Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Analog Science Fiction and Fact

The bedtime story

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Earlier this morning, I finally got my hands on the companion book to James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction, which is airing this month on AMC. Naturally, I immediately looked for references to the four main subjects of Astounding, and the passage that caught my eye first was an exchange between Cameron and Steven Spielberg:

Spielberg: The working title of E.T. was Watch the Skies. Which is sort of the last line from The Thing. I just remember looking at the sky because of the influence of my father, and saying, only good should come from that. If it ain’t an ICBM coming from the Soviet Union, only good should come from beyond our gravitational hold…He was a visionary about that, yet he read all the Analog. Those paperbacks? And Amazing Stories, the paperbacks of that. I used to read that along with him. Sometimes, he’d read those books to me, those little tabloids to me at night.

Cameron: Asimov, Heinlein, all those guys were all published in those pulp magazines.

Spielberg: They were all published in those magazines, and a lot of them were optimists. They weren’t always calculating our doom. They were finding ways to open up our imagination and get us to dream and get us to discover and get us to contribute to the greater good.

The discussion quickly moves on to other subjects, but not before hinting at the solution to a mystery that I’ve been trying to figure out for years, which is why the influence of Astounding and its authors can be so hard to discern in the work of someone like Spielberg. In part, it’s a matter of timing. Spielberg was born in 1946, which means that he would have been thirteen when John W. Campbell announced that that his magazine was changing its title to Analog. As a result, at a point at which he should have been primed to devour science fiction, Spielberg doesn’t seem to have found its current incarnation all that interesting, for which you can hardly blame him. Instead, his emotional associations with the pulps were evidently passed down through his father, Arnold Spielberg, an electrical engineer who worked for General Electric and RCA. The elder Spielberg, remarkably, is still active at the age of 101, and just two months ago, he said in an interview with GE Reports:

I was also influenced by science fiction. There were twins in our neighborhood who read one of the first sci-fi magazines, called Astounding Stories of Science and Fact. They gave me one copy, and when I brought it home, I was hooked. The magazine is now called Analog Science Fiction and Fact, and I still get it.

And while I don’t think that there’s any way of verifying it, if Arnold Spielberg—the father of Steven Spielberg—isn’t the oldest living subscriber to Analog, he must be close.

This sheds light on his son’s career, although perhaps not in the way that you might think. Spielberg is such a massively important figure that his very existence realigns the history of the genre, and when he speaks of his influences, we need to be wary of the shadow cast by his inescapable personality. But there’s no denying the power—and truth—of the image of Arnold Spielberg reading from the pulps aloud to his son. It feels like an image from one of Spielberg’s own movies, which has been shaped from the beginning by the tradition of oral storytelling. (It’s worth noting, though, that the father might recall things differently than the son. In his biography of the director, Joseph McBride quotes Arnold Spielberg: “I’ve been reading science fiction since I was seven years old, all the way back to the earliest Amazing Stories. Amazing, Astounding, Analog—I still subscribe. I still read ’em. My kids used to complain, ‘Dad’s in the bathroom with a science-fiction magazine. We can’t get in.'”) For Spielberg, the stories seem inextricably linked with the memory of being taken outside by his father to look at the stars:

My father was the one that introduced me to the cosmos. He’s the one who built—from a big cardboard roll that you roll rugs on—a two-inch reflecting telescope with an Edmund Scientific kit that he had sent away for. [He] put this telescope together, and then I saw the moons of Jupiter. It was the first thing he pointed out to me. I saw the rings of Saturn around Saturn. I’m six, seven years old when this all happened.

Spielberg concludes: “Those were the stories, and just looking up at the sky, that got me to realize, if I ever get a chance to make a science fiction movie, I want those guys to come in peace.”

But it also testifies to the ways in which a strong personality will take exactly what it needs from its source material. Elsewhere in the interview, there’s another intriguing reference:

Spielberg: I always go for the heart first. Of course, sometimes I go for the heart so much I get a little bit accused of sentimentality, which I’m fine [with] because…sometimes I need to push it a little further to reach a little deeper into a society that is a little less sentimental than they were when I was a young filmmaker.

Cameron: You pushed it in the same way that John W. Campbell pushed science fiction [forward] from the hard-tech nerdy guys who had to put PhD after their name to write science fiction. It was all just about the equations and the math and the physics [and evolved to become much more] human stories [about] the human heart.

