Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Carl Sagan

Songs of distant earth

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For a few months in the early seventies, a curious debate briefly raged about sex in space. In designing the aluminum plaques that would be carried by two of the Pioneer spacecraft in case they were ever recovered by extraterrestrials, Carl Sagan and Frank Drake had included line drawings of an anatomically correct man and woman, and the response was about what you’d expect. As Sagan recalled in The Cosmic Connection:

The principal feminine criticism is that the woman is drawn incomplete—that is, without any sign of external genitalia. The decision to omit a very short line in this diagram [for the pudendal cleft] was made partly because conventional representation in Greek statuary omits it. But there was another reason: Our desire to see the message successfully launched on Pioneer 10. In retrospect, we may have judged NASA’s scientific-political hierarchy as more puritanical than it is…

Yet it is clear that at least some individuals were offended even by the existing representation. The Chicago Sun-Times, for example, published three versions of the page in different editions all on the same day: In the first the man was represented whole; in the second, suffering from an awkward and botched airbrush castration; and in the final version—intended no doubt to reassure the family man dashing home—with no sexual apparatus at all…The Philadelphia Inquirer published on its front page an illustration of the plaque, but with the nipples of the woman and the genitalia of the man removed. The assistant managing editor was quoted as saying: “A family newspaper must uphold community standards.”

A few years later, when a team led by Sagan had a chance to include a much more elaborate message on the golden phonograph records on the Voyager spacecraft, an identical issue arose. Timothy Ferris, one of the producers of the project, reveals in the new book The Voyager Golden Record: “NASA vetoed a photograph of a naked man and pregnant woman holding hands, likely concerned about the same prudish reaction stirred up by the nude drawings on the Pioneer plaques.” In the end, the record included a pair of vague, unrevealing diagrams—on the level of a grade school sex education class—and a reduced variation of the Pioneer drawing. Any aliens who are curious about human sexual reproduction, which is probably the single most fundamental fact about our culture, will come away very confused. And this wasn’t the only instance in which the team felt political pressure. Ferris recounts of the process of choosing the music:

A few politically motivated requests did crop up, among them a strange plea that we include a third-rate Russian nightclub standard on grounds that it might please the rulers of the Soviet Union. (We listened politely, then passed.) When we arrived at the Kennedy Space Center for the first Voyager launch, a NASA official confronted me to complain, “Damn it, Tim, how could a good Irish boy like yourself not put an Irish song on the record, knowing that Tip O’Neill is speaker of the House?” I was sorry to disappoint him, but one seldom succeeds at anything by trying to please everybody.

And before we smile, let’s take a moment to reflect that if a similar project were attempted today—presumably with Neil DeGrasse Tyson in charge—it would be approximately a million times worse. Just imagining the think pieces, tweets, and cable news segments makes my head hurt.

I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve just received my copy of The Voyager Golden Record box set, a Kickstarter project that turned about as well as I could have hoped: three hefty records of translucent gold vinyl, beautiful packaging, and a fascinating book. Listening to the music is like playing the strangest, most moving mix tape ever made, although it still leaves me with the same response expressed in my favorite joke from Saturday Night Live: “Send more Chuck Berry.” But if it were compiled again right now, I doubt that Berry would even make the cut. His obituaries from earlier this year were filled with an uneasy tension between his unquestioned stature and his private misbehavior, and if we’ve never totally assimilated it, it’s mostly because we’ve never been forced to do so. If we were putting together the Voyager record today, we’d have no choice but to deal with it directly, and I have a hunch that Berry would be quietly vetoed for exactly the same reasons that Chuck Klosterman applauds his inclusion:

I suspect the main reason “Johnny B. Goode” was chosen [for the Voyager record] is that it just seemed like a reasonable track to select. But it was more than reasonable. It was, either deliberately or accidentally, the best possible artist for NASA to select…Rock music is preoccupied with sex. Berry was a sex addict whose only American No. 1 single was about playing with his penis. Rock music is lawless. Berry went to prison twice before he turned forty. Rock music is tied to myth and legend…Berry is the subject of multiple urban legends, several of which might actually be true and which often seem to involve cheapness, violence and sexual defecation.

