Alfred Hitchcock. Which meant that I knew the following facts:

  1. The Marshall Islands once contracted with a company to perform a series of iron fertilization experiments.
  2. Iron fertilization has been linked to increased levels of pseudonitzschia, which produces domoic acid.
  3. Domoic acid can cause brain damage in seabirds that eat contaminated fish and squid, and it may have been responsible for the attack that inspired The Birds.

Needless to say, I immediately forgot all about my hurricane. If there’s one thing I love about being a writer, it’s when a long process of shapeless research and daydreaming suddenly crystalizes into a form that seems inevitable, and this felt about as inevitable as it gets. Somebody was going to write this story eventually, and I figured that it might as well be me. Tomorrow, I’ll describe how I brought The Birds to the Marshall Islands, and how I ended up combining it with the ghosts of Bikini Atoll.

Written by nevalalee

January 10, 2017 at 9:26 am

The last resolution

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By just about any measure, this was the most rewarding year of my professional life. My group biography Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction was released by HarperCollins in October. I published one novelette, “The Spires,” in Analog, with another, “At the Fall,” scheduled to come out sometime next year. My novella “The Proving Ground” was anthologized and reprinted in several places, including in the final edition of the late Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction. I wrote a few new pieces of nonfiction, including an essay on Isaac Asimov and psychohistory for the New York Times, and I saw John W. Campbell’s Frozen Hell, based on the original manuscript of “Who Goes There?” that I rediscovered at Harvard, blow past all expectations on Kickstarter. (The book, which will include introductions by me and Robert Silverberg, is scheduled to appear in June.) My travels brought me to conventions and conferences in San Jose, Chicago, New Orleans, and Boston. Perhaps best of all, I’ve confirmed I’ll be spending the next three years writing the book of my dreams, a big biography of Buckminster Fuller, which is something that I couldn’t have imagined a decade ago. Even as the world falls apart in other ways, I’ve been lucky enough to spend much of my time thinking about what matters most to me, even if it makes me feel like the narrator of Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” who continues to work quietly in his hotel room as the civilization around him enters its long night.

In good times and bad, I’ve also found consolation on this blog, where I’ve posted something every day—and I have trouble believing this myself—for more than eight years. (My posts on science fiction alone add up to a longer book than Astounding, and they account for only a fraction of what I’ve written here.) At the moment, however, it doesn’t look like I’ll be able to keep up my streak. I won’t stop posting here entirely, but I can’t maintain the same pace that I have in the past, and I’ve resolved to take an extended break. For a long time, I planned to skip a day without any advance notice, but it seems appropriate for me to step away now, at the end of this very eventful year. I expect that this blog will go silent for a week or two, followed by occasional posts thereafter when anything grabs my attention, and I may well miss my morning routine enough to return eventually to something approximating my old schedule. In the meantime, though, I want to thank everyone who has hung in there, whether you’re a longtime reader or a recent visitor. Eight years ago, I started this blog without any thought about what it might become, but it unexpectedly turned into the place where I’ve tried to figure out what I think and who I am, at least as a writer, during some of the best and worst years of my life. I’m no longer as optimistic as I once was about what comes next, but I’ve managed to become something like the writer I wanted to be. And a lot of it happened right here.

The difference engine

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Earlier this month, within the space of less than a day, two significant events occurred in the life of Donna Strickland, an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo. She won the Nobel Prize in Physics, and she finally got her own Wikipedia page. As the biologist and Wikipedia activist Dawn Bazely writes in an excellent opinion piece for the Washington Post:

The long delay was not for lack of trying. Last May, an editor had rejected a submitted entry on Strickland, saying the subject did not meet Wikipedia’s notability requirement. Strickland’s biography went up shortly after her award was announced. If you click on the “history” tab to view the page’s edits, you can replay the process of a woman scientist finally gaining widespread recognition, in real time.

And it isn’t an isolated problem, as Bazely points out: “According to the Wikimedia Foundation, as of 2016, only 17 percent of the reference project’s biographies were about women.” When Bazely asked some of her students to create articles on women in ecology or the sciences, she found that their efforts frequently ran headlong into Wikipedia’s editing culture: “Many of their contributions got reversed almost immediately, in what is known as a ‘drive-by deletion’…I made an entry for Kathy Martin, current president of the American Ornithological Society and a global authority on arctic and alpine grouse. Almost immediately after her page went live, a flag appeared over the top page: ‘Is this person notable enough?’”

Strickland’s case is an unusually glaring example, but it reflects a widespread issue that extends far beyond Wikipedia itself. In a blog post about the incident, Ed Erhart, a senior editorial associate at the Wikimedia foundation, notes that the original article on Strickland was rejected by an editor who stated that it lacked “published, reliable, secondary sources that are independent of the subject.” But he also raises a good point about the guidelines used to establish academic notability: “Academics may be writing many of the sources volunteer Wikipedia editors use to verify the information on Wikipedia, but they are only infrequently the subject of those same sources. And when it does occur, they usually feature men from developed nations—not women or other under-represented groups.” Bazely makes a similar observation:

We live in a world where women’s accomplishments are routinely discounted and dismissed. This occurs at every point in the academic pipeline…Across disciplines, men cite their own research more often than women do. Men give twice as many academic talks as women—engagements which give scholars a chance to publicize their work, find collaborators and build their resumes for potential promotions and job offers. Female academics tend to get less credit than males for their work on a team. Outside of academia, news outlets quote more male voices than female ones—another key venue for proving “notability” among Wikipedia editors. These structural biases have a ripple effect on our crowdsourced encyclopedia.

And this leads to an undeniable feedback effect, in which the existing sources used to establish notability are used to create Wikipedia articles, when serve as evidence of notability in the future.

Bazely argues that articles on male subjects don’t seem to be held to the same high standards as those for women, which reflects the implicit biases of its editors, the vast majority of whom are men. She’s right, but I also think that there’s a subtle historical element at play. Back during the wild west days of Wikipedia, when the community was still defining itself, the demographics of its most prolific editors were probably even less diverse than they are now. During those formative years, thousands of pages were generated under a looser set of standards, and much of that material has been grandfathered into the version that exists today. I should know, because I was a part of it. While I may not have been a member of the very first generation of Wikipedia editors—one of my friends still takes pride in the fact that he created the page for “knife”—I was there early enough to originate a number of articles that I thought were necessary. I created pages for such people as Darin Morgan and Julee Cruise, and when I realized that there wasn’t an entry for “mix tape,” I spent the better part of two days at work putting one together. By the standards of the time, I was diligent and conscientious, but very little of what I did would pass muster today. My citations were erratic, I included my own subjective commentary and evaluations along with verifiable facts, and I indulged in original research, which the site rightly discourages. Multiply this by a thousand, and you get a sense of the extent to which the foundations of Wikipedia were laid by exactly the kind of editor in his early twenties for whom writing a cultural history of the mix tape took priority over countless other deserving subjects. (It isn’t an accident that I had started thinking about mix tapes again because of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, which provides a scathing portrait of a certain personality type, not unlike my own, that I took for years at face value.)

And I don’t even think that I was wrong. Wikipedia is naturally skewed in favor of the enthusiasms of its users, and articles that are fun to research, write, and discuss will inevitably get more attention. But the appeal of a subject to a minority of active editors isn’t synonymous with notability, and it takes a conscious effort to correct the result, especially when it comes to the older strata of contributions. While much of what I wrote fifteen years ago has been removed or revised by other hands, a lot of it still persists, because it’s easier to monitor new edits than to systematically check pages that have been around for years. And it leaves behind a residue of the same kinds of unconscious assumptions that I’ve identified elsewhere in other forms of canonization. Wikipedia is part of our cultural background now, invisible and omnipresent, and we tend to take it for granted. (Like Google, it can be hard to research it online because its name has become a synonym for information itself. Googling “Google,” or keywords associated with it, is a real headache, and looking for information about Wikipedia—as opposed to information presented in a Wikipedia article—presents many of the same challenges.) And nudging such a huge enterprise back on course, even by a few degrees, doesn’t happen by accident. One way is through the “edit-a-thons” that often occur on Ada Lovelace Day, which is named after the mathematician whose posthumous career incidentally illustrates how historical reputations can be shaped by whoever happens to be telling the story.  We think of Lovelace, who worked with Charles Babbage on the difference engine, as a feminist hero, but as recently as the early sixties, one writer could cite her as an example of genetic mediocrity: “Lord Byron’s surviving daughter, Ada, what did she produce in maturity? A system for betting on horse races that was a failure, and she died at thirty-six, shattered and deranged.” The writer was the popular novelist Irving Wallace, who is now deservedly forgotten. And the book was a bestseller about the Nobel Prize.