I see what Cameron is trying to say here, but if you’ve read enough of the magazine that turned into Analog, this isn’t exactly the impression that it leaves. It’s true that Campbell put a greater emphasis than most of his predecessors on characterization, at least in theory, but the number of stories that were about “the human heart” can be counted on two hands, and none were exactly Spielbergian—although they might seem that way when filtered through the memory of his father’s voice. And toward the end, the nerds took over again. In Dangerous Visions, which was published in 1967, Harlan Ellison wrote of “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.” It was the latter version of the magazine that Spielberg would have seen as a boy—which may be why, when the time came, he made a television show called Amazing Stories.

Changing the future

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Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction is now scheduled to be released on October 23, 2018. It was originally slated for August 14, but my publisher recently raised the possibility of pushing it back, and we agreed on the new date earlier this week. Why the change? Well, it’s a good thing. This is a big book—by one estimate, we’re looking at close to five hundred pages, including endnotes, back matter, and index—and it needs time to be edited, typeset, and put into production. We could also use the extra nine weeks to get it into bookstores and into the hands of reviewers, and rescheduling it for the fall puts us in a better position. The one downside, at least from my point of view, is that now we’ll be coming out in a corridor that is always packed with major releases, and it’s going to be challenging for us to stand out. (It’s also just two weeks before the midterm elections, and I’m worried about how much bandwidth readers will have to think about anything else.) But everybody involved seems to think that we can handle it, and I have no reason to doubt their enthusiasm or expertise.

In short, if you’ve been looking forward to reading Astounding, you’ll have to wait two months longer. (Apart from an upcoming round of minor edits, by the way, the book is basically finished.) In the meantime, at the end of this month, I’m attending the academic conference “Grappling With the Futures” at Harvard and Boston University, where I’ll be delivering a presentation on the evolution of psychohistory alongside the scholar Emmanuelle Burton. The July/August issue of Analog will feature “The Campbell Machine,” a modified excerpt from the book, including a lot of material that won’t appear anywhere else, about one of the most significant incidents in John W. Campbell’s life—the tragic death of his stepson, which encouraged his interest in psionics and culminated in his support of the Hieronymus Machine. And I’m hopeful that a piece about Campbell’s role in the development of dianetics will appear elsewhere in the fall. I’ve also confirmed that I’ll be a program participant at the upcoming World Science Fiction Convention in San Jose, which runs from August 16 to 20. At one point, I’d planned to have the book in stores by then, which isn’t quite how it worked out. But if you run into me there, ask me for a copy. If I have one handy, it’s yours.

The dawn of man

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Note: To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which held its premiere on April 2, 1968, I’ll be spending the week looking at various aspects of what remains the greatest science fiction movie ever made.

Almost from the moment that critics began to write about 2001, it became fashionable to observe that the best performance in the movie was by an actor playing a computer. In his review in Analog, for example, P. Schuyler Miller wrote:

The actors, except for the gentle voice of HAL, are thoroughly wooden and uninteresting, and I can’t help wondering whether this isn’t Kubrick’s subtle way of suggesting that the computer is really more “human” than they and fully justified in trying to get rid of them before they louse up an important mission. Someday we may know whether the theme of this part is a Clarke or a Kubrick contribution. I suspect it was the latter…perhaps just because Stanley Kubrick is said to like gadgets.

This criticism is often used to denigrate the other performances or the film’s supposed lack of humanity, but I prefer to take it as a tribute to the work of actor Douglas Rain, Kubrick and Clarke’s script, and the brilliant design of HAL himself. The fact that a computer is the character we remember best isn’t a flaw in the movie, but a testament to its skill and imagination. And as I’ve noted elsewhere, the acting is excellent—it’s just so understated and naturalistic that it seems vaguely incongruous in such spectacular settings. (Compare it to the performances in Destination Moon, for instance, and you see how good Keir Dullea and William Sylvester really are here.)

But I also think that the best performance in 2001 isn’t by Douglas Rain at all, but by Vivian Kubrick, in her short appearance on the phone as Heywood Floyd’s daughter. It’s a curious scene that breaks many of the rules of good storytelling—it doesn’t lead anywhere, it’s evidently designed to do nothing but show off a piece of hardware, and it peters out even as we watch it. The funniest line in the movie may be Floyd’s important message:

Listen, sweetheart, I want you to tell mommy something for me. Will you remember? Well, tell mommy that I telephoned. Okay? And that I’ll try to telephone tomorrow. Now will you tell her that?

