Alec Nevala-Lee

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The Road to Foundation

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As I’ve recounted here before, on August 1, 1941, Isaac Asimov was riding the subway to John W. Campbell’s office in New York when the history of science fiction changed forever. In his memoir In Memory Yet Green, Asimov, who was twenty-one at the time, recalls the moment at which he first conceived of what became the Foundation series:

On the way down I racked my brain for a story idea. Failing, I tried a device I sometimes used. I opened a book at random and then tried free association, beginning with whatever I saw. The book I had with me was a collection of the Gilbert and Sullivan plays. I opened it to Iolanthe—to the picture of the Fairy Queen throwing herself at the feet of Private Willis, the sentry. Thinking of sentries, I thought of soldiers, of military empires, of the Roman Empire—of the Galactic Empire—aha!

For reasons that I’ll discuss below, I’m reasonably sure that the illustration that Asimov describes is the one reproduced above, which was drawn by the lyricist W.S. Gilbert himself. And what strikes me the most about this anecdote now is the fact that Asimov looked at this particular picture, ignored the Fairy Queen entirely, and turned it into a series in which no women of any consequence would appear for years. To make a slightly facetious comparison, if I were a therapist giving Asimov the Thematic Apperception Test, in which the subject is asked to look at a picture and make up a story about it, this is the point at which I would sit up slightly in my chair.

Recently, it occurred to me to try to figure out which book Asimov was carrying on the train that day, if only because it’s interesting to dig into what a writer might have been reading at a given moment. The great model here is John Livingston Lowes’s The Road to Xanadu, which obsessively connects the imagery of “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to the travel narratives that Samuel Coleridge was studying at the time. Asimov, it’s worth noting, was skeptical of Lowes’s approach:

I tried reading the book in my youth, but gave up. It could only interest another Coleridge scholar. Besides, I saw no point to it. Granted that the phrases already existed scattered through a dozen books, they existed for everybody. It was only Coleridge who thought of putting them together, with the necessary modifications, to form one of the great poems of the English language. Coleridge might not have been a hundred percent original but he was original enough to make the poem a work of genius.

But this kind of search can be diverting in itself, and it didn’t take me long to conclude that Asimov’s book was likely to have been Plays and Poems of W.S. Gilbert, which was published by Random House in 1932. As far as I can tell, it’s one of only two books available at the time that included both the lyrics to Iolanthe and the illustrations by Gilbert, and it would have been easy to find. (The other is a book titled Authentic Libretti of the Gilbert and Sullivan Operas, which was published a few years later to coincide with a tour by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, and it doesn’t look like something that Asimov would have brought on the subway.)

The edition, as it happens, is available online for free, and it can be amusing to left through it while keeping the young Asimov in mind. This isn’t literary criticism, exactly, but a kind of scholarly reverie, and it’s valuable primarily for the chain of associations that it evokes. The book opens with a lengthy introduction by Deems Taylor, a music critic and occasional member of the Algonquin Round Table, and I’d like to think that Asimov would have seen aspects of himself in it. For example, here’s Taylor on Gilbert’s early years as a writer:

For a time, his writings, although voluminous, attracted no attention whatsoever. He tried everything—reporting, dramatic criticism, editorials, weekly news letters to provincial papers, political polemics, essays—all the forms of quotidian literature that flow from the pen of any young person who vaguely “wants to write” (a sentence that, appropriately, has no object). The results were financially negligible. Nor did he have the meagre satisfaction of knowing that there were those who were watching him, believing in him. Nobody was watching a young journalistic hack who was no different from scores of his fellows except that he combined a gift for saying cutting things with a complete inability to refrain from saying them.

This sounds a lot like Asimov in the days when he was trying to break into Astounding, and as I thought more about Gilbert and Sullivan themselves, who brought out the best in each other, I saw them for the first time as shadows of Asimov and Campbell in the thirties, of whose partnership the former once wrote: “Campbell and I, in those first three years of my writing career—the crucial and formative ones—were a symbiotic organism.”

But the section that intrigues me the most comes near the end of the introduction. Speaking fondly of the characters of HMS Pinafore, The Mikado and all the rest, Taylor writes:

As this gay, silly, endearing crew skip upon the stage, the sum of all that they say is always the same thing; and it is a romantic thing: That the light of pure reason casts grotesque shadows; that a world in which there is nothing but the letter of the law, and the logical conclusion, and the inevitable deduction, and the axiomatic fact, and the rational course of conduct, is, in the last account, a ridiculous one. Looking at their world, in which there is everything but the truth that lies beyond logic, we perceive that it is, in more ways than one, an impossible world.

