Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘A.A. Milne

The manufacturers of worlds

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For the last few days, as part of a deliberate break from writing, I’ve been browsing contentedly through my favorite book, The Annotated Sherlock Holmes by William S. Baring-Gould. It was meant to be a comforting read that was as far removed from work as possible, but science fiction, unsurprisingly, can’t seem to let me go. Yesterday, I was looking over The Sign of the Four when I noticed a line that I’ve read countless times without really taking note of it. As Holmes leaves Baker Street to pursue a line of the investigation, he says to Watson, who has remained behind: “Let me recommend this book—one of the most remarkable ever penned. It is Winwood Reade’s Martyrdom of Man. I shall be back in an hour.” Toward the end of the novel, speaking of the difficulty in predicting what any given human being will do, Holmes elaborates:

Winwood Reade is good upon the subject…He remarks that, while the individual man is an insoluble puzzle, in the aggregate he becomes a mathematical certainty. You can, for example, never foretell what any one man will do, but you can say with precision what an average number will be up to. Individuals vary, but percentages remain constant. So says the statistician.

This is remarkably like what Isaac Asimov writes of psychohistory, a sociological version of the ideal gas law that can predict the future based on the existence of a huge number—perhaps in the trillions—of individual lives. And it seemed worth checking to see if this passage could cast any light on the origins of the imaginary science that I’ve spent so much time exploring.

It pains me to say that Holmes himself probably wasn’t a direct influence on the Foundation series. There was a considerable overlap between Sherlockians and science fiction writers—prominent members of both camps included Anthony Boucher, Poul Anderson, Fletcher Pratt, and Manly Wade Wellman—but John W. Campbell wasn’t among them, and Asimov was drafted only reluctantly into the Baker Street Irregulars. (He writes in I. Asimov: “Conan Doyle was a slapdash and sloppy writer…I am not really a Holmes enthusiast.”) For insight, we have to go back to Winwood Reade himself, a British historian, explorer, and correspondent of Charles Darwin whose discussion of the statistical predictability of the human race appears, interestingly, in an argument against the efficacy of prayer. Here’s the full passage from The Martyrdom of Man, which was published in 1872:

All phenomena, physical and moral, are subject to laws as invariable as those which regulate the rising and setting of the sun. It is in reality as foolish to pray for rain or a fair wind as it would be to pray that the sun should set in the middle of the day. It is as foolish to pray for the healing of a disease or for daily bread as it is to pray for rain or a fair wind. It is as foolish to pray for a pure heart or for mental repose as it is to pray for help in sickness or misfortune. All the events which occur upon the earth result from Law: even those actions which are entirely dependent on the caprices of the memory, or the impulse of the passions, are shown by statistics to be, when taken in the gross, entirely independent of the human will. As a single atom, man is an enigma; as a whole, he is a mathematical problem. As an individual, he is a free agent; as a species, the offspring of necessity.

At the end of the book, Reade takes his own principles to their logical conclusion, becoming, in effect, an early writer of science fiction. Its closing section, “Intellect,” sketches out a universal history that anticipates Toynbee, but Reade goes further: “When we understand the laws which regulate the complex phenomena of life, we shall be able to predict the future as we are already able to predict comets and eclipses and planetary movements.” He describes three inventions that he believes will lead to an era of global prosperity:

The first is the discovery of a motive force which will take the place of steam, with its cumbrous fuel of oil or coal; secondly, the invention of aerial locomotion which will transport labour at a trifling cost of money and of time to any part of the planet, and which, by annihilating distance, will speedily extinguish national distinctions; and thirdly, the manufacture of flesh and flour from the elements by a chemical process in the laboratory, similar to that which is now performed within the bodies of the animals and plants.

And after rhapsodizing over the utopian civilization that will result—in which “poetry and the fine arts will take that place in the heart which religion now holds”—he turns his thoughts to the stars:

And then, the earth being small, mankind will migrate into space, and will cross the airless Saharas which separate planet from planet, and sun from sun. The earth will become a Holy Land which will be visited by pilgrims from all the quarters of the universe. Finally, men will master the forces of nature; they will become themselves architects of systems, manufacturers of worlds. Man then will be perfect; he will then be a creator; he will therefore be what the vulgar worship as a god.

Reade was inevitably seen as an atheist, and although he didn’t like the label, he inclined many readers in that direction, as he did in one of the most interesting episodes in this book’s afterlife. The scene is World War II, which tested the idea of psychohistory to its limit, and the speaker is the author of the memoir The Enchanted Places:

The war was on. I was in Italy. From time to time [my father] used to send me parcels of books to read. In one of them were two in the Thinker’s Library series: Renan’s The Life of Jesus and Winwood Reade’s The Martyrdom of Man. I started with The Life of Jesus and found it quite interesting; I turned to The Martyrdom and found it enthralling…There was no God. God had not created Man in His own image. It was the other way round: Man had created God. And Man was all there was. But it was enough. It was the answer, and it was both totally convincing and totally satisfying. It convinced and satisfied me as I lay in my tent somewhere on the narrow strip of sand that divides Lake Comacchio from the Adriatic; and it has convinced and satisfied me ever since.

