Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Arthur C. Clarke

A Hawk From a Handsaw, Part 3

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Hermann Göring with falcon

Over the last few days, I’ve been doing my best Robert Anton Wilson impression, and, like him, I’ve been seeing hawks everywhere. Science fiction is full of them. Skylark of Space, which is arguably the story that kicked off the whole business in the first place, was written by E.E. Smith and his friend Lee Hawkins Garby, who is one of those women who seem to have largely fallen out of the history of the genre. Then there’s Hawk Carse, the main character of a series of stories, written for Astounding by editors Harry Bates and Desmond W. Hall, that have become synonymous with bad space opera. And you’ve got John W. Campbell himself, who was described as having “hawklike” features by the fan historian Sam Moskowitz, and who once said of his own appearance: “I haven’t got eyes like a hawk, but the nose might serve.” (Campbell also compared his looks to those of The Shadow and, notably, Hermann Göring, an enthusiastic falconer who loved hawks.) It’s all a diverting game, but it gets at a meaningful point. When Wilson’s wife objected to his obsession with the 23 enigma, pointing out that he was just noticing that one number and ignoring everything else, Wilson could only reply: “Of course.” But continued to believe in it as an “intuitive signal” that would guide him in useful directions, as well as an illustration of the credo that guided his entire career:

Our models of “reality” are very small and tidy, the universe of experience is huge and untidy, and no model can ever include all the huge untidiness perceived by uncensored consciousness.

We’re living at a time in which the events of the morning can be spun into two contradictory narratives by early afternoon, so it doesn’t seem all that original to observe that you can draw whatever conclusion you like from a sufficiently rich and random corpus of facts. On some level, all too many mental models come down to looking for hawks, noting their appearances, and publishing a paper about the result. And when you’re talking about something like the history of science fiction, which is an exceptionally messy body of data, it’s easy to find the patterns that you want. You could write an overview of the genre that draws a line from A.E. van Vogt to Alfred Bester to Philip K. Dick that would be just as persuasive and consistent as one that ignores them entirely. The same is true of individuals like Campbell and Heinlein, who, like all of us, contained multitudes. It can be hard to reconcile the Campbell who took part in parapsychological experiments at Duke and was editorializing in the thirties about the existence of telepathy in Unknown with the founder of whatever we want to call Campbellian science fiction, just as it can be difficult to make sense of the contradictory aspects of Heinlein’s personality, which is something I haven’t quite managed to do yet. As Borges writes:

Let us greatly simplify, and imagine that a life consists of 13,000 facts. One of the hypothetical biographies would record the series 11, 22, 33…; another, the series 9, 13, 17, 21…; another, the series 3, 12, 21, 30, 39…A history of a man’s dreams is not inconceivable; another, of the organs of his body; another, of the mistakes he made; another, of all the moments when he thought about the Pyramids; another, of his dealings with the night and the dawn.

It’s impossible to keep all those facts in mind at once, so we make up stories about people that allow us to extrapolate the rest, in a kind of lossy compression. The story of Arthur C. Clarke’s encounter with Uri Geller is striking mostly because it doesn’t fit our image of Clarke as the paradigmatic hard science fiction writer, but of course, he was much more than that.

The Falcon Killer

I’ve been focusing on places where science fiction intersects with the mystical because there’s a perfectly valid history to be written about it, and it’s a thread that tends to be overlooked. But perhaps the most instructive paranormal encounter of all happened to none other than Isaac Asimov. In July 1966, Asimov and his family were spending two weeks at a summer house in Concord, Massachusetts. One evening, his daughter ran into the house shouting: “Daddy, Daddy, a flying saucer! Come look!” Here’s how he describes what happened next:

I rushed out of the house to see…It was a cloudless twilight. The sun had set and the sky was a uniform slate gray, still too light for any stars to be visible; and there, hanging in the sky, like an oversize moon, was a perfect featureless metallic circle of something like aluminum.

I was thunderstruck, and dashed back into the house for my glasses, moaning, “Oh no, this can’t happen to me. This can’t happen to me.” I couldn’t bear the thought that I would have to report something that really looked as though it might conceivably be an extraterrestrial starship.

When Asimov went back outside, the object was still there. It slowly began to turn, becoming gradually more elliptical, until the black markings on its side came into view—and it turned out to be the Goodyear blimp. Asimov writes: “I was incredibly relieved!” Years later, his daughter told the New York Times: “He nearly had a heart attack. He thought he saw his career going down the drain.”