In fact, “Johnny B. Goode” just barely made it onto the record, as Ferris recalls: “Carl initially called it ‘awful.’ But he soon came around on that one, going so far as to politely remind [Alan] Lomax, who derided Berry’s music as ‘adolescent,’ that Earth is home to many adolescents.”

If nothing else, the Voyager anniversary release reminds us that we should be grateful that it happened at all, since it occurred at perhaps the one moment in our history when such a notion was technologically, culturally, and politically possible. Ferris says that he and Sagan “backed into the concept” of a record in their attempt to encode more material in a limited amount of space, but the fact that it led them to focus on music was the happiest of accidents. (He also debunks a famous story that I’ve spread here before: “Rumors to the contrary, we did not strive to include the Beatles’ ‘Here Comes the Sun,’ only to be disappointed when we couldn’t clear the rights. We did consider that lovely track for a time but soon moved on. It’s not the Beatles’ strongest work, and the witticism of the title, if charming in the short run, seems unlikely to remain funny for a billion years.”) Ferris argues that even the phonograph format itself is charged with significance:

A diamond dances along the undulations of the groove; its intricate motions vibrate an attached crystal (in the case of ceramic phono cartridges, like the ones attached to the Voyager probes); the vibrations generate a flow of electricity that’s amplified and sent to the speakers. At no point in this process is it possible to say with assurance just how much information the record contains or how accurately a given stereo has translated it. You never know whether a record might sound even better if played with a different phono cartridge, or at a different stylus pressure, or through different equipment. The open-mindedness of the medium seemed akin to the grand gesture of sending a record to the stars—and, for that matter, to scientific research, where one is always aware that more can be learned.

I’m not sure that I entirely believe this, but I’ll buy it. The Voyager record stands as one shining instance in which the highest ideals of science fiction found an embodiment in the real world, and perhaps you need to be a teenager to be as entranced by it as I once was. But earth is home to many adolescents.

Written by nevalalee

September 15, 2017 at 8:56 am

Quote of the Day

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Carl Sagan

Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.

Carl Sagan

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April 30, 2015 at 7:30 am

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The dancer from the dance

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The Voyager golden record

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What one piece of pop culture would you use to teach an artificial intelligence what it means to be human?”

When I was growing up, one of the books I browsed through endlessly was Murmurs of Earth by Carl Sagan, which told the story behind the Voyager golden records. Attached to the two Voyager spacecraft and engraved with instructions for playback, each record was packed with greetings in multiple languages, sounds, encoded images of life on earth, and, most famously, music. The musical selection opens with the first movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, which is about as solid a choice as it gets, and the remaining tracks are eclectic and inspired, ranging from a Pygmy girls’ initiation song to Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.” (The inclusion of “Johnny B. Goode” led to a legendary joke on Saturday Night Live, purporting to predict the first message from an alien civilization: “Send more Chuck Berry.”) Not included, alas, was “Here Comes the Sun,” which the Beatles were happy to contribute, only to be vetoed by their record company. Evidently, EMI was concerned about the distribution of royalties from any commercial release of the disc—which says more about our society than we’d like any alien culture to know.

Of course, the odds of either record ever being found and played are infinitesimal, but it was still a valuable exercise. What, exactly, does it mean to be us, and how can we convey this to a nonhuman intelligence? Other solutions have been proposed, some simpler and more elegant than others. In The Lives of a Cell, Lewis Thomas writes:

Perhaps the safest thing to do at the outset, if technology permits, is to send music. This language may be the best we have for explaining what we are like to others in space, with least ambiguity. I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again. We would be bragging of course, but it is surely excusable to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance. We can tell the harder truths later.

If such thought experiments so often center on music, it’s because we intuitively see it as our most timeless, universal production, even if that’s as much a cultural construct as anything else. All art, Walter Pater says, aspires to the condition of music, in which form and content can’t be separated, so it’s natural to regard it as the best we have to offer.

