Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The evolution of art

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Art has to concur with the course of life. So we have to be evolutionists. We can’t admit anything that doesn’t in itself evolve. In each of our works this evolutionary process should be realized. We cannot do this in one single in­alterable way, nor can we admit the formation of any school. Nor can we have any criteria, if they would imply something stable used as a point or the base of comparison. In any case, our criteria have to evolve constantly. As we are in the middle of that natural evolution, our role must consist only in signaling, like a sensitive receiving apparatus that we could call the plasticity of time. But without belonging to one land rather than another. We want to be international. Nothing that has already come to pass can be useful to us; not even our own works. For us, nothing is definitive. We have to ignore anything we’ll be doing tomorrow. We must find those who have the right temperament to choose and select, spontaneously. Intuitive and sympathetic connections compose our reality. I have to identify myself, so as truly to connect things. The day is the only interesting phenomenon.

Joaquín Torres-Garcia, “Art-Evolution”

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October 13, 2018 at 7:30 am

The object of desire

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Yesterday, I began to hear rumors that something was out in the world. My first clue was a congratulatory note from my agent in New York, who sent me an email with the subject line: “It’s a book!” The message itself was blank, except for a picture of his desk, on which he had propped up the hardcover of Astounding. A few hours later, I saw an editor for a pop culture site post the image of a stack of new books on Twitter, with mine prominently displayed about a third of the way from the bottom. In the meantime, there wasn’t any sign on it on my end—I hadn’t even seen the finished version yet. (I signed off on the last set of proofs months ago, and I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time admiring the cover art, but that isn’t quite the same as holding the real thing in your hands.) When the mail came that afternoon, there was nothing, so I figured that it would take another day or two for any shipment from my publisher’s warehouse to make it out to Chicago. In the evening, I headed out to the city, where I was meeting a few writers for dinner before our event at Volumes Bookcafe. When one of my friends arrived at the restaurant, he announced that he had heard a thud on his doorstep earlier that day, and he proudly pulled out his personal copy of the hardcover, from which he had prudently removed the dust jacket. At this point, I was starting to suspect that everybody in America would get it before I did, and when I arrived at the bookstore, I was genuinely shocked to see a table covered with copies of the book, which doesn’t officially come out until October 23. And although I should have been preparing for my reading, I took a minute to carry one into a quiet corner so that I could study it for myself.

Well, it definitely exists, and it’s just as beautiful as I had hoped. As a writer, I don’t have any control over the visual side, but the artist Tavis Coburn and the designers Ploy Siripant and Renata De Oliveira did a fantastic job—I’m obviously biased, but I don’t think any book about science fiction has ever come in a nicer package. The fact that I managed to get the hardcover version out into the world before physical books disappeared entirely is a source of real pride, and I look forward to seeing copies of it in thrift stores and cutout bins for years to come. And while I can’t speak to the contents, at first glance, they seemed perfectly fine, too. After the reading, which went well, I made my first sale of Astounding ever in a bookstore, and as I signed all the remaining copies that the store had on hand, I was sorely tempted to buy one for myself. I sent a picture of the stack on the display table to my wife, who texted back immediately: “Your copies came! One big box and one small one.” An hour or so later, I was back home, where I sliced open the first carton, then the second, to reveal my twenty-five author’s copies. (I’ll keep three for myself and gradually start to send the rest to various deserving recipients.) Now it’s the following morning, and the book is inexorably starting to assume the status of a familiar object. It’s lying at my elbow as I type this, and I can already feel myself taking it for granted. I suppose that was inevitable. But I’ll always treasure the memory of the day in which everyone I knew seemed to have it except for me.

Written by nevalalee

October 12, 2018 at 8:33 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

October 12, 2018 at 7:30 am

Under the dome

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In the early seventies, a boy named Jaron Lanier was living with his father in a tent near Las Cruces, New Mexico. Decades later, Lanier would achieve worldwide acclaim as one of the founders of virtual reality—his company was the first to sell VR headsets and gloves—but at the time, he was ten years old and recovering from a succession of domestic tragedies. When he was nine, his mother Lilly had been killed in a horrific car accident; he was hospitalized for nearly a year with a series of infections; and his family’s new home burned down the day after construction was completed. Lanier’s father, Ellery, barely managed to scrape together enough money to buy an acre of undeveloped land in the desert, where they lived in tents for two years. (Ellery Lanier was a fascinating figure in his own right, and I hope one day to take a more detailed look at his career. He was a peripheral member of a circle of science fiction writers that included Lester del Rey and the radio host Long John Nebel, and he wrote nonfiction articles in the fifties for Fantastic and Amazing. As a younger man, he had known Gurdjieff and Aldous Huxley, and he was close friends with William Herbert Sheldon, the controversial psychologist best known for coining the terms “ectomorph,” “mesomorph,” and “endomorph,” as well as for his involvement with the Ivy League nude posture photos. Sheldon, in turn, was a numismatist who mentored Walter H. Breen, the husband of Marion Zimmer Bradley, about whom the less said the better. There’s obviously a lot to unpack here, but this post isn’t about that.)