It’s a funny story in itself, but let’s compare it to what Geller writes about Clarke: “Clarke was not there just to scoff. He had wanted things to happen. He just wanted to be completely convinced that everything was legitimate.” The italics are mine. Asimov, alone of all the writers I’ve mentioned, never had any interest in the paranormal, and he remained a consistent skeptic throughout his life. As a result, unlike the others, he was very rarely wrong. But I have a hunch that it’s also part of the reason why he sometimes seems like the most limited of all major science fiction writers—undeniably great within a narrow range—while simultaneously the most important to the culture as a whole. Asimov became the most famous writer the genre has ever seen because you could basically trust him: it was his nonfiction, not his fiction, that endeared him to the public, and his status as a explainer depended on maintaining an appearance of unruffled rationality. It allowed him to assume a very different role than Campbell, who manifestly couldn’t be trusted on numerous issues, or even Heinlein, who convinced a lot of people to believe him while alienating countless others. But just as W.B. Yeats drew on his occult beliefs as a sort of battery to drive his poetry, Campbell and Heinlein were able to go places where Asimov politely declined to follow, simply because he had so much invested in not being wrong. Asimov was always able to tell the difference between a hawk and a handsaw, no matter which way the wind was blowing, and in some ways, he’s the best model for most of us to emulate. But it’s hard to write science fiction, or to live in it, without seeing patterns that may or may not be there.

A Hawk From a Handsaw, Part 1

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Uri Geller

I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.

Hamlet

In the summer of 1974, the Israeli magician and purported psychic Uri Geller arrived at Birkbeck College in Bloomsbury, London, where the physicist David Bohm planned to subject him to a series of tests. Two of the scheduled observers were the writers Arthur Koestler and Arthur C. Clarke, of whom Geller writes in his autobiography:

Arthur Clarke…would be particularly important because he was highly skeptical of anything paranormal. His position was that his books, like 2001 and Childhood’s End, were pure science fiction, and it would be highly unlikely that any of their fantasies would come true, at least in his own lifetime.

Geller met the group in a conference room, where Koestler was cordial, although, Geller says, “I sensed that I really wasn’t getting through to Arthur C. Clarke.” A demonstration seemed to be in order, so Geller asked Clarke to hold one of his own housekeys in one hand, watching it closely to make sure that it wasn’t being swapped out, handled, or subjected to any trickery. Sure enough, the key began to bend. Clarke cried out, in what I like to think was an inadvertent echo of one of his most famous stories: “My God, my eyes are seeing it! It’s bending!”

Geller went on to display his talents in a number of other ways, including forcing a Geiger counter to click at an accelerated rate merely by concentrating on it. (It has been suggested by the skeptic James Randi that Geller had a magnet taped to his leg.) “By that time,” Geller writes, “Arthur Clarke seemed to have lost all his skepticism. He said something like, “My God! It’s all coming true! This is what I wrote about in Childhood’s End. I can’t believe it.” Geller continues:

Clarke was not there just to scoff. He had wanted things to happen. He just wanted to be completely convinced that everything was legitimate. When he saw that it was, he told the others: “Look, the magicians and the journalists who are knocking this better put up or shut up now. Unless they can repeat the same things Geller is doing under the same rigidly controlled conditions, they have nothing further to say.”

Clarke also told him about the plot of Childhood’s End, which Geller evidently hadn’t read: “It involves a UFO that is hovering over the earth and controlling it. He had written the book about twenty years ago. He said that, after being a total skeptic about these things, his mind had really been changed by observing these experiments.”

The Horus Errand

It’s tempting to think that Geller is exaggerating the extent of the author’s astonishment, but here’s what Clarke himself wrote about it:

Although it’s hard to focus on that hectic and confusing day at Birkbeck College in 1974…I suspect that Uri Geller’s account in My Story is all too accurate…In view of the chaos at the hastily arranged Birkbeck encounter, the phrase “rigidly controlled conditions” is hilarious. But that last sentence is right on target, for [the reproduction of Geller’s effects by stage magicians] is precisely what happened…Nevertheless, I must confess a sneaking fondness for Uri; though he left a trail of bent cutlery and fractured reputations round the world, he provided much-needed entertainment at a troubled and unhappy time.

Geller has largely faded from the public consciousness, but Clarke—who continued to believe long afterward that paranormal phenomena “can’t all be nonsense”—wasn’t the only science fiction writer to be intrigued by him. Robert Anton Wilson, one of my intellectual heroes, discusses him at length in the book Cosmic Trigger, in which he recounts the strange experience of his friend Saul-Paul Sirag. The year before the Birkbeck tests, Sirag was speaking to Geller when he saw the other man’s head turn into a “bird of prey,” like a hawk: “His nose became a beak, and his entire head sprouted feathers, down to his neck and shoulders.” (Sirag was also taking LSD at the time, which Wilson neglects to mention.) The hawk, Sirag thought, was the form assumed by an extraterrestrial intelligence that was allegedly in contact with Geller, and he didn’t know then that it had appeared in the same shape to two other men, including a psychic named Ray Stanford and another who had nicknamed it “Horus,” after the Egyptian god with a hawk’s head.

