Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

A Fuller Life

with 8 comments

I’m pleased to announce that I’ve finally figured out the subject of my next book, which will be a biography of the architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably know how much Fuller means to me, and I’m looking forward to giving him the comprehensive portrait that he deserves. (Honestly, that’s putting it mildly. I’ve known for over a week that I’ll have a chance to tackle this project, and I still can’t quite believe that it’s really happening. And I’m especially happy that my current publisher has agreed to give me a shot at it.) At first glance, this might seem like a departure from my previous work, but it presents an opportunity to explore some of the same themes from a different angle, and to explore how they might play out in the real world. The timelines of the two projects largely coincide, with a group of subjects who were affected by the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, and the social upheavals of the sixties. All of them had highly personal notions about the fate of America, and Fuller used physical artifacts much as Campbell, Asimov, and Heinlein employed science fiction—to prepare their readers for survival in an era of perpetual change. Fuller’s wife, Anne, played an unsung role in his career that recalls many of the women in Astounding. Like Campbell, he approached psychology as a category of physics, and he hoped to turn the prediction of future trends into a science in itself. His skepticism of governments led him to conclude that society should be changed through design, not political institutions, and like many science fiction writers, he acted as if all disciplines could be reduced to subsets of engineering. And for most of his life, he insisted that complicated social problems could be solved through technology.

Most of his ideas were expressed through the geodesic dome, the iconic work of structural design that made him famous—and I hope that this book will be as much about the dome as about Fuller himself. It became a universal symbol of the space age, and his reputation as a futurist may have been founded largely on the fact that his most recognizable achievement instantly evoked the landscape of science fiction. From the beginning, the dome was both an elegant architectural conceit and a potent metaphor. The concept of a hemispherical shelter that used triangular elements to enclose the maximum amount of space had been explored by others, but Fuller was the first to see it as a vehicle for social change. With design principles that could be scaled up or down without limitation, it could function as a massive commercial pavilion or as a house for hippies. (Ken Kesey dreamed of building a geodesic dome to hold one of his acid tests.) It could be made out of plywood, steel, or cardboard. A dome could be cheaply assembled by hand by amateur builders, which encouraged experimentation, and its specifications could be laid out in a few pages and shared for free, like the modern blueprints for printable houses. It was a hackable, open-source machine for living that reflected a set of tools that spoke to the same men and women who were teaching themselves how to code. As I noted here recently, a teenager named Jaron Lanier, who was living in a tent with his father on an acre of desert in New Mexico, used nothing but the formulas in Lloyd Kahn’s Domebook to design and build a house that he called “Earth Station Lanier.” Lanier, who became renowned years later as the founder of virtual reality, never got over the experience. He recalled decades later: “I loved the place; dreamt about it while sleeping inside it.”

During his lifetime, Fuller was one of the most famous men in America, and he managed to become an idol to both the establishment and the counterculture. In the three decades since his death, his reputation has faded, but his legacy is visible everywhere. The influence of his geodesic structures can be seen in the Houston Astrodome, at Epcot Center, on thousands of playgrounds, in the dome tents favored by backpackers, and in the emergency shelters used after Hurricane Katrina. Fuller had a lasting impact on environmentalism and design, and his interest in unconventional forms of architecture laid the foundation for the alternative housing movement. His homegrown system of geometry led to insights into the biological structure of viruses and the logic of communications networks, and after he died, he was honored by the discoverers of a revolutionary form of carbon that resembled a geodesic sphere, which became known as fullerene, or the buckyball. And I’m particularly intrigued by his parallels to the later generation of startup founders. During the seventies, he was a hero to the likes of Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, who later featured him prominently in the first “Think Different” commercial, and he was the prototype of the Silicon Valley types who followed. He was a Harvard dropout who had been passed over by the college’s exclusive social clubs, and despite his lack of formal training, he turned himself into an entrepreneur who believed in changing society through innovative products and environmental design. Fuller wore the same outfit to all his public appearances, and his personal habits amounted to an early form of biohacking. (Fuller slept each day for just a few hours, taking a nap whenever he felt tired, and survived mostly on steak and tea.) His closest equivalent today may well be Elon Musk, which tells us a lot about both men.

And this project is personally significant to me. I first encountered Fuller through The Whole Earth Catalog, which opened its first edition with two pages dedicated to his work, preceded by a statement from editor Stewart Brand: “The insights of Buckminster Fuller initiated this catalog.” I was three years old when he died, and I grew up in the shadow of his influence in the Bay Area. The week before my freshman year in high school, I bought a used copy of his book Critical Path, and I tried unsuccessfully to plow through Synergetics. (At the time, this all felt kind of normal, and it’s only when I look back that it seems strange—which tells you a lot about me, too.) Above all else, I was drawn to his reputation as the ultimate generalist, which reflected my idea of what my life should be, and I’m hugely excited by the prospect of returning to him now. Fuller has been the subject of countless other works, but never a truly authoritative biography, which is a project that meets both Susan Sontag’s admonition that a writer should try to be useful and the test that I stole from Lin-Manuel Miranda: “What’s the thing that’s not in the world that should be in the world?” Best of all, the process looks to be tremendously interesting for its own sake—I think it’s going to rewire my brain. It also requires an unbelievable amount of research. To apply the same balanced, fully sourced, narrative approach to his life that I tried to take for Campbell, I’ll need to work through all of Fuller’s published work, a mountain of primary sources, and what might literally be the largest single archive for any private individual in history. I know from experience that I can’t do it alone, and I’m looking forward to seeking help from the same kind of brain trust that I was lucky to have for Astounding. Those of you who have stuck with this blog should be prepared to hear a lot more about Fuller over the next three years, but I wouldn’t be doing this at all if I didn’t think that you might find it interesting. And who knows? He might change your life, too.