I wrote at once to my father to tell him so and he at once wrote back. And it was then that I learned for the first time that these were his beliefs, too, and that he had always hoped that one day I would come to share them…So he had sent me The Martyrdom. But even then he had wanted to play absolutely fair, and so he had added The Life of Jesus. And then he had been content to leave the verdict to me. Well, he said, the church had done its best. It had had twenty-four years’ start—and it had failed.

The author adds: “If I had to compile a list of books that have influenced my life, high on the list would undoubtedly be Winwood Reade’s The Martyrdom of Man. And it would probably be equally high on my father’s list too.” The father in question was A.A. Milne. And the son was named Christopher Robin.

The White Rabbit objective

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The White Rabbit by John Tenniel

On July 4, 1862, the Reverends Charles Lutwidge Dodgson and Robinson Duckworth rowed a boat up the Thames with the three Liddell sisters, Lorina, Alice, and Edith. Here’s Dodgson’s own account of what took place on that pleasant afternoon:

Many a day had we rowed together on that quiet stream—the three little maidens and I—and many a fairy tale had been extemporized for their benefit—whether it were at times when the narrator was “i’ the vein,” and fancies unsought came crowding thick upon him, or at times when the jaded Muse was goaded into action, and plodded meekly on, more because she had to say something than that she had something to say—yet none of these many tales got written down: they lived and died, like summer midges, each in its own golden afternoon until there came a day when, as it chanced, one of my little listeners petitioned that the tale might be written out for her.

And we all know what happened next—or at least we have no choice but to remember this week, with the deluge of recent coverage surrounding the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Today, however, I’d like to focus on the stories that weren’t written down. We have Dodgson’s word that he often extemporized tales to Alice and her sisters, but the vast majority were forgotten as soon as they were told. What set this one apart? You could point to any number of possible factors, but I’d like to nominate one element that doesn’t always get the credit it deserves: the White Rabbit. Dodgson himself hints that the rabbit played an important role in the story’s composition: “That was many a year ago, but I distinctly remember, now as I write, how, in a desperate attempt to strike out some new line of fairy-lore, I had sent my heroine straight down a rabbit-hole to begin with, without the least idea what was to happen afterwards.” When we look back at the original story, it’s striking how quickly it gets down to business: the rabbit appears in the second paragraph, and Alice sets after it in the fourth, and by then, we’re off and running. And what the rabbit provides is a narrative thread, in the form of Alice’s curiosity about it, that allows Dodgson—or his alter ego, Lewis Carroll—to introduce a series of disconnected episodes. He doesn’t emphasize the rabbit unduly: in practice, he gently reintroduces it once every other chapter or so, whenever the story needs a little nudge. And the result is as pure an example as I know of the principle that every story should be structured as a series of objectives, and that the best way to sustain the reader’s interest, as Kurt Vonnegut put it, is to have the protagonist want something right away.

Illustration by John Tenniel for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

This may seem like a rather clinical way to look at Alice, but it’s also a trick that every oral storyteller knows. The other great example here is Winnie-the-Pooh, which emerged from the stories that A.A. Milne told to his son. When you browse through the books, you can’t help but notice how the most memorable chapters are all structured around a single concrete objective: Pooh wants to get some honey, or to find Eeyore’s tail, or to figure out what Tigger likes best. Pooh himself is hardly a model of a driven protagonist, but for a bear of very little brain, he knows what he wants. And when I tell my improvised stories about John the Pig to my own daughter, I’ve learned how useful it can be to follow “Once upon a time there was…” immediately with “And he wanted…” It’s a courtesy both to the listener and the teller: the former gets something to pique her interest, while the latter has a narrative framework on which he can fall back whenever his invention starts to flag. If you know what the protagonist wants, you usually have a rough idea of what comes next. And it often makes the difference between a story worth remembering and one that evaporates before your eyes. (On a similar note, I’ve recently begun experimenting with Story Cubes, which consist of nine prepackaged dice printed with images—a clock, a magic wand, a man with a parachute—designed to encourage the same kind of storytelling: you toss the dice and try to come up with a plot that connects the nine random pictures. And your chances of succeeding are much better if you introduce the words “And he wanted…” as soon as possible.)

This becomes even more clear when we compare Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with its sequel. Readers may prefer one or the other, and I actually think that Through the Looking-Glass is by far the greater book. (Not surprisingly, it has played a significant role in my own life: my first professional publication ever, the novelette “Inversus,” was an extended homage, and my novel The Icon Thief ends with the image, which I lifted directly from Carroll, of a pawn making it to the other end of the board.) But it’s also emphatically a written novel. Instead of the clean, linear chase after the White Rabbit, we have the imaginary chess game, which is wonderful, but could hardly be invented on the spur of the moment. Unlike its predecessor, Looking-Glass takes its time to get going: it opens with a sleepy scene of Alice curled up by the fireplace in midwinter, and she doesn’t enter the looking-glass world for several pages. Even when she’s on the other side, she does little more than look around at first, and her objective, when it finally appears, is fairly abstract—she wants to become a queen. The result bears the same relation to the previous installment as the second half of Don Quixote does to the first: it’s a richer, more mature work, written after its characters had already become famous, but it lacks some of the charm of the original. Each story bears the mark of its origins: one in a boat in a lazy day on the Thames, the other in the study of an Oxford mathematician. And if Carroll had started with Looking-Glass rather than Wonderland, the story might have been forgotten at once. I wouldn’t want to live without either, but we have the White Rabbit to thank for both.

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