It’s hard for me to read this now without reflecting that Asimov was just moments away, as he rode the train to Campbell’s office, from conceiving nothing less than “a world in which there is nothing but the letter of the law, and the logical conclusion, and the inevitable deduction, and the axiomatic fact, and the rational course of conduct,” which would end up dominating much of the rest of his life. And while I’m no expert on Gilbert and Sullivan, viewing the Foundation series through that lens seems like a promising approach. Asimov, as I’ve noted elsewhere, never seems to have been particularly interested in psychohistory, which was mostly Campbell’s invention, and he was more conscious of its limitations than many of its fans are. (In The End of Eternity, Asimov describes a similar group of scientists as a collection of “psychopaths.”) And what Taylor writes of these operettas applies just as well to many of the stories that they inspired: “The sky has cleared, the problems solve themselves, and everything has suddenly turned out all right. Every fundamental axiom of human motive and conduct has been outraged, and we are delighted.”

Astounding Stories #20: “Unwillingly to School”

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Note: With less than half a year to go until the publication of Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’m returning, after a long hiatus, to the series in which I highlight works of science fiction that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

In its broad outlines, “Unwillingly to School” looks pretty much like the kind of novella that you’d expect to find in the January 1958 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, with a premise straight out of a Heinlein juvenile. Its narrator is a stubborn teenager working on a small family farm in a mining colony around the star Excenus. Through a series of unlikely developments, the protagonist goes reluctantly to college on earth, displays a few surprising talents, and ends up studying Cultural Engineering, which is the science of intervening discreetly in the development of immature civilizations—all of which is very Campbellian. The difference is that the main character is a nineteen-year-old girl named Lysistrata “Lizzie” Lee, and she speaks in the first person with the kind of distinct, funny voice that rarely made it into the magazine. For instance, here’s a description of visitors to the farm: “Peoples’ wives from Town come out to board some times, Dad lets them because he thinks they will Mother me. Well mostly I manage to steer them off and no hard feelings, it is my home after all they got to be reasonable about it if they want to stay.” And a little later, when Lizzie still thinks that the plan to send her off to college is part of a convoluted trick to get her out of a jam:

We are to go shopping buying some clothes for me to wear on Earth, it seems to me this is carrying realism too far but I do not want any more time in the hotel with nothing to do…M’Clare is all the time trying to get me to talk, he says for instance Have I ever thought about going to College? I say Sure, I count my blessings now and then.

It’s a tightly imagined, utterly engaging story, and John W. Campbell loved it. In his acceptance letter to the author, Pauline Ashwell, who had originally submitted the story under the pseudonym “Paul Ash,” the editor wrote enthusiastically:

I’m taking “Unwillingly to School”; it’s completely delightful and completely unique. On this one, I really feel you should use your own feminine name; only a woman could have achieved that precise presentation of a girl’s enthusiastic, bubbling-with-life, confused, yet strongly directed thinking…I hope you’ll be able to make the London Science Fiction Convention this September; I’ll be there, and I’d enjoy meeting you.

And in the announcement of the contents of the upcoming issue, Campbell described the novella in terms that would have struck longtime readers as unusually glowing:

The lead novelette will be “Unwillingly to School,” by Pauline Ashwell. She is genuinely, no-kidding, a new author, not an old one in a new disguise. There has never been a science-fiction story like this before; I am hopefully praying, however, that Miss Ashwell can repeat and extend the adventures of Lizzie Lee, who must be read to be believed. Lizzie is a teenage girl that I am extremely glad I never met, and delighted to have read about; she’s a menace, and in the course of “Unwillingly to School” she breaks every rule of English grammar, punctuation, and composition I ever heard about, and I think invents a few in order to rebel against them, too. Lizzie is this year’s Christmas present to the readers, from Astounding Science Fiction.

In the end, the response from readers was underwhelming. “Unwillingly to School” ranked third in the monthly Analytical Laboratory poll, behind “All the King’s Horses” by Robert Silverberg and Randall Garrett, a story that was much more typical of what Campbell was publishing in the late fifties. (Both Ashwell and her story did receive Hugo nominations the following year, which wouldn’t be the last time that the tastes of the readers diverged from those of the major awards.) Almost two years later, there was a sequel, “The Lost Kafoozalum,” a likable story that gave up much of Lizzie’s voice—it was basically a Competent Man story with a female lead, which shouldn’t understate how unusual this was. It also ranked third. And on March 25, 1962, Campbell felt obliged to write to Robert A. Heinlein in his rejection of the story that became Podkayne of Mars:

The last yarn we ran which had a teenage girl as the central character was “Unwillingly To School”; it was written by an expert on teenage girls (she had been one; she taught at a girl’s school; she was a biologist-anthropologist—and she could write and had a magnificent sense of humor). It didn’t go over so hot—our readers appear to be less than enthusiastic about the peculiarities of teenage girl’s thinking. That seems to be a reasonable attitude; teenage girls don’t like teenage girls’ thinking either—including their own. They’re inherently frustrated, squeezed thereby into an inferiority complex type of apparent self-satisfaction, are immensely erratic, and utterly undependable.