Written by nevalalee

November 16, 2018 at 8:50 am

The tunnel and the labyrinth

leave a comment »

Last week, the publisher Alfred A. Knopf released The William H. Gass Reader, a dense, beautiful volume of almost nine hundred pages devoted to one of the strangest, most serious, and most uncompromising writers of our time. (As I’ve noted here before, Gass’s The Tunnel may have more to say about our era than any other novel.) I hope to discuss it in detail soon, but today, I want to focus on the essay “Imaginary Borges and His Books,” in which Gass takes on my favorite author, whom he admires, but only with strong reservations. After quoting a line in which Borges hints at his fondness for Ralph Waldo Emerson, Gass writes acidly:

Emerson? Many of Borges’s other enthusiasms are equally dismaying, like the Russians’ for Jack London, or the symbolist poets’ for Poe; on the whole they tend to be directed toward obscure or marginal figures, to stand for somewhat cranky, wayward, even decadent choices: works at once immature or exotic, thin though mannered, clever rather than profound, neat instead of daring, too often the products of learning, fancy, and contrivance to make us comfortable; they exhibit a taste that is still in its teens, one becalmed in backwater, and a mind that is seriously intrigued by certain dubious or jejune forms, forms which have to be overcome, not simply exploited: fantastic tales and wild romances, science fiction, detective stories, and other similar modes which, with a terrible theological energy and zeal, impose upon implausible premises a rigorous gamelike reasoning.

For now, I’ll pass over the disparaging reference to science fiction—because Gass isn’t quite finished yet. He disapprovingly continues: “Thus for this minutely careful essayist and poet it’s not Aristotle, but Zeno, it’s not Kant, but Schopenhauer; it’s not even Hobbes, but Berkley, not Mill or Bradley, but—may philosophy forgive him—Spencer; it’s Dunne, Beckford, Bloy, the Cabalists; it’s Stevenson, Chesterton, Kipling, Wells and William Morris, Browne and De Quincey Borges turns and returns to, while admitting no such similar debt to James, Melville, Joyce, and so on.”

At this point, I could point out that Borges is also one of our most fascinating modern interpreters of such authors as Shakespeare, Cervantes, and especially Dante—but that would simply be playing Gass’s own game, which he’s amply qualified to win. It’s better, I think, to consider what Borges does in practice with these writers, which Gass declines to specify. Take this passage, for instance, which Borges liked so much that he used it in two different essays:

Stevenson (“A Chapter on Dreams”) tells of being pursued in the dreams of his childhood by a certain abominable “hue” of the color brown; Chesterton (The Man Who Was Thursday) imagines that at the western borders of the world there is perhaps a tree that is more or less than a tree; and that at the eastern borders, there is something, perhaps a tower, whose very shape is wicked. Poe, in his “MS Found in a Bottle,” speaks of a southern sea where the ship itself will grow in bulk like the living body of the seaman; Melville devotes many pages of Moby-Dick to an elucidation of the horror of the unbearable whiteness of the whale.

Borges is using these examples to explain the idea of the unheimlich, but along the way, he does much more. These lines appear in a passage in which Borges suggests that William Beckford, author of the novel Vathek, conjures up a more frightening hell than Dante, and the collage of supporting images that he provides here implies that there’s something fundamental in life—its uneasiness, its uncanniness—that we find more clearly in Poe and Chesterton than in any of the supposedly greater writers that Gass would evidently prefer to read. And I suspect that Borges is right.

In fact, nearly all of Gass’s objections can be refuted by looking at the use to which Borges actually puts his materials. While discussing The Book of Imaginary Beings, in which Borges defines mythical creatures from Bahamut to the Simurgh, Gass writes: “Most of these beasts are mechanically made—insufficiently imaginary to be real, insufficiently original to be wonderful or menacing…There’s no longer a world left for these creatures to inhabit—even our own world has expelled them—so that they seem like pieces from a game we’ve forgotten how to play.” I could reply by saying that I’ve been thinking of Bahamut—the gigantic fish that holds up the world in Islamic cosmology—for most of my life. But it would be even better to respond with a few lines from an essay that Borges wrote shortly after the Nazis entered Paris:

Nazism suffers from unreality, like Erigena’s hell. It is uninhabitable; men can only die for it, lie for it, wound and kill for it. No one, in the intimate depths of his being, can wish it to triumph. I shall risk this conjecture: Hitler wants to be defeated. Hitler is blindly collaborating with the inevitable armies that will annihilate him, as the metal vultures and the dragon (which must have known that they were monsters) collaborated, mysteriously, with Hercules.

