Posts Tagged ‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.