Ballets Russes

Yet music, for all its merits, only hints at a crucial aspect of human existence: its transience. It’s true that every work of music has a beginning and an end, but once written, it potentially exists forever—if not as a single performance, then as an act of crystalized thought—and it can be experienced in pretty much the form that Bach or Beethoven intended. In that sense, it’s an idealized, aspirational, and not particularly accurate representation of human life, in which so much of what matters is ephemeral and irreproducible. We may never have a chance to explain this to an alien civilization, but it’s likely that we’ll have to convey it sooner or later to another form of nonhuman consciousness that arises closer to home. Assuming we’re not convinced, like John Searle, of the philosophical impossibility of artificial intelligence, it’s only a matter of time before we have to take this problem seriously. And when we do, it’s our sense of mortality and impermanence that might pose the greatest obstacle to mutual comprehension. Unless its existence is directly threatened, as with HAL in 2001, an A.I., which is theoretically immortal, might have trouble understanding how we continue to find meaning in a life that is defined largely by the fact that it ends.

When I ask myself what form of art expresses this fact the most vividly, it has to be dance. And although I’d be tempted to start with The Red Shoes, my favorite movie of all time, there’s an even better candidate: the extraordinary documentary Ballets Russes, available now for streaming on Hulu, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. (I didn’t even realize this until I looked up its release date shortly before typing this sentence, which is just another reminder of how quickly time slips away.) Just as the Voyager record was a kind of exercise to determine what art we find most worthy of preservation, the question of what to show a nonhuman intelligence is really more about what works can teach us something about what it means to be human. Ballets Russes qualifies as few other movies do: I welled up with tears within the first minute, which juxtaposes archival footage of dancers in their prime with the same men and women sixty years later. In the space of a cut, we see the full mystery of human existence, and it’s all the more powerful when we reflect that these artists have devoted their lives to creating a string of moments that can’t be recaptured—as we all do, in our different ways. An artificial intelligence might wonder if there was any point. I don’t have an answer to that. But if one exists at all, it’s here.

Hard science fiction, harder reading

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Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What story concept or premise do you wish wasn’t explored by the person that did something with it?”

If there’s one barrier lying between most readers and an appreciation of hard science fiction, it’s that its great ideas and visionary conceptions are so often channeled through mediocre writing. I’ve tried multiple times to read Robert L. Forward’s Dragon’s Egg, for instance, which has a sensational premise—the first contact between humans and a race of intelligent microorganisms living on a neutron star with billions of times Earth’s gravity—but maddeningly pedestrian prose. Here’s a representative paragraph from early in the novel:

Jacqueline Carnot strode over to a long table in the data processing lab in the CCCP-NASA-ESA Deep Space Research Center at CalTech. A frown clouded her pretty face. The cut of her shoulder-length brown hair and her careful choice of tailored clothing stamped her at once as “European.”

I don’t mean to pick on Forward in particular, and I have huge affection for hard science fiction in general. Yet in many cases, whenever I pick up a new story, I get the sense that it would be just as satisfying to read a five-paragraph summary that dropped any pretense of drama and focused on its central big idea. (To be fair, I often feel the same way with mystery fiction, especially of the locked-room variety, which I also love.)

It isn’t hard to see why the narrative element is often lacking. Many of the masters of science fiction were scientists first and writers afterward, and the idea frequently takes precedence over the plot and characters—which might serve as a definition for hard science fiction as a whole. This may be why I’ve always felt a bit out of place in the pages of Analog, which has been kind enough to publish several of my own stories. I think of myself as a writer first, and the ideas in most of my stories are good but not especially great. They’re really there mostly to make the story possible, rather than the other way around. This isn’t an aesthetic judgment; it’s more a reflection of my own background, ability, and tastes, and while it results in the kinds of stories I personally like to read, it also limits me to a particular narrow range. I don’t necessarily have the temperament to write a story that encompasses the entire universe, and I take comfort in the fact that there are other writers more able and inclined to do so. But I imagine that even devoted fans of the genre have to admit that it’s rare to find a writer who can marry ambitious conceptions on the grandest scale with a style that carries you along for its own sake.

Michael Crichton

That’s even true of authors who have proven themselves to be capable writers in other contexts. I’ve always found Asimov’s nonfiction more engaging than his stories—although at his best, as in “The Last Question,” he can be stunning. And I don’t think I’ve ever been as let down by a novel as by Carl Sagan’s Contact. Sagan was a peerless essayist and popularizer, and the scope of the story is as big as it gets, but Gregory Benford’s original review in the New York Times accurately sums up its faults:

Unfortunately, the reader will reach the novel’s enjoyable last third only if drawn by strong curiosity and buffered by tolerance for many first-novelist vices. Characterization proceeds by the dossier method often used by C.P. Snow, with similar results—told much but shown little, we get career profiles, some odd habits, earnest details. The narrative comes to a stop while an expository lump cajoles us into finding this person interesting.