This is an unforgettable passage, and it depends enormously on Borges’s intuitive ability to zero in on the “metal vultures,” rather than, say, the Erymanthian Boar, which serve as a more effective symbol than any realistic image ever could. As Borges writes elsewhere of another imaginative writer: “How can these fantasies move me, and in such an intimate manner? All literature (I would dare to answer) is symbolic; there are a few fundamental experiences, and it is unimportant whether a writer, in transmitting them, makes use of the ‘fantastic’ or the ‘real,’ Macbeth or Raskolnikov, the invasion of Belgium in August 1914 or an invasion of Mars.”

Borges is speaking here of The Martian Chronicles, of which he continues: “In this outwardly fantastic book, Bradbury has set out the long empty Sundays, the American tedium, and his own solitude.” This comes very close to what Borges notes of his own achievement in his lecture “The Argentine Writer and Tradition”:

For many years, in books now fortunately forgotten, I tried to compose the flavor, the essence, of the outskirts of Buenos Aires; naturally I abounded in local words…Then, about a year ago, I wrote a story called “Death and the Compass,” which is a kind of nightmare, a nightmare in which elements of Buenos Aires appear, deformed by the horror of the nightmare…After the story was published, my friends told me that at last they had found the flavor of the outskirts of Buenos Aires in my writing. Precisely because I had not abandoned myself to the dream, I was able to achieve, after so many years, what I once sought in vain.

Borges’s greatness lies precisely in his ability to find the deeper psychological truth in those very genres, like detective stories or speculative fiction, that Gass thinks should be “overcome.” And part of that gift lies in his genius—which he shares with Proust, an author with whom he might seem to have little else in common—to integrate his mature talents with the mood of the fantasy stories that he read as a child. (Gass dismisses his taste as “still in its teens,” but it would be more accurate to call them the tastes of a boy of twelve, or the golden age, which is something very different.) Gass asks incredulously: “And what about those stories which snap together at the end like a cheap lock? with a gun shot? Is this impish dilettante the same man who leaves us so often uneasily amazed?” He doesn’t name any titles, but any list of such works has to include “Death and the Compass,” one of the most essential short stories of the century, and perhaps also “The Garden of Forking Paths,” which was first translated into English by Anthony Boucher for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. These qualities aren’t incidental to Borges’s work, as Gass seems to believe, but the indispensable building blocks of his labyrinth. And if this is the dream, or nightmare, in which we’ve all found ourselves, Borges is still the best guide that we have.

The end of an era

with 4 comments

On July 11, 1971, the science fiction editor John W. Campbell passed away quietly at his home in New Jersey. When he died, he was alone in his living room, watching Mexican wrestling on the local Spanish channel, which was his favorite television show. (I should also note in passing that it was a genre with deep affinities to superhero culture and comic books.) Word of his death quickly spread through fandom. Isaac Asimov was heartbroken at the news, writing later of the man whom he had always seen as his intellectual father: “I had never once thought…that death and he had anything in common, could ever intersect. He was the fixed pole star about which all science fiction revolved, unchangeable, eternal.” For the last decade, Analog had been on the decline, and Campbell was no longer the inescapable figure he had been in the thirties and forties, but it was impossible to deny his importance. In The Engines of the Night, Barry N. Malzberg spends several pages chronicling the late editor’s failings, mistakes, and shortcomings, but he concludes unforgettably:

And yet when I heard of Campbell’s sudden death…and informed Larry Janifer, I trembled at Janifer’s response and knew that it was so: “The field has lost its conscience, its center, the man for whom we were all writing. Now there’s no one to get mad at us anymore.”

Tributes appeared in such magazines as Locus, and Campbell’s obituary ran in the New York Times, but the loss was felt most keenly within the close community of science fiction readers and writers—perhaps because they sensed that it marked an end to the era in which the genre could still be regarded as the property of a small circle of fans.

I thought of this earlier this week, when the death of Stan Lee inspired what seemed like a national day of mourning. For much of the afternoon, he all but took over the front page of Reddit, which is an achievement that no other nonagenarian could conceivably have managed. And it’s easy to draw a contrast between Lee and Campbell, both in their cultural impact and in the way in which they were perceived by the public. Here’s how Lee is described in the book Men of Tomorrow:

His great talent, in both writing and life, was to win people’s affection. He was raised to be lovable by a mother who worshipped him. “I used to come home from school,” said Stan, “and she’d grab me and fuss over me and say, ‘You’re home already? I was sure today was the day a movie scout would discover you and take you away from me!’” She told Stan that he was the most handsome, most talented, most remarkable boy who’d ever lived. “And I believed her!” Stan said. “I didn’t know any better!” Stan attacked the world with a crooked grin and a line of killer patter. No one else in comics ever wanted to badly to be liked or became so good at it. He was known as a soft touch on advances, deadlines, and extra assignments. Even people who didn’t take him seriously as an editor or writer had to admit that Stan truly was a nice guy.