But that’s oddly true to life as well. And when I watch the scene today, with a five-year-old daughter of my own, it seems to me that there’s no more realistic little girl in all of movies. (Kubrick shot the scene himself, asking the questions from offscreen, and there’s a revealing moment when the camera rises to stay with Vivian as she stands. This is sometimes singled out as a goof, although there’s no reason why a sufficiently sophisticated video phone wouldn’t be able to track her automatically.) It’s a scene that few other films would have even thought to include, and now that video chat is something that we all take for granted, we can see through the screen to the touchingly sweet girl on the other side. On some level, Kubrick simply wanted his daughter to be in the movie, and you can’t blame him.

At the time, 2001 was criticized as a soulless hunk of technology, but now it seems deeply human, at least compared to many of its imitators. Yesterday in the New York Times, Bruce Handy shared a story from Keir Dullea, who explained why he breaks the glass in the hotel room at the end, just before he comes face to face with himself as an old man:

Originally, Stanley’s concept for the scene was that I’d just be eating and hear something and get up. But I said, “Stanley, let me find some slightly different way that’s kind of an action where I’m reaching—let me knock the glass off, and then in mid-gesture, when I’m bending over to pick it up, let me hear the breathing from that bent-over position.” That’s all. And he says, “Oh, fine. That sounds good.” I just wanted to find a different way to play the scene than blankly hearing something. I just thought it was more interesting.

I love this anecdote, not just because it’s an example of an evocative moment that arose from an actor’s pragmatic considerations, but because it feels like an emblem of the production of the movie as a whole. 2001 remains the most technically ambitious movie of all time, but it was also a project in which countless issues were being figured out on the fly. Every solution was a response to a specific problem, and it covered a dizzying range of challenges—from the makeup for the apes to the air hostess walking upside down—that might have come from different movies entirely.

2001, in short, was made by hand—and it’s revealing that many viewers assume that computers had to be involved, when they didn’t figure in the process at all. (All of the “digital” readouts on the spacecraft, for instance, were individually animated, shot on separate reels of film, and projected onto those tiny screens on set, which staggers me even to think about it. And even after all these years, I still can’t get my head around the techniques behind the Star Gate sequence.) It reminds me, in fact, of another movie that happens to be celebrating an anniversary this year. As a recent video essay pointed out, if the visual effects in Jurassic Park have held up so well, it’s because most of them aren’t digital at all. The majority consist of a combination of practical effects, stop motion, animatronics, raptor costumes, and a healthy amount of misdirection, with computers used only when absolutely necessary. Each solution is targeted at the specific problems presented by a snippet of film that might last just for a few seconds, and it moves so freely from one trick to another that we rarely have a chance to see through it. It’s here, not in A.I., that Spielberg got closest to Kubrick, and it hints at something important about the movies that push the technical aspects of the medium. They’re often criticized for an absence of humanity, but in retrospect, they seem achingly human, if only because of the total engagement and attention that was required for every frame. Most of their successors lack the same imaginative intensity, which is a greater culprit than the use of digital tools themselves. Today, computers are used to create effects that are perfect, but immediately forgettable. And one of the wonderful ironies of 2001 is that it used nothing but practical effects to create a computer that no viewer can ever forget.

Astounding Stories #21: Black Man’s Burden

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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

“This never gets old,” T’Challa says in Black Panther, just before we see the nation of Wakanda in its full glory for the first time. It’s perhaps the most moving moment in this often overwhelmingly emotional film, and it speaks to how much of its power hinges on the idea of Wakanda itself. Most fictional countries in the movies—a disproportionate number of which seem to be located in Africa, South America, or the Middle East—are narrative evasions, but not here. As Ishaan Tharoor wrote recently in the Washington Post:

Wakanda, like many places in Africa, is home to a great wealth of natural resources. But unlike most places in Africa, it was able to avoid European colonization. Shielded by the powers of vibranium, the element mined beneath its surface that enabled the country to develop the world’s most advanced technology, Wakanda resisted invaders while its rulers constructed a beautiful space-age kingdom.

Or as the writer Evan Narcisse observed elsewhere to the Post: “Wakanda represents this unbroken chain of achievement of black excellence that never got interrupted by colonialism.” It’s imaginary, yes, but that’s part of the point. In his review, Anthony Lane of The New Yorker delivered a gentle rebuke: “I wonder what weight of political responsibility can, or should, be laid upon anything that is accompanied by buttered popcorn. Vibranium is no more real than the philosopher’s stone…Are 3-D spectacles any more reliable than rose-tinted ones, when we seek to imagine an ideal society?” But the gap between dreams and reality is precisely how the best science fiction—and Black Panther, along with so much else, is a kickass science fiction movie—compels us to see the world with new eyes.