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October 15, 2018 at 9:04 am

The ocean swell and the wave

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“A group impresses the individual as being an unlimited power and an insurmountable peril,” Sigmund Freud writes in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, which was published in 1921. After this apparently paradoxical statement, he continues:

For the moment [the subgroup] replaces the whole of human society, which is the wielder of authority, whose punishments the individual fears, and for whose sake he has submitted to so many inhibitions. It is clearly perilous for him to put himself in opposition to it, and it will be safer to follow the example of those around him and perhaps even “hunt with the pack.” In obedience to the new authority he may put his former “conscience” out of action, and so surrender to the attraction of the increased pleasure that is certainly obtained from the removal of inhibitions. On the whole, therefore, it is not so remarkable that we should see an individual in a group doing or approving things which he would have avoided in the normal conditions of life.

As Peter Gay reminds us in his valuable book Freud for Historians, this was hardly a novel insight: “Freud was by no means the first to note that collective bodies—a mob in action, an army in battle, a nation at war—yield to impulses that their members would normally control, probably disclaim, when they are not enjoying the embracing presence of likeminded believers around them.” And he goes on to note that these speculations became the particular object of study, “for highly visible political reasons,” starting around the middle of the nineteenth century.

It seems safe to say that we’re entering a period in which such questions will soon be pondered again at length, and for equally visible reasons. But it’s worth considering what Freud in particular says about the subject, precisely because his perspective has been so unfashionable for so long. As Gay observes in a book that first came out more than thirty years ago: “The last traces of Freud’s notions about the ‘racial’ mind or inherited collective psychological dispositions have been weeded out by his successors as redundant, almost embarrassing reminders of nineteenth-century scientific superstitions about a ‘group’ soul.” But just as with almost everything else that Freud wrote, his most dated speculations are studded with moments of blinding insight. For instance, he draws an important distinction between two kinds of groups:

A number of very different structures have probably been merged under the term “group” and may require to be distinguished…[Some are] groups of a short-lived character, which some passing interest has hastily agglomerated out of various sorts of individuals. The characteristics of revolutionary groups, and especially those of the great French Revolution, have unmistakably influenced [such] descriptions. The opposite opinions owe their origin to the consideration of those stable groups or associations in which mankind pass their lives, and which are embodied in the institutions of society. Groups of the first kind stand in the same sort of relation to those of the second as a high but choppy sea to a ground swell.

Disruptive social movements, in other words, ride on the back of more established organizations—the church, the military, the marketplace—that already exist, and which in most cases will continue long after the most tumultuous waves have vanished. And few of the violent, destructive, even libidinal forces that can disrupt a society could take shape if such support structures weren’t there to facilitate the process.

And Freud’s great insight is that while these institutions may look rational and orderly on the outside, they also provide a framework that allows for irrational behavior, as soon as enough individuals are willing to surrender most of the qualities that prevent him from joining the herd. Freud writes: “An individual in a group is subjected through its influence to what is often a profound alteration in his mental activity. His liability to affect becomes extraordinarily intensified, while his intellectual ability is markedly reduced, both processes being evidently in the direction of an approximation to the other individuals in the group; and this result can only be reached by the removal of those inhibitions upon his instincts which are peculiar to each individual, and by his resigning those expressions of his inclinations which are especially his own.” The italics are mine. A group becomes most effective when its members transform themselves into approximations of one another, defined by a shared set of rules, which means giving up all the inhibitions and inclinations that we’ve built up to set ourselves apart. This can be exhilarating in the moment, but the aftermath is often devastating, as Gay notes:

Hunting with the pack provides the kind of pleasure that such surrender of inhibitions usually gives; it generates a feeling of safety and skirts the danger of placing oneself into opposition to the powerful. Freud saw this abandonment of adult controls and perspectives as a luxuriant saturnalia of regression. But, for all its seductive pleasures, such an affect-laden moral holiday is rarely destined to be permanent. After prolonged reverses or in moments of panic, the libidinal ties holding the crowd together can weaken and the group may then splinter and disintegrate.

In the meantime, Gay writes, we can postpone this moment of disintegration using “two sets of unconscious identifications” that provide us with the energy that we’ve given up as individuals: “The members of the group identify with one another and, collectively, with the leader.”

This certainly sounds familiar today, at a time when the waves on the surface have grown so violent that it can be hard to make out anything deeper. (One of the first signs is the emergence of indefensible moral positions among those who would police the morality or patriotism of others, who can become shockingly willing to abandon their fundamental values for the sake of winning the fight of the moment. They see only the storm, not the sea. And another sign is the sudden, inexplicable capitulation of men and women who have defined themselves in the past as mavericks.) And perhaps the most useful insight that we can take from Freud is the close connection between anxiety and policy, each of which feeds off the energy of the other. “The pursuit of rational self-interest has its non-rational components,” Gay dryly notes, illustrating his point with the three-franchise electoral system that was enacted in Prussia in the nineteenth century, which allocated political representation based on the amount of taxes paid. It resulted in what one historian describes as “an outright plutocratic system” that concentrated power in the upper classes, but as Gay notes, it wasn’t just a matter of cold calculation:

This bit of electoral chicanery elevated into a constitutional principle was, at the same time, an astute defensive device. Sensitive to possible threats from self-confident middle-class citizens and the slowly awakening political awareness of the urban working classes, sensitive to intimations of democracy abroad and of revolution at home, the authors of the three-class electoral law helped to exorcise the anxieties of rich and influential Prussians. It will not do to simply dismiss this political stratagem as a cynical, wholly conscious defense of cherished privileges. A way of life, of traditional, once secure domestic and social pleasure, seemed at stake.

And at a time when the surface wave threatens to destroy everything in its path, Gay ends with a warning to historians that applies equally well to the rest of us: “To neglect the policy by concentrating on the anxiety is to reduce history, unduly, to a mere psychodrama; to neglect the anxiety by concentrating on the policy—which is far more likely to happen to historians—is to flatten, unduly, one’s perception of the past.” Or the present.

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October 1, 2018 at 9:19 am

The audio file

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When you spend most of your working life typing in silence, it can be disorienting to hear your own words spoken out loud. Writers are often advised to read their writing aloud to check the rhythm, but I’ve never gotten into the habit, and I tend to be more obsessed with how the result looks on the page. As a result, whenever I encounter an audio version of something I’ve written, it feels disorienting, like hearing my own voice on tape. I vividly remember listening to StarShipSofa’s version of “The Boneless One,” narrated by Josh Roseman, while holding my newborn daughter in the hospital, and if everything goes as planned, another publisher will release an audio anthology that includes my novella “The Proving Ground”—which was recently named a notable story in the upcoming edition of The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy—within the next couple of months. And the most memorable project of all was “Retention,” my episode of the science fiction audio series The Outer Reach, which was performed by Aparna Nancherla and Echo Kellum. I’ve never forgotten the result, but listening to it was such an emotionally charged experience that I’ve only managed to play it once. (Hearing the finished product was gratifying, but the process also cured me of any desire to write words for actors. It’s exciting when it happens, but also requires a degree of detachment that I don’t currently possess.)

