Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘A.E. van Vogt

The electric dream

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There’s no doubt who got me off originally and that was A.E. van Vogt…The basic thing is, how frightened are you of chaos? And how happy are you with order? Van Vogt influenced me so much because he made me appreciate a mysterious chaotic quality in the universe that is not to be feared.

—Philip K. Dick, in an interview with Vertex

I recently finished reading I Am Alive and You Are Dead, the French author Emmanuel Carrère’s novelistic biography of Philip K. Dick. In an article last year about Carrère’s work, James Wood of The New Yorker called it “fantastically engaging,” noting: “There are no references and very few named sources, yet the material appears to rely on the established record, and is clearly built from the same archival labor that a conventional biographer would perform.” It’s very readable, and it’s one of the few such biographies—along with James Tiptree, Jr. by Julie Phillips and a certain upcoming book—aimed at intelligent audience outside the fan community. Dick’s life also feels relevant now in ways that we might not have anticipated two decades ago, when the book was first published in France. He’s never been as central to me as he has for many other readers, mostly because of the accidents of my reading life, and I’ve only read a handful of his novels and stories. I’m frankly more drawn to his acquaintance and occasional correspondent Robert Anton Wilson, who ventured into some of the same dark places and returned with his sanity more or less intact. (One notable difference between the two is that Wilson was a more prolific experimenter with psychedelic drugs, which Dick, apart from one experience with LSD, appears to have avoided.) But no other writer, with one notable exception that I’ll mention below, has done a better job of forcing us to confront the possibility that our understanding of the world might be fatally flawed. And it’s quite possible that he serves as a better guide to the future than any of the more rational writers who populated the pages of Astounding.

What deserves to be remembered about Dick, though, is that he loved the science fiction of the golden age, and he’s part of an unbroken chain of influence that goes back to the earliest days of the pulps. In I Am Alive and You Are Dead, Carrère writes of Dick as a young boy: “He collected illustrated magazines with titles like Astounding and Amazing and Unknown, and these periodicals, in the guise of serious scientific discussion, introduced him to lost continents, haunted pyramids, ships that vanished mysteriously in the Sargasso Sea.” (Carrère, weirdly, puts a superfluous exclamation point at the end of the titles of all these magazines, which I’ve silently removed in these quotations.) Dick continued to collect pulps throughout his life, keeping the most valuable issues in a fireproof safe at his house in San Rafael, California, which was later blown open in a mysterious burglary. Throughout his career, Dick refers casually to classic stories with an easy familiarity that suggests a deep knowledge of the genre, as in a line from his Exegesis, in which he mentions “that C.L. Moore novelette in Astounding about the two alternative futures hinging on which of two girls the guy marries in the present.” But the most revealing connection lies in plain sight. In a section on Dick’s early efforts in science fiction, Carrère writes:

Stories about little green men and flying saucers…were what he was paid to write, and the most they offered in terms of literary recognition was comparison to someone like A.E. van Vogt, a writer with whom Phil had once been photographed at a science fiction convention. The photo appeared in a fanzine above the caption “The Old and the New.”

Carrère persistently dismisses van Vogt as a writer of “space opera,” which might be technically true, though hardly the whole story. Yet he was also the most convincing precursor that Dick ever had. The World of Null-A may be stylistically cruder than Dick at his best, but it also appeared in Astounding in 1945, and it remains so hallucinatory, weird, and undefinable that I still have trouble believing that it was read by twelve-year-olds. (As Dick once said of it in an interview: “All the parts of that book do not add up; all the ingredients did not make a coherency. Now some people are put off by that. They think it’s sloppy and wrong, but the thing that fascinated me so much was that this resembled reality more than anybody else’s writing inside or outside science fiction.”) Once you see the almost apostolic line of succession from van Vogt to Alfred Bester to Dick, the latter seems less like an anomaly within the genre than like an inextricable part of its fabric. Although he only sold one short story, “Impostor,” to John W. Campbell, Dick continued to submit to him for years, before concluding that it wasn’t the best use of his time. As Eric Leif Davin recounts in Partners in Wonder: “[Dick] said he’d rather write several first-draft stories for one cent a word than spend time revising a single story for Campbell, despite the higher pay.” And Dick recalled in his collection The Minority Report:

Horace Gold at Galaxy liked my writing whereas John W. Campbell, Jr. at Astounding considered my writing not only worthless but as he put it, “Nuts.” By and large I liked reading Galaxy because it had the broadest range of ideas, venturing into the soft sciences such as sociology and psychology, at a time when Campbell (as he once wrote me!) considered psionics a necessary premise for science fiction. Also, Campbell said, the psionic character in the story had to be in charge of what was going on.