It’s a shame, because Lizzie was, frankly, a more interesting character than Poddy, and while Ashwell later wrote two more installments in the series in the eighties, which I haven’t read, it would have been nice to see more of her in the sixties.

And the episode gets at something important about Campbell. As an editor, he never had much of an interest in diversifying his writers or characters, at least when it came to race, but he would have been happy to have had more women. His readers, who were overwhelmingly male, weren’t particularly interested, and when such efforts as “Unwillingly to School” failed to make an impression, he dropped it. On some level, this reflects the role that he claimed to see for himself, writing decades earlier: “A magazine is not an autocracy, as readers tend to believe, ruled arbitrarily by an editor’s opinions. It is a democracy by readers’ votes, the editor serving as election board official. The authors are the candidates, their style and stories the platform.” And there’s no question that he listened seriously to feedback from his readers as a whole. On another level, though, it only tells us which battles he was willing to fight. Campbell was more than glad to take on issues that he thought were important, like psionics, and persistently force them onto his audience in the absence of any conceivable demand. He could have chosen to invest the same energy into issues of representation, which could only have elevated the quality of the fiction that he was publishing, but when the readers pushed back, he didn’t press it. That’s more revealing than anything else, and it represents a real loss. Campbell published important work by such authors as Leigh Brackett, Catherine L. Moore, Judith Merril, and Anne McCaffrey, but the magazine mostly lacked straightforward stories like “The Lost Kafoozalum,” in which women appeared without comment as the heroes of the stock gadget and engineering stories that filled the pages of Astounding and Analog. As a result, the migration of women into hard science fiction never really took place, at least not under Campbell’s watch. He wanted it to happen. But not quite badly enough.

An awkward utilitarianism

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Two decades ago, the critic James Wood published a scathing review in The New Republic of James Atlas’s biography of Saul Bellow. Wood acknowledged that the book was “very diligent,” but he found that it suffered from at least two fatal flaws. The first was that it was insufficiently reverent toward the novelist whom Wood considered “the greatest writer of American prose of the twentieth century,” a shortcoming that he framed in amusingly petty terms: “[Atlas] writes of Bellow as if he were writing a life of Joyce Carol Oates or Richard Ford, some middler who oddly managed to bag the Nobel Prize.” And a page or so later: “Atlas proceeds as if he were writing the life of Stanley Elkin, not the unfolding of a will-to-greatness.” His second objection was that Atlas had paid undue attention to the unpleasant details of Bellow’s personal life. After quoting from a speech that Bellow once gave at his birthplace—“We are people capable of freedom, and some of us are even willing to take chances for the sake of freedom”—Wood made an extraordinary argument:

A biographer should write the history of this passage to freedom, should see that a superior soul with superior gifts has to be accounted for. It is an elitist assumption, no doubt; but without such an assumption the biography of a great writer leaks away its rationale. Bellow’s “sins”—how he treated his wives, and how self-regarding he was—were committed in the process of creating an imperishable body of work. It is not so much that they should be “forgiven,” whatever this means, than that they must be judged in the light of the work of which we are the beneficiaries. An awkward but undeniable utilitarianism must be in play: the number of people hurt by Bellow is probably no more than can be counted on two hands, yet he has delighted and consoled and altered the lives of thousands of readers.

It’s fair to say that the final sentence—which could be applied equally well to, say, James Levine or Roman Polanski—probably wouldn’t fly today. But it’s worth looking at some of the “sins” that caused Wood to recoil so strongly. He doesn’t cite any specific passage from Atlas’s biography, but he must have been thinking of moments like this, which concerns Bellow and his second wife Sondra Tschacbasov:

On Labor Day, Bellow came to pick up [his son Adam], but Sondra wouldn’t let him go. Bellow alleged that she tore his clothes and “bruised” him. “He beat me up,” Sondra countered, claiming she was “bedridden for a week. Did I give him a slap? I did. But he retaliated violently—more than once.”

This doesn’t make for pleasant reading, regardless of your feelings toward Bellow himself. Just two years ago, however, the scholar Zachary Leader published the first bulky volume of The Life of Saul Bellow, a massive undertaking that was widely seen as a respectful corrective to Atlas’s work. (The second half, which covers the last four decades of Bellow’s life, is due later this year.) In the course of his research, Leader was allowed to read an unpublished memoir by Tschacbasov, in which she gives a graphically detailed version of the same incident: “He was spoiling for it, I could see his tense lip and twitch that always telegraphed a simmering rage…I slapped him and he grabbed me by the ponytail and swung me around punching me with his other hand. I was bruised for a week and took out a restraining order.” And in a letter that Tschacbasov wrote to her lawyer shortly afterward, she describes her injuries as “severe bone bruises behind one ear, cuts on my left temple and left eyelid, and a bad bruise on my left breast. My scalp is a mess of lumps and bruises.”