This couldn’t be less like Campbell, who also had a famous story about coming home from school to see his mother—only to be confronted by her identical twin, his aunt, who hated him. He claimed that this memory inspired the novella that became The Thing. And while I’m not exactly a Freudian biographer, it isn’t hard to draw a few simple conclusions about how these two boys might have grown up to see the world.

Yet they also had a surprising amount in common, to the point that I often used Lee as a point of comparison when I was pitching Astounding. Lee was over a decade younger than Campbell, which made him nearly the same age as Isaac Asimov and Frederik Pohl—which testifies both to his longevity and to how relatively young Campbell and Asimov were when they died. Lee’s first job in publishing was as an assistant in the comics division of the pulp publisher Martin Goodman, presumably just a few steps away from Uncanny Tales, which suggests that he could just as easily have wound up in one as well as the other. He became the interim comics editor at the age of nineteen, or the same age as Pohl when he landed his first editing job. (I’m not aware of Lee crossing paths with any of my book’s major figures during this period, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they moved in the same circles in New York.) Like Campbell, Lee’s legacy is conventionally thought to consist of moving the genre toward greater realism, better writing, and more believable characters, although the degree to which each man was responsible for these developments has been disputed. Both also cultivated a distinct voice in their editorials and letters columns, which became a forum for open discussion with fans, although they differed drastically in their tones, political beliefs, and ambitions. Campbell openly wanted to make a discovery that would change the world, while Lee seemed content to make his mark on the entertainment industry, which he did with mixed success for decades. It can be hard to remember now, but there was a long period when Lee seemed lost in the wilderness, with a sketchy production company that filed for bankruptcy and pursued various dubious projects. If he had died in his seventies, or just after his cameo in Mallrats, he might well have been mourned, like Campbell, mostly by diehard fans.

Instead, he lived long enough to see the movie versions of X-Men and Spider-Man, followed by the apotheosis of the Marvel Universe. And it’s easy to see the difference between Campbell and Lee as partially a matter of longevity. If Campbell had lived to be the same age, he would have died in 2005, which is a truly staggering thought. I have trouble imagining what science fiction would have been like if he had stuck around for three more decades, even from the sidelines. (It isn’t hard to believe that he might have remained a fixture at conventions. The writer and scholar James Gunn—not to be confused with the director of Guardians of the Galaxy—is almost exactly Stan Lee’s age, and I sat down to chat with him at Worldcon two years ago.) Of course, Campbell was already estranged from many writers and fans at the time of his death, and unlike Lee, he was more than willing to alienate a lot of his readers. It seems unlikely that he would have been forgiven for his mistakes, as Lee was, simply out of the affection in which he was held. If anything, his death may have postponed the reckoning with his racism, and its impact on the genre, that otherwise might have taken place during his lifetime. But the differences also run deeper. When you look at the world in which we live today, it might seem obvious that Lee’s comics won out over Campbell’s stories, at least when measured by their box office and cultural impact. The final installment in E.E. Smith’s Galactic Patrol was published just a few months before the debut of a character created by the science fiction fans Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, but you still see kids dressed up as Superman, not the Gray Lensman. That may seem inevitable now, but it could easily have gone the other way. The story of how this happened is a complicated one, and Lee played a huge part in it, along with many others. His death, like Campbell’s, marks the end of an era. And it may only be now that we can start to figure out what it all really meant.

The soul of a new machine

with 4 comments

Over the weekend, I took part in a panel at Windycon titled “Evil Computers: Why Didn’t We Just Pull the Plug?” Naturally, my mind turned to the most famous evil computer in all of fiction, so I’ve been thinking a lot about HAL, which made me all the more sorry to learn yesterday of the death of voice actor Douglas Rain. (Stan Lee also passed away, of course, which is a subject for a later post.) I knew that Rain had been hired to record the part after Stanley Kubrick was dissatisfied by an earlier attempt by Martin Balsam, but I wasn’t aware that the director had a particular model in mind for the elusive quality that he was trying to evoke, as Kate McQuiston reveals in the book We’ll Meet Again:

Would-be HALs included Alistair Cooke and Martin Balsam, who read for the part but was deemed too emotional. Kubrick set assistant Benn Reyes to the task of finding the right actor, and expressly not a narrator, to supply the voice. He wrote, “I would describe the quality as being sincere, intelligent, disarming, the intelligent friend next door, the Winston Hibler/Walt Disney approach. The voice is neither patronizing, nor is it intimidating, nor is it pompous, overly dramatic, or actorish. Despite this, it is interesting. Enough said, see what you can do.” Even Kubrick’s U.S. lawyer, Louis Blau, was among those making suggestions, which included Richard Basehart, José Ferrer, Van Heflin, Walter Pigeon, and Jason Robards. In Douglas Rain, who had experience both as an actor and a narrator, Kubrick found just what he was looking for: “I have found a narrator…I think he’s perfect, he’s got just the right amount of the Winston Hibler, the intelligent friend next door quality, with a great deal of sincerity, and yet, I think, an arresting quality.”