As a result, the two men never worked closely together, although Dick had surprising affinities with the editor who believed wholeheartedly in psionics, precognition, and genetic memory, and whose magazine never ceased to play a central role in his inner life. In his biography, Carrère provides an embellished version of a recurring dream that Dick had at the age of twelve, “in which he found himself in a bookstore trying to locate an issue of Astounding that would complete his collection.” As Dick describes it in his autobiographical novel VALIS:

In the dream he again was a child, searching dusty used-book stores for rare old science fiction magazines, in particular Astoundings. In the dream he had looked through countless tattered issues, stacks upon stacks, for the priceless serial entitled “The Empire Never Ended.” If he could find it and read it he would know everything; that had been the burden of the dream.

Years later, the phrase “the empire never ended” became central to Dick’s late conviction that we were all living, without our knowledge, in the Rome of the Acts of the Apostles. But the detail that sticks with me the most is that the magazines in the dream were “in particular Astoundings.” The fan Peter Graham famously said that the real golden age of science fiction was twelve, and Dick reached that age at the end of 1940, at the peak of Campbell’s editorship. The timing was perfect for Astounding to rewire his brain forever. When Dick first had his recurring dream, he would have just finished reading a “priceless serial” that had appeared in the previous four issues of the magazine, and I’d like to think that he spent the rest of his life searching for its inconceivable conclusion. It was van Vogt’s Slan.

The Borges Test

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Note: To celebrate the World Science Fiction Convention this week in San Jose, I’m republishing a few of my favorite pieces on various aspects of the genre. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on June 21, 2017.

In his introduction to The Garden of Forking Paths, Jorge Luis Borges, who was arguably the greatest writer of speculative fiction of the twentieth century, offers a useful piece of advice:

It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books—setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that these books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them. That was Carlyle’s procedure in Sartor Resartus, Butler’s in The Fair Haven—though those works suffer under the imperfection that they themselves are books, and not a whit less tautological than the others. A more reasonable, more inept, and more lazy man, I have chosen to write notes on imaginary books. Those notes are “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” and “A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain.”

His later stories in the same vein include “Three Versions of Judas” and “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” one of my favorites, in which Borges writes: “In my spare evenings I have conceived this plot—which I will perhaps commit to paper but which already somehow justifies me.” It’s a considerate way of saving time for both the author and the reader—and it’s unfortunate that it’s become so associated with Borges that it’s hard for other writers to utilize it. And it only works for stories in which an idea, rather than characterization or style, constitutes the primary attraction.

It’s also no accident that Borges arrived at this method after years as a great reader of mystery fiction and, to a lesser extent, of science fiction and fantasy, which are the genres most vulnerable to the charge that they have nothing to offer but an idea. The most damning case against the hard science fiction epitomized by John W. Campbell’s Astounding is that many of these stories could be reduced to a paragraph of plot summary with minimal loss. Most fans, I think, can relate to the experience of being halfway through a story and impatiently skipping to the end, since the writing and characters don’t provide nearly enough incidental pleasure to justify wading through the rest. At its worst, you get the kind of scientific problem story published by Analog at its least inviting, with the reader forced to stare at names on the page and incomprehensible jargon for twenty minutes, only to be rewarded with the narrative equivalent of a word problem in a physics textbook. And this doesn’t extend to bad stories alone, but to some of the important works ever published in the genre. I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that almost all of Asimov’s robot stories could be condensed to a few sentences that lay out the situation and the solution without losing much of the experience. (A trickier example is Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which I suspect would work better as a five-page Borges story. The idea of an alternate World War II novel in which the characters are reading an alternate World War II novel about our own world, filled with plausible inaccuracies, is one that Borges would have loved. Ursula K. LeGuin famously referred to Dick as “our own homegrown Borges,” and it’s noteworthy that Dick, as an American novelist, just went ahead and wrote the whole book.)

You could say much the same of detective fiction of the locked-room variety, which exists entirely to deliver the twist, and which might work better as one of the one-minute mysteries that children consume in grade school. (“What made Encyclopedia Brown so sure? Turn to page 61 for the solution to ‘The Case of the Giant Mousetrap.’”) This frequent inability of the mystery to rise above its origins as a puzzle is part of the reason that they irritated the critic Edmund Wilson, who wrote in his famous essay “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?”:

I finally got to feel that I had to unpack large crates by swallowing the excelsior in order to find at the bottom a few bent and rusty nails…It is not difficult to create suspense by making people await a revelation, but it does demand a certain talent to come through with a criminal device which is ingenious or picturesque or amusing enough to make the reader feel that the waiting has been worth while…You cannot read such a book, you run through it to see the problem worked out.