For what it’s worth, the movie version solves a lot of these problems, mostly by focusing on Jodie Foster’s Ellie at the expense of the others, and at its best, it offers the sense of awe that the novel only sporadically delivers—and which I’m hoping to see again in Chris Nolan’s Interstellar.

In fact, while it might sound strange to say it, I often find myself wishing that many of the great ideas in science fiction had been tackled by the likes of Michael Crichton. No one will ever hold Crichton up as a paragon of style, and it’s true that many of his most famous novels repurpose ideas that had been developed earlier by other writers, but at his peak, he was a superb craftsman who knew how to keep the pages turning. (Crichton was also a writer first: he published many paperback thrillers while still in medical school, and if he stuck largely to science fiction after The Andromeda Strain, it was mostly because he was so good at it.) Near the end, as I’ve said before, he was seduced by his own tools, like many of the characters in his cautionary tales, and began to put dubious messages before story, or even his own spectacular ability with facts. Even at his worst, though, he retained a relentless focus on capturing and attaining a wide popular audience, and that kind of professional, even mercenary approach is one that more writers in the genre could stand to imitate. Science fiction has countless visionaries, but what we really need are more brilliant hacks.

“An iris seemed to open on his past…”

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"Such an escape was no longer possible..."

(Note: This post is the thirty-sixth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 35. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Motivation is a tricky thing. I’ve long believed that character is best expressed through action, and that a series of clear objectives, linked to a compelling plot, will tell you more about a protagonist than the most detailed account of his life before the story began. And these objectives don’t need to be major ones. To slightly mangle one of my favorite observations from Kurt Vonnegut, if a character just wants a drink of water, I’m automatically more interested in him than if I’m told that he had an unhappy childhood. My favorite example of misapplied backstory is the novel Contact, in which Carl Sagan, a man of uncanny brilliance, attempts to engage us with his characters in a way that is sadly miscalculated. We’re told that these characters are fascinating, usually through a long biographical digression, but they aren’t given anything interesting to do within the story itself—which is astonishing, given the narrative stakes involved. As no less than Gregory Benford noted in his review in the New York Times:

Characterization proceeds by the dossier method often used by C.P. Snow, with similar results—told much but shown little, we get career profiles, some odd habits, earnest details. The narrative comes to a stop while an expository lump cajols us into finding this person interesting.

These “expository lumps” are such a hallmark of bad fiction that I’ve basically excluded anything like them from my own work, sometimes to a fault. Readers of my early drafts often comment that they’d like more background on the characters, and they can’t all be wrong. As a result, I’ve gingerly experimented with introducing more backstory, usually in the form of a flashback at a point in the novel where it won’t break the narrative momentum. Backstory, I’ve found, isn’t the enemy: the problem is its tendency to draw the story off into tangents, when most novels really ought to proceed along an uninterrupted narrative line. But there are times when some additional motivation, rooted in a character’s past, can enrich the story and give actions in the present greater resonance. The test is whether what happened then enhances our understanding and appreciation of what is happening now. If the answer is no, it can safely be cut; if yes, it can be retained, but only in as unobtrusive a way as possible.

"An iris seemed to open on his past..."

The most significant piece of backstory in The Icon Thief is the death of Ilya Severin’s parents. This was an element that I added fairly late in the process, after I’d already written the first draft, and to be honest, I have mixed feelings about it. I introduced this detail because Ilya’s desire for retribution, in the original draft, was vivid but somewhat abstract: he’d been betrayed by those he trusted, but I wasn’t entirely convinced that he’d value revenge over simple self-preservation. It was while reading another thriller—I think it was Trevanian’s uneven but often excellent Shibumi—that I reflected that a more personal violation might make his behavior more credible. The trouble with killing his parents is that it’s a somewhat familiar trope, which is why I tend to underplay it in the sequels, and once I’d introduced it, I was stuck with it for what turned out to be two more novels. It wasn’t the kind of thing that could just be ignored, and it occasionally caused problems for the stories I wanted to tell, in which Ilya had to appear to come to terms with the men he hated.