Who was Winston Hibler? He was the producer and narrator for Disney who provided voiceovers for such short nature documentaries as Seal Island, In Beaver Valley, and White Wilderness, and the fact that Kubrick used him as a touchstone is enormously revealing. On one level, the initial characterization of HAL as a reassuring, friendly voice of information has obvious dramatic value, particularly as the situation deteriorates. (It’s the same tactic that led Richard Kiley to figure in both the novel and movie versions of Jurassic Park. And I have to wonder whether Kubrick ever weighed the possibility of hiring Hibler himself, since in other ways, he clearly spared no expense.) But something more sinister is also at play. As I’ve mentioned before, Disney and its aesthetic feels weirdly central to the problem of modernity, with its collision between the sentimental and the calculated, and the way in which its manufactured feeling can lead to real memories and emotion. Kubrick, a famously meticulous director who looked everywhere for insights into craft, seems to have understood this. And I can’t resist pointing out that Hibler did the voiceover for White Wilderness, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short, but also included a scene in which the filmmakers deliberately herded lemmings off a cliff into the water in a staged mass suicide. As Hibler smoothly narrates in the original version: “A kind of compulsion seizes each tiny rodent and, carried along by an unreasoning hysteria, each falls into step for a march that will take them to a strange destiny. That destiny is to jump into the ocean. They’ve become victims of an obsession—a one-track thought: ‘Move on! Move on!’ This is the last chance to turn back, yet over they go, casting themselves out bodily into space.”

And I think that Kubrick’s fixation on Hibler’s voice, along with the version later embodied by Rain, gets at something important about our feelings toward computers and their role in our lives. In 2001, the astronauts are placed in an artificial environment in which their survival depends on the outwardly benevolent HAL, and one of the central themes of science fiction is what happens when this situation expands to encompass an entire civilization. It’s there at the very beginning of the genre’s modern era, in John W. Campbell’s “Twilight,” which depicts a world seven million years in the future in which “perfect machines” provide for our every need, robbing the human race of all initiative. (Campbell would explore this idea further in “The Machine,” and he even offered an early version of the singularity—in which robots learn to build better versions of themselves—in “The Last Evolution.”) Years later, Campbell and Asimov put that relationship at the heart of the Three Laws of Robotics, the first of which states: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” This sounds straightforward enough, but as writers realized almost right away, it hinges on the definition of certain terms, including “human being” and “harm,” that are slipperier than they might seem. Its ultimate expression was Jack Williamson’s story “With Folded Hands,” which carried the First Law to its terrifying conclusion. His superior robots believe that their Prime Directive is to prevent all forms of unhappiness, which prompts them to drug or lobotomize any human beings who seem less than content. As Williamson said much later in an interview with Larry McCaffery: “The notion I was consciously working on specifically came out of a fragment of a story I had worked on for a while about an astronaut in space who is accompanied by a robot obviously superior to him physically…Just looking at the fragment gave me the sense of how inferior humanity is in many ways to mechanical creations.”

Which brings us back to the singularity. Its central assumption was vividly expressed by the mathematician I.J. Good, who also served as a consultant on 2001:

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.

That last clause is a killer, but even if we accept that such a machine would be “docile,” it also embodies the fear, which Campbell was already exploring in the early thirties, of a benevolent dictatorship of machines. And the very Campbellian notion of “the last invention” should be frightening in itself. The prospect of immortality may be enticing, but not if it emerges through a technological singularity that leaves us unprepared to deal with the social consequences, rather than through incremental scientific and medical progress—and the public debate that it ought to inspire—that human beings have earned for themselves. I can’t imagine anything more nightmarish than a world in which we can all live forever without having gone through the necessary ethical, political, and ecological stages to make such a situation sustainable. (When I contemplate living through the equivalent of the last two years over the course of millennia, the notion of eternal life becomes considerably less attractive.) Our fear of computers taking over our lives, whether on a spacecraft or in society as a whole, is really about the surrender of control, even in the benevolent form embodied by Disney. And when I think of the singularity now, I seem to hear it speaking with Winston Hibler’s voice: “Move on! Move on!”

The ethereal phase

with one comment

Like many readers, I first encountered the concept of the singularity—the idea that artificial intelligence will eventually lead to an era of exponential technological change—through the work of the futurist Ray Kurzweil. Fifteen years ago, I was browsing in a bookstore when I came across a copy of his book The Singularity is Near, which I bought on the spot. Kurzweil’s thesis is a powerful one, and, to a point, it remains completely convincing:

What, then, is the Singularity? It’s a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed…The key idea underlying the impending Singularity is that the pace of change of our human-created technology is accelerating and its powers are expanding at an exponential pace. Exponential growth is deceptive. It starts out almost imperceptibly and then explodes with unexpected fury—unexpected, that is, if one does not take care to follow its trajectory.

Kurzweil seems particularly enthusiastic about one purported consequence of this development: “We will gain power over our fates. Our mortality will be in our own hands. We will be able to live as long as we want (a subtly different statement from saying we will live forever).” And he suggests that the turning point will occur “before the middle of this century.”