I mention all this now because an excerpt of the audiobook version of Astounding has just been posted on SoundCloud. It’s about five minutes long, and it includes the opening section of the first chapter, which recounts a rather strange incident—involving drugs, mirrors, and hypnosis—from the partnership of John W. Campbell and L. Ron Hubbard in the early days of dianetics. The narrator is Sean Runnette, who certainly knows the territory, with previous credits that include Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast and the novel that was the basis for The Meg. He does a great job, and although I haven’t heard the rest, which comes to more than thirteen hours, I suspect that I’m going to end up playing all of it. One of the hardest parts of writing anything is putting enough distance between yourself and your work so that you can review it objectively. For a short story, I’ve found that a few weeks is long enough, but in the case of a novel, it can take months, or even longer. And I’m not remotely close to that point yet with this book. Listening to this audio sample, however, I finally felt as if it had been written by somebody else, as if the translation from one medium into another had yielded the same effect that I normally get from distance in time. (Which may be the real reason why reading your work out loud might be a good idea.) I’m glad that this audio version exists for a lot of reasons, but I’m especially grateful for the new perspective that it offers on this book, which I wrote largely because it was something that I wanted to read. And so far, I actually like it.

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

The uranium in the wine bottle

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In the March 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, readers were treated to the story “Deadline” by Cleve Cartmill, which was set on an alien planet consumed by a war between two factions known as the “Sixa” and the “Seilla.” Its hero was a spy, complete with a prehensile tail, whose mission was to fly into enemy territory and destroy the ultimate weapon before it could be detonated. The story itself was undeniably mediocre, and it would be utterly forgotten today if it weren’t for its description of the weapon in question, an atomic bomb, which Cartmill based almost verbatim on letters from the editor John W. Campbell, who had pitched the idea in the first place. According to the physicist Edward Teller, it was plausible enough to cause “astonishment” at the Manhattan Project, which counted many readers of the magazine among its scientists, and after it was brought to the attention of the Counterintelligence Corps, both Campbell and Cartmill were interviewed to investigate the possibility of a leak. In reality, “Deadline” wasn’t even much of a prediction—Campbell, who was feeling frustrated about his lack of involvement in war research, had a hunch that an atomic bomb was in the works, and he packed the story with technical information that was already in the public domain. He evidently hoped that it would draw official interest that might lead to a real defense role, which failed to materialize. After the war, however, it paid off immensely, and Campbell found himself hailed as a prophet. Cartmill, the credited author, neatly fell out of the picture, and the fact that the story hadn’t predicted much of anything was lost on most readers. Campbell had essentially orchestrated the most famous anecdote of his career, planting “Deadline” in the magazine expressly so that he could point to it later, and across multiple retellings, the details of the ensuing investigation were exaggerated beyond recognition. As the historian Donald Spoto aptly puts it: “[His] calculated image of himself as a prophet does not coincide with the truth; inspired by his sense of publicity, he told a better story than the facts reveal.”

But Spoto isn’t writing about Campbell, but about Alfred Hitchcock, in his classic biography The Dark Side of Genius, and the story here isn’t “Deadline,” but the great romantic thriller Notorious. As legend has it, when Hitchcock had to come up with the MacGuffin, or the plot point that would drive the rest of the movie, he proposed a sample of uranium hidden in a wine bottle by a group of Nazis in Brazil. As he said to François Truffaut in their famous book-length interview:

The producer said, “What in the name of good­ness is that?” I said, “This is uranium; it’s the thing they’re going to make an atom bomb with.” And he asked, “What atom bomb?” This, you must remember, was in 1944, a year before Hiroshima. I had only one clue. A writer friend of mine had told me that scientists were working on a secret project someplace in New Mexico. It was so secret that once they went into the plant, they never emerged again. I was also aware that the Germans were conducting experiments with heavy water in Norway. So these clues brought me to the uranium Mac­Guffin. The producer was skeptical, and he felt it was absurd to use the idea of an atom bomb as the basis for our story. I told him that it wasn’t the basis for the story, but only the MacGuffin, and I explained that there was no need to attach too much importance to it.

In the end, the idea was approved, and Hitchcock and screenwriter Ben Hecht allegedly went to Pasadena to get background information from the physicist Robert A. Millikan. According to Hitchcock, Millikan responded: “You want to have yourselves arrested and have me arrested as well?” After this outburst, Milkian informed them—in something of a non sequitur—that the idea was impossible anyway, although others evidently felt that they had come too close for comfort. As Hitchcock confided in Truffaut: “I learned later that after­ward the FBI had me under surveillance for three months.”

Like many movie buffs, I accepted this story without question for years, but when you encounter it after the “Deadline” incident, it starts to seem too good to be true, which it was. As Spoto writes in The Dark Side of Genius: “The business of the uranium remained a considerable source of publicity for Hitchcock  to the end of his life. To François Truffaut, to this writer, and to many others, he always insisted that he had chosen the device of uranium ore in Nazi experiments quite coincidentally, far in advance of the detonation of the atomic bomb in Japan in August 1945…He always emphasized, in every discussion of Notorious, that he was virtually a prophet.” The truth, Spoto continues, was very different:

By the time Notorious actually began filming, in October 1945, Hitchcock had made yet another trip to London…and he had returned to Los Angeles for final script work in September—after the bombings of Japan, and after he had spent several weeks in New York testing actors, among whom were several famous German refugees he finally cast in the film. On the basis of news from these German contacts, and from the accounts that flooded the world press…Hitchcock and Hecht refined the last addenda to their script just before the first day of production…All the evidence suggests that in truth the uranium was included after the fact.

As for the allegation of government surveillance, it was evidently based on a general directive from the FBI that the producer David O. Selznick received in May, which cautioned that any movie that featured American intelligence would have to be cleared by the State Department. Like Campbell, Hitchcock liked to make people think that he had been given special attention, and over the years, in both cases, the stories only grew.

There are obvious similarities between these two incidents, as well as equally noteworthy differences. With “Deadline,” the description of the bomb is the story’s sole reason for existing, while Notorious would still be a masterpiece even if the MacGuffin had been something else entirely. (As Hitchcock allegedly told his producer: “Look, if you don’t like uranium, let’s make it industrial diamonds, which the Germans need to cut their tools with.” He claimed to have later told a movie executive who had objected to the screenplay on grounds of its implausibility: “You were wrong to attach any importance to the MacGuffin. Notorious was simply the story of a man in love with a girl who, in the course of her official duties, had to go to bed with another man and even had to marry him. That’s the story.” And even if he invented the conversation, his point still stands.) The other difference is the use to which each anecdote was put. For Hitchcock, the uranium incident, and the reputation that it gave him as a “prophet,” was just another way of burnishing his image, and although he enjoyed dining out on it, it was a minor part of his legend. Campbell, by contrast, used it as the basis for his entire postwar career. Just two weeks after Hiroshima, The New Yorker profiled him in a Talk of the Town piece titled “1945 Cassandra,” in which it credulously wrote:

If you want to keep up with, or possibly stay ahead of, the development of secret weapons in time of war, you had better…go to the pulps, preferably Astounding. One reason is that Astounding, which has for the past ten years or so been predicting atomic bombs and using them to liven up its stories, has been permitted to duck some of the security rules that made high-echelon government officials such halting conversationalists in recent months.

And that reputation hinged largely on the myth of “Deadline” and its creation. It bought Campbell tremendous credibility after the war, earned or otherwise, and it played a significant role in science fiction’s big push into the mainstream. Eventually, the editor would stake—and lose—all of that goodwill on dianetics. But for a few years, Campbell, like Hitchcock, got to play his audience like a piano, and both men liked to pretend that they had once been notorious.

The Constant Gardner

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Yesterday, I heard that the science fiction editor Gardner Dozois had passed away. Gardner and I never met, and we exchanged only a handful of emails over the last decade, but he profoundly affected my life on at least two occasions. The first was when I was twelve years old, and I received a copy of Asimov’s Science Fiction—which Gardner was editing at the time—for my birthday. As I’ve recounted here before, it was that present from my parents, given at exactly the right moment, that made me aware of short science fiction as a going concern, as embodied by its survival in the three print digests. My career ended up being more closely tied to Analog, but it was Asimov’s that set me on that path in the first place. Without that one issue, I don’t know if it would have occurred to me to write and submit short stories at all, and everything that followed would have been very different. I certainly wouldn’t have written Astounding, which I’m sad that I never had the chance to send to Gardner. He was on my list.