As Principal Skinner once said to Superintendent Chalmers: “Oh. That’s much worse.” And remember, this is from the biography that was supposed to rehabilitate Bellow’s reputation. (It also includes an account of an incident of which Tschacbasov wrote to Bellow: “As you know, you dragged me from the car by my hair across the lawn, kicked me and whipped me with your cap.”) Leader spends much of his discussion of this episode parsing whether Tschacbasov’s slap—which she didn’t mention to her lawyer—could be “mistaken for an attack,” and he concludes: “Both parties were shading the truth.” He also apologetically explains that he’s only bringing up these accusations at all “because they are part of the life Bellow lived as he wrote Herzog.” In the finished novel, which is clearly based on the end of Bellow’s marriage, Herzog merely fantasizes about beating up his wife Madeleine, who is leaving him for another man:

Herzog…pictured what might have happened if instead of listening so intensely and thoughtfully he had hit Madeleine in the face. What if he had knocked her down, clutched her hair, dragged her screaming and fighting around the room, flogged her until her buttocks bled. What if he had! He should have torn her clothes, ripped off her necklace, brought his fists down on her head.

“In early versions of the novel, Herzog uses physical force on Madeleine,” Leader writes, referring us in a short footnote to another study of the most autobiographical of American novelists—and then he just moves on. As far as I can tell, none of the reviews of Leader’s biography, and there were a lot, dealt with this material at any length. Of course, that was two years ago, and if we haven’t gotten around to Bellow yet, like André Gide, it’s because it hasn’t occurred to us. He can get in line. Which is a form of utilitarianism in itself.

And I’d like to think that James Wood might have second thoughts now about his “awkward but undeniable utilitarianism,” or at least about its undeniability. Learning to deny it is largely what the events of the last six months have been about, and it matters what our most prominent literary critic thinks about our greatest novelist, even—or especially—if their relationship was even closer than they let on. In The Shadow in Garden, James Atlas’s book on the art of biography, he refers to Wood as one of Bellow’s three “nonconsanguineous” sons, and he notes of the critic’s negative review of a memoir by the novelist’s actual son Greg Bellow:

At least Wood was upfront about his partisanship: he mentioned that he had co-taught a course with Bellow at Boston University. And if you looked back at a tribute in The New Republic Wood had written eight years earlier, just after Bellow’s death, it emerged that they had been close friends: their daughters had played together; Wood and Bellow had played piano (Wood) and recorder (Bellow) duets. And they grew still closer toward the end: “In the final year of Bellow’s life, as he became very frail, I would read some of his own prose to him.”

It’s hard for anyone to acknowledge the worst about a man whom he loved—but it’s equally true that if our current moment can’t force James Wood to rethink Saul Bellow, then it might not be worth as much as we hope. It can’t just be an excuse to find more reasons to hate Brett Ratner. We have to look closely at the men who might be our fathers. It’s worth noting that along with Wood, Atlas lists two other men as Bellow’s three surrogate sons. One was Martin Amis. The other was Leon Wieseltier, Wood’s editor at The New Republic, who was accused last year of decades of sexual harassment, and who also wrote admiringly after Bellow’s death: “I always had the feeling about Saul that he was inwardly at war, that he breakfasted with his demons.”

The cosmic engineers

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On May 18, 1966, the novelist C.P. Snow delivered a talk titled “The Status of Doctors” before the Royal Society of Medicine in London. Snow—who had studied physics and chemistry at the University of Leicester and Cambridge—spent much of his speech comparing the fields of engineering and medicine, noting that doctors enjoyed a more exalted social status than engineers, perhaps because their work was easier to understand: “Doctors have a higher place in the popular imagination and I think also in the more esoteric imagination. A novelist can bring a doctor into a novel without any trouble at all, people know who he is; but try bringing an engineer into a novel and it is terribly difficult—they have not got recognition symbols in the way the medical profession has.” He continued:

I do not think doctors suffer from the other great weakness of engineers, that is, their complete lack of verbalism. Engineers can often be extremely clever but they cannot spell and they cannot speak. The doctors I have known are extremely articulate. I suspect the descriptive processes they have to go through, both themselves and presumably with their patients, are extremely good verbal training, and I do not think it is an accident that the one thing the medical profession has done, apart from producing doctors, is to produce writers. I do not think it is an accident that there are almost no engineering writers, and very few from the scientific professions. On the other hand, the medical profession has produced some really good writers in the last hundred years.