This line of thinking, which was much more novel back then than it is today, was enough to briefly turn me into a transhumanist, or at least into the approximation of one. But I’m more skeptical now. As I noted here recently, one of Kurzweil’s core arguments—that incremental advances in medical technology will lead to functional immortality to those who can hang around for long enough—was advanced by John W. Campbell as far back as 1949. (Writing in Astounding Science Fiction, Campbell muses that a child will be born one day who never has to do die, and he concludes: “I wonder if that point has been passed? And my own guess is—it has.” There’s no proof yet that he was wrong, but I have my doubts.) And the notion of accelerating change is even older. The historian Henry Adams explores the possibility in an essay published in 1904, and a few years later, in the book Degradation of the Democratic Dogma, he writes of the pace of technological progress:

As each newly appropriated force increased the attraction between the sum of nature’s forces and the volume of human mind, by the usual law of squares, the acceleration hurried society towards the critical point that marked the passage into a new phase as though it were heat impelling water to explode as steam…The curve resembles that of the vaporization of water. The resemblance is too close to be disregarded, for nature loves the logarithm, and perpetually recurs to her inverse square. For convenience, if only as a momentary refuge, the physicist-historian will probably have to try the experiment of taking the law of inverse squares as his standard of social acceleration for the nineteenth century, and consequently for the whole phase, which obliges him to accept it experimentally as a general law of history.

Adams thought that the point of no return would occur around 1917, while Buckminster Fuller, writing over a generation later, speculated that technological change would lead to a post-scarcity society sometime in the late seventies. Such futurists tend to place the pivotal moment at a far enough remove to be plausible, while still potentially within their own lifetimes, which hints at the element of wishful thinking involved. (It’s worth noting that the same amount of time has passed since the publication of The Singularity is Near as elapsed between Adams’s first essay on the subject and the date that he posited for what he liked to call the Ethereal Phase.) And unlike other prophets, they benefit from their ability to frame such speculations in the language of science—and especially of physics and mathematics. Writing from the point of view of a historian, in fact, Adams arrives at something that sounds remarkably like psychohistory:

If values can be given to these attractions, a physical theory of history is a mere matter of physical formula, no more complicated than the formulas of Willard Gibbs or Clerk Maxwell; but the task of framing the formula and assigning the values belongs to the physicist, not to the historian…If the physicist-historian is satisfied with neither of the known laws of mass, astronomical or electric, and cannot arrange his variables in any combination that will conform with a phase-sequence, no resource seems to remain but that of waiting until his physical problems shall be solved, and he shall be able to explain what Force is…Probably the solution of any one of the problems will give the solution for them all.

And each of these men sees exactly what he wants to find in this phenomenon, which amounts to a kind of Rorschach test for futurists. On my bookshelf, I have a book titled The 10% Solution to a Healthy Life, which outlines a health plan based largely on the work of Nathan Pritikin, whose thoughts on diet—and longevity—have turned out to be surprisingly influential. Its author says of his decision to write a book: “Being a scientist and a trained skeptic, I was always turned off by people with strong singular agendas. People out to save my soul or even just my health or well-being were strongly suspect. I felt very uncomfortable, therefore, in this role myself, telling people how they should eat or live.” The author was Ray Kurzweil. He makes no mention of the singularity here, but after another decade, he had moved on to such titles as Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever and Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever. Immortality clearly matters a lot to him, which naturally affects how he views the prospect of accelerating change. By contrast, Adams was most attracted by the possibility of refining the theory of history into a science, as Campbell and Asimov later were, while Fuller saw it as the means to an ecological utopia, which had less to do with environmental awareness than with his desire to free the world’s population to do whatever it wanted with its time. Kurzweil, in turn, sees it as a way for us to live for as long as we want, which is an interest that predated his public association with the singularity, and this is reason enough to be skeptical of everything that he says. Kurzweil is a genius, but he’s also just about the last person we should trust to be objective when it comes to the consequences of accelerating change. I’ll be talking about this more tomorrow.

Levitating the Pentagon

leave a comment »

On October 21, 1967, over fifty thousand activists marched on the Pentagon to protest the war in Vietnam. The participants included Abbie Hoffman, Allen Ginsberg, Jerry Rubin, Ed Sanders, and Norman Mailer, who describes one of the day’s most memorable episodes in The Armies of the Night:

This was the beginning of the exorcism of the Pentagon, yes the papers had made much of the permit requested by a hippie leader named Abbie Hoffman to encircle the Pentagon with twelve hundred men in order to form a ring of exorcism sufficiently powerful to raise the Pentagon three hundred feet. In the air the Pentagon would then, went the presumption, turn orange and vibrate until all evil emissions had fled this levitation. At that point the war in Vietnam would end.

The notion of levitating the Pentagon—an occult symbol that had been corrupted into an emblem of war—was the brainchild of Michael Bowen, a San Francisco artist and political organizer whose friends included Timothy Leary and Gary Snyder. As the ceremony proceeded, a flyer was circulated that encouraged the attendees to concentrate their minds on casting out evil: “A billion stars in a billion galaxies of space and time is the form of your power, and limitless is your name.” Rubin and Ginsberg led the crowd in invocations and mantras, and Bowen distributed flowers to the protesters, who inserted daisies into the gun barrels of the military police. Watching the scene unfold, Mailer marveled: “On which acidic journeys had the hippies met the witches and the devils and the cutting edge of all primitive awe?”