It gets weirder. A few months later, Sirag saw the January 1974 issue of Analog, which featured the story “The Horus Errand” by William E. Cochrane. The cover illustration depicted a man wearing a hawklike helmet, with the name “Stanford” written over his breast pocket. According to one of Sirag’s friends, the occultist Alan Vaughan, the character even looked a little like Ray Stanford—and you can judge the resemblance for yourself. Vaughan was interested enough to write to the artist, the legendary Kelly Freas, for more information. (Freas, incidentally, was close friends with John W. Campbell, to the point where Campbell even asked him to serve as the guardian for his two daughters if anything ever happened to him or his wife.) Freas replied that he had never met Stanford in person or knew how he looked, but that he had once received a psychic consultation from him by mail, in which Stanford said that “Freas had been some sort of illustrator in a past life in ancient Egypt.” As a result, Freas began to employ Egyptian imagery more consciously in his work, and the design of the helmet on the cover was entirely his own, without any reference to the story. At that point, the whole thing kind of peters out, aside from serving as an example of the kind of absurd coincidence that was so close to Wilson’s heart. But the intersection of Arthur C. Clarke, Uri Geller, and Robert Anton Wilson at that particular moment in time is a striking one, and it points toward an important thread in the history of science fiction that tends to be overlooked or ignored. Tomorrow, I’ll be writing more about what it all means, along with a few other ominous hawks.

Santa Claus conquers the Martians

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Santa Claus by Mauri Kunnas

Like most households, my family has a set of traditions that we like to observe during the holiday season. A vinyl copy of A Charlie Brown Christmas spends most of December on our record player, and I never feel as if I’m really in the spirit of things until I’ve listened to Kokomo Jo’s Caribbean Christmas—a staple of my own childhood—and The Ventures’ Christmas Album. My wife and I have started watching the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode Santa Claus, not to be confused with Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, on an annual basis: it’s one of the best episodes that the show ever did, and I’m still tickled by it after close to a dozen viewings. (My favorite line, as Santa deploys a massive surveillance system to spy on the world’s children: “Increasingly paranoid, Santa’s obsession with security begins to hinder everyday operations.”) But my most beloved holiday mainstay is the book Santa Claus and His Elves by the cartoonist and children’s author Mauri Kunnas. If you aren’t Finnish, you probably haven’t heard of it, and readers from other countries might be momentarily bemused by its national loyalties: Santa’s workshop is explicitly located on Mount Korvatunturi in Lapland. As Kunnas writes: “So far away from human habitation is this village that no one is known to have seen it, except for a couple of old Lapps who stumbled across it by accident on their travels.”

I’ve been fascinated by this book ever since I was a child, and I was saddened when it inexplicably went missing for years, probably stashed away in a Christmas box in my parents’ garage. When my mother bought me a new copy, I was overjoyed, and as I began to read it to my own daughter, I was relieved to find that it holds up as well as always. The appeal of Kunnas’s book lies in its marvelous specificity: it treats Santa’s village as a massive industrial operation, complete with print shops, factories, and a fleet of airplanes. Santa Claus himself barely figures in the story at all. The focus is much more on the elves: where they work and sleep, their schools, their hobbies, and above all how they coordinate the immense task of tracking wish lists, making toys, and delivering presents. (Looking at Kunnas’s lovingly detailed illustrations of their warehouses and machine rooms, it’s hard not to be reminded of an Amazon fulfillment center—and although Jeff Bezos comes closer than anyone in history to realizing Santa’s workshop for real, complete with proposed deliveries by air, I’d like to think that the elves get better benefits.) As you leaf through the book, Santa’s operation starts to feel weirdly plausible, and everything from the “strong liniment” that he puts on his back to the sauna that he and the elves enjoy on their return adds up to a picture that could convince even the most skeptical adult.