Under such circumstances, it can be a courtesy for one reader to summarize the contents of such a story for another. Many of Borges’s best essays consist of little more than a condensed version of another book, from William Beckford’s Vathek to Farid ud-Din Attar’s The Conference of the Birds, as filtered through his unique sensibilities. And you see a similar impulse, at much lower level, when we go online to read the spoilers for a bad movie that we have no intention of ever seeing.

But when you’re a writer, particularly of mystery or science fiction, you need to constantly ask yourself why your story is better than its own summary. (If anything, this is especially true of science fiction mysteries, which is the category in which I tend to write.) One obvious answer is to make it as short as possible. There’s a grand tradition of short science fiction—one of the first anthologies I ever owned was One Hundred Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories, which I still love—and the platonic ideal is a story that takes the same amount of time to read as it would for someone to tell us the premise. The other approach is to emphasize qualities that can’t be summarized, like character, style, atmosphere, and suspense. In science fiction, my favorite example is A.E. van Vogt, whose plots defy summarization, and who justifies his existence only by making readers feel as if they’ve lived through an experience that they can’t explain. On the mystery side, Wilson hints at this when he describes the Sherlock Holmes stories as “fairy tales,” and in his consideration of Raymond Chandler, he also gets at one of the risks:

It is not simply a question here of a puzzle which has been put together but of a malaise conveyed to the reader, the horror of a hidden conspiracy that is continually turning up in the most varied and unlikely forms…It was only when I got to the end that I felt my old crime-story depression descending upon me again—because here again, as is so often the case, the explanation of the mysteries, when it comes, is neither interesting nor plausible enough.

If you can’t do either of the above, then the idea probably isn’t ready yet. That’s the Borges test. And if you decide that it would work better as a short story by Borges, you can console yourself with the fact that it’s far from alone.

Written by nevalalee

August 14, 2018 at 9:00 am

The dianetics epidemic

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Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health

Note: To celebrate the World Science Fiction Convention this week in San Jose, I’m republishing a few of my favorite pieces on various aspects of the genre. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on March 2, 2017.

In his bestselling book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell devotes several pages to discussing the breakout success of Rebecca Wells’s novel Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. After its initial release in 1996, it sold reasonably well in hardcover, receiving “a smattering of reviews,” but it became a true phenomenon in paperback, thanks primarily to what Gladwell calls “the critical role that groups play in social epidemics.” He writes:

The first bestseller list on which Ya-Ya Sisterhood appeared was the Northern California Independent Bookseller’s list. Northern California…was where seven hundred and eight hundred people first began showing up at [Wells’s] readings. It was where the Ya-Ya epidemic began. Why? Because…the San Francisco area is home to one of the country’s strongest book club cultures, and from the beginning Ya-Ya was what publishers refer to as a “book club book.” It was the kind of emotionally sophisticated, character-driven, multilayered novel that invites reflection and discussion, and book groups were flocking to it. The groups of women who were coming to Wells’s readings were members of reading groups, and they were buying extra copies not just for family and friends but for other members of the group. And because Ya-Ya was being talked about and read in groups, the book itself became that much stickier. It’s easier to remember and appreciate something, after all, if you discuss it for two hours with your best friends. It becomes a social experience, an object of conversation. Ya-Ya’s roots in book group culture tipped it into a larger word-of-mouth epidemic.

And you could say much the same thing about a very different book that became popular in California nearly five decades earlier. Scientology has exhibited an unexpected degree of staying power among a relatively small number of followers, but Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, the work that that made L. Ron Hubbard famous, was a textbook case of a viral phenomenon. Just three months elapsed between the book’s publication on May 9, 1950 and Hubbard’s climactic rally at the Shrine Auditorium on August 10, and its greatest impact on the wider culture occurred over a period of less than a year, in a dramatic spread and decline that had all the hallmarks of virality. In the definitive Hubbard biography Bare-Faced Messiah, Russell Miller writes:

For the first few days after publication of Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, it appeared as if the publisher’s caution about the book’s prospects had been entirely justified. Early indications were that it had aroused little interest; certainly it was ignored by most reviewers. But suddenly, towards the end of May, the line on the sales graph at the New York offices of Hermitage House took a steep upturn.

By midsummer, it was selling a thousand copies a day, and by late fall, over seven hundred dianetics clubs had been established across the country. As Miller writes: “Dianetics became, virtually overnight, a national ‘craze’ somewhat akin to the canasta marathons and pyramid clubs that had briefly flourished in the hysteria of postwar America.”

