Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Cosmos

The limits of the Cosmos

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I hate to admit it, but I’m getting a little fed up with Cosmos. For the past two months, I’ve tuned in faithfully every Sunday night, and there are elements of the show that I still adore: Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s warmth and gravitas, the willingness to honestly present such issues as natural selection and climate change to a wide audience, and the overall ambition of the entire production. Watching the premiere, I was convinced that it would the alter the lives of countless smart young kids, and I still hope it will. In its small, tactical details, however, it’s also shown itself to be weirdly cautious. About half of every episode is devoted to an animated reenactment of the life of a great scientist—Halley, Newton, Annie Jump Cannon—and while I applaud the effort to ground its ideas in the haphazard, messy way in which discoveries are made, in practice, the segments fall back on the laziest of narrative formulas about genius at work. And given the intelligence of the creative team involved, which includes Tyson, Brannon Braga, Ann Druyan, and Seth MacFarlane, the result can’t help but feel slightly condescending, as if they didn’t trust their viewers to be engaged by revelatory scientific ideas without a healthy spoonful of the sugar of human interest.

Of course, movies and television have always had trouble depicting the act of creativity, whether in art, science, or other fields. For every work that yields genuine insights into what it means to think and create for a living (The Red Shoes, Amadeus, Crumb) there are a dozen more that give us the same scenes of the misunderstood artist or scientist, the eureka moment that somehow arises directly from the drama of his or her personal life, and the final moment of vindication, preferably accompanied by a slow clap. Cosmos, which has proven itself to be highly imaginative in other respects, jumps into these clichés with both feet. Occasionally, the approach yields rich dividends—as in the episode recounting the extraordinary career of Clair Patterson, which I’m sure is already being worked up into a biopic by some enterprising screenwriter—but more often, we’re treated to endless scenes of stiff figures in cravats chatting about the day in the lab. Sunday’s episode, for instance, devoted endless minutes to Michael Faraday’s childhood speech impediment and the workplace politics at the Royal Institution, while giving the substance of his insights only the most passing of glances.


The result is something that could easily have been dramatized by actors on a soundstage, or even in a radio play, which only underlines how many opportunities have been wasted. If Cosmos had given us Patrick Stewart playing William Herschel in a wig, we would have laughed—so why is it any more compelling, or less stilted, in animated form? This is all the more true because animation, in theory, is a medium of limitless potential when it comes to conveying difficult abstract ideas. Occasionally, we get the sense that Cosmos has blown most of its budget on spectacular computer effects from earlier in the season, so it falls back on the economical expedient of showing us a cartoon, with periodic cuts to Tyson strolling through London. But it costs the same amount of money to show the inside of an atom, the heat death of universe, or the train of thought inside Faraday’s head as it does to give yet another scene of two men chatting in a nineteenth-century office. The only difference lies in the amount of imagination or ingenuity the show is willing to expend. And for a show that bracingly celebrates the lives of those who thought in revolutionary ways, it’s dispiriting to see how little consideration seems to have gone into the way it tells its stories.

Obviously, it’s a miracle that a series like this is airing on a major network at all, let alone on Fox, and there’s no way of knowing what outside forces have shaped or limited the show’s approach to its material. I’m sure there was plenty of pressure to make it more accessible, more familiar, more like what we’ve seen before. Yet I don’t think there was ever a chance that its stodgy segments would turn the series into a ratings juggernaut or water cooler show—”Did you see what they did to Giordano Bruno last night?”—while a less conventional approach might have had a far greater impact. As it stands, I can’t believe that many of the show’s sober little reenactments would have made it out of the writer’s room if it weren’t for the cloying sense that they were somehow good for us, like the educational filmstrips so savagely parodied on The Simpsons. Science teachers will be pressing the play button on Cosmos in classrooms for decades to come, but I wish the show had aimed for more. At its best, as when it shows us the lives and deaths of stars, it hits notes that no other series on television can reach. Far too often, though, it leaves us with nothing but its integrity and good intentions, which isn’t enough to make it fit to survive.

Written by nevalalee

May 13, 2014 at 10:05 am

The evolution of art

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Neil deGrasse Tyson

If you’ve been watching Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey as faithfully as I have, you probably came away from last night’s episode with a newfound appreciation for the wonders of natural selection. Darwinian evolution, as Daniel Dennett likes to point out, is probably the single best idea anyone ever had, and it’s since been applied to fields far beyond those of biology. The notion that ideas and abstract concepts, for instance, are subject to selection pressure—both within the human mind and in the larger world beyond—is a familiar one, and every writer knows how it feels. Life is full of story ideas, and the means by which one or another wins out is a mysterious one, with selection often taking place below the level of conscious thought. Even once you’ve started a story, it can go in any number of directions, with the author selecting and discarding variations based on their perceived rightness, a process that happens all over again once the story is released into the wild. (The publishing industry is a battleground for survival of a particularly ruthless kind.) And if you want to harness the power of evolution in your own work, it’s not a bad idea to take a few cues from nature itself:

1. Move through a series of useful intermediate steps. My favorite part of last night’s Cosmos episode was its takedown of the argument, common among proponents of intelligent design, that an organ like the human eye is too complex to have evolved by chance. It may be true that half an eye isn’t very useful, but an approximation of an eye certainly is, and there’s a beautiful sequence illustrating how the eye evolved from a series of intermediate stages, each useful in itself: a cluster of a few photosensitive proteins develops gradually into a depression with an aperture and finally an eye with a lens. And this is a striking analogy to how the creative process works. Half a story isn’t any more useful than half an eye, but a finished rough draft—one that takes the entire narrative from beginning to end, however imperfectly—is both a sketch of the whole and a template that can be refined through successive revisions. And it isn’t until you’ve got something that holds together on its own provisional terms that you can start to make it better. (This is part of the reason why I always start with a detailed outline, which is the roughest version of the complete story that can possibly exist.)