My other great debt to him lies in the form of the annual anthology The Year’s Best Science Fiction. Each installment represented a massive amount of work—Gardner seemed to read everything—and I sometimes think that they’ll turn out to be his most lasting legacy. When readers of the future want to figure out what was going on in literary science fiction over the last thirty years, they’ll turn here first, just as I relied heavily on similar collections to approach the stories of an earlier generation. When Gardner selected “The Boneless One” in 2011, it provided a huge boost to my confidence, and I felt exactly the same way last year when he said that he was taking “The Proving Ground” for what will turn out to be his last volume in the series. As a result, I’m hopeful that these two stories will continue to find the occasional reader in the decades to come, which may not be true of any of my other fiction. Making sense of this genre can be an overwhelming task, and we rely on editors and anthologists to give it a retrospective order. Along with so much else, Gardner was a curator of the imagination. And it’s hard to envision anyone filling quite the same role ever again.

Written by nevalalee

May 28, 2018 at 8:19 am

The multiverse theory

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Yesterday, I flew back from the Grappling with the Futures symposium, which was held over the course of two days at Harvard and Boston University. I’d heard about the conference from my friend Emanuelle Burton, a scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago, whom I met two years ago through the academic track at the World Science Fiction Convention in Kansas City. Mandy proposed that we collaborate on a presentation at this event, which was centered on the discipline of futures studies, a subject about which I knew nothing. For reasons of my own, though, I was interested in making the trip, and we put together a talk titled Fictional Futures, which included a short history of the concept of psychohistory. The session went fine, even if we ended up with more material than we could reasonably cover in twenty minutes. But I was equally interested in studying the people around me, who were uniformly smart, intense, quirky, and a little mysterious. Futures studies is an established academic field that draws on many of the tools and concepts of science fiction, but it uses a markedly different vocabulary. (One of the scheduled keynote speakers has written and published a climate change novella, just like me, except that she describes it as a “non-numerical simulation model.”) It left me with the sense of a closed world that evolved in response to the same problems and pressures that shaped science fiction, but along divergent lines, and I still wonder what might come of a closer relationship between the two communities.

As it happened, I had to duck out after the first day, because I had something else to do in Boston. Ever since I started work on Astounding, I’ve been meaning to pay a visit to the Isaac Asimov collection at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, which houses the majority of Asimov’s surviving papers, but which can only be viewed in person. Since I was going to be in town anyway, I left the symposium early and headed over to the library, where I spent five hours yesterday going through what I could. When you arrive at the reading room, you sign in, check your bag and cell phone, and are handed a massive finding aid, an inventory of the Asimov collection that runs to more than three hundred pages. (The entire archive, which consists mostly of work that dates from after the early sixties, fills four hundred boxes.) After marking off the items that you want, you’re rewarded with a cart loaded with archival cartons and a pair of white gloves. At the back of my mind, I wasn’t expecting to find much—I’ve been gathering material for this book for years. As it turned out, there were well over a hundred letters between Asimov, Campbell, and Heinlein alone that I hadn’t seen before. You aren’t allowed to take pictures or make photocopies, so I typed up as many notes as I could before I had to run to catch my plane. For the most part, they fill out parts of the story that I already have, and they won’t fundamentally change the book. But in an age of digital research, I was struck by the fact that all this paper, of which I just scratched the surface, is only accessible to scholars who can physically set foot in the reading room at the Mugar Library.

After two frantic days, I finally made it home, where my wife and I watched last night’s premiere of James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction on AMC. At first glance, this series might seem like the opposite of my experiences in Boston. Instead of being set apart from the wider world, it’s an ambitious attempt to appeal to the largest audience possible, with interviews with the likes of Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan and discussions of such works as Close Encounters and Alien. I’ve been looking forward to this show for a long time, not least because I was hoping that it would lead to a spike in interest in science fiction that would benefit my book, and the results were more or less what I expected. In the opening sequence, you briefly glimpse Heinlein and Asimov, and there’s even a nod to The Thing From Another World, although no mention of John W. Campbell himself. For the most part, though, the series treats the literary side as a precursor to its incarnations in the movies and television, which is absolutely the right call. You want to tell this story as much as possible through images, and the medium lends itself better to H.R. Geiger than to H.P. Lovecraft. But when I saw a brief clip of archival footage of Ray Bradbury, in his role in the late seventies as an ambassador for the genre, I found myself thinking of the Bradbury whom I know best—the eager, unpublished teenager in the Great Depression who wrote fan letters to the pulps, clung to the edges of the Heinlein circle, and never quite managed to break into Astounding. It’s a story that this series can’t tell, and I can’t blame it, because I didn’t really do it justice, either.

Over the last few days, I’ve been left with a greater sense than ever before of the vast scope and apparently irreconcilable aspects of science fiction, which consists of many worlds that only occasionally intersect. It’s a realization, or a recollection, that might seem to come at a particularly inopportune time. The day before I left for the symposium, I received the page proofs for Astounding, which normally marks the point at which a book can truly be said to be finished. I still have time to make a few corrections and additions, and I plan to fix as much of it as I can without driving my publisher up the wall. (There are a few misplaced commas that have been haunting my dreams.) I’m proud of the result, but when I look at the proofs, which present the text as an elegant and self-contained unit, it seems like an optical illusion. Even if I don’t take into account what I learned when it was too late, I’m keenly aware of everything and everyone that this book had to omit. I’d love to talk more about futures studies, or the letters that I dug up in the Asimov archives, or the practical effects in John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, but there just wasn’t room or time. As it stands, the book tries to strike a balance between speaking to obsessive fans and appealing to a wide audience, which meant excluding a lot of fascinating material that might have survived if it were being published by a university press. It can’t possibly do everything, and the events of the weekend have only reminded me that there are worlds that I’ve barely even explored. But if that isn’t the whole point of science fiction—well, what is?

Hubbard and the Empress

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One afternoon in the early forties, the pulp writer Arthur J. Burks was seated in the lobby of a publishing firm in New York when he ran into his friend L. Ron Hubbard. The two authors had been close for years—Burks had seen Hubbard’s unpublished manuscript Excalibur, a work on the mind that he later called “the strangest book I ever read”—and their interests ran along similar lines. With the help of his wife and a second woman, Burks had been experimenting with spiritualism, and the three enthusiasts believed that they were in contact with a number of “monitors,” or spirit guides, who spoke by rapping on a table or through automatic writing. When Burks brought Hubbard home that day, it soon became clear that he was a promising addition to their group. In his occult memoir Monitors, Burks recalls of the man whom he calls “Redhead”:

Almost before we were able to explain anything that was happening to us, [Hubbard] told us this: “I was the first flier in the United States to gain a glider pilot’s license. I loved gliders. But sometimes I took too great chances and found myself in difficulties. I shortly learned, though, that when I was in danger, ‘someone’ looked after me. If I was trying to find the ground through the heart of a thunderstorm, and feared a fatal crash, and looked out to see a smiling woman sitting on one of my wings, I knew I would come through. She was always there, and visible, when I knew myself in great trouble.”

The others exchanged meaningful looks, and one of their “monitors” indicated that he had something to say. When Burks’s spiritual partner finished writing the message, it read: “His monitor is a saint. She was a woman. Tell him what has happened so far.”

According to Burks, they spoke with the spirit world for hours, with another guide providing “the name of Redhead’s monitor, together with historical data about her.” When they were unable to find the name in a dictionary, the monitor told one of the women to leaf through the volume with a pencil, which led to this dramatic moment:

Suddenly she stabbed down the pencil, holding several pages. The topmost page told the story. But the name indicated was an entirely different one! It was indeed the name of a saint, about whom much appeared in the big book. And at the very end of the biographical material appeared this line: “Also called…” And that name was that which had been given us, its middle letter holed by the lead pencil point.