Still, I think it works fairly well when introduced here, in Chapters 33 and 35 of The Icon Thief. Among other things, it allows Sharkovsky, by revealing the secret, to briefly gain the upper hand over Ilya, who can sometimes seem preternaturally imperturbable. And by deepening Ilya’s motivation, it makes the rest of the novel more believable. At the end of the chapter, Ilya escapes from the courthouse, in an action scene that is probably my favorite in the entire book—it was a lot of fun to work out the various beats, from Ilya discovering that the meeting is under surveillance to eluding the security guards to fleeing through the construction site next door, only to end up across the street from police headquarters. (The moment when he checks to make sure that the bag at the exchange doesn’t have a tracking device is directly inspired by a similar device in No Country For Old Men.) But it was important for me to establish that Ilya, having escaped, couldn’t simply decide to leave town. The backstory I provide here allows me to keep Ilya around, and on that level, it’s a good thing. But it certainly made my life more complicated…

Written by nevalalee

February 21, 2013 at 9:50 am

Quote of the Day

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I think the health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries.

Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Written by nevalalee

November 21, 2011 at 7:43 am

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Backstory—what is it good for?

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Yesterday I indulged in another rant about Thomas Harris and the decline of Hannibal Lecter, which brings me to a larger problem of which all writers should be aware: the pitfalls of backstory. Before we begin, I should point out that my views on the subject are somewhat extreme, which has led to occasional disagreements with readers and editors. But after years of writing, reading, and watching film and television, everything I’ve ever seen points toward one conclusion: backstory is deadly. It’s boring, it brings the momentum of the narrative to a halt, and most damningly, it does nothing to enhance our appreciation for the characters in a work of fiction. Characters are defined by what they do over the course of the story. What they’ve done before the story begins just doesn’t matter.

There are at least two reasons for this. The first, as William Goldman points out in Which Lie Did I Tell?, is that characters—especially heroes—must have mystery. Our favorite characters in movies or literature, whether they’re Hamlet, Lecter, or Rick Blaine, leave as many questions unresolved as they answer, which is why they’re so interesting to think about. In my experience, the less we know about a character’s past, the more intriguing he becomes, provided that he’s also interesting now. Conversely, if a character isn’t engaging in the context of the story itself, it doesn’t matter how fascinating you’ve assured us he was in the past. Many writers like to introduce their characters with long biographical digressions, as Carl Sagan does in Contact, but this rarely works as intended. It’s far more important to focus on what the character does in the moment.

For proof, look no further than AFI’s list of the top 100 movie heroes and villains. Many of these characters have since been exhaustively explored in sequels, novelizations, and fanfic, but the striking thing is how little we learn about them in the films where they made their greatest impression. We learn nothing of James Bond’s backstory in Dr. No, or in any of the classic Bond films—and even in Casino Royale, a deliberate attempt to show us the early Bond, his life before the movie is left unexplored. The same applies to Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, to John McClane, and even to Atticus Finch and T.E. Lawrence. And this is doubly true of villains: there’s Lecter, of course, but even Darth Vader, who remains just a man in a mask until the end of The Empire Strikes Back. In many cases, we’ve learned a lot more about these characters since then, but with few exceptions, this has nothing to do with why we fell in love with them in the first place.

So what’s a writer to do? At the risk of sounding pedantic, I’ve made a list of my own highly restrictive rules for backstory, with the caution that these only reflect what works for me:

  1. Don’t give any backstory in a character’s first appearance. A sentence or two briefly explaining who he is and why he’s here, if necessary, is more than enough. Just slide him directly into the action.
  2. Don’t worry about motivation. As long as the character’s objective in each scene is clearly defined, you don’t need to explain how he was shaped by events that took place years ago.
  3. After the character has been established by a handful of good scenes, and his role in the story is clear, then, if you must, insert some backstory. But no more than necessary. And always, if possible, conveyed through action or dialogue, rather than through flashbacks.

One last paradox: if you’ve followed these rules, readers are going to want more backstory. You’re going to get pleas for backstory from readers, from agents, from editors. Resist them if you can. If they want to know more about a character, it means you’ve done your job as a writer. But that doesn’t mean you should give it to them. Just ask Thomas Harris.

Written by nevalalee

September 14, 2011 at 9:17 am

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