The fiction published by the editor John W. Campbell rarely tackled issues of race directly, and the closest that it ever came was probably a series that began with Black Man’s Burden, the first installment of which ran in the December 1961 issue of Analog. It revolves around a coalition of African-American academics working undercover to effect social and political change in North Africa, with the ultimate goal of uniting the region in the scientific and cultural values of the West. The protagonist is a sociologist named Homer Crawford, who explains:

The distrust of the European and the white man as a whole was prevalent, especially here in Africa. However, and particularly in Africa, the citizens of the new countries were almost unbelievably uneducated, untrained, incapable of engineering their own destiny…We of the Reunited Nations teams are here because we are Africans racially but not nationally, we have no affiliations with clan, tribe, or African nation. We are free to work for Africa’s progress without prejudice. Our job is to remove obstacles wherever we find them. To break up log jams. To eliminate prejudices against the steps that must be taken if Africa is to run down the path of progress, rather than to crawl.

All of this is explained to the reader at great length. There’s some effective action, but much of the story consists of the characters talking, and if these young black intellectuals all end up sounding a lot like John W. Campbell, that shouldn’t be surprising—the author, Mack Reynolds, later said that the story and its sequels “were written at a suggestion of John Campbell’s and whole chunks of them were based on his ideas.” Many sections are taken verbatim from the editor’s letters and editorials, ranging from his musings on judo, mob psychology, and the virtues of the quarterstaff to blanket statements that border on the unforgivable: “You know, with possibly a few exceptions, you can’t enslave a man if he doesn’t want to be a slave…The majority of Jefferson’s slaves wanted to be slaves.”

We’re obviously a long way from Wakanda here—but although Black Man’s Burden might seem easy to hate, oddly enough, it isn’t. Mack Reynolds, who had lived in North Africa, was a talented writer, and the serial as a whole is intelligent, restrained, consistently interesting, and mindful of the problems with its own premise. To encourage the locals to reject tribalism in favor of modern science, medicine, and education, for instance, the team attributes many of its ideas to a fictional savior figure, El Hassan, on the theory that such societies “need a hero,” and by the end, Homer Crawford has reluctantly assumed the role himself. (There are shades not just of T.E. Lawrence but of Paul Atreides, whose story would appear in the magazine just two years later.) But he has few illusions about the nature of his work. As one of his colleagues puts it in the sequel:

Monarchies are of the past, and El Hassan is the voice of the future, something new. We won’t admit he’s just a latter-day tyrant, an opportunist seizing power because it’s there crying to be seized. Actually, El Hassan is in the tradition of Genghis Khan, Temerlane, or, more recently, Napoleon. But he’s a modern version, and we’re not going to hang the old labels on him.

Crawford mordantly responds: “As a young sociologist, I never expected to wind up a literal tyrant.” And Reynolds doesn’t pretend to offer easy solutions. The sequel, Border, Breed, Nor Birth, closes with a bleak denial of happy endings, while the concluding story, “Black Sheep Astray,” ends with Crawford, overthrown after a long rule as El Hassan, returning to start a new revolution among the younger generation, at the likely cost of his life. The leads are drawn with considerable care—even if Reynolds has a bad habit of saying that they look “surprisingly like” Joe Louis or Lena Horne—and their mere presence in Analog is striking enough that one prominent scholar has used it to question Samuel R. Delany’s claim that Campbell rejected one of his stories because “his readership would be able to relate to a black main character.”

Yet this overlooks the fact that an ambitious, messy, uncategorizable novel like Delany’s Nova is worlds apart from a serial that was commissioned and written to Campbell’s specifications. And its conceptual and literary limitations turn out to be closely related. Black Man’s Burden is constructed with diligence and real craft, but this doesn’t make its basic premise any more tenable. It interrogates many of its assumptions, but it doesn’t really question the notion of a covert operation to shape another country’s politics through propaganda, guerrilla action, and the assimilation of undercover agents into the local population. This isn’t science fiction. It’s what intelligence agencies on both sides were doing throughout the Cold War. (If anything, the whisper campaign for El Hassan seems primitive by contemporary standards. These days, the plan would include data analysis, viral messaging in support of favored policies or candidates, and the systematic weaponization of social media on the part of foreign nationals. What would be wrong with that?) By the story’s own logic, the project has to be run by black activists because the locals are suspicious of white outsiders, but there’s no suggestion that their underlying goals are any different—and if the same story would be unthinkable with a white protagonist, it implies that it has problems here that can’t be addressed with a change of race. It’s also characteristically evasive when it comes to how psychohistory actually works. Reading it again, I found myself thinking of what William Easterly writes in The White Man’s Burden:

A Planner thinks he already knows the answers; he thinks of poverty as a technical engineering problem that his answers will solve. A Searcher admits he doesn’t know the answers in advance…A Planner believes outsiders know enough to impose solutions. A Searcher believes only insiders have enough knowledge to find solutions, and that most solutions must be homegrown.

Planners still exist in foreign aid—but they can also edit magazines. Campbell was one of them. Black Man’s Burden was his idea of how to deal with race in Analog, even as he failed to make any effort to look for black writers who knew about the subject firsthand. And it worked about as well here as it did anywhere else.

Looking at “The Spires,” Part 1

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Note: Over the next three days, I’ll be discussing the origins of my novelette “The Spires,” the lead story for the March/April 2018 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. You can purchase a copy and read a long excerpt of it here.  

On December 1, 2015, give or take a few days, I was browsing in my local thrift store when I came across a copy of the book Alaska Bush Pilots in the Float Country by Archie Satterfield. As I’ve noted elsewhere, it struck me at once that the subject matter would make a decent foundation for a short story—the time and place were evocative, the material was available but obscure, and the pilots that it described were the epitome of the competent men that so much science fiction uncritically celebrates. (I’ve become more skeptical of the whole idea, but that doesn’t mean that I won’t use it in the service of a larger narrative.) After some dithering, I bought the book, even though I knew that I wouldn’t be able to use it right away. As it turned out, it sat on my shelf for close to a year before I picked it up again, and as it turned out, that delay profoundly affected the result. A story is the product of whatever constellation of influences and interests happens to be in a writer’s head at a particular moment, and the version that emerges on a given day might differ considerably from the one that crystallizes a few months later, even if the starting point was exactly the same. In my case, between buying the book and writing the story, not only had I begun the research for Astounding, but I’d spent months doing nothing else but reading science fiction from the golden age. In a few weeks, I would take the plunge into the first draft. And it seemed to me that if I was going to write a story in the meantime, I might as well turn it into an homage to the authors and stories I’d been reading.

First, however, I had to decide what it was about. As I had expected, Alaska Bush Pilots furnished me with an abundance of good material, and I ended up focusing on the chapter about a pilot named Frank Barr who was active in the early thirties. In late 1932, he was stranded for a month at Wolfe Lake, about fifty miles north of Anchorage, when high winds overturned his plane on the ice. Here’s how Satterfield describes the scene:

A steel cabane strut holding the upper wing to the fuselage was buckled. The plastic windshield was broken. Several ribs in the wings were broken and flattened. The fabric covering was ripped in several places. The top of the rudder was smashed. Worst of all, the propeller had about six inches broken off one tip…He started on the wing. He flattened a gas can and nailed one edge to the top of the wing spar, then curled it over the leading edge and fastened it to the bottom of the spar. He patched the broken windshield by drilling holes along both sides of the break and lacing them together. He straightened out the cabane strut and dug an axe handle out of his supplies and lashed it to the strut as a splint…There was no prop-balancing machine nearer than Juneau, over the mountains in Alaska. So he did the next best thing. He made a paper pattern of the broken tip, which gave him an idea of where to begin cutting off the good tip. He smoothed down the rough edges of the broken tip and hoped he was at least close on his estimate.

This was obviously great stuff, and I used a lot of it, along with biographical information about another pilot named Shell Simmons, who provided much of the backstory for the character I eventually called Bill Lawson.

At this point, I knew that I was writing a story about a bush pilot who gets lost in the middle of nowhere, but I didn’t know what he was doing there. Under most circumstances, I would have turned to see what my favorite science magazines had to say about Alaska, but this time, I decided to take a different approach. I had always been vaguely aware of the work of the paranormal researcher Charles Fort, but I had recently been reminded of him by such stories as Heinlein’s “Goldfish Bowl” and, above all, Eric Frank Russell’s Sinister Barrier, which I’d feel comfortable ranking these days as my favorite science fiction novel of all time. Instead of Discover or Scientific American, then, I did a quick search for Alaska in the online edition of Fort’s complete works. There weren’t as many references to it as I had expected, but I did come up with a section from Fort’s book New Lands that eventually became the epigraph to “The Spires”:

In the English Mechanic, Sept. 10, 1897, a correspondent to the Weekly Times and Echo is quoted. He had just returned from the Yukon. Early in June, 1897, he had seen a city pictured in the sky of Alaska. “Not one of us could form the remotest idea in what part of the world this settlement could be. Some guessed Toronto, others Montreal, and one of us even suggested Peking. But whether this city exists in some unknown world on the other side of the North Pole, or not, it is a fact that this wonderful mirage occurs from time to time yearly, and we were not the only ones who witnessed the spectacle. Therefore it is evident that it must be the reflection of some place built by the hand of man.” According to this correspondent, the “mirage” did not look like one of the cities named, but like “some immense city of the past.”

Fort relates that the silent city was first described by a prospector named Dick Willoughby, who, after repeated attempts, actually succeeded in taking a picture of it. After quoting an earlier account of the story by the author Miner Bruce, Fort notes dryly: “Bruce publishes a reproduction of Willoughby’s photograph, and says that the city was identified as Bristol, England. So definite, or so un-mirage-like, is this reproduction, trees and many buildings shown in detail, that one supposes that the original was a photograph of a good-sized terrestrial city, perhaps Bristol, England.” As I looked at the picture itself, which I managed to track down online, it seemed to me that I had a decent beginning, and I began to research possible causes. There were plenty of rational explanations for what Willoughby claimed to have glimpsed, but they weren’t particularly interesting. The fact that so many otherwise reliable observers had described the apparition as a city was enough for me to argue—at least within the context of a story—that it was something other than a mirage, and the fact that it had been compared variously to Bristol, Toronto, Montreal, Peking and “some immense city of the past” suggested that it was really like none of the above. (I was influenced by the famous red herring in Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” in which a voice is reported by different witnesses to be that of a German, an Englishman, or a Russian. It’s actually an orangutan.) At some point, I came up with the idea that the city in the sky was the image, cast backward in time, of some future structure or scientific project based in Alaska, which the witnesses were unable to identify because they had never seen anything like it. All that remained was to figure out what the source of this mirage might be. It didn’t take me long to come up with an answer—and when I did, I really, really didn’t like it. But as I’ll explain tomorrow, I ended up using it anyway.

Exploring “The Proving Ground,” Part 3

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Alfred Hitchcock

Note: My novella “The Proving Ground,” which was first published in the January/February 2017 issue of Analog, is being reprinted this month in Lightspeed Magazine. It will also be appearing in the upcoming edition of The Year’s Best Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois, and is a finalist for the Analytical Laboratory award for Best Novella. This post on the story’s conception and writing originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on January 11, 2017. 

In the famous book-length interview Hitchcock/Truffaut, the director François Truffaut observes of The Birds: “This happens to be one picture, I think, in which the public doesn’t try to anticipate. They merely suspect that the attacks by the birds are going to become increasingly serious. The first part is an entirely normal picture with psychological overtones, and it is only at the end of each scene that some clue hints at the potential menace of the birds.” And Alfred Hitchcock’s response is very revealing:

I had to do it that way because the public’s curiosity was bound to be aroused by the articles in the press and the reviews, as well as by the word-of-mouth talk about the picture. I didn’t want the public to become too impatient about the birds, because that would distract them from the personal story of the two central characters. Those references at the end of each scene were my way of saying, “Just be patient. They’re coming soon.”

Hitchcock continues: “This is why we have an isolated attack on Melanie by a sea gull, why I was careful to put a dead bird outside the schoolteacher’s house at night, and also why we put the birds on the wires when the girl drives away from the house in the evening. All of this was my way of saying to the audience, ‘Don’t worry, they’re coming. The birds are on their way!’”

I kept this advice constantly in mind while plotting “The Proving Ground,” which is the closest that I’ve come to an outright homage to another work of art. (My novelette “Inversus” contains many references to Through the Looking-Glass, but the plot doesn’t have anything in common with the book, and the parallels between “The Whale God” and George Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant” didn’t emerge until that story was almost finished.) I knew that I had to quote from the movie directly, if only to acknowledge my sources and make it clear that I wasn’t trying to put anything over on the reader, which is also why I open it with an epigraph from Daphne du Maurier’s original short story. When I tried to figure out where to put those references, however, I realized that it wasn’t just a matter of paying tribute to my inspiration, but of drawing upon the very useful solutions that Hitchcock and screenwriter Evan Hunter had developed for the same set of problems. Any story about a series of bird attacks is going to confront similar challenges. You have to build up to it slowly, saving the most exciting moments for the second half, which leaves you with the tricky question of what to do in the meantime. Hitchcock and Hunter had clearly thought about this carefully, and by laying in analogous beats at approximately the same points, I was able to benefit from the structure that they had already discovered. “The Proving Ground” follows The Birds overtly in only a handful of places—the first attack on Haley, the sight of the birds perching on the trellises of the wind tower, the noiseless attack in the supply shed, the mass assault on the seastead, and Haley inching through the silent ranks of birds at the end. But they all occur at moments that play a specific role in the story.