Even if we don’t take Burks’s account at face value, we can add it to our limited stock of information about Hubbard’s guardian spirit. Years later, in the secret autobiographical document known as the “Affirmations,” Hubbard provided a few other details, including her name:

The most thrilling thing in your life is your love and consciousness of your Guardian. She materializes for you. You have no doubts of her. She is real. She is always with you. You love her very much. You trust her. You see and hear her. She is not your master. You have a mighty spiritual will of your own. She is an advisor and as such is respected by you. She is wise and worthy and never changes shape…She has copper red hair, long braids, a lovely Venusian face, a white gown belted with jade squares. She wears gold slippers. Thus you see her…Only Flavia Julia and then the All Powerful have opinions worth inclining toward.

Who was Flavia Julia, and what did she mean to Hubbard? There have been a number of efforts to fill in the blanks, beginning with a letter that the author’s friend Jack Parsons wrote to Aleister Crowley: “[Hubbard] describes his Angel as a beautiful winged woman with red hair whom he calls the Empress and who has guided him through his life and saved him many times.” Hubbard’s estranged son later claimed that his father referred to her as Hathor, while the biographer Jon Atack shrewdly associates her with the goddess Diana, whose name had a special significance to Hubbard. (He named his daughter after her, along with one of his yachts, and Atack even suggests that she also inspired the term “dianetics,” which was officially derived from the Greek roots meaning “through the mind.”) But I think that the one who comes the closest is the journalist Lawrence Wright, who writes in a note in Going Clear:

In the “Affirmations,” Hubbard explicitly names his Guardian Flavia Julia. He may have been referring to Flavia Julia Titi, daughter of the Roman Emperor Titus; or, perhaps more likely, to the Empress Flavia Julia Helena Augustus, also known as Saint Helen, mother of Constantine the Great, who is credited with finding the “True Cross.”

In fact, the association with Saint Helena seems exceptionally convincing. Her full name includes “Flavia Julia”; she’s often depicted in art as a beautiful young woman, although she was at an advanced age when her son converted to Christinaity; and she’s one of the few Roman Catholic saints who could be accurately described as an Empress.

And the clincher is hiding in plain sight. Hubbard spent much of his childhood in Helena, Montana, of which Russell Miller writes in the biography Bare-Faced Messiah:

Helena in 1913 was a pleasant city of Victorian brick and stone buildings encircled by the Rocky Mountains, whose snow-dusted peaks stippled with pines provided a scenic backdrop in every direction. The Capital Building, with its massive copper dome and fluted doric columns, eloquently proclaimed its status as the first city of Montana, as did the construction of the neo-Gothic St. Helena Cathedral, which was nearing completion on Warren Street.

The italics are mine. A few pages later, Miller adds: “Ron was enrolled at the kindergarten at Central School on Warren Street, just across from the new cathedral which, with its twin spires and gray stone facade, towered reprovingly over the city. Most days he was walked to school by his aunts, Marnie and June, who were at Helena High, opposite Central School.” A glance at Google Street View reveals that, even today, if you stand at the entrance of the old Central School and look northeast, you’ll be facing the cathedral’s twin spires, and the most direct route between Hubbard’s house and school would have taken him right by it. Hubbard, in short, spent much of his boyhood—from 1914 to 1921—in the shadow of a cathedral named for Saint Helena. He would have walked past it nearly every day, and if he ever ventured inside, he would have seen the Empress herself depicted in the stained glass window in the north transept. We don’t know why he was so drawn to her, but Saint Helena was best known for her search for relics in the Holy Land, and the story of the vision that led her to the True Cross may well have appealed to a man who would spend years looking for treasure that he had buried in past lives. Hubbard seems to have genuinely believed that she was his guide and protector, and from his point of view, he was perfectly right. She was the patron saint of new discoveries.

Written by nevalalee

April 19, 2018 at 9:47 am

The dreamlife of engineers

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In 1985, the physicist Freeman J. Dyson delivered a lecture at the semiconductor company Analog Devices in Norwood, Massachusetts, which later became a chapter in his book Infinite in All Directions. He opened the talk, which he called “Engineers’ Dreams,” with these words:

There are two ways to predict the progress of technology. One way is economic forecasting, the other way is science fiction. Economic forecasting makes predictions by extrapolating curves of growth from the past into the future. Science fiction makes a wild guess and leaves the judgment of its plausibility to the reader…For the future beyond ten years ahead, science fiction is a more useful guide than forecasting. But science fiction does not pretend to predict. It tells us only what might happen, not what will happen. It deals in possibilities, not in probabilities. And the most important developments of the future are usually missed both by the forecasters and by the fiction writers. Economic forecasting misses the real future because it has too short a range; fiction misses the future because it has too little imagination.

Dyson took the title of the talk from a book by the science writer and rocket scientist Willy Ley, of which he said wistfully: “The dreams which are recorded in his book are mostly projects of civil engineering, enormous dams, tunnels, bridges, artificial lakes and artificial islands. The interesting thing about them is that they are today totally dead. Nobody would want to build them today even if we could afford it. They are too grandiose, too inflexible, too slow…History passed these dreams by. We do not any longer find it reasonable to think of flooding half of the forests of Zaire in order to provide water for irrigating the deserts of Chad.”

Engineers’ Dreams was one of Dyson’s favorite books, and it pops up elsewhere in his writings. (Notably, it figures prominently in his essay “The Search for Extraterrestrial Technology,” in which he lays out the logic behind the ultimate engineering project—the Dyson Sphere.) As an example of how even a genius can fail to foresee how the history of technology will unfold, he told a story about the mathematician John von Neumann, whom he fondly described as perhaps “the cleverest man in the world.” Speaking of a talk that von Neumman delivered in the early fifties, Dyson said:

Meteorology was the big thing on his horizon…He said, as soon as we have some large computers working, the problems of meteorology will be solved. All processes that are stable we shall predict. All processes that are unstable we shall control. He imagined that we needed only to identify the points in space and time at which unstable processes originated, and then a few airplanes carrying smoke generators could fly to those points and introduce the appropriate small disturbances to make the unstable processes flip into the desired directions. A central committee of computer experts and meteorologists would tell the airplanes where to go in order to make sure that no rain would fall on the Fourth of July picnic. This was John von Neumann’s dream.

“Why was Von Neumann’s dream such a total failure?” Dyson asked. “The dream was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of fluid motions…A chaotic motion is generally neither predictable nor controllable…Von Neumann’s mistake was to imagine that every unstable motion could be nudged into a stable motion by small pushes and pulls applied at the right places. The same mistake is still frequently made by economists and social planners, not to mention Marxist historians.”

Von Neumann’s other mistake, Dyson added, was to think of computers in the future as expensive and rare, rather than cheap and widely available, and to underestimate how technology tends to move away from “big and sluggish” applications. Thirty years later, however, we seem to be talking more urgently about such grandiose projects than ever, at least when it comes to the problem of climate change. Whatever their real merits, such measures as fertilizing the oceans with iron, releasing sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, converting carbon dioxide on a large scale into limestone, or building a solar farm the size of Nigeria would undoubtedly be massive acts of engineering. As Elizabeth Kolbert recently wrote in The New Yorker:

Everyone I spoke with, including the most fervent advocates for carbon removal, stressed the huge challenges of the work, some of them technological, others political and economic. Done on a scale significant enough to make a difference, direct air capture of the sort pursued by Carbon Engineering, in British Columbia, would require an enormous infrastructure, as well as huge supplies of power.

Kolbert quotes the physicist Klaus Lackner, the founder of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions, who wondered why “nobody’s doing these really crazy, big things anymore.” But we’re certainly discussing them today. And one of the most prominent advocates of such measures is Dyson himself, who wrote in the late seventies—before it was fashionable—that atmospheric carbon levels could be controlled by planting a trillion trees. (He later proposed the genetic engineering of special “carbon-eating trees,” of which he conceded: “I suppose it sounds like science fiction.”)