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

The result was a quintessential social epidemic, and I’m a little surprised that Gladwell, who is so hungry for case studies, has never mentioned it. The book itself was “sticky,” with its promise of a new science of mental health that could be used by anyone and that got results every time. Like Ya-Ya, it took root in an existing group—in this case, the science fiction community, which was the natural audience for its debut in the pages of Astounding. Just as the ideal book club selection is one that inspires conversations, dianetics was a shared experience: in order to be audited, you needed to involve at least one other person. Auditing, as the therapy was originally presented, seemed so easy that anyone could try it, and many saw it as a kind of parlor game. (In his biography of Robert A. Heinlein, William H. Patterson shrewdly compares it to the “Freuding parties” that became popular in Greenwich Village in the twenties.) Even if you didn’t want to be audited yourself, dianetics became such a topic of discussion among fans that summer that you had to read the book to be a part of it. It also benefited from the presence of what Gladwell calls mavens, connectors, and salesmen. John W. Campbell was the ultimate maven, an information broker who, as one of Gladwell’s sources puts it, “wants to solve other people’s problems, generally by solving his own.” The connectors included prominent members of the fan community, notably A.E. van Vogt, who ended up running the Los Angeles foundation, and Forrest J Ackerman, Hubbard’s agent and “the number one fan.” And the salesman was Hubbard himself, who threw himself into the book’s promotion on the West Coast. As Campbell wrote admiringly to Heinlein: “When Ron wants to, he can put on a personality that would be a confidence man’s delight—persuasive, gentle, intimately friendly.”

In all epidemics, geography plays a pivotal role, and in the case of dianetics, it had profound consequences on individual careers. One of Campbell’s priorities was to sell the therapy to his top writers, much as the Church of Scientology later reached out to movie stars, and the single greatest predictor of how an author would respond was his proximity to the centers of fan culture. Two of the most important converts were van Vogt, who was in Los Angeles, and Theodore Sturgeon, who lived in New York, where he was audited by Campbell himself. Isaac Asimov, by contrast, had moved from Manhattan to Boston just the year before, and Heinlein, crucially, had left Hollywood, where he had been working on the film Destination Moon, in February of 1950. Heinlein was intrigued by dianetics, but because he was in Colorado Springs with his wife Ginny, who refused to have anything to do with it, he was unable to find an auditing partner, which makes me wonder what might have ensued if he had remained in Southern California for another six months. (Such accidents of place and time can have significant aftereffects. Van Vogt had moved from the Ottawa area to Los Angeles in 1944, and his involvement with dianetics took him out of writing for the better part of a decade, at the very moment when science fiction was breaking into the culture as a whole. His absence during this critical period, which made celebrities out of Heinlein and Asimov, feels like a big part of the reason why van Vogt has mostly disappeared from the popular consciousness. And it might never have happened if he had stayed in Canada.) The following year, dianetics as a movement fizzled out, due largely to Hubbard’s own behavior—although he might also have sensed that it wouldn’t last. But it soon mutated into another form. And before long, Hubbard would begin to spread a few divine secrets of his own.

The doctor’s dilemma

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In 1949, when John W. Campbell and L. Ron Hubbard prepared to reveal dianetics to the world, one of their first orders of business was to recruit their fellow writers to the cause. Numerous authors—most famously Alfred Bester—have provided accounts of their efforts, and occasionally, they worked, most notably in the cases of Theodore Sturgeon and A.E. van Vogt. Another obvious prize was Isaac Asimov, with whom Campbell had perhaps the closest working relationship of any author of the time, although Asimov was arguably the writer least inclined to be sympathetic to Hubbard’s theories. He had written disparagingly in his diary of “Hubbard’s dabblings in amateur psychiatry,” and when he and L. Sprague de Camp finally read the first article on dianetics in Astounding, he was no more convinced than before: “Neither Sprague nor I were in the least impressed. I considered it gibberish.” Yet he remained unwilling to confront his old friend and mentor about it directly. After Campbell made one last attempt at a hard sell, Asimov resisted, leading the editor to complain about his “built-in doubter.” But Asimov never seems to have revealed the full extent of his contempt for dianetics, perhaps because he was afraid of risking a valued friendship, or at least an important market for his fiction. (His fears on that front may not have been justified. After Lester del Rey criticized dianetics openly in print, he was told that he would never be able to sell to the magazine again. He responded by writing up a submission and delivering it to Campbell in person. On his arrival, the editor greeted him warmly: “I guess we’re not going to talk about dianetics, are we?” And he bought the story.)