Portrait of Charles Darwin by George Richmond

2. Introduce a little randomness. Natural selection proceeds as a succession of accidents, with random mutations in the genetic code that usually lead nowhere, but occasionally result in a useful adaptation. The process of writing a story can’t work in quite the same way: unlike nature, we’re writing with an end in mind, and most of us start with a plan. Even with such a teleological approach, however, it’s still possible to embrace a productive element of chance. I’ve described my own methods in detail, but every author will develop his or her own strategies for making raids on the random. Nicholson Baker, for instance, used a random number generator to reorder the chapters in his novel The Anthologist, and although he discarded most of the results, it led to a handful of promising juxtapositions that were preserved in the final draft. Even if you aren’t as systematic about it, you’ll soon find that every finished novel represents a compromise between the vision that the author had at the beginning and the unpredictable variations that the process introduced. And it’s essential to be able to depart from the plan enough to incorporate the unexpected—and to test it diligently against the alternatives.

3. Give it time. If the diversity and ingenuity of the adaptations that nature creates can sometimes seem unimaginable, it’s because natural selection operates over millions of years. Time, scale, and variation can do remarkable things. Artists, unfortunately, don’t have that luxury: we can only write one version of a story at a time, and we only have a few months or years to get it done. Even on that reduced level, though, time is crucial. I’ve spoken elsewhere about the importance of rendering in the creative process, and the fact that most novels need a year or so to percolate in the author’s mind, no matter how fast we can write. There’s a simple explanation: most of us only have so many good ideas at any one time, and if we can extend the period of writing, we’ll increase our chances of finding an idea that can be applied to the problem at hand. It’s possible to take this too far, of course, and there always comes a time when the draft needs to be sent out to meet its fate. But even a break of a few weeks can have positive effect, especially if we’ve turned our attention to other projects in the meantime. And when we do finally go back to the work we’ve set aside, we’ll often find that it has evolved in our absence, when we weren’t even aware of it. Now that’s some intelligent design.

Written by nevalalee

March 17, 2014 at 9:57 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

Posted in Books, Quote of the Day

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Dispatches from the Newberry Library

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One of the nice things about being an adult is the fact that you occasionally get to indulge in a few of your childhood pleasures, except with more resources and money. A nerdy case in point: when I was growing up, one of the highlights of my year was the annual book sale at the Alameda County Library. For ten dollars, you could fill a paper grocery bag full of battered library discards, and although not many of those books have stayed with me over the years—the only exception being Dean Koontz’s Writing Popular Fiction, otherwise out of print, which remains one of my favorite and formative writing guides—I still get irrationally excited by the words “library book sale.”

Which brings me to Chicago’s Newberry Library Book Fair, which is the ultimate realization of my childhood fantasies of what a library book sale should be. With room after room of books piled high on tables, crammed, often to the point of immobility, with buyers and browsers, the Newberry’s annual sale is a book lover’s paradise. Walking around the fair yesterday, having abruptly ditched all other obligations when my wife informed me that it was starting at noon, I was forcibly reminded of one of the central facts of my life: aside from my wife and maybe a few family and friends, I love books more than almost anything else in the world.

And this was the best kind of book fair, filled equally with titles I’d been trying to find for a long time and plenty of happy accidents. The former category included a first edition copy of Simon Schama’s Rembrandt’s Eyes, which I picked up for all of eight dollars (by far the most expensive single book I got that day); Roger Penrose’s The Road to Reality; Pauline Kael’s 5001 Nights at The Movies; Carl Sagan’s Cosmos (for three dollars, much less than the anniversary edition I had been planning to buy in the bargain section at Borders); and all four volumes, dating from 1891, of Bourrienne’s Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte. These books alone would make for a pretty decent liberal education.

There were also plenty of nice surprises. Because we’re moving soon, and will have to physically haul all these books away in about six weeks, I managed to restrict myself to a handful of paperbacks. But some of these were a lot of fun, too: The Making of Star Trek, published in 1968, with its detailed account of the original show’s origins; Irving Wallace’s The Plot,  allowing me to wallow in my previously disclosed love of trashy ’70s fiction; a vintage paperback of Catch-22, which was already next on my reading list; and the excellent anthology The Practical Cogitator, famous in its time, unknown by me, but which already looks to inform this blog tremendously (starting with today’s quote). All in all, it was the best library book sale ever—at least until Sunday, when everything goes on half price. You’ll know where to find me.

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