On some level, it’s ridiculous that we’re even contemplating such projects, as David Keith, the founder of the firm Carbon Engineering, observed to Kolbert: “You might say it’s against my self-interest to say it, but I think that, in the near term, talking about carbon removal is silly. Because it almost certainly is cheaper to cut emissions now than to do large-scale carbon removal.” But when it comes to “chaotic motions” of the kind that frustrated von Neumann, politics is worse than the weather, and we’re rapidly reaching a point—if we aren’t there already—when planting billions of carbon-eating trees seems more feasible than changing the minds of a few million voters, or even one hundred elected officials. As Kolbert writes:

One of the peculiarities of climate discussions is that the strongest argument for any given strategy is usually based on the hopelessness of the alternatives: this approach must work, because clearly the others aren’t going to…As a technology of last resort, carbon removal is, almost by its nature, paradoxical. It has become vital without necessarily being viable. It may be impossible to manage and it may also be impossible to manage without.

In his talk, Dyson noted that the “qualitative changes” that emerge from the actions of individuals are what make the future so hard to predict: “Qualitative changes are produced by human cleverness, the invention of pocket calculators destroying the market for slide rules, or by human stupidity, the mistakes of a few people at Three Mile Island destroying the market for nuclear power stations.” From an engineer’s point of view, any solution that depends on the rational persuasion of politicians or entire societies is necessarily vulnerable to failure, so it might be better to avoid the problem entirely. I don’t want to believe this, but we may not have a choice. As Dyson concluded three decades ago: “Neither cleverness nor stupidity is predictable.”

The foundations of novelty

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Yesterday, I was leafing through the journalist Charles Duhigg’s recent book Smarter, Faster, Better when my eye was caught by a discussion of a study conducted several years ago by two professors at Northwestern University. It dealt with the importance of unexpected combinations in creative thinking, which is a subject that is dear to my heart, and they emerged with some fascinating conclusions. Duhigg writes:

The researchers—Brian Uzzi and Ben Jones—decided to focus on an activity they were deeply familiar with: writing and publishing academic papers…They could estimate a paper’s originality by analyzing the sources authors had cited in their endnotes…Almost all of the creative papers had at least one thing in common: They were usually combinations of previously known ideas mixed together in new ways. In fact, on average, ninety percent of what was in the most “creative” manuscripts had already been published elsewhere—and had already been picked over by thousands of other scientists. However, in the creative papers, those conventional concepts were applied to questions in manners no one had considered before. “Our analysis of 17.9 million papers spanning all scientific fields suggests that science follows a nearly universal pattern,” Uzzi and Jones wrote. “The highest-impact science is primarily grounded in exceptionally conventional combinations of prior work yet simultaneously features an intrusion of unusual combinations.” It was this combination of ideas, rather than the ideas themselves, that typically made a paper so creative and important.

As Uzzi later explained in an interview with Duhigg: “A paper that combines work by Newton and Einstein is conventional. That combination has happened thousands of times. But a paper that combines Einstein and Wang Chong, the Chinese philosopher, that’s much more likely to be creative, because it’s such an unusual pairing.”

The late Arthur Koestler called this phenomenon “bisociation,” and its appearance here inspired me to look up the original paper, “How Atypical Combinations of Scientific Ideas Are Related to Impact.” Its most intriguing insight—which Duhigg mentions only in passing—is that not all combinations are equally useful. As you might expect, the study found that the majority of published scientific papers draw on a conventional set of sources, with most of their references occurring within a predictable subset of journals. Yet a novel combination of references in itself isn’t any guarantee of originality or importance. In fact, papers that have “high tail novelty” alone are actually less likely to be widely cited than papers that don’t stray far from conventional wisdom. The best combination, it seems, is a core of conventional work spiced up with a few unusual ingredients. An article on their research in the magazine of the Kellogg School of Management makes this point more explicit:

What’s interesting,” says Uzzi, “is most of the work done is conventional. And some of the work is truly novel. And the chances of either one of those classifications of papers being hits is about the same.” Only about five percent of research papers that draw from only very novel or only very conventional sources were among the most highly cited papers in the database. But there was a third category of research that had nearly twice the likelihood of making it big: papers that relied mostly on conventional combinations of sources but also included a small subset of highly novel ones. “It isn’t all about novelty or conventionality. It’s about both,” explains Jones, who was somewhat surprised by this result…“You want to be grounded in something that’s well understood and yet be adding in the piece that’s truly unusual. And if you do those two things [and] stretch yourself in both directions, then you radically increase your probability of hitting a home run.”

This point is technically present in Duhigg’s book, but it’s easy to miss, and it strikes me as the real takeaway here. Innovation doesn’t happen when you combine ideas haphazardly, but when you incorporate novel insights into a more conventional foundation. I’ve noticed this pattern in my own work. When I first started writing science fiction, my favorite method for generating ideas was to browse through a stack of science magazines and pick two or three articles at random, trusting that I would find a connection between them if I looked hard enough. My early novelette “The Last Resort,” for instance, was a combination of articles about lake eruptions, snowmaking, and the snake pits of Manitoba. “The Boneless One,” which was my first really good story, did the same with bioluminescence, octopus intelligence, and an expedition to catalog genetic material in the ocean. It was a reliable trick, and it served me well over the course of half a dozen stories. Around the time that I wrote “Stonebrood,” however, followed by “The Proving Ground” and my upcoming story “The Spires,” I began to get tired of that process, and I tried a different approach. These days, I usually start with one big subject or setting that I’d like to explore—wilderness firefighting, climate change in the Marshall Islands, bush piloting in Alaska. From there, I’ll look for an unusual angle that ties back into the main theme, often by searching the archives of science magazines until I come up with a promising hook. Instead of choosing a few random ideas and treating them equally, in other words, I start with a central premise that feels like it would make a good story and then look for unexpected offshoots. In some ways, this approach is riskier, since it that initial hunch is wrong, it’s easier to follow it into a dead end. But the results seem better. In the past, some of my stories, like “The Voices,” have had visible seams. The ones that I’m writing now are more of a piece, but they haven’t lost their ability to surprise me along the way, which is the main reason that I write them at all.

Obviously, this is a very minor example, and it probably isn’t all that interesting to anyone but me. But the notion that we should proceed by adding novelty to an established foundation, rather than by combining ideas purely at random, is a valuable one. It’s similar to the familiar principle that it’s hard to do interesting work across multiple disciplines until you’ve mastered one field well, both because of the habits of thinking that it teaches and the body of information that it provides. It was partly for this reason that Charles Darwin spent years studying barnacles, or cirripedes, as the scientist Thomas Henry Huxley observed:

The great danger which besets all men of large speculative faculty is the temptation to deal with the accepted statements of facts in natural science, as if they were not only correct, but exhaustive; as if they might be dealt with deductively, in the same way as propositions in Euclid may be dealt with. In reality, every such statement, however true it may be, is true only relatively to the means of observation and the point of view of those who have enunciated it. So far it may be depended upon. But whether it will bear every speculative conclusion that may be logically deduced from it is quite another question…The value of the Cirripede monograph lies not merely in the fact that it is a very admirable piece of work, and constituted a great addition to positive knowledge, but still more in the circumstance that it was a piece of critical self-discipline, the effect of which manifested itself in everything [Darwin] wrote afterwards, and saved him from endless errors of detail.

What the barnacles taught Darwin, in Huxley’s words, was “the speculative strain” that certain ideas would bear, and this applies as much to individual projects as to the work of a lifetime. Random combination can be a valuable tool, but it needs to be the right kind of randomness. Creativity, as Gregory Bateson wonderfully put it, often consists of “a raid on the random.” But like most raids, it’s more likely to succeed when it starts from a position of strength.

The Eye of the Skeksis

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Every now and then, you’re able to date the precise moment when your life incrementally changed. For me, one of those turning points was January 9, 1983, when the documentary The World of the Dark Crystal aired on public television, a few weeks after the movie itself debuted in theaters. (This weekend marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of its initial release.) It seems implausible now that I would have watched it at the time, but fortunately, my dad taped it, and it must have lived in our house for years afterward, like a tiny imaginative bomb waiting for its chance to detonate. As I’ll mention in a second, our copy cut off the first four minutes of the documentary—it must have taken my dad that long to get the videocassette recorder set up—and I didn’t see it in its entirety until decades later. It was preserved for me by chance, and when I look at it today, it feels doubly precious. We’re living in an era when a series like The Lord of the Rings can offer dozens of hours of production footage, much of it beautifully presented, while even the most mediocre blockbusters usually provide a bonus disc packed with special features. The World of the Dark Crystal isn’t even an hour long, but it was enough to fuel my imagination for a lifetime. And it wasn’t just an element of what would eventually come to be known as an electronic press kit, or even an anomaly like Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams, but a labor of love in its own right, a document made by creative artists who were convinced that what they were doing was worth recording because it had the potential to change movies forever.