Recently, I came across a fascinating piece of evidence about Asimov’s state of mind at the time, in the form of an actual review that he wrote of the book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. (The exact provenance of this article remains a mystery to me, and I’m happy to throw it out to any readers here for help. I found the original manuscript in the Asimov collection at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, dated June 19, 1950, and a clipping of the piece is available online. Unfortunately, neither source indicates where the item first appeared, apart from the fact that it was evidently a newspaper in New York. As far as I can tell, Asimov doesn’t mention it in his memoirs, and I haven’t seen it in bibliographies of his work. My very rudimentary attempts to track it down haven’t gone anywhere, and I’ll try again when I have time, but anyone out there who cares is welcome to give it a shot.) It was published after Asimov claimed to have already dismissed Hubbard’s work as “gibberish,” but anyone looking for a similar takedown here will be disappointed. Here’s how it opens:

L. Ron Hubbard is an optimist. He believes the human being to be essentially sane and good, and the human mind to be, potentially, a perfect thinking machine. Furthermore, he proposes a new technique of mental therapy which, he claims, is so simple that it can be supervised by almost anyone who reads the book and so effective that, properly handled, it can eradicate all neuroses and most diseases.

Asimov continues with a concise but accurate description of Hubbard’s ideas, including the assertion that the patient’s memory can be brought back to “a pre-natal state,” and his treatment of it leaves little doubt that he read the book carefully.

Yet in stark contrast to his private statements and his later characterization of his response in his memoirs, Asimov bends over backward to avoid criticizing the book in any meaningful way. After a brief summary, he writes:

That the book is startling is evident, I believe, even from the short description of its contents here. It might even be dismissed out of hand as incredible were it not for the fact that Freud’s theories (to say nothing of Einstein’s and Galileo’s) must have seemed equally startling and even incredible to their contemporaries…What can one say…except that these days it is a brave man indeed who would dismiss any theory as unbelievable. The author invites investigation of his claims by psychiatrists and medical men, and it would be interesting to see what they say.

Asimov is careful to hedge his language—the article is full of phrases like “he believes,” “he proposes,” “he claims”—but the overall tone is one of studied neutrality. Every now and then, there’s a hint of his underlying skepticism, although you have to look hard to see it:

Of course, if what Hubbard claims for dianetics is true, there will be no stopping it. One man will “clear” another, until within the lifetime of those living today, all the world will be free or almost free of disease, insanity, and evil. On the other hand, if Hubbard is mistaken, we are led to the melancholy conclusion that the world will continue as is.

At first, it doesn’t seem hard to understand why Asimov was reluctant to come out against dianetics in print. He knew that Campbell was all but certain to see the review, and he appears to have written it with precisely one reader in mind. Yet there’s also a deeper tension here. The year before, Asimov had accepted a position as an instructor at the medical school at Boston University, and he would spend much of the next decade worried about his job security, as well as how his work in science fiction would be perceived. (When the dust jacket of his first novel, Pebble in the Sky, mentioned the school by name, he was nervous enough about it to speak to the dean, James Faulkner. Faulkner asked if it was a good book, and when Asimov said that his publishers thought so, the dean responded: “In that case, the medical school will be glad to be identified with it.”) Yet even at this delicate moment, he allowed his byline to appear on a review in which an instructor in biochemistry failed to express any reservations over such elements as “memories at the cellular level.” The only possible conclusion is that Asimov, remarkably, was still more concerned about what Campbell would think than about his colleagues in Boston, and it led him to remain neutral at a time in which such writers as Lester del Rey were publicly attacking dianetics. Frankly, I’m surprised that he even agreed to write the review, which could hardly have benefited him in any meaningful way. To the best of my knowledge, Asimov never explained his reasoning, or even mentioned writing it at all. For obvious reasons, it was never reprinted, and Asimov clearly preferred to forget about it. But its last lines were undeniably prescient: “It will be interesting to wait and see. It shouldn’t take more than a few years to check up on dianetics.”

The fictional sentence

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Of all the writers of the golden age of science fiction, the one who can be hardest to get your head around is A.E. van Vogt. He isn’t to everyone’s taste—many readers, to quote Alexei and Cory Panshin’s not unadmiring description, find him “foggy, semi-literate, pulpish, and dumb”—but he’s undoubtedly a major figure, and he was second only to Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov when it came to defining what science fiction became in the late thirties and early forties. (If he isn’t as well known as they are, it’s largely because he was taken out of writing by dianetics at the exact moment that the genre was breaking into the mainstream.) Part of his appeal is that his stories remain compelling and readable despite their borderline incoherence, and he was unusually open about his secret. In the essay “My Life Was My Best Science Fiction Story,” which was originally published in the volume Fantastic Lives, van Vogt wrote:

I learned to write by a system propounded in a book titled The Only Two Ways to Write a Story by John W. Gallishaw (meaning by flashback or in consecutive sequence). Gallishaw had made an in-depth study of successful stories by great authors. He observed that the best of them wrote in what he called “presentation units” of about eight hundred words. Each of these units contained five steps. And every sentence in it was a “fictional sentence.” Which means that it was written either with imagery, or emotion, or suspense, depending on the type of story.