When Lanier was about twelve years old, his father proposed that he design and build a house in which the two of them could live. In his memoir Dawn of the New Everything, Lanier speculates that this was his father’s way of helping him to deal with his recent traumas: “He realized that I needed a meaty obsession if I was ever going to become fully functional again.” At the time, Lanier was fascinated by the work of Hieronymus Bosch, especially The Garden of Earthly Delights, and he was equally intrigued when his father gave him a book titled Plants as Inventors. He decided that they should build a house with elements based on botanical structures, which may have been his father’s plan all along. Lanier remembers:

Ellery said he thought I might enjoy another book, in that case. This turned out to be a roughly designed publication in the form of an extra-thick magazine called Domebook. It was an offshoot of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog. Buckminster Fuller had been promoting geodesic domes as ideal structures, and they embodied the techie utopian spirit of the times.

At first, Lanier actually thought that a dome would be too mainstream: “I don’t want our house to be like any other house, and other people are building geodesic domes.” His father replied that it would probably be easier to get a construction permit if they included “this countercultural cliché,” and Lanier ultimately granted the point.

The project lasted for seven years. In the classic Fuller fashion, Lanier began with models made of drinking straws, using the tables from the Domebook to calculate the angles. He recalls:

My design strategy was to mix “conventional” geodesic domes with connecting elements that would be profoundly weird and irregular. There was to be one big dome, about fifty feet across, and a medium-size one, to be connected by a strange passage, which would serve as the kitchen, formed out of two tilted, intersecting nine-sided pyramids…The overall form reminded me a little of the Starship Enterprise—which has two engines connected to a main body and a prominent disc jutting out in front—if you filled out the discs and cylinders of that design into spheres…At any rate it was a form that I liked and that Ellery accepted. There were a few passes back and forth with the building permit people, and ultimately Ellery did have to intervene to argue the case, but we got a permit.

Amazingly enough, it all sort of held together. Like many dome builders, Lanier ran into multiple problems on the construction side, in part because of the unreliable advice of the Domebook, which “pretended to offer solutions when it was actually reporting on ongoing experiments.” A decade later, when Lanier met Stewart Brand for the first time, he volunteered the fact that he had grown up in a dome. Brand asked immediately: “Did it leak?” Lanier replied: “Of course it leaked!”

Yet the really remarkable thing was that it worked at all. Fuller’s architectural ideas may have been flawed in practice, but they became popular in the counterculture for many of the same reasons that later led to the founding of the Homebrew Computer Club. Like a kid learning how to code, with the aid of a few simple formulas, diagrams, and rules of thumb, a teenager could build a house that looked like the Enterprise. It was a hackable approach that encouraged experimentation, and the simplicity of the structural principles involved—you could squeeze them into a couple of pages—allowed the information to be freely distributed, much like today’s online blueprints for printable houses. And Lanier adored the result:

The larger dome was big enough that you could almost focus at infinity while staring up at the curve of the baggy silver ceiling…We called it “the dome,” or “Earth Station Lanier.” One would “go dome” instead of going home…There wasn’t a proper bathroom or kitchen. Instead, tubs, sinks, and showers were inserted into the structure according to how the plumbing could be routed though the bizarre shapes I had chosen. A sink was unusually high off the ground; you needed a stepping stool to use it. Conventional choices regarding privacy, sleep schedules, or studying were not really possible. I loved the place; dreamt about it while sleeping inside it.

His father stayed there for another thirty years. Even after Lanier moved away, he never entirely got over it, and he lives today with his family in a house with an attached structure much like the one he left behind in New Mexico. As he concludes: “We live back in the dome, more or less.”

I’ll be appearing tonight at the Deep Dish reading series at Volumes Bookcafe in Chicago at 7pm, along with Cory Doctorow and an exciting group of speculative fiction writers. Hope to see some of you there!

Written by nevalalee

October 11, 2018 at 8:51 am

Quote of the Day

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Poetry must not imitate the aspects of things but rather follow the constructive laws that are their essence, guaranteeing the real independence of everything…The totality of the diverse new facts united by a single spirit constitutes the created work.

Vicente Huidobro, “We Must Create”

Written by nevalalee

October 11, 2018 at 7:30 am

First man, first communion

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On July 5, 1969, eleven days before the launch of Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins took part in an unusual press conference at the Manned Space Center in Houston. Because they were being kept in quarantine, the astronauts answered questions while seated behind a desk inside a large plastic box. One of the attendees was Norman Mailer, who describes the scene in his book Of a Fire on the Moon, which he narrates under the name Aquarius:

Behind them at the rear of the plastic booth stood an American flag; the Press actually jeered when somebody brought it onstage in advance of the astronauts. Aquarius could not remember a press conference where Old Glory had ever been mocked before, but it had no great significance, suggesting rather a splash of derision at the thought that the show was already sufficiently American enough.