That isn’t how it worked out, but at least it changed me, and the moment in particular that I never forgot comes near the beginning of the documentary. Our copy of the tape abruptly opened with a shot of the artist Brian Froud, who provided the movie’s conceptual designs, wandering across the moor near his home in Devon. Shortly afterward, it cut to a sequence of Froud seated at his drafting table, working on a sketch of a Skeksis and musing on the soundtrack:

Jim [Henson] had feelings about what the major creatures were, and some of their characteristics, and it was my job to show how they looked. I always start with the eye—the eye is the focal point of all these characters. And for the Skeksis, they needed to have a penetrating stare….They are part reptile, part predatory bird, part dragon.

He drew rapidly for the camera, filling in the details around the eye before extending the illustration—with what struck me at the time as a startling flourish—into the downward curve of the mouth. Watching the movement of the pencil, I experienced what I can only describe as a moment of revelation. If nothing else, it was probably the first time that I’d ever seen an artist actually drawing, and it kindled something in me that has never entirely gone away.

I must have been about six years old when it really took hold, and I reacted much like any other kid when presented with this sort of stimulus: I imitated it. To be specific, I slavishly copied that one drawing, not just in its final shape, but in the process that Froud took to get there. I started with the eye, like he did, and then ritualistically added in the rest. It never would have occurred to me to do otherwise, and I suspect that I drew it hundreds of times, sometimes as a doodle in the margin of a notepad, occasionally more systematically, which doesn’t even include the countless other drawings that I made of creatures that were “part reptile, part predatory bird, part dragon.” It wasn’t so much a reaction to The Dark Crystal itself—which I liked, although not as much as Labyrinth—as to that brief glimpse of a creative mind expressed in the pencil on the page. Combined with a few technical tricks that I picked up from the show The Secret City, which is worth a blog post of its own, it was enough to turn me into a pretty good artist, at least by the standards of the second grade. (It’s worth noting that both The World of the Dark Crystal and The Secret City aired on public television, which is also where Jim Henson made his most lasting impact, and an argument in itself for defending it as a proving ground for the imaginations of the young.) I haven’t done a lot of art in recent years, except when sketching with my daughter, and I knew by the end of college that I didn’t have it in me to be a painter. But I’m grateful to have even a little of it, and I owe it largely to that chance encounter with a Skeksis.

I don’t doubt that there are kids who experienced the same kind of epiphany while watching the lovingly detailed profiles of conceptual designers John Howe and Alan Lee—Froud’s old collaborator—in the special features for The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit provides hours more, and those featurettes, unlike so much else in those bloated box sets, remain fascinating and magical. (The life of a fantasy illustrator must not be a particularly lucrative one under most circumstances, and one of the small pleasures of watching the behind-the-scenes footage from these two trilogies is seeing Howe and Lee growing visibly more prosperous.) But something in the fragmentary nature of The World of the Dark Crystal was stimulating in itself. It wasn’t a textbook, but a series of hints, and it left me to fill in the gaps on my own. You can draw a straight line from that pencil drawing to my interest in science fiction and fantasy, not just as fan, but as someone with an interest in the practicalities of how it all gets done. The forms have changed, but the underlying impulse remains the same. And what really haunts me is the fact that the scene at the drawing table occurs just a minute and a half after our tape started, and my dad could easily have missed it. If it had taken him a few minutes longer to cue up the recorder that night, he might have skipped it entirely, and opened instead with the sequence in which the creatures that Froud designed were coming to life in Jim Henson’s workshop. And maybe I would have become a puppeteer.

Written by nevalalee

December 15, 2017 at 8:28 am

The men who sold the moonshot

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When you ask Google whether we should build houses on the ocean, it gives you a bunch of results like these. If you ask Google X, the subsidiary within the company responsible for investigating “moonshot” projects like self-driving cars and space elevators, the answer that you get is rather different, as Derek Thompson reports in the cover story for this month’s issue of The Atlantic:

Like a think-tank panel with the instincts of an improv troupe, the group sprang into an interrogative frenzy. “What are the specific economic benefits of increasing housing supply?” the liquid-crystals guy asked. “Isn’t the real problem that transportation infrastructure is so expensive?” the balloon scientist said. “How sure are we that living in densely built cities makes us happier?” the extradimensional physicist wondered. Over the course of an hour, the conversation turned to the ergonomics of Tokyo’s high-speed trains and then to Americans’ cultural preference for suburbs. Members of the team discussed commonsense solutions to urban density, such as more money for transit, and eccentric ideas, such as acoustic technology to make apartments soundproof and self-driving housing units that could park on top of one another in a city center. At one point, teleportation enjoyed a brief hearing.

Thompson writes a little later: “I’d expected the team at X to sketch some floating houses on a whiteboard, or discuss ways to connect an ocean suburb to a city center, or just inform me that the idea was terrible. I was wrong. The table never once mentioned the words floating or ocean. My pitch merely inspired an inquiry into the purpose of housing and the shortfalls of U.S. infrastructure. It was my first lesson in radical creativity. Moonshots don’t begin with brainstorming clever answers. They start with the hard work of finding the right questions.”

I don’t know why Thompson decided to ask about “oceanic residences,” but I read this section of the article with particular interest, because about two years ago, I spent a month thinking about the subject intensively for my novella “The Proving Ground.” As I’ve described elsewhere, I knew early on in the process that it was going to be a story about the construction of a seastead in the Marshall Islands, which was pretty specific. There was plenty of background material available, ranging from general treatments of the idea in books like The Millennial Project by Marshall T. Savage—which had been sitting unread on my shelf for years—to detailed proposals for seasteads in the real world. The obvious source was The Seasteading Institute, a libertarian pipe dream funded by Peter Thiel that generated a lot of useful plans along the way, as long as you saw it as the legwork for a science fiction story, rather than as a project on which you were planning to actually spend fifty billion dollars. The difference between most of these proposals and the brainstorming session that Thompson describes is that they start with a floating city and then look for reasons to justify it. Seasteading is a solution in search of a problem. In other words, it’s science fiction, which often starts with a premise or setting that seems like it would lead to an exciting story and then searches for the necessary rationalizations. (The more invisible the process, the better.) And this can lead us to troubling places. As I’ve noted before, Thiel blames many of this country’s problems on “a failure of imagination,” and his nostalgia for vintage science fiction is rooted in a longing for the grand gestures that it embodied: the flying car, the seastead, the space colony. As he famously said six years ago to The New Yorker: “The anthology of the top twenty-five sci-fi stories in 1970 was, like, ‘Me and my friend the robot went for a walk on the moon,’ and in 2008 it was, like, ‘The galaxy is run by a fundamentalist Islamic confederacy, and there are people who are hunting planets and killing them for fun.'”

Google X isn’t immune to this tendency—Google Glass was, if anything, a solution in search of a problem—and some degree of science-fictional thinking is probably inherent to any such enterprise. In his article, Thompson doesn’t mention science fiction by name, but the whole division is clearly reminiscent of and inspired by the genre, down to the term “moonshot” and that mysterious letter at the end of its name. (Company lore claims that the “X” was chosen as “a purposeful placeholder,” but it’s hard not to think that it was motivated by the same impulse that gave us Dimension X, X Minus 1, Rocketship X-M, and even The X-Files.) In fact, an earlier article for The Atlantic looked at this connection in depth, and its conclusions weren’t altogether positive. Three years ago, in the same publication, Robinson Meyer quoted a passage from an article in Fast Company about the kinds of projects favored by Google X, but he drew a more ambivalent conclusion:

A lot of people might read that [description] and think: Wow, cool, Google is trying to make the future! But “science fiction” provides but a tiny porthole onto the vast strangeness of the future. When we imagine a “science fiction”-like future, I think we tend to picture completed worlds, flying cars, the shiny, floating towers of midcentury dreams. We tend, in other words, to imagine future technological systems as readymade, holistic products that people will choose to adopt, rather than as the assembled work of countless different actors, which they’ve always really been. The futurist Scott Smith calls these “flat-pack futures,” and they infect “science fictional” thinking.