Tippi Hedren in The Birds

The result taught me a lot about the nature of homage. I was well aware that “The Proving Ground” wasn’t the first attempt to draw on The Birds to deliver an environmental message, and I even thought about including an explicit reference to Birdemic, which is one of my favorite bad movies. If there’s a difference between the two, and I hope that there is, it’s that I ended up at The Birds in a roundabout fashion, after realizing that it lent itself nicely to the setting and themes at which I had independently arrived. At that point, I had already filled out much of the background, so I was able to use Hitchcock’s movie as a kind of organizing principle to keep this unwieldy mass of material under control. It wasn’t until I actually sat down and started to write it that I realized how big it was going to be: it became a novella, although just barely, and the longest thing I’d ever published in Analog. This was partially due to the fact that the background had to be unusually detailed, and the story would only make sense if I devoted sufficient space to the geography of the Marshall Islands, its environmental situation, and the physical layout of the seastead. I also had to sketch in the political situation and provide some historical context, not just because it was interesting in itself, but because it clarified the logic behind the protagonist’s actions—the Marshallese have had to deal with the problem of reparations before, and Haley is very mindful of this. This meant adding several thousand words to a story that might have played just as well as a novelette, at least from the point of view of pure action, and I found that the structure I borrowed from Hitchcock allowed it to read as a unified whole, rather than as a collection of disparate ideas united only by the setting.

This became particularly helpful after the circle of associations expanded yet again, to encompass the history of the atomic bomb tests that the United States government conducted at Bikini Atoll. I hadn’t planned to set the story on Bikini itself, but it eventually became clear that it was the obvious setting, simply from the point of view of the logistics of the seastead. An atoll provides a natural breakwater against waves—Bikini is even mentioned by name in the relevant section in Patri Friedman’s book on seasteading—and the location had other advantages: it was uninhabited but livable, with plenty of infrastructure and equipment left behind from the nuclear tests. Placing the seastead there added another level of resonance to the story, and instead of trying to reconcile the different elements, I ended up placing the components from The Birds side by side with the material about Bikini, just to see what happened. As it turned out, the two halves complemented each other in surprising ways, and I didn’t need to tease out the connections. “The Proving Ground,” as the title implies, is about a proof of concept: the Marshall Islands were chosen for Operation Crossroads because they were remote and politically vulnerable, and they end up as a test case for the seastead for similar reasons. Haley tries to use the lessons of the first incident to guide her response to the second, but the birds have other plans. In both du Maurier and Hitchcock, the attacks are left unexplained, while in this story, they’re an unanticipated side effect of a technological solution to a social and ecological problem. Any attempt at an explanation would have ruined the earlier versions, but I think it’s necessary here. The birds are an accidental but inevitable consequence of a plan that initially failed to take them into account. And that’s how they ended up in this story, too.

Exploring “The Proving Ground,” Part 1

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The Seasteading Institute

Note: My novella “The Proving Ground,” which was first published in the January/February 2017 issue of Analog, is being reprinted this month in Lightspeed Magazine. It will also be appearing in the upcoming edition of The Year’s Best Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois, and is a finalist for the Analytical Laboratory award for Best Novella. This post on the story’s conception and writing originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on January 9, 2017. 

Usually, whenever I start working on a story, I try to begin with as few preconceptions about it as possible. Years ago, in a post called “The Anthropic Principle of Fiction,” I made the argument that the biggest, most obvious elements of the narrative—the setting, the characters, the theme—should be among the last things that the writer figures out, and that the overall components should all be chosen with an eye to enabling a pivotal revelation toward the end. This isn’t true of all plots, of course, but for the sort of scientific puzzle stories in which I’ve come to specialize, it’s all but essential. Mystery writers grasp this intuitively, but it can be harder to accept in science fiction, perhaps because we’ve been trained to think in terms of worldbuilding from an initial premise, rather than reasoning backward from the final result. But both are equally legitimate approaches, if followed with sufficient logic and imagination. As I wrote in my first treatment of the subject:

Readers will happily accept almost any premise when it’s introduced in the first few pages, but as the story continues, they’ll grow increasingly skeptical of any plot element that doesn’t seem to follow from that initial set of rules—so you’d better make sure that the world in which the story takes place has been fine-tuned to allow whatever implausibilities you later decide to include.