Santa Claus by Mauri Kunnas

The result is nothing less than a beautiful piece of speculative fiction, enriched by the tricks that all such writers use: the methodical working out of a seemingly impossible premise, governed by perfect internal logic and countless persuasive details. Kunnas pulls it off admirably. In the classic study Pilgrims Through Space and Time, J.O. Bailey has an entire section titled “Probability Devices,” in which he states: “The greatest technical problem facing the writer of science fiction is that of securing belief…The oldest and perhaps the soundest method for securing suspension of disbelief is that of embedding the strange event in realistic detail about normal, everyday events.” He continues:

[Jules] Verne, likewise, offers minute details. Five Weeks in a Balloon, for instance, figures every pound of hydrogen and every pound of air displaced by it in the filling of the balloon, lists every article packed into the car, and states every detail of date, time (to the minute), and topography.

Elsewhere, I’ve noted that this sort of careful elaboration of hardware is what allows the reader to accept the more farfetched notions that govern the story as a whole—which might be the only thing that my suspense fiction and my short science fiction have in common. Filling out the world I’ve invented with small, accurate touches might be my single favorite part of being a writer, and the availability of such material often makes the difference between a finished story and one that never leaves the conceptual stage.

And when I look back, I wonder if I might not have imbibed much of this from the Santa Claus story, and in particular from Kunnas. Santa, in a way, is one of the first exposures to speculative fiction that any child gets: it inherently strains credulity, but you can’t argue with the gifts that appear under the tree on Christmas Day, and reconciling the implausibility of that story with the concrete evidence requires a true leap of imagination. Speculating that it might be the result of an organized conspiracy of adults is, if anything, an even bigger stretch—just as maintaining secrecy about a faked moon landing for decades would have been a greater achievement than going to the moon for real. Santa Claus, oddly enough, has rarely been a popular subject in science fiction, the Robot Santa on Futurama aside. As Gary Westfahl notes in The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: “As a literature dedicated by its very nature to breaking new ground, perhaps, science fiction is not well suited as a vehicle for ancient time-honored sentiments about the virtues of love and family life. (It’s no accident that the genre’s most famous treatment of Christmas lies in the devastating ending of Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Star,” which you should read right now if you haven’t before.) But I suspect that those impulses have simply been translated into another form. Robert Anton Wilson once commented on the prevalence of the “greenish-skinned, pointy-eared man” in science fiction and folklore, and he thought they might be manifestations of the peyote god Mescalito. But I prefer to think that most writers are secretly wondering what the elves have been doing all this time…

The good idea trap

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Raymond Chandler

Ideas are poison. The more you reason, the less you create.

—Raymond Chandler

As I’ve noted on this blog many times before, good ideas are cheap. Today, I’d like to make the case that they’re also dangerous, at least when it comes to bringing a story to its full realization. And I say this as someone who has a lot of good ideas. Nearly every novel or short story I’ve written hinges on a clever twist, some of them better than others. (I’m still pleased by the twist in “Kawataro,” and wish I’d done a slightly better job with the one in “The Voices.”) It’s partly for this reason that I tend to focus on suspense and science fiction, which are genres in which conceptual ingenuity is disproportionately rewarded. In some cases, as in many locked-room mysteries and the kind of hard science fiction we find in my beloved Analog, the idea or twist is all there is, and I’m probably not alone in occasionally saving time by skipping ahead to the surprise at once, without having to sit through all the bother of plot or characterization.

Which isn’t to say that a dynamite idea is always a bad thing. A story like Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Star,” for instance, turns almost entirely on the revelation in its final sentence, but that doesn’t make the rest of it any less satisfying—although it also doesn’t hurt that the story itself is relatively short. The real mistake is to assume that the creative process hinges on the idea. As I mentioned in my recent post on Shakespeare, a story’s premise is often the least interesting thing about it: nearly every idea has been done before, and the more it lends itself to being expressed in a single knockout sentence, the more likely someone else has written it already. As a result, an artist who commits himself to the cult of the idea, rather than its execution and elaboration, will eventually start to seem desperate, which goes a long way toward explaining the curious downward arc of a man like M. Night Shyamalan, a director with a sensational eye and considerable talent long since betrayed by his ideas.

M. Night Shyamalan

It should come as no surprise, then, that good ideas can be the most dangerous, since they’re inherently seductive. A writer with a great original idea is more likely to overlook problems of plot, structure, or language, when a merely decent idea that demands flawless execution may ultimately result in a more satisfying story. I’ve said before that a writer is best advised to start out from a position of neutrality toward his own material, and to allow his passion to flow from the process, and I still think that’s good advice. I’ve learned to be very suspicious of ideas that grab me at once, knowing that it’s going to be hard for me to remain objective. And I’ve found that sustained detachment, which allows me to evaluate each link of the chain on its own merits, is much more valuable than an early rush of excitement. Otherwise, I run the risk of turning into the producer described by David Mamet in On Directing Film, who “sees all ideas as equal and his own as first among them, for no reason other than he has thought of it.”