When an international correspondent asked about the decision to plant an American flag on the lunar surface, Armstrong offered a characteristic answer: “Well, I suspect that if we asked all the people in the audience and all of us up here, all of us would give different ideas on what they would like to take to the moon and think should be taken, everyone within his own experience. I don’t think there is any question what our job is. Our job is to fly the spacecraft as best as we can. We never would suggest that it is our responsibility to suggest what the U.S. posture on the moon should be. That decision has been made where it should be made, namely in the Congress of this country. I wouldn’t presume to question it.”

I was reminded of Armstrong’s measured reply in light of the controversy that briefly flared up over Damien Chazelle’s upcoming biopic First Man, which apparently fails to show the moment in which the flag was raised on the moon. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t displayed at all—it seems to be prominently featured in several shots—but the absence of a scene in which the flag is explicitly planted on lunar soil has led to criticism from exactly the sort of people you might suspect. In response, Chazelle has explained: “My goal with this movie was to share with audiences the unseen, unknown aspects of America’s mission to the moon—particularly Neil Armstrong’s personal saga and what he may have been thinking and feeling during those famous few hours.” And it seems clear that Armstrong wasn’t particularly concerned with the flag itself. Decades later, he said to James R. Hansen, the author of the authorized biography on which the film is based:

Some people thought a United Nations flag should be there, and some people thought there should be flags of a lot of nations. In the end, it was decided by Congress that this was a United States project. We were not going to make any territorial claim, but we ought to let people know that we were here and put up a U.S. flag. My job was to get the flag there. I was less concerned about whether that was the right artifact to place. I let other, wiser minds than mine make those kinds of decisions.

This feels like Armstrong’s diplomatic way of saying that he had more pressing concerns, and the planting of the flag seems to have been less important to him in the moment than it would later be, say, to Marco Rubio.

For any event as complicated and symbolically weighted as the first moon landing, we naturally choose which details to emphasize or omit, which was true even at the time. In the book First Man, Hansen recounts a scene in the Lunar Module that wasn’t widely publicized:

Aldrin…reached into his Personal Preference Kit, or PPK, and pulled out two small packages given to him by his Presbyterian minister, Reverend Dean Woodruff, back in Houston. One package contained a vial of wine, the other a wafer. Pouring the wine into a small chalice that he also pulled from his kit, he prepared to take Holy Communion…Buzz radioed, “Houston, this is the LM pilot speaking. I would like to request a few moments of silence. I would like to invite each person listening in, wherever or whoever he may be, to contemplate the events of the last few hours and to give thanks in his own individual way.”

Originally, Aldrin had hoped to read aloud from the Book of John, but NASA—evidently concerned by the threat of legal action from the atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair—encouraged him to keep the ritual to himself. (Word did leak from the minister to Walter Cronkite, who informed viewers that Aldrin would have “the first communion on the moon.”) And Armstrong’s feelings on the subject were revealing. As Hansen writes:

Characteristically, Neil greeted Buzz’s religious ritual with polite silence. “He had told me he planned a little celebratory communion,” Neil recalls, “and he asked me if I had any problems with that, and I said, ‘No, go right ahead.’ I had plenty of things to keep busy with. I just let him do his own thing.”

The fact that NASA hoped to pass over the moment discreetly only reflects how much selection goes into the narratives of such events—and our sense of what matters can change from one day to the next. In Of a Fire on the Moon, Mailer follows up his account of the jeers at the press conference with a striking anecdote from the landing itself:

When the flag was set up on the moon, the Press applauded. The applause continued, grew larger—soon they would be giving the image of the flag a standing ovation. It was perhaps a way of apologizing for the laughter before, and the laughter they knew would come again, but the experience was still out of register. A reductive society was witnessing the irreducible.

In fact, we reduce all such events sooner or later to a few simple components, which tend to confirm our own beliefs. (Aldrin later had second thoughts about his decision to take communion on the moon, noting that “we had come to space in the name of all mankind—be they Christians, Jews, Muslims, animists, agnostics, or atheists.” Notably, in her lawsuit against NASA, O’Hair had alleged that the agency was covering up the fact that Armstrong was an atheist. Armstrong, who described himself as a “deist,” wasn’t much concerned with the matter, as he later told Hansen: “I can’t say I was very familiar with that. I don’t remember that ever being mentioned to me until sometime in the aftermath of the mission.” And my favorite lunar urban legend is the rumor that Armstrong converted to Islam after hearing the Muslim call to prayer on the moon.) But such readings are a luxury granted only to those whose role is to observe. Throughout his career, Armstrong remained focused on the logistics of the mission, which were more than enough to keep him busy. He was content to leave the interpretation to others. And that’s a big part of the reason why he got there first.

Quote of the Day

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One must look honestly at what one has done, and to compare it to what one was trying to do. To learn useful mechanical lessons from the comparison is difficult; many workers in the theater never learn to do it.

David Mamet, Writing in Restaurants

Written by nevalalee

October 10, 2018 at 7:30 am

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