Snow would presumably have been mortified by the idea of a magazine that published nothing but stories written by and for engineers, but by the time that he gave his talk, Astounding Science Fiction—which had changed its name several years earlier to Analog—had been in that business for decades. In practice, science fiction writers came from a wide range of professional backgrounds, but there was no doubt that John W. Campbell’s ideal author was a working engineer who wrote for his own pleasure on the side. In an editorial in the February 1941 issue, the editor delivered a pitch to them directly:

Most of Astounding’s authors are, in the professional sense, amateur authors, spare-time writers who earn their bread and butter in one field of work, and use their writing ability as a source of the jam supply…”Jam” in the above sense is useful. Briefly, it amounts to the equivalent of a couple of new suits, or a suit and overcoat, for a short story, a new radio with, say, FM tuning for a novelette, and a new car or so for a novel.

He also made no secret of what kind of professional he was hoping to find. By the end of the decade, a survey indicated that fully fifteen percent of the magazine’s readers were engineers themselves. As Damon Knight wrote in In Search of Wonder: “[Campbell] deliberately built up a readership among practicing scientists and technicians.” And he expected to source most of his writers directly from that existing audience.

But his reasons for looking for engineers were more complicated than they might seem. When Campbell took over Astounding in 1937, the submissions that he received tended to fall into one of two categories. Some were from professional pulp writers who wrote for multiple genres; others were written by younger fans who had grown up with science fiction, loved it, and desperately wanted to break into the magazine. Neither was the kind of writer whom Campbell secretly wanted. Working authors had to write quickly to make a living at a penny a word, and they were usually content to stick to the tricks and formulas that they knew best. They certainly weren’t interested in repeated revisions, which meant that they weren’t likely to be receptive to the notes that Campbell was planning to give. (Some writers, like Edmond Hamilton, bowed out entirely because they didn’t feel like changing.) The fans were even worse. They had only emerged as a force in their own right within the last few years, and you couldn’t tell them anything—they treated science fiction as their personal property, which made it hard to give them any feedback. What Campbell wanted was a legion of successful engineers who wrote science fiction because they liked it, didn’t take it so personally that they would push back against his suggestions, and had the time and leisure to rework a story to his specifications. These men were understandably hard to find, and few of the major writers of the golden age fit that profile completely. It wasn’t until after the war that the figure of the engineer who wrote science fiction as a hobby really began to emerge.

By 1967, a year after C.P. Snow delivered his talk, however, it was possible for Harlan Ellison to refer in the anthology Dangerous Visions to “John W. Campbell, Jr., who used to edit a magazine that ran science fiction, called Astounding, and who now edits a magazine that runs a lot of schematic drawings, called Analog.” And there’s little doubt that it was exactly the magazine that Campbell wanted. His control over it was even more complete than it had been in the thirties and forties, largely because of the type of writer he had selected for it, as Damon Knight pointed out: “He deliberately cultivated technically oriented writers with marginal writing skills…Campbell was building a new stable he knew he could keep.” And this side of his legacy persists even today. In Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, Janet Malcolm writes:

Soon after the Big Bang of Freud’s major discoveries…the historian of psychoanalysis notes a fork in the road. One path leads outward into the general culture, widening to become the grand boulevard of psychoanalytic influence…The other is the narrow, inward-turning path of psychoanalytic therapy: a hidden, almost secret byway travelled by few.

Replace “Freud” with “Campbell” and “psychoanalysis” with “science fiction,” and you have a decent picture of what happened with Analog. Science fiction took over the world, while Campbell’s old magazine continued to pursue his private vision, and its writers fit that profile now more than ever. It’s no longer possible to write short fiction for a living, which makes it very attractive for engineers who write on the side. I love Analog—it changed my life. But if you ever wonder why it looks so different from even the rest of the genre, it’s because it was engineered that way.

Life in four dimensions

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Yesterday, I happened to stumble across a review that the pianist Glenn Gould gave to the film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Gould had performed on the soundtrack of George Roy Hill’s movie—which I haven’t seen—but he had mixed feelings about both the result and its source material, and he wasn’t shy about expressing them in public:

Slaughterhouse-Five has been brought to the screen with such fidelity that if you happen to be one of that black-humored author’s legion of fans, an outing at your neighborhood cinema will probably provide one of the cinematic highlights of the season…Vonnegut, of course, is to the current crop of college frosh as J.D. Salinger was to the youth of my day—a dispenser of those too-easily accessible home truths that one somehow never does get at home. And precisely because he quite ruthlessly exploits certain aspects of the generation gap—especially those widened by an inability to agree on forms of humor appropriate to the articulation of the human situation—I suspect that much of his work will date quickly and reveal that supposed profundities of an opus like Slaughterhouse-Five as the inevitable clichés of an overgeneralized, underparticularized view of humanity.

This is a little harsh, and in retrospect, Gould underestimated Vonnegut’s staying power, which turned out to be considerable indeed. I’ve occasionally resisted Vonnegut for some of the same reasons that he gives here, but I don’t think there’s any denying his skill and intelligence, even if his great talent was to put just the right words to feelings that his core group of fans already wanted to believe.

It isn’t clear what drew Gould to work on the movie version, for which he provided about fifteen minutes of music. In his review, he places particular emphasis on the novel’s treatment of time, which is what readers tend to remember best:

[The protagonist Billy Pilgrim] becomes, as Vonnegut puts it, “unstuck in time” and thereafter meanders back and forth across the expanse of his quite unexceptional life and finally uncovers an ability to project himself fourth-dimensionally as well. When going on Earth gets tough, Billy simply fantasizes an extraterrestrial existence [and] shacks up in a geodesic dome with the woman of his dreams.

The inhabitants of the planet Tralfamadore, who resemble sentient plumber’s helpers, exist in the fourth dimension, as Vonnegut explains through one of Billy Pilgrim’s letters:

The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was what when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.

Purely by coincidence, I read Gould’s review on the same day that I saw an article in the journal Electric Lit titled “What Kurt Vonnegut Can Teach Us About Coping with the Internet.” Once you get past the obligatory clickbait headline, Jaya Saxena’s essay is a surprisingly thoughtful meditation on one of the unavoidable facts about our online lives, which is that all of our past selves exist on it simultaneously. Saxena writes:

On Earth, I am always quoting an article about health care in America. I am always calling someone “retarded” as a term of endearment. I am always telling people that I am safe and nowhere near Mumbai. I am always defending the concept of “Steak and Blowjob” day. I am always hugging a friend I see every day and never see anymore, bragging about stealing rum from a frat house, performatively announcing that I will be using Twitter to amplify other voices, telling someone I’ve cut out of my life that I love them…Anyone scrolling through my Facebook feed, which has existed since 2004, or who Googles enough to unearth my awful old blog, can see everything I’ve posted — every misguided opinion, every drunk photo and inside joke — with the clarity and presence of the moment I posted it. I am 17 and 24 and 31, forever.

But Saxena resists the solution presented by the Tralfamadorians, which is to focus on the good moments in life and ignore the rest, as “irresponsible,” proposing instead that we do the opposite: “We can remember that between one post a decade ago and now, there were endless versions of ourselves and others, changing and choosing. And that we will continue to do so in ways we can’t see until we look back.”

Gould was also critical of what he saw as “Vonnegut’s favorite message, [which] is that we must concentrate on the good moments and ignore the bad ones.” But by the early seventies, when his review of the movie appeared, Gould had come “unstuck in time” himself. He had retired from live performance nearly a decade earlier, preferring to concentrate on recording. In the studio, he could literally focus on the good moments and ignore the rest, splicing together performances out of the best parts of multiple takes—and you could even see the physical album itself as a representation, like the Rocky Mountains, of a work of art that an audience could only experience “like beads on a string.” Unlike a listener at a concert, I can drop the needle on my vinyl copy of Two and Three Part Inventions wherever I like. (I’m reminded of the character in Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach who hangs a record album on his living room wall so that he can enjoy the music all at once.) Gould also welcomed the chance to engage in a dialogue with his past selves in a way that would have been impossible before the advent of recording. He recorded The Goldberg Variations twice, a quarter of a century apart, and I’ve always wondered what a third version would have sounded like, if he hadn’t died at the age of fifty. And he might have had some useful insights into our online lives. In “The Prospects of Recording,” which he published shortly after his retirement from touring, Gould quoted a character from Jean-Luc Godard’s A Married Woman: “The first thing we require of a machine is to have a memory.” And he hinted obliquely at a way in which we can cope in a world that exists in four dimensions, whether we’re talking about all of history or simply about our own lives:

In the electronic age a caretaking comprehension of those encompassing chronicles of universal knowledge which were tended by the medieval scholastics—an encumbrance as well as an impossibility since the early Middle Ages—can be consigned to computer repositories that file away the memories of mankind and leave us free to be inventive in spite of them.

The stories of our lives

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Last week, I mentioned the evocative challenge that the writer and literary agent John Brockman recently posed to a group of scientists and intellectuals: “Ask the question for which you will be remembered.” I jokingly said that my own question would probably resemble the one submitted by the scholar Jonathan Gottschall: “Are stories bad for us?” As often happens with such snap decisions, however, this one turned out to be more revealing than I had anticipated. When I look back at my work as a writer, it’s hard to single out any overarching theme, but I do seem to come back repeatedly to the problem of reading the world as a text. My first novel, The Icon Thief, was openly inspired by Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco, which inverts the conventions of the conspiracy thriller to explore how we tell ourselves stories about history and reality. I didn’t go quite as far as Eco did, but it was a subject that I enjoyed, and it persisted to a lesser extent in my next two books. My science fiction stories tend to follow a formula that I’ve described as The X-Files in reverse, in which a paranormal interpretation of a strange event is supplanted by another that fits the same facts into a more rational pattern. And I’m currently finishing up a book that is secretly about how the stories that we read influence our behavior in the real world. As Isaac Asimov pointed out in his essay “The Sword of Achilles,” most readers are drawn to science fiction at a young age, and its values and assumptions subtly affect how they think and feel. If there’s a single thread that runs through just about everything I’ve written, then, it’s the question of how our tendency to see the world as a story—or a text—can come back to haunt us in unexpected ways.

As it happens, we’re all living right now through a vast social experiment that might have been designed to test this very principle. I got to thinking about this soon after reading an excellent essay, “The Weight of the Words,” by the political scientist Jacob T. Levy. He begins with a discussion of Trump’s “shithole countries” remark, which led a surprising number of commentators—on both the right and the left—to argue that the president’s words were less important than his actions. Levy summarizes this view: “Ignore the tweets. Ignore Trump’s inflammatory language. Ignore the words. What counts is the policy outcomes.” He continues:

I have a hard time believing that anyone really thinks like this as a general proposition…The longstanding view among conservatives was that Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech and Reagan’s call to “tear down this wall” were important events, words that helped to mobilize western resistance to Communism and to provide moral clarity about the stakes of that resistance.

On a more basic level, since it’s impossible for the government to accomplish everything by force, much of politics lies in emotional coercion, which suggest that words have power in themselves. Levy refers to Hannah Arendt’s argument in The Human Condition, in which a familiar figure appears:

The stature of the Homeric Achilles can be understood only if one sees him as “the doer of great deeds and the speakers of great words”…Thought was secondary to speech, but speech and action were considered to be coeval and coequal, of the same rank and the same kind; and this originally meant not only that most political action, in so far as it remains outside the sphere of violence, is indeed transacted in words, but more fundamentally that finding the right words at the right moment, quite apart from the information or communication they may convey, is action.

Levy then lists many of the obvious ways in which Trump’s words have had tangible effects—the erosion of America’s stature abroad, the undermining of trust in law enforcement and the civil service, the growth of tribalism and xenophobia, and the redefinition of what it means to be a Republican. (As Levy notes of Trump’s relationship to his supporters: “He doesn’t speak for them; how many of them had a view about ‘the deep state’ two years ago? He speaks to them, and it matters.”) Trump routinely undercuts the very notion of truth, in what seems like the ultimate example of the power of speech over the world of fact. And Levy’s conclusion deserves to be read whenever we need to be reminded of how this presidency differs from all the others that have come before:

The alleged realism of those who want to ignore words will often point to some past president whose lofty rhetoric obscured ugly policies. Whether those presidents are named “Reagan and George W. Bush” or “JFK and Barack Obama” varies in the obvious way, but the deflationary accounts are similar; there are blunders, crimes, abuses, and atrocities enough to find in the record of every American president. But all those presidents put forward a public rhetorical face that was better than their worst acts. This inevitably drives political opponents crazy: they despise the hypocrisy and the halo that good speeches put on undeserving heads. I’ve had that reaction to, well, every previous president in my living memory, at one time or another. But there’s something important and valuable in the fact that they felt the need to talk about loftier ideals than they actually governed by. They kept the public aspirations of American political culture pointed toward Reagan’s “shining city on a hill.”

He concludes of all of our previous presidents: “In words, even if not in deeds, they championed a free and fair liberal democratic order, the protection of civil liberties, openness toward the world, rejection of racism at home, and defiance against tyranny abroad. And their words were part of the process of persuading each generation of Americans that those were constitutively American ideals.” America, in short, is a story that Americans tell one another—and the world—about themselves, and when we change the assumptions behind this narrative, it has profound implications in practice. We treat others according to the roles that we’ve imagined for ourselves, or, more insidiously, that our society has imagined for us. Those roles are often restrictive, but they can also be liberating, both for good and for bad. (Levy perceptively notes that the only federal employees who don’t feel devalued these days are immigration and border agents.) And Levy sounds a warning that we would all do well to remember:

“Ignore the tweets, ignore the language, ignore the words” is advice that affects a kind of sophistication: don’t get distracted by the circus, keep your eye on what’s going on behind the curtain. This is faux pragmatism, ignoring what is being communicated to other countries, to actors within the state, and to tens of millions of fellow citizens. It ignores how all those actors will respond to the speech, and how norms, institutions, and the environment for policy and coercion will be changed by those responses. Policy is a lagging indicator; ideas and the speech that expresses them pave the way.

“Trump has spent a year on the campaign trail and a year in office telling us where he intends to take us,” Levy concludes. And we’re all part of this story now. But we should be even more worried if the words ever stop. As Arendt wrote more than half a century ago: “Only sheer violence is mute.”

Achilles among the women

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“What song the Sirens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture,” Sir Thomas Browne writes in Urn Burial, which was first published in 1658. I’ve been intrigued by this sentence for as long as I can remember, but it took me a long time to understand why. Most readers are likely to encounter it as the epigraph to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the first modern detective story, which means that it can seen as a benediction, or a declaration of purpose, for the entire mystery genre. I initially saw it on the back cover of a paperback edition of The White Goddess by Robert Graves, which advertised that the book contained “practical solutions to many of the apparently insoluble riddles of antiquity.” Graves expands on this in the introduction:

The book does read very queerly: but then of course a historical grammar of the language of poetic myth has never previously been attempted, and to write it conscientiously I have had to face such “puzzling questions, though not beyond all conjecture,” as Sir Thomas Browne instances in his Hydriotaphia: “what songs the Sirens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he held himself among the women.” I found practical and unevasive answers to these and many other questions of the same sort.

And while Graves might not seem to have much in common with C. Auguste Dupin, Poe’s fictional detective, both men take what seem to be impossible puzzles and solve them through an exercise of pure reason, which is what Browne’s enigmatic questions—which he borrows from the historian Suetonius—have symbolized ever since.

Of course, it isn’t that straightforward. Poe’s mystery, like most of its successors, is obviously constructed to lead Dupin to the solution, and most modern readers would be unlikely to forgive its use of a murderous orangutan. (The best part of the story is the mysterious voice overheard by multiple witnesses, which I love so much that I mention it in “The Spires,” my upcoming story in Analog.) And Graves’s method of “proleptic reasoning,” although it yields ideas of great beauty and originality, exposes his arguments to serious doubts. Here’s how he solves the mystery of Achilles:

According to Suetonius the guesses made by various scholars whom the Emperor Tiberius consulted on this point were “Cercysera” on account of the distaff (kerkis) that Achilles wielded; “Issa,” on account of his swiftness (aisso, I dart); “Pyrrha,” on account of his red hair. Hyginus gives his vote for Pyrrha. My conjecture is that Achilles called himself Dacryoessa (“the tearful one”) or, better, Drosoessa, (“the dewy one”), drosos being a poetic synonym for tears. According to Apollonius his original name Liguron (“wailing”) was changed to Achilles by his tutor Cheiron. This is to suggest that the Achilles-cult came to Thessaly from Liguria. Homer punningly derives Achilles from achos (“distress”), but Apollodorus from a “not” and cheile “lips,” a derivation which Sir James Frazer calls absurd; though “Lipless” is quite a likely name for an oracular hero.

This is all very interesting, but far from conclusive, and the reader is left to choose between several equally plausible alternatives. (In the first chapter of my novel City of Exiles, I mention this question as part of a minor plot point, and I arbitrarily settle on Pyrrha.) But the most revealing discussion of the problem doesn’t appear in The White Goddess at all, but in The Greek Myths, which Graves published several years later. Here’s how he discusses it there:

Now, Thetis knew that her son would never return from Troy if he joined the expedition, since he was fated either to gain glory there and die early, or to live a long but inglorious life at home. She disguised him a a girl, and entrusted him to Lycomedes, king of Scyros, in whose palace he lived under the name of Cercysera, Aissa, or Pyrrha; and he had an intrigue with Lycomedes’s daughter Deidameia, by whom he became the father of Pyrrhus, later called Neoptolemus.

So what happened to Dacryoessa or Drosoessa? Graves evidently concluded that his suggestion, which was acceptable within the more speculative framework of The White Goddess, would be out of place in a more scholarly work—although the notes to The Greek Myths are filled with wild leaps of their own. He simply writes “Cercysera, Aissa, or Pyrrha,” which are guesses in themselves, and moves on. A casual reader might never know that it was a matter of dispute, or even that the problem of Achilles’s assumed name was of any interest at all.

And this offers an elegant example of a pitfall that affects scholarship of all kinds, particularly when directed toward a general audience. Writing a nonfiction book of my own has reminded me that history or biography is full of apparently objective facts that are really open to interpretation. A single date can be the result of a long process of investigation, speculation, and elimination, but the underlying judgments go more or less unseen. Very occasionally, the search itself becomes the point of the work, but it’s more common for scholars to present us with the end result and leave out all the intermediate steps. And if we knew how much guesswork goes into the books that we read, we might well view them with a justifiable skepticism. (Elsewhere, I’ve called this the Bob Hope rule, which is that scholars get to use intuition as long as they can prove that they don’t need it.) In The White Goddess, Graves, to his credit, goes into considerable detail about his methods, and he acknowledges that it undermines his own case:

The proleptic or analeptic method of thought, though necessary to poets, physicians, historians and the rest, is so easily confused with mere guessing, or deduction from insufficient data, that few of them own to using it. However securely I buttress the argument of this book with quotations, citations, and footnotes, the admission that I have made here of how it first came to me will debar it from consideration by orthodox scholars: though they cannot refute it, they dare not accept it.

But he isn’t alone here. Other scholars just take greater pains to disguise it—unless we can trick them, like Achilles, into revealing themselves.

Written by nevalalee

February 9, 2018 at 8:43 am

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