So what did these units look like? Used copies of Gallishaw’s book currently go for well over a hundred dollars online, but van Vogt helpfully summarized the relevant information:

The five steps can be described as follows: 1) Where, and to whom, is it happening? 2) Make clear the scene purpose (What is the immediate problem which confronts the protagonist, and what does it require him to accomplish in this scene?) 3) The interaction with the opposition, as he tries to achieve the scene purpose. 4) Make the reader aware that he either did accomplish the scene purpose, or did not accomplish it. 5) In all the early scenes, whether protagonist did or did not succeed in the scene purpose, establish that things are going to get worse. Now, the next presentation unit-scene begins with: Where is all this taking place. Describe the surroundings, and to whom it is happening. And so forth.

Over the years, this formula was distorted and misunderstood, so that a critic could write something like “Van Vogt admits that he changes the direction of his plot every eight hundred words.” And even when accurately stated, it can come off as bizarre. Yet it’s really nothing more than the principle that every narrative should consist of a series of objectives, which I’ve elsewhere listed among the most useful pieces of writing advice that I know. Significantly, it’s one of the few elements of craft that can be taught and learned by example. Van Vogt learned it from Gallishaw, while I got it from David Mamet’s On Directing Film, and I’ve always seen it as a jewel of wisdom that can be passed in almost apostolic fashion from one writer to another.

When we read van Vogt’s stories, of course, we aren’t conscious of this structure, and if anything, we’re more aware of their apparent lack of form. (As John McPhee writes in his wonderful new book on writing: “Readers are not supposed to notice the structure. It is meant to be about as visible as someone’s bones.”) Yet we still keep reading. It’s that sequence of objectives that keeps us oriented through the centrifugal wildness that we associate with van Vogt’s work—and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he approached the irrational side as systematically as he did everything else. I’d heard at some point that van Vogt based many of his plots on his dreams, but it wasn’t until I read his essay that I understood what this meant:

When you’re writing, as I was, for one cent a word, and are a slow writer, and the story keeps stopping for hours or days, and your rent is due, you get anxious…I would wake up spontaneously at night, anxious. But I wasn’t aware of the anxiety. I thought about story problems—that was all I noticed then. And so back to sleep I went. In the morning, often there would be an unusual solution. All my best plot twists came in this way…It was not until July 1943 that I suddenly realized what I was doing. That night I got out our alarm clock and moved into the spare bedroom. I set the alarm to ring at one and one-half hours. When it awakened me, I reset the alarm for another one and one-half hours, thought about the problems in the story I was working on—and fell asleep. I did that altogether four times during the night. And in the morning, there was the unusual solution, the strange plot twist…So I had my system for getting to my subconscious mind.

This isn’t all that different from Salvador Dali’s advice on how to take a nap. But the final sentence is the kicker: “During the next seven years, I awakened myself about three hundred nights a year four times a night.” When I read this, I felt a greater sense of kinship with van Vogt than I have with just about any other writer. Much of my life has been spent searching for tools—from mind maps to tarot cards—that can be used to systematically incorporate elements of chance and intuition into what is otherwise a highly structured process. Van Vogt’s approach comes as close as anything I’ve ever seen to the ideal of combining the two on a reliable basis, even if we differ on some of the details. (For instance, I don’t necessarily buy into Gallishaw’s notion that every action taken by the protagonist needs to be opposed, or that the situation needs to continually get worse. As Mamet writes in On Directing Film: “We don’t want our protagonist to do things that are interesting. We want him to do things that are logical.” And that’s often enough.) But it’s oddly appropriate that we find such rules in the work of a writer who frequently came across as chronically disorganized. Van Vogt pushed the limits of form further than any other author of the golden age, and it’s hard to imagine Alfred Bester or Philip K. Dick without him. But I’m sure that there were equally visionary writers who never made it into print because they lacked the discipline, or the technical tricks, to get their ideas under control. Van Vogt’s stories always seem on the verge of flying apart, but the real wonder is that they don’t. And his closing words on the subject are useful ones indeed: “It is well to point out again that these various systems were, at base, just automatic reactions to the writing of science fiction. The left side of the brain got an overdose of fantasizing flow from the right side, and literally had to do something real.”

To be or not to be

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The Structural Differential

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on October 11, 2016.