Which led me to formulate a general rule: The largest elements of the story should be determined by its least plausible details.

I still believe this. For “The Proving Ground,” however, I broke that rule, along with an even more important one: it’s the first and only story that I’ve ever written around an explicit political theme. Any discussion of this novella, then, has to begin with the disclaimer that I don’t recommend writing this way—and if the result works at all, it’s because of good luck and more work than I ever hope to invest in a short story again. (I write most of my stories in about two weeks, but “The Proving Ground” took twice that long.) Fortunately, it came out of a confluence of factors that seem unlikely to repeat themselves. A friend of mine was hoping to write a series of freelance editorials about climate change, and she asked me to come on board as a kind of unofficial consultant. She began by giving me a reading list, and I spent about a month working my way through such books as The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein, Windfall by McKenzie Funk, and Don’t Even Think About It by George Marshall. Ultimately, we didn’t end up working together, mostly because we each got distracted by other projects. But it allowed me to think at length about what I still believe is the central issue of our time, and even though I didn’t come away with any clear answers, it provided me with plenty of story material. Climate change has been a favorite subject of science fiction for decades, but the result tends to take place after sea levels have already risen, and I wanted to write something that was in my wheelhouse—a story set in the present or near future that tackled the theme using the tools of suspense.

Windfall by McKenzie Funk

I ended up focusing on an idea that I first encountered in Funk’s Windfall. The Marshall Islands are among the countries that are the most threatened by global warming, as well as one of the most likely beneficiaries of climate-change reparations from more developed nations. In order to qualify for reparations, however, they have to fulfill the legal definition of a country, which means that they need to have land—when it’s precisely for the loss of that land that they hope to be compensated. It’s easy to imagine them caught in a regulatory twilight zone, with rising sea levels erasing their territory, while also depriving them of the sovereign status from which they could initiate proceedings in the international court system. Funk does a nice job of laying out the dilemma, and it could lead to any number of stories. A different writer, for instance, might have taken it as the basis for a dark, bitter satire. That isn’t a mode in which I’m comfortable operating, though, and I was more intrigued by another detail, which is that one of the proposed solutions to the territorial problem is a seastead, or an artificial island that would allow the Marshallese to maintain their claim to statehood. This struck me as a good backdrop for whatever story I ended up writing, and although I could have started it at a point in which a seastead had already been built, it seemed more promising to begin when it was still under construction. Science fiction is often structured around a major engineering project, both because it allows for future technology to be described in a fairly organic way and because it can be used to create the interim objectives and crises that a story needs to keep moving. (It also provides a convenient stage on which the competent man—or woman—can shine.)

I decided, then, that this was going to be a story about the construction of a seastead in the Marshall Islands, which was pretty specific. There was also plenty of available but obscure background material, ranging from general treatments of the idea in books like The Millennial Project by Marshall T. Savage—which had been sitting unread on my shelf for years—to detailed proposals for seasteads in the real world. (The obvious example is The Seasteading Institute, a libertarian pipe dream funded by Peter Thiel, who has since gone on to even more dubious ventures. But it generated a lot of useful proposals and plans along the way, as long as you treat it as the legwork for a science fiction story, rather than as a project on which you’re hoping to get someone to actually spend fifty billion dollars.) As I continued to read, however, I became uncomfortably aware that I had broken my one rule. Instead of working backward from a climax, I was moving forward from a setting, on the assumption that I’d find something in my research that I could turn into a proper story. It isn’t impossible, but it also isn’t an approach that I’d recommend: not only does it double the investment of time required, but it increases the chances that you’ll distort the facts to fit them into the framework that you’ve imposed on yourself. In this instance, I think I pulled it off, but there’s no guarantee that I will again. “The Proving Ground” took a lot of wrong turns, and it was only through sheer good fortune that I was able to find a story that I felt able to write. Tomorrow, I’ll talk more about how I nearly followed one potential premise into a dead end, and how I found myself writing the story, to my surprise, as an homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.

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