And the more talented the writer, the greater the risk. All writers have their moments of cleverness and ingenuity; the labor of turning a bad sentence into a good one is the sort of work that encourages the development of all kinds of tricks, and a writer who knows how to get published consistently can only get there with a lot of shrewdness. It’s worth remembering, then, that there are two sides to craft. The word evokes a set of proven tools, but it also carries a negative connotation: when we describe a person as “crafty,” that isn’t necessarily a compliment. The real point of craft is to cultivate the ability to treat all premises as fundamentally equal, and which rise or fall based only on how honestly the author follows through. It treats the best premise in the world as if it were the worst, or at least as if it required the same amount of time and effort to reach its full realization—which it does. It’s the author, not the idea, that makes the difference. And it’s frightening how often a great idea can turn a good writer into a bad one.

Written by nevalalee

May 29, 2013 at 9:12 am

Quote of the Day

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May 14, 2012 at 7:50 am

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Freeman Dyson and the closing of the science-fictional mind

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Arthur C. Clarke famously argued that our politicians should read science fiction, instead of westerns and detective stories, and Isaac Asimov, as we’ve seen, thought that an early interest in good science fiction was the best predictor of children who would become the great scientists of tomorrow. As I look around the world today, though, I worry that we’re suffering from a lack of science-fictional thinking. And it isn’t just the fact that America can no longer go into space. It’s that our dreams have grown smaller, and the most ambitious visions are greeted with a dismissive tweet. George W. Bush’s proposal to go to Mars was admittedly hard to take seriously, given its complete lack of specifics, but when the timeline of DARPA’s 100-year Starship Study makes it clear that nobody expects to go to the stars within the next century, I have to wonder what happened to the national will that put a man on the moon using computers like this. And my greatest fear is that we’ve lost the ability to even talk about such issues in suitably cosmic terms.

These days, only a handful of public intellectuals seem willing to talk about the future in ways designed to expand our sense of the possible. One is Ray Kurzweil, whose concept of the singularity, perhaps the most exciting—and lunatic—of all forms of futurism, has finally crossed over into the mainstream. Another is Freeman Dyson, the legendary physicist and mathematician who made several practical, lasting contributions to speculative fiction, notably the concept of the Dyson sphere, almost in passing. Both men are geniuses, and both are willing to take outlandish positions. As a result, both often seem faintly ridiculous themselves. Kurzweil, with his line of longevity supplements and obsession with the idea of his own immortality, can occasionally come off as a snake oil salesman, while Dyson has been roundly attacked as a global warming skeptic. And although Dyson’s arguments deserve to be taken seriously, there doesn’t seem to be a place for them in the mainstream dialogue on climate change, which reflects less on his ideas themselves than on the limitations we’ve subconsciously imposed on the debate.

Dyson’s treatment in the media has been particularly sobering. He doesn’t deny that global warming exists, or that it’s primarily caused by human activity, but questions whether it’s possible to predict the consequences using existing models of climate change, and believes that the danger is overblown compared to other risks, such as global poverty and disease. Dyson also argues that the problem of climate change isn’t social or political, but scientific, and has proposed a number of seemingly farfetched solutions, such as planting a trillion trees to absorb excess carbon dioxide. Perhaps most notoriously, he believes that global warming itself might not be entirely a bad thing. Rather, it will be good for some species and bad for others, a general “evening out” of the climate in a post-Darwinian world driven less by natural selection than by human activity. As a result, he has been widely accused of being oblivious, uncaring, or demented, notably in a fascinating but profoundly disingenuous piece by Kenneth Brower in the Atlantic.

Many of Dyson’s ideas are impractical, or simply incorrect, but it doesn’t seem wise to dismiss a scientist universally regarded by his colleagues as one of the smartest men in the world. And the more one looks at Dyson’s opinions, the more obvious it becomes that they need to be part of the conversation. This isn’t a politically motivated “skeptic” whose ideas are so far off the map that they don’t even deserve refutation; it’s a profoundly original mind approaching the problem from a novel perspective, drawing conclusions that have the power to shake us into new ways of thinking, and as such, he deserves to be celebrated—and, when necessary, refuted, but only by critics willing to meet him on equal terms. He may come up with outlandish proposals, but that’s what science-fictional minds do. Dyson may not have the answers, but only a system of public discussion capable of engaging his ideas will result in the answers we need. And if we can’t talk about his ideas at all, it’s our loss.

Written by nevalalee

October 10, 2011 at 9:42 am

Quote of the Day

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When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

—Arthur C. Clarke, “Clarke’s Three Laws”

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June 7, 2011 at 7:36 am

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