It was a rhetorical question, but the real answer is genuinely surprising. Bowen credited the basic idea for the ceremony to his guru, an occultist living in Mexico named John Starr Cooke. As a recent article in Smithsonian recounts:

Cooke had sent his protégé as a missionary of sorts in search of fellow travelers in New York, London, and most recently San Francisco, where he had found his greatest success rallying people to the cause…Following the Be-In [in January 1967]…Bowen returned to Mexico to be with his teacher. They worked on extrasensory perception, ancient Mayan shamanic rituals, and the metaphysical symbology that informed the artist’s paintings. Then the guru dispatched his student back to the United States—arming him this time with an outlandish idea that found a surprisingly receptive audience.

Attentive readers of this blog might remember that Cooke was also an associate of L. Ron Hubbard, an early proponent of dianetics, and allegedly the first “clear” in America. As I’ve noted here before, Cooke spent time with Hubbard in London and Tangier, and it was through him that Byron Gysin and William S. Burroughs were introduced to Scientology. But if the idea of levitating the Pentagon truly came from Cooke, it may well have been influenced in turn by Hubbard, who described the individual who has reached the stage beyond clear: “A thetan who is completely rehabilitated and can do everything a thetan should do, such as move MEST [matter, energy, space, and time] and control others from a distance, or create his own universe; a person who is able to create his own universe or, living in the MEST universe is able to create illusions perceivable by others at will, to handle MEST universe objects without mechanical means.” And Hubbard himself was rumored to be able to move objects with his mind, as one of his former followers later recalled: “People thought he could levitate things.”

In my original post on the subject, I wrote of Cooke: “It may have been through him that aspects of dianetics entered the counterculture—another important story that has yet to be told.” When I wrote those words, I didn’t know the half of it. For now, though, I’d like to focus on the mysterious way in which one of Hubbard’s wild promises was transmuted, as in a game of telephone, into something genuinely moving and memorable. It didn’t succeed in levitating the Pentagon, but only in the sense that Sgt. Pepper didn’t end the Vietnam War. As none other than Daniel Ellsberg notes in an oral history of the event by Arthur magazine:

I was working on the Pentagon Papers that fall in a room which happened to be right next to MacNamara’s office. I’d come back from Vietnam very anxious to see the war end and to do whatever I could to help that. So I was very sympathetic to the anti-war movement, what I knew of it. The idea of levitating the Pentagon struck me as a great idea because the idea of removing deference from any of these institutions is very, very important, and this is of course the kind of thing that Abbie understood very instinctively. It was not just a matter of clowning and a way to get the attention of the media, or to make people smile. And the idea that you would jointly piss on the Pentagon as part of a pagan ceremony raises so many associations. One might think of the Pentagon as pagan in itself, but that’s a slander of pagan religion.

Or as Ginsberg says in the same article: “The levitation of the Pentagon was a happening that demystified the authority of the military. The Pentagon was symbolically levitated in people’s minds in the sense that it lost its authority which had been unquestioned and unchallenged until then…Once the kid put his flower in the barrel of the kid looking just like himself but tense and nervous, the authority of the Pentagon psychologically was dissolved.”

And this kind of demystification is exactly the kind of thing that the confidence trickster is born to do. It’s a vital form of protest, and the fact that it may have indirectly drawn inspiration from Hubbard, of all people, is revealing in itself. These impulses can go in any number of directions. Abbie Hoffman himself had a lot in common with the denizens of the pool halls that also filled David Mamet with nostalgia, as John Escow told Arthur: “Abbie’s political program was just a hastily thrown together amalgamation of some things he had read, certain life lessons that he had picked up in pool halls and on the street.” Writing in his introduction to Hoffman’s autobiography, Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture, Mailer intuitively makes the connection to an even older archetype:

Abbie was one of the most incredible-looking people I ever met. In fact, he wasn’t twentieth century, but nineteenth. Might just as well have emerged out of Oliver Twist. You could say he used to look like a chimney sweep. In fact, I don’t know what chimney sweeps looked like, but I always imagined them as having a manic integrity that glared out of their eyes through all the soot and darked-up skin. It was the knowledge that they were doing an essential job that no one else would do. Without them, everybody in the house would slowly, over the years, suffocate from the smoke.

These skills are far older than modern politics, and they’re ideologically neutral, which can frustrate more “serious” activists—but which also makes them even more effective at certain kinds of mobilization. (As Paul Krassner recalls in the same oral history: “[Abbie] saw that people who could be organized to go to a smoke-in, could be organized to go to an antiwar rally.) Jerry Rubin once pointed out in the Berkeley Barb: “The worst thing you can say about a demonstration is that it is boring, and one of the reasons that the peace movement has not grown into a mass movement is that the peace movement—its literature and its events—is a bore. Good theatre is needed to communicate revolutionary content.” That’s as true today as it ever was. And the show is just getting started.