He added: “I fear—especially when we talk about “science fiction”—that we miss the layeredness of the world, that many people worked to build it…Flying through space is awesome, but if technological advocates want not only to make their advances but to hold onto them, we have better learn the virtues of incrementalism.” (The contrast between Meyer’s skepticism and Thompson’s more positive take feels like a matter of access—it’s easier to criticize Google X’s assumptions when it’s being profiled by a rival magazine.)

But Meyer makes a good point, and science fiction’s mixed record at dealing with incrementalism is a natural consequence of its origins in popular fiction. A story demands a protagonist, which encourages writers to see scientific progress in terms of heroic figures. The early fiction of John W. Campbell returns monotonously to the same basic plot, in which a lone genius discovers atomic power and uses it to build a spaceship, drawing on the limitless resources of a wealthy and generous benefactor. As Isaac Asimov noted in his essay “Big, Big, Big”:

The thing about John Campbell is that he liked things big. He liked big men with big ideas working out big applications of their big theories. And he liked it fast. His big men built big weapons within days; weapons that were, moreover, without serious shortcomings, or at least, with no shortcomings that could not be corrected as follows: “Hmm, something’s wrong—oh, I see—of course.” Then, in two hours, something would be jerry-built to fix the jerry-built device.

This works well enough in pulp adventure, but after science fiction began to take itself seriously as prophecy, it fossilized into the notion that all problems can be approached as provinces of engineering and solved by geniuses working alone or in small groups. Elon Musk has been compared to Tony Stark, but he’s really the modern incarnation of a figure as old as The Skylark of Space, and the adulation that he still inspires shades into beliefs that are even less innocuous—like the idea that our politics should be entrusted to similarly big men. Writing of Google X’s Rapid Evaluation team, Thompson uses terms that would have made Campbell salivate: “You might say it’s Rapid Eval’s job to apply a kind of future-perfect analysis to every potential project: If this idea succeeds, what will have been the challenges? If it fails, what will have been the reasons?” Science fiction likes to believe that it’s better than average at this kind of forecasting. But it’s just as likely that it’s worse.

Written by nevalalee

October 11, 2017 at 9:02 am

Writing the vegetables

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In the huge interview with Empire that I recommended earlier this week, Christopher McQuarrie shares a story from the editing of Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation. McQuarrie and Tom Cruise had assembled a rough cut of the entire movie, and it wasn’t playing well. To be fair, it never does, especially when it includes a lot of unfinished visual effects, but what they were seeing left them particularly depressed, and after watching the first half, they walked outside to get some air and brace themselves for the rest. (McQuarrie refers to it as a “Cut me, Mick” moment, and anyone who has dreaded going back to a troubled project can probably relate.) McQuarrie describes what happened next:

We went back in and sat down and Eddie [Hamilton] had cut together a big chunk of the second half of the movie. And we got to the moment—no music in it, nothing, total rough cut—and [Ilsa] said: “Come away with me.” Tom and I looked at each other, and we’re like, “Do you feel that? That kind of worked! That was actually good!” And then there was the scene in the safe house when they’re all fighting with each other, and that was working. All of a sudden, we were looking at it and going, “You know, all the vegetables of the movie are actually tracking. They’re actually playing really well. It’s all the action that’s not worked out yet.”

McQuarrie quickly moves on, but the notion of a story’s “vegetables”—the scenes that exist to get from one high point to another—stuck with me, along with the idea that you can evaluate a work in progress by keeping an eye on those interstitial scenes.

On some level, this seems to run contrary to one of the central tenets of storytelling, which is that if you nail the big moments and don’t actively screw anything up, the rest will take care of itself. (As Howard Hawks put it: “A good movie is three great scenes and no bad scenes.”) And in practice, viewers or readers will forgive almost anything if a story delivers when it counts. But the vegetables are important, too—to facilitate the climaxes, as worthwhile scenes in themselves, and as a kind of index of the whole. I’ve noted elsewhere that the famous moments that we remember rely on the surrounding material to have an impact. Revealingly, such scenes rarely, if ever, come at the very beginning, which is when writers feel the most pressure to start off with a bang—which only indicates the extent to which they depend on context and preparation. That pattern holds throughout the story. A novel or movie that consists of just one high point after another is likely to be exhausting, while one that conceives itself as a delivery system for awesome moments may fall flat whenever something amazing isn’t happening. To some extent, this is a matter of personal taste. I gave up on Game of Thrones in part because of its tendency to sag between character deaths, while I never got tired of Mad Men, which was made up of countless tiny but riveting choices that gained power from their cumulative impact. The most reasonable approach, unless you’re Matthew Weiner, is a deliberate balance in which the quieter scenes enable the more conventionally exciting sequences. The vegetables may not be the main attraction, but they play the same role in a story that aromatics like onions and garlic have in cooking. They add flavor and bind the rest together.

The vegetables can also be tasty in themselves. A few weeks ago, I finally saw Hamilton onstage, and my big takeaway was how good the second act is—it’s just one great song after another. Yet on paper, it also consists mostly of vegetables, with characters talking about politics or setting up information that will pay off later on. You can see this clearly in “Take a Break,” a purely functional song that exists solely to establish the fact that Hamilton is away from his family, but is so lovingly written and performed that it becomes a showstopper. Even better is “The Election of 1800,” which just moves the political pieces around, but thrills me to no end. (I love it in part because it reminds me of Evita, which is nothing but vegetables, but so cleverly delivered that we don’t even notice. And neither musical could exist, at least not at this level of success, if they hadn’t found solutions to the problem of treating politics in song.) You may not notice such functional scenes on your first encounter, or even your tenth, but the more you listen to a soundtrack or watch a movie, the more they stand out. They’re often the ones that I end up revisiting the most, in part because they can’t take our attention for granted, so they have to exist at a high level of craft. I’ve read the novel The Silence of the Lambs maybe ten times, but the one chapter that I never tire of reading is the one in which Clarice Starling searches the storage unit that might hold the key to an unsolved murder. It really only exists to get the plot to the next stage, but Harris enriches it with countless lovely touches, like how the resourceful Clarice fixes a stuck lock with a few drops of oil from a dipstick, or how she uses the jack from her car to lever up the rusty door. And you really start to appreciate this sort of scene when you notice its total absence from Hannibal Rising.

For a writer, the best thing about vegetables, as well as a potential pitfall, is that you can always find ways of improving them, which isn’t always true of the big moments. Novelists may not be in the same position as filmmakers who have to wait for special effects to be rendered, but if you’ve ever written a novel, you know that you eventually stop seeing the scenes that made you want to write it in the first place. You’ve read them so many times that they become invisible, and it can be hard to look past your preconceptions to see what’s actually on the page. With purely functional scenes, it’s easy to retain your detachment, and you can keep tinkering with them even when you lack the energy to tackle larger issues. Ideally, the vegetables can even serve as a gauge of quality, as they did with McQuarrie and Cruise: if the small stuff is working, there’s reason to hope that the big stuff is, too. But proportionality also matters, and endless fiddling on minor details can blind you to a scene’s true importance. (Martin Scorsese threatened to take his name off Raging Bull because he couldn’t hear a background character ordering a Cutty Sark in a bar.) Fretting too much over the vegetables can turn into procrastination, or a form of avoidance. As Carl Richards of the New York Times points out, it’s when you’re looking for excuses to avoid moving to the next stage that you seize onto finicky little items: “What color should the logo be?” “I can’t find an agent.” “It could use another round of edits.” “I’m not sure what font to use.” That’s when the vegetables tend to call to you the most. The best approach is to utilize this impulse to polish the small parts until they shine, while keeping it under control so that you don’t lose sight of the overall picture. Vegetables in a story are good for you. But you don’t want to neglect the meat.

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