If you’re familiar with the science fiction of the golden age, you’ve probably come across the name of Alfred Korzybski, the Polish philosopher whose ideas, known as general semantics, enjoyed a brief but intense vogue with writers and fans in the late thirties and early forties. Korzybski’s work provided the backdrop for A.E. van Vogt’s The World of Null-A and its sequels; Robert A. Heinlein mentions him by name in “Coventry” and “Gulf”; and he pops up in such stories as “The Helping Hand” by Poul Anderson and “Day of the Moron” by H. Beam Piper. He was also an important influence on L. Ron Hubbard and John W. Campbell, although both of them would have denied this. (Campbell liked to say that he was never able to get through Korzybski’s most famous book, Science and Sanity, and it’s likely that Hubbard never did, either.) And it isn’t hard to appreciate why the science fiction community found him so intriguing. General semantics was pitched as a kind of mental training program that would enhance the brain’s performance, allowing practitioners to think more clearly and move past the mental blocks that prevent us from accurately perceiving the world around us. Yet Korzybski remains relatively unknown today. Part of this is because Science and Sanity itself is such a daunting work: it’s long, repetitive, sometimes obscure, and often deeply weird. But there’s also a lot there that remains valuable to creative thinkers, if you’re willing to unearth it, and with certain qualifications, it’s still worth seeking out.

We can start with Korzybski’s most famous pronouncement, which a lot of people, including me, have quoted without fully understanding it: “The map is not the territory.” What he’s really talking about is language, which is the mental map that we use to orient ourselves as we make our way through the world. The trouble, he believes, is that the map we’ve inherited offers a flawed picture of reality. Language was developed when mankind was still in its infancy, and the inaccurate ideas that early humans had about the world are preserved in the way that we talk about it. We confuse words with their underlying objects; we take objects in isolation, when in fact they have meaning only in their relationships with others and in their place within an overall structure; we think in categories, when we’re invariably dealing with unique individuals; and we depend on preconceived ideas, rather than experience, to make our decisions. The primary culprit, Korzybski argued, was the word “is,” which always involves either a tautology or a falsehood. When we say that A is B, we’re either saying that it’s equivalent to itself, which doesn’t yield any useful information, or we’re falling prey to one of several fallacies. Either we’re saying that one unique object is identical to another; that an object is the same thing as the label we’ve given it, or to the overall class to which it belongs; or that it can be described in terms that can be agreed upon by all observers. And a moment’s reflection reveals that none of this is true.

Alfred Korzybski

Most of us, I think, will grant these points. What set Korzybski apart is that he attempted to train himself and others to systematically overcome these misconceptions, using a few misleadingly simple tricks. He advised his readers to be skeptical of any form of the verb “to be,” and that whenever they were told that something was the same as something else, they should reflexively respond: “This is not that.” The goal, he said, was “consciousness of abstracting,” or a constant, everyday awareness of how we think using different orders of abstractions. Words are not objects; objects are distinct from the inferences that we make about them; and the gap between the general and the particular means that no statement can be entirely true or false, but only probable in various degrees. To underline these points, Korzybski liked to use a model called the Structural Differential, a teaching aid fashioned out of wooden pegboards and lengths of string that were supposed to symbolize the abstracting process of the human nervous system. Students were told to study and handle it in silence, which would nonverbally remind them of the difference between an event, an object, a label, and the levels of abstraction above it. If this all sounds like an unwieldy way of seeing the world, if not a vaguely Duchampian joke, well, it is. But it’s also in service of what seems to me like a worthwhile goal: to insert a mental pause, or what Korzybski calls “the neurological delay,” before we unthinkingly respond to a statement or situation.

If we think of general semantics as an elaborate system for training us to pause to question our assumptions, it becomes a lot more comprehensible. It’s also worth noting that Korzbyski wasn’t opposed to abstraction, which he saw as a necessary tool and shortcut, but to its misuse. The ability for one generation to build on the abstractions developed by its predecessors, which he calls “time-binding,” is what separates human beings from the animals—but only if we’re good at it. Conventional language, which Korzybski associated with the followers of Aristotle, just makes it harder to pass along useful information; his non-Aristotelean approach was pitched as a more accurate reflection of reality, as well as a practical tool for generating and conveying ideas. And it’s probably worth a try. (If you don’t feel like plowing through all eight hundred pages of Science and Sanity, Korzybski advises readers to start with the shorter, self-contained section “The Mechanism of Time-Binding,” which includes most of the book’s practical advice.) Pausing before you think, interrogating your assumptions, and being conscious of your abstractions are all worthwhile goals, but they’re easier said than done: one of Korzybski’s followers later estimated that “about thirty” people had mastered it. You could argue that Korzybski overstated his case, that he exaggerated the benefits of his approach, and that he cloaked it in a lot of unnecessary pseudoscience. But he was right about the basic problem. And it’s easy to wish that we lived in a society in which we responded to all disagreements by pausing, smiling, and asking sincerely: “What do you mean?”

Written by nevalalee

January 18, 2018 at 9:00 am

The Borges Test

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In his introduction to The Garden of Forking Paths, Jorge Luis Borges, who was arguably the greatest writer of speculative fiction of the twentieth century, offers a useful piece of advice:

It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books—setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that these books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them. That was Carlyle’s procedure in Sartor Resartus, Butler’s in The Fair Haven—though those works suffer under the imperfection that they themselves are books, and not a whit less tautological than the others. A more reasonable, more inept, and more lazy man, I have chosen to write notes on imaginary books. Those notes are “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” and “A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain.”

Later stories in the same vein include “Three Versions of Judas” and “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” one of my favorites, in which Borges writes: “In my spare evenings I have conceived this plot—which I will perhaps commit to paper but which already somehow justifies me.” It’s a considerate way of saving time for both the author and the reader, and it’s unfortunate that it’s become so associated with Borges that it’s hard for other writers to utilize it without turning it into an homage. And it only works for stories in which an idea, rather than characterization or style, constitutes the primary attraction.

It’s also no accident that Borges arrived at this method after years as a great reader of mystery fiction and, to a lesser extent, of science fiction and fantasy, which are the genres most vulnerable to the charge that they have nothing to offer but an idea. The most damning case against the hard science fiction epitomized by John W. Campbell’s Astounding is that many of these stories could be reduced to a paragraph of plot summary with minimal loss. Most fans, I think, can relate to the experience of being halfway through a story and impatiently skipping to the end, since the writing and characters don’t provide nearly enough incidental pleasure to justify wading through the rest. At its worst, you get the kind of scientific problem story published by Analog at its least inviting, with the reader forced to stare at names on the page and incomprehensible jargon for twenty minutes, only to be rewarded with the narrative equivalent of a word problem in a physics textbook. And this doesn’t extend to bad stories alone, but to some of the important works ever published in the genre. I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that almost all of Asimov’s robot stories could be condensed to a few sentences that lay out the situation and the solution without losing much of the experience. (A trickier example is Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which I suspect would work better as a five-page Borges story. The idea of an alternate World War II novel in which the characters are reading an alternate World War II novel about our own world, filled with plausible inaccuracies, is one that Borges would have loved. Ursula K. LeGuin famously referred to Dick as “our own homegrown Borges,” and it’s noteworthy that Dick, as an American novelist, just went ahead and wrote the whole book.)

You could say much the same of detective fiction of the locked-room variety, which exists entirely to deliver the twist, and which might work better as one of the one-minute mysteries that children consume in grade school. (“What made Encyclopedia Brown so sure? Turn to page 61 for the solution to ‘The Case of the Giant Mousetrap.’”) This frequent inability of the mystery to rise above its origins as a puzzle is part of the reason that they irritated the critic Edmund Wilson, who wrote in his famous essay “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?”:

I finally got to feel that I had to unpack large crates by swallowing the excelsior in order to find at the bottom a few bent and rusty nails…It is not difficult to create suspense by making people await a revelation, but it does demand a certain talent to come through with a criminal device which is ingenious or picturesque or amusing enough to make the reader feel that the waiting has been worth while…You cannot read such a book, you run through it to see the problem worked out.

Under such circumstances, it can be a courtesy for one reader to summarize the contents of such a story for another. Many of Borges’s best essays consist of little more than a condensed version of another book, from William Beckford’s Vathek to Farid ud-Din Attar’s The Conference of the Birds, as filtered through his unique sensibilities. And you see a similar impulse, at much lower level, when we go online to read the spoilers for a bad movie that we have no intention of ever seeing.

But when you’re a writer, particularly of mystery or science fiction, you need to constantly ask yourself why your story is better than its own summary. (If anything, this is especially true of science fiction mysteries, which is the category in which I tend to write.) One obvious answer is to make it as short as possible. There’s a grand tradition of short science fiction—one of the first anthologies I ever owned was One Hundred Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories, which I still love—and the platonic ideal is a story that takes no longer to read than it would to be orally told the premise. The other approach is to emphasize qualities that can’t be summarized, like character, style, atmosphere, and suspense. In science fiction, my favorite example is A.E. van Vogt, whose plots defy summarization, and who justifies his existence only by making readers feel as if they’ve lived through an experience that they can’t explain. On the mystery side, Edmund Wilson hints at this when he describes the Sherlock Holmes stories as “fairy tales,” and in his consideration of Raymond Chandler, he also gets at one of the risks:

It is not simply a question here of a puzzle which has been put together but of a malaise conveyed to the reader, the horror of a hidden conspiracy that is continually turning up in the most varied and unlikely forms…It was only when I got to the end that I felt my old crime-story depression descending upon me again—because here again, as is so often the case, the explanation of the mysteries, when it comes, is neither interesting nor plausible enough.

If you can’t do either of the above, then the idea probably isn’t ready yet. That’s the Borges test. And if you decide that it would work better as a short story by Borges, you can console yourself with the fact that it’s far from alone.

Written by nevalalee

June 21, 2017 at 9:10 am

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