The dark suspense

with one comment

“The world is a great dodger, and the Americans the greatest,” D.H. Lawrence writes in Studies in Classic American Literature. “Because they dodge their own very selves.” He wrote these lines exactly one hundred years ago, in 1918, when he was living in a tiny village in England, and the resulting essay, “The Sense of Place,” falls in the long tradition of European authors writing from overseas about the New World, which can seem too large to see clearly up close. Lawrence argues that the notion that America was founded “in search of freedom of worship” is little more than a lie, and he makes his case in terms that ring uncomfortably true today:

Freedom anyhow? The land of the free! This the land of the free! Why, if I say anything that displeases them, the free mob will lynch me, and that’s my freedom. Free? Why, I have never been in any country where the individual has such an abject fear of his fellow countrymen. Because, as I say, they are free to lynch the moment he shows he is not one of them.

America’s founding myth, Lawrence implies, emerged from its inability to recognize the true reasons for the vast movement away from Europe that drove its existence from the beginning. As he observes dryly: “Those Pilgrim Fathers and their successors never came here for freedom of worship. What did they set up when they got here? Freedom, would you call it? They didn’t come for freedom. Or if they did, they sadly went back on themselves.”

And I’ve been thinking about this essay a lot recently. The Democrats may have won back the House, but the deeper fissures exposed by the midterms can no longer be dismissed as an aberration. These divisions are an inherent part of America, and they always have been, which suggests that much of the American experience has consisted of its constant self-deception, or dodging, about what kind of country this has been from the beginning. And I suspect that this has something to do with the nature of the impulse that led to its formation in the first place, which Lawrence defines as a “revulsion” from Europe and everything it represented. It was a negative force, not a positive one, and it left a void at this country’s heart:

They came largely to get away—that most simple of motives. To get away. Away from what? In the long run, away from themselves. Away from everything. That’s why most people have come to America, and still do come. To get away from everything they are and have been…Which is all very well, but it isn’t freedom. Rather the reverse. A hopeless sort of constraint. It is never freedom till you kind something you really positively want to be. And people in America have always been shouting about the things they are not. Unless, of course, they are millionaires, made or in the making.

Of course, many Americans have always seen themselves as millionaires “in the making,” and they continue to act, speak, and vote as if they were already there, no matter what the consequences are in the meantime.

At this point, it’s worth remembering that Lawrence was hardly a defender of popular democracy, which he regarded with suspicion. In a notorious letter to Bertrand Russell, Lawrence wrote in 1915 of his ideal form of government: “The electors for the highest places should be the governors of the bigger districts—the whole thing should work upwards, every man voting for that which he more or less understands though contact—no canvassing of mass votes. And women shall vote equally with the men, but for different things…And if a system works up to a Dictator who controls the greater industrial side of the national life, it must work up to a Dictatrix who controls the things relating to private life.” But the same line of thought also leads Lawrence to put his finger on some of the paradoxes of American life—a desire for “freedom” combined with an embrace of systems of oppression, and a contempt toward the immigrants without whom the entire machine would collapse:

Liberty is all very well, but men cannot live without masters. There is always a master. And men either live in glad obedience to the master they believe in, or they live in a frictional opposition to the master they wish to undermine. In America this frictional opposition has been the vital factor. It has given the Yankee his kick. Only the continual influx of more servile Europeans has provided America with an obedient laboring class. The true obedience never outlasting the first generation.

And another line seems especially prescient now: “At the bottom of the American soul was always a dark suspense…And this dark suspense hated and hates the old European spontaneity, watches it collapse with satisfaction.”

As I read this essay over again today, it seems to me that Lawrence’s central point—that American freedom has always defined itself by what it isn’t, rather than what it is—remains as true as ever. And our inability to articulate what we collectively believe reflects the toxic nature of many of those unspoken assumptions. This country was built on the rejection of one set of masters, but it reserves its right to impose unilateral mastery on others, and much of what we’ve been taught to believe about ourselves amounts to an evasion of this fact. We’re still dodging the truth, which leaves us with nothing but words, as beautiful as some of them may be. As Lawrence writes:

Men are freest when they are most unconscious of freedom. The shout is a rattling of chains, always was…The real American day hasn’t begun yet. Or at least, not yet sunrise. So far it has been the false dawn. That is, in the progressive American consciousness there has been the one dominant desire, to do away with the old thing. Do away with masters, exalt the will of the people. The will of the people being nothing but a figment, the exalting doesn’t count for much. So, in the name of the will of the people, get rid of masters. When you have got rid of masters, you are left with this mere phrase of the will of the people. Then you pause and bethink yourself, and try to recover your own wholeness.

Lawrence concludes: “Democracy in America is just the tool with which the old master of Europe, the European spirit, is undermined. Europe destroyed, potentially, American democracy will evaporate. America will begin.” He wrote those words a century ago. And we’re still waiting.

Written by nevalalee

November 7, 2018 at 8:43 am

%d bloggers like this: