Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Darin Morgan

The believer

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Note: Spoilers follow for “My Struggle IV,” the eleventh season finale of The X-Files

There are times when I think that The X-Files was the most important thing that ever happened to me. I’m not saying that it carries much weight compared to getting married or having a kid, but as far as pop culture is concerned, if you wanted to go back in time and remove just one piece to cause the maximal change in my life, you couldn’t do any better than this. If I had never seen The Red Shoes or read Jorge Luis Borges or even listened to the Pet Shop Boys, I’d be immeasurably poorer for it, but my overall biography would be more or less unchanged. The X-Files, by contrast, was a determining factor in how I spent my time for years. I wrote fanfic throughout high school and college. My first published short story, “Inversus,” was basically a straight casefile with the names changed, and only a timely rejection of my second effort from Analog editor Stanley Schmidt kept me from trying to turn it into a series. Of all the stories that I’ve published since, at least half fall comfortably into that formula. My three novels don’t have any paranormal elements, but they represented a conscious attempt to recover some of the magic of two government agents unraveling a conspiracy, and even Astounding is a project that never would have occurred to me if I hadn’t spent most of my life writing science fiction in one form or another. Which is all to say that if you managed to distract me so that I didn’t watch “Squeeze” on September 24, 1993—or even “Humbug” a year and a half later—most of this goes away, or at least gets transformed into a form so different that I wouldn’t be able to recognize it.

Yet it’s also a little embarrassing for me to admit this, not just because The X-Files wasn’t always a good show, even in its prime, but also because I don’t remember much about it. It had the longest run of any science fiction series in the history of television, with two hundred and eighteen episodes and two feature films. That’s a staggering amount of content, and it means that there’s more to know about Mulder and Scully, in theory, than about the main characters of any comparable franchise. In practice, that isn’t how it worked out. There are maybe two dozen episodes of the series that I plan on watching again, along with about fifty more that I remember fairly well. The rest consist of a single image, a vague impression, a logline, or more often nothing at all. Most of the mytharc, in particular, has disappeared entirely from my memory. And one of the problems with last night’s season finale—which probably marks the end to the entire series—is that it assumes that its viewers care about elements that the show flagged as important, but never really meant anything to the audience. I don’t recall much about William, or Mulder’s family drama, and I barely even remember Agent Reyes. These are clearly all things that should matter to the characters, and there’s no question that that loss of their child was the major event in Mulder and Scully’s lives. But it isn’t real to me, which is why I spent most of the episode asking myself why it had to be about this at all. (In any case, there’s already a perfect finale to the show, and it’s called “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat.”)

But the eleventh season as a whole exceeded my expectations to an extent that I’m grateful that it exists. Apart from “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster,” the tenth season was uniformly painful to watch—it left me feeling humiliated that I’d invested so much of my life into this series, and nobody, aside from Gillian Anderson and Darin Morgan, seemed to have any idea what they were doing. This past season had one great episode (“Forehead Sweat”) and one that came close (“Rm9sbG93ZXJz”), and apart from the opener and closer, which were disasters, the rest ranged from merely watchable to pretty good. Duchovny looked healthier and more relaxed, there were some nice sentimental moments between the two leads that elevated even routine installments, and there was even an attempt to stir some fresh voices into the mix. The fact that the show seems to be ending now is regrettable, but maybe it’s the best possible outcome. And I can even live with the finale, which offers up a winning bingo card of Chris Carter’s worst impulses. It separates Mulder and Scully for most of its runtime; it scrambles the chronology for no apparent reason; it dwells on pointless action and violence; it drops every plot thread that it raises; it spoils a nice fakeout by repeating it just a few minutes later; and its idea of a happy ending is having Scully announce that she’s pregnant again. (“It’s all she’s good for,” my wife remarked dryly.) But it at least it was bad in all the usual ways, without going out of its way to invent new ones, as much of last season did. And as Scully once said about Robert Patrick Modell, I won’t let it take up another minute of my time.

But The X-Files is a lot like life itself—which is only to say that my relationship to it maps onto everything else that matters. If the golden age of science fiction is twelve, as the fan Peter Graham allegedly said, then the show came along at just the right time to change me forever. If I had been born a few years earlier or later, or if I had been watching a different network, it might have been something else. As it turned out, I got sucked into a show that lasted for the quarter of a century that happened to coincide with most of my teens, twenties, and thirties. If I don’t remember a lot of it, well, I can’t recall much about college or the first two years of being a father, either. I just have bits and pieces, which are enough to make up my memories. Dana Scully is my favorite character on television, but my picture of her is assembled from the handful of episodes that understood what made her special, rather than the countless others that abused or misused her to an extent that we’re only just starting to acknowledge. I view her from only one angle, as I do with most of the people in my life, and I see what I want to believe. Like Darin Morgan, I’ve come to identify more with Mulder as I’ve gotten older, not as an action hero, but as the guy who started his career in a basement and ended it nowhere in particular. But you also have to imagine Mulder, like Sisyphus, as happy. I can’t sum up The X-Files in one sentence, but these days, I see it as a show about how to relate with intelligence and grace to a world that remains unknowable, indifferent, and too complicated to change. Maybe it starts with finding someone you love. The finale wasn’t about this, of course. But it never really had to be.

Written by nevalalee

March 22, 2018 at 9:01 am

Childhood’s end

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I’ve been thinking a lot recently about my childhood. One of the inciting factors was the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s It, which I enjoyed a great deal when I finally saw it. It’s a blue-chip horror film, with a likable cast and fantastic visuals, and its creators clearly care as much about the original novel as I do. In theory, the shift of its setting to the late eighties should make it even more resonant, since this is a period that I know and remember firsthand. Yet it isn’t quite as effective as it should be, since it only tells the half of the story that focuses on the main characters as children, and most of the book’s power comes from its treatment of memory, childhood, and forgetfulness—which director Andy Muschietti and his collaborators must know perfectly well. Under the circumstances, they’ve done just about the best job imaginable, but they inevitably miss a crucial side of a book that has been a part of my life for decades, even if I was too young to appreciate it on my first reading. I was about twelve years old at the time, which means that I wasn’t in a position to understand its warning that I was doomed to forget much of who I was and what I did. (King’s uncanny ability to evoke his own childhood so vividly speaks as much as anything else to his talents.) As time passes, this is the aspect of the book that impresses me the most, and it’s one that the movie in its current form isn’t able to address. A demonic clown is pretty scary, but not as much as the realization, which isn’t a fantasy at all, that we have to cut ourselves off from much of who we were as children in order to function as adults. And I’m saying this as someone who has remained almost bizarrely faithful to the values that I held when I was ten years old.

In fact, it wouldn’t be farfetched to read Pennywise the Dancing Clown as the terrifying embodiment of the act of forgetting itself. In his memoir Self-ConsciousnessJohn Updike—who is mentioned briefly in It and lends his last name to a supporting character in The Talisman—described this autobiographical amnesia in terms that could serve as an epigraph to King’s novel:

Not only are selves conditional but they die. Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time? It is even possible to dislike our old selves, these disposable ancestors of ours. For instance, my high-school self—skinny, scabby, giggly, gabby, frantic to be noticed, tormented enough to be a tormenter, relentlessly pushing his cartoons ad posters and noisy jokes and pseudo-sophisticated poems upon the helpless high school—strikes me now as considerably obnoxious, though I owe him a lot.

Updike sounds a lot here like King’s class clown Richie Tozier, and his contempt toward his teenage self is one to which most of us can relate. Yet Updike’s memories of that period seem slightly less vivid than the ones that he explored elsewhere in his fiction. He only rarely mined them for material, even as he squeezed most of his other experiences to the last drop, which implies that even Updike, our greatest noticer, preferred to draw a curtain of charity across himself as an adolescent. And you can hardly blame him.

I was reminded of this by the X-Files episode “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat,” which is about nothing less than the ways in which we misremember our childhoods, even if this theme is cunningly hidden behind its myriad other layers. At one point, Scully says to Reggie: “None of us remember our high school years with much accuracy.” In context, it seems like an irrelevant remark, but it was evidently important to Darin Morgan, who said to Entertainment Weekly:

When we think back on our memories from our youth, we have a tendency—or at least I do—to imagine my current mindset. Whenever I think about my youth, I’m like, “Why didn’t I do this? Why didn’t I do that?” And then you drive by high school students and you go, “Oh, that’s why I didn’t do it. Because I was a kid.” You tend to think of your adult consciousness, and you take that with you when you’re thinking back on your memories and things you’ve done in the past. Our memories are sometimes not quite accurate.

In “Forehead Sweat,” Morgan expresses this through a weird flashback in which we see Mulder’s adult head superimposed on his preadolescent body, which is a broad visual gag that also gets at something real. We really do seem to recall the past through the lens of our current selves, so we’re naturally mortified by what we find there—which neatly overlooks the point that everything that embarrasses us about our younger years is what allowed us to become what we are now. I often think about this when I look at my daughter, who is so much like me at the age of five that it scares me. And although I want to give her the sort of advice that I wish I’d heard at the time, I know that it’s probably pointless.

Childhood and adolescence are obstacle courses—and occasional horror shows—that we all need to navigate for ourselves, and even if we sometimes feel humiliated when we look back, that’s part of the point. Marcel Proust, who thought more intensely about memory and forgetting than anybody else, put it best in Within a Budding Grove:

There is no man…however wise, who has not at some period of his youth said things, or lived in a way the consciousness of which is so unpleasant to him in later life that he would gladly, if he could, expunge it from his memory. And yet he ought not entirely to regret it, because he cannot be certain that he has indeed become a wise man—so far as it is possible for any of us to be wise—unless he has passed through all the fatuous or unwholesome incarnations by which that ultimate stage must be preceded…We are not provided with wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can take for us, an effort which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world. The lives that you admire, the attitudes that seem noble to you are not the result of training at home, by a father, or by masters at school, they have sprung from beginnings of a very different order, by reaction from the influence of everything evil or commonplace that prevailed round about them. They represent a struggle and a victory.

I believe this, even if I don’t have much of a choice. My childhood is a blur, but it’s also part of me, and on some level, it never ended. King might be speaking of adolescence itself when he writes in the first sentence of It: “The terror…would not end for another twenty-eight years—if it ever did end.” And I can only echo what Updike wistfully says elsewhere: “I’ve remained all too true to my youthful self.”

The doomsday defense

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Note: Plot details follow for the X-Files episode “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat.”

You don’t usually get to pinpoint the precise moment at which your life changed, but for me, it occurred at about a quarter past nine on the evening of Friday, March 31, 1995. I was watching television in my bedroom, just a few feet away from a set that had been inconveniently placed against the wall by the foot of the bed. Because of its location, the most logical way to watch it was seated on the rug, all but pressed up against the screen, which meant that I experienced much of the second season of The X-Files from a position where I was close enough to touch it. That night, the episode was “Humbug,” and the scene that grabbed me the most was the Alligator Man’s funeral, which culminates in a character played by the circus performer Jim Rose clawing his way out of the grave to drive a steel spike into his own chest. After the attendees spill out of their chairs, Mulder waits for a beat and then deadpans: “I can’t wait for the wake.” And while this was far from the first outright joke to appear on the show—it had the usual number of quips and smart remarks that you see in any procedural—something about that line felt different from everything that came before it. It seemed to stand slightly above and to one side of the action, inviting us to note how absurd it all was before diving in even deeper. In allowing Mulder and Scully to be ironic about the situations in which they found themselves, it singlehandedly expanded the possibilities of a series that already seemed capable of anything. But it also brutally awakened us to how limited the show and its audience had been all along.

I thought of this moment again while watching the show last night, in which Mulder, now decades older, digs through a carton of videocassettes, looking in vain for a tape that no longer seems to exist. When Scully says that it can’t have been that good of an episode, Mulder shoots back: “It’s not about the episode, Scully. It’s about my memory of seeing my first Twilight Zone. It changed me. You don’t forget that.” The author of these lines, of course, is Darin Morgan, and I’d like to think that this exchange is a nod to the undeniable fact that his work changed the lives of countless viewers when it first aired more than twenty years ago. The core of Morgan’s achievement—which I define as the episodes “Humbug,” “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” “War of the Coprophages,” and “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” along with “Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense” and “Somehow Satan Got Behind Me” from Millennium and “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” and now “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” on the current revival—is my favorite body of work by any single writer on television. Over the years, it has certainly meant more to me than any other. Morgan is often remembered as the writer who introduced a note of black comedy into The X-Files, but his real contribution was his insight that humor is the only way of dealing with certain truths that can’t be ignored. A fluke monster or zombie isn’t nearly as terrifying as the knowledge that after a lifetime of struggling for love, approval, and security, we’re all destined to die alone. Not even Mulder and Scully can do anything about this. What else can you do but laugh?

“The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” is probably the last episode of The X-Files that we’ll ever get from Darin Morgan, and it plays like a valediction to a show that has consumed more of his life—and mine—than either of us had any right to expect. (If “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” was Morgan’s most modest effort since “Humbug,” “Forehead Sweat” returns to the insane formal experimentation of the two episodes featuring the writer Jose Chung, and its only real shortcoming is the unavoidable absence of the late Charles Nelson Reilly.) In typical Morgan fashion, it starts out as a riff on the Mandela Effect, complete with a reference to the Berenstain Bears, and then quietly begins to drop hints that our existential predicament is worse than we ever suspected. Morgan’s central theme has always been the futility of our pretensions in the face of death, but now he implies that even Mulder and Scully may have been wasting their time all along. He pins the blame on one figure in particular, and it isn’t the Cigarette-Smoking Man. Beneath its surface whimsy, this is the angriest, most politically charged episode in the history of The X-Files, and while some of its gags about a border wall may seem too on the nose, Morgan is writing for a future audience that will hopefully find them more obscure. But he’s also posing a question that feels all too relevant. Now that we’re living in a time when crimes can be committed in plain sight because millions of Americans seem willing to forgive, overlook, or deny everything, what’s the point of a government conspiracy? Mulder has devoted his life to searching for the truth, but even if he finds it, it’s possible that nobody will care.

Morgan doesn’t have an answer, and our world continues to change too rapidly to be satirized by even the most sophisticated works of art. (At one point in the episode, a character refers to “our current president” uttering the phrase “Nobody knows for sure.” I couldn’t place the reference, so I looked it up online, only to find that Trump had tweeted it about the status of the Dreamers just the day before the episode aired. As a radio host on The Simpsons once marveled of a computerized disk jockey: “How does it keep up with the news like that?”) But maybe the overall arc of Morgan’s career offers us a reason for hope. He never felt entirely at home in the writers room, and his skepticism toward the show itself was manifested both in his fondness for Scully—no one has ever done a better job of writing for her—and in his open contempt for Mulder. For years after leaving the series, he kicked around Hollywood without any writing credits, and he often came off as ambivalent toward his own accomplishments. Now he seems to have made his peace with it, and his status as a relative outsider allows him to express his affection for the show’s legacy more honestly than someone like Chris Carter ever could. “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” was like an olive branch to the characters with whom, for better or worse, he’ll always be associated, and “Forehead Sweat” feels like his farewell. At the end, with a sentimentality that would seem excessive coming from anyone else, Scully says to Mulder: “I want to remember it how it was. I want to remember how it all was.” So do I. In particular, I want to remember Jose Chung, whose last act, after being fatally attacked by an axe murderer, was to point to Terry O’Quinn and ask: “Don’t you just love that mustache?” And when I remember Darin Morgan, all I want to do is thank him. For all of it.

The X factor

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On Wednesday, the Washington Post published an article on the absence of women on the writing staff of The X-Files. Its author, Sonia Rao, pointed out that all of the writers for the upcoming eleventh season—including creator Chris Carter, Darin Morgan, Glen Morgan, James Wong, and three newcomers who had worked on the series as assistants—are men, adding: “It’s an industry tradition for television writers to rise through the ranks in this manner, so Carter’s choices were to be expected. But in 2017, it’s worth asking: How is there a major network drama that’s so dominated by male voices?” It’s a good question. The network didn’t comment, but Gillian Anderson responded on Twitter: “I too look forward to the day when the numbers are different.” In the same tweet, she noted that out of over two hundred episodes, only two were directed by women, one of whom was Anderson herself. (The other was Michelle MacLaren, who has since gone on to great things in partnership with Vince Gilligan.) Not surprisingly, there was also a distinct lack of female writers on the show’s original run, with just a few episodes written by women, including Anderson, Sara B. Cooper, and Kim Newton, the latter of whom, along with Darin Morgan, was responsible for one of my favorite installments, “Quagmire.” And you could argue that their continued scarcity is due to a kind of category selection, in which we tend to hire people who look like those who have filled similar roles in the past. It’s largely unconscious, but no less harmful, and I say this as a fan of a show that means more to me than just about any other television series in history.

I’ve often said elsewhere that Dana Scully might be my favorite fictional character in any medium, but I’m also operating from a skewed sample set. If you’re a lifelong fan of a show like The X-Files, you tend to repeatedly revisit your favorite episodes, but you probably never rewatch the ones that were mediocre or worse, which leads to an inevitable distortion. My picture of Scully is constructed out of four great Darin Morgan episodes, a tiny slice of the mytharc, and a dozen standout casefiles like “Pusher” and even “Triangle.” I’ve watched each of these episodes countless times, so that’s the version of the series that I remember—but it isn’t necessarily the show that actually exists. A viewer who randomly tunes into a rerun on syndication is much more likely to see Scully on an average week than in “War of the Coprophages,” and in many episodes, unfortunately, she’s little more than a foil for her partner or a convenient victim to be rescued. (Darin Morgan, who understood Scully better than anyone, seems to have gravitated toward her in part out of his barely hidden contempt for Mulder.) Despite these flaws, Scully still came to mean the world to thousands of viewers, including young women whom she inspired to go into medicine and the sciences. Gillian Anderson herself is deeply conscious of this, and this seems to have contributed to her refreshing candor here, as well as on such related issues as the fact that she was initially offered half of David Duchovny’s salary to return. Anderson understands exactly how much she means to us, and she’s conducted herself accordingly.

The fact that the vast majority of the show’s episodes were written by men also seems to have fed into one of its least appealing qualities, which was how Scully’s body—and particularly her reproductive system—was repeatedly used as a plot point. Part of this was accidental: Anderson’s pregnancy had to be written into the second season, and the writers ended up with an abduction arc with a medical subtext that became hopelessly messy later on. It may not have been planned that way, any more than anything else on this show ever was, but it had the additional misfortune of being tethered to a conspiracy storyline for which it was expected to provide narrative clarity. After the third season, nobody could keep track of the players and their motivations, so Scully’s cancer and fertility issues were pressed into service as a kind of emotional index to the rest. These were pragmatic choices, but they were also oddly callous, especially as their dramatic returns continued to diminish. And in its use of a female character’s suffering to motivate a male protagonist, it was unfortunately ahead of the curve. When you imagine flipping the narrative so that Mulder, not Scully, was one whose body was under discussion, you see how unthinkable this would have been. It’s exactly the kind of unexamined notion that comes out of a roomful of writers who are all operating with the same assumptions. It isn’t just a matter of taste or respect, but of storytelling, and in retrospect, the show’s steady decline seems inseparable from the monotony of its creative voices.

And this might be the most damning argument of all. Even before the return of Twin Peaks reminded us of how good this sort of revival could be, the tenth season of The X-Files was a crushing disappointment. It had exactly one good episode, written, not coincidentally, by Darin Morgan, and featuring Scully at her sharpest and most joyous. Its one attempt at a new female character, despite the best efforts of Lauren Ambrose, was a frustrating misfire. Almost from the start, it was clear that Chris Carter didn’t have a secret plan for saving the show, and that he’d already used up all his ideas over the course of nine increasingly tenuous seasons. It’s tempting to say that the show had burned though all of its possible plotlines, but that’s ridiculous. This was a series that had all of science fiction, fantasy, and horror at its disposal, combined with the conspiracy thriller and the procedural, and it should have been inexhaustible. It wasn’t the show that got tired, but its writers. Opening up the staff to a more diverse set of talents would have gone a long way toward addressing this. (The history of science fiction is as good an illustration as any of the fact that diversity is good for everyone, not simply its obvious beneficiaries. Editors and showrunners who don’t promote it end up paying a creative price in the long run.) For a show about extreme possibilities, it settled for formula distressingly often, and it would have benefited from adding a wider range of perspectives—particularly from writers with backgrounds that have historically offered insight into such matters as dealing with oppressive, impersonal institutions, which is what the show was allegedly about. It isn’t too late. But we might have to wait for the twelfth season.

Written by nevalalee

June 30, 2017 at 8:56 am

Subterranean fact check blues

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In Jon Ronson’s uneven but worthwhile book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, there’s a fascinating interview with Jonah Lehrer, the superstar science writer who was famously hung out to dry for a variety of scholarly misdeeds. His troubles began when a journalist named Michael C. Moynihan noticed that six quotes attributed to Bob Dylan in Lehrer’s Imagine appeared to have been fabricated. Looking back on this unhappy period, Lehrer blames “a toxic mixture of insecurity and ambition” that led him to take shortcuts—a possibility that occurred to many of us at the time—and concludes:

And then one day you get an email saying that there’s these…Dylan quotes, and they can’t be explained, and they can’t be found anywhere else, and you were too lazy, too stupid, to ever check. I can only wish, and I wish this profoundly, I’d had the temerity, the courage, to do a fact check on my last book. But as anyone who does a fact check knows, they’re not particularly fun things to go through. Your story gets a little flatter. You’re forced to grapple with all your mistakes, conscious and unconscious.

There are at least two striking points about this moment of introspection. One is that the decision whether or not to fact-check a book was left to the author himself, which feels like it’s the wrong way around, although it’s distressingly common. (“Temerity” also seems like exactly the wrong word here, but that’s another story.) The other is that Lehrer avoided asking someone to check his facts because he saw it as a painful, protracted process that obliged him to confront all the places where he had gone wrong.

He’s probably right. A fact check is useful in direct proportion to how much it hurts, and having just endured one recently for my article on L. Ron Hubbard—a subject on whom no amount of factual caution is excessive—I can testify that, as Lehrer says, it isn’t “particularly fun.” You’re asked to provide sources for countless tiny statements, and if you can’t find it in your notes, you just have to let it go, even if it kills you. (As far as I can recall, I had to omit exactly one sentence from the Hubbard piece, on a very minor point, and it still rankles me.) But there’s no doubt in my mind that it made the article better. Not only did it catch small errors that otherwise might have slipped into print, but it forced me to go back over every sentence from another angle, critically evaluating my argument and asking whether I was ready to stand by it. It wasn’t fun, but neither are most stages of writing, if you’re doing it right. In a couple of months, I’ll undergo much the same process with my book, as I prepare the endnotes and a bibliography, which is the equivalent of my present self performing a fact check on my past. This sort of scholarly apparatus might seem like a courtesy to the reader, and it is, but it’s also good for the book itself. Even Lehrer seems to recognize this, stating in his attempt at an apology in a keynote speech for the Knight Foundation:

If I’m lucky enough to write again, I won’t write a thing that isn’t fact-checked and fully footnoted. Because here is what I’ve learned: unless I’m willing to continually grapple with my failings—until I’m forced to fix my first draft, and deal with criticism of the second, and submit the final for a good, independent scrubbing—I won’t create anything worth keeping around.

For a writer whose entire brand is built around counterintuitive, surprising insights, this realization might seem bluntly obvious, but it only speaks to how resistant most writers, including me, are to any kind of criticism. We might take it better if we approached it with the notion that it isn’t simply for the sake of our readers, or our hypothetical critics, or even the integrity of the subject matter, but for ourselves. A footnote lurking in the back of the book makes for a better sentence on the page, if only because of the additional pass that it requires. It would help if we saw such standards—the avoidance of plagiarism, the proper citation of sources—not as guidelines imposed by authority from above, but as a set of best practices that well up from inside the work itself. A few days ago, there yet was another plagiarism controversy, which, in what Darin Morgan once called “one of those coincidences found only in real life and great fiction,” also involved Bob Dylan. As Andrea Pitzer of Slate recounts it:

During his official [Nobel] lecture recorded on June 4, laureate Bob Dylan described the influence on him of three literary works from his childhood: The Odyssey, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Moby-Dick. Soon after, writer Ben Greenman noted that in his lecture Dylan seemed to have invented a quote from Moby-Dick…I soon discovered that the Moby-Dick line Dylan dreamed up last week seems to be cobbled together out of phrases on the website SparkNotes, the online equivalent of CliffsNotes…Across the seventy-eight sentences in the lecture that Dylan spends describing Moby-Dick, even a cursory inspection reveals that more than a dozen of them appear to closely resemble lines from the SparkNotes site.

Without drilling into it too deeply, I’ll venture to say that if this all seems weird, it’s because Bob Dylan, of all people, after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, might have cribbed statements from an online study guide written by and for college students. But isn’t that how it always goes? Anecdotally speaking, plagiarists seem to draw from secondary or even tertiary sources, like encyclopedias, since the sort of careless or hurried writer vulnerable to indulging in it in the first place isn’t likely to grapple with the originals. The result is an inevitable degradation of information, like a copy of a copy. As Edward Tufte memorably observes in Visual Explanations: “Incomplete plagiarism leads to dequantification.” In context, he’s talking about the way in which illustrations and statistical graphics tend to lose data the more often they get copied. (In The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, he cites a particularly egregious example, in which a reproduction of a scatterplot “forgot to plot the points and simply retraced the grid lines from the original…The resulting figure achieves a graphical absolute zero, a null data-ink ratio.”) But it applies to all kinds of plagiarism, and it makes for a more compelling argument, I think, than the equally valid point that the author is cheating the source and the reader. In art or literature, it’s better to argue from aesthetics than ethics. If fact-checking strengthens a piece of writing, then plagiarism, with its effacing of sources and obfuscation of detail, can only weaken it. One is the opposite of the other, and it’s no surprise that the sins of plagiarism and fabrication tend to go together. They’re symptoms of the same underlying sloppiness, and this is why writers owe it to themselves—not to hypothetical readers or critics—to weed them out. A writer who is sloppy on small matters of fact can hardly avoid doing the same on the higher levels of an argument, and policing the one is a way of keeping an eye on the other. It isn’t always fun. But if you’re going to be a writer, as Dylan himself once said: “Now you’re gonna have to get used to it.”

Astounding Stories #4: Sinister Barrier

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Sinister Barrier

Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

At the beginning of the only episode worth watching of the tenth season of The X-Files, a dejected Mulder says wearily to Scully: “Charles Fort spent his entire life researching natural and scientific anomalies, which he published in four books, all of which I know by heart. And at the end of his life, Fort himself wondered if it hadn’t all been a waste…Is this really how I want to spend the rest of my days? Chasing after monsters?” To which Scully gently replies: “We’ve been given another case, Mulder. It has a monster in it.” And while Mulder’s air of despondency can be attributed in large part to the sensibilities of writer Darin Morgan—who once had a character divided over whether to commit suicide or become a television weatherman—the reference to Fort is revealing. Charles Fort, who died in 1932, was a tireless cataloger of anomalous events from newspapers and scientific journals, mostly gathered in the reading room of the New York Public Library, and he’s something of a secular saint to those of us who try to take an agnostic approach to the unexplained. During his life, he was the object of a small but devoted following that included the authors Theodore Dreiser and Ben Hecht, and in the years that followed, he became the hidden thread that ran through an entire subgenre of science fiction. The X-Files, as Morgan implies, falls directly in his line of descent, and if I’m honest with myself, when I look at the science fiction I’ve published, it’s obvious that I do, too.

And I’m not the only one. Take Sinister Barrier by Eric Frank Russell, which I think is one of the four or five best science fiction novels ever written. It was originally published in 1939 in the inaugural issue of Unknown, and there’s a persistent rumor that John W. Campbell founded the entire magazine solely to find a place for this sensational story, which wasn’t quite right for Astounding. The truth is a little more complicated than that, but there’s no question that the novel made a huge impression on Campbell, as it still does on receptive readers today. After a quick nod to Charles Fort on the very first page, it opens with one of the great narrative hooks of all time: scientists across the world are committing suicide in exceptionally gruesome ways, and the only factor connecting the deaths, at least at first, is the fact that each man had painted his upper arm with iodine and dosed himself with mescal and methylene blue. Bill Graham, a kind of proto-Mulder working for military intelligence, is assigned to the investigation, and as he digs even deeper into the case, the anomalies continue to multiply. He discovers that one of the dead scientists had been looking into the low rate of goiter among the institutionally insane, and in a page of discarded notes, he reads the words: Sailors are notoriously susceptible. And he ultimately realizes that an excess of iodine—common in a seafaring diet, and inversely correlated with goiter—leads to changes in the eye and nervous system that allowed the scientists to stumble across a terrible truth.

Eric Frank Russell

By this point in the novel, I was sitting up in my chair, because what Russell is doing here is so close to what I’ve spent so many stories trying to achieve. And the big revelation more than lives up to our expectations. It turns out that humanity isn’t the highest form of life on this planet: instead, we’re little more than cattle being raised and devoured by aliens called Vitons that live in the upper atmosphere. Normally, they exist in the infrared range, so they’re invisible, but after being dosed with iodine, mescal, and methylene blue, we can see them for what they really are: balls of glowing plasma that descend on their unwilling victims and suck out their emotional energy. The Vitons can also read minds, which means that they can target and destroy anyone who glimpses the truth, and once Graham realizes what is going on, he finds that his own thoughts—and even his dreams—can betray him to the enemy. Other human beings can also be controlled by the Vitons, turning them into murderous automatons, which means that he can trust no one. This only complicates his efforts to fight the menace, which he soon identifies as the secret cause behind countless seemingly unrelated events. The Vitons deliberately inflame religious hatred and incite wars, in order to feed off the violent emotions that ensue, and they’re the explanation for such disparate mysteries as the disappearance of the Mary Celeste, the enigma of Kaspar Hauser, ball lightning, and, of course, alien abductions and unidentified flying objects. And as a global cataclysm ensues, Graham finds himself at the center of the resistance movement aimed at freeing mankind from its unseen oppressors.

In all honesty, the third act of Sinister Barrier doesn’t quite live up to that amazing opening, and it all comes down to the development of a superweapon that can destroy the alien menace, a plot device that was already a cliché by the late thirties. And it suffers, like much of the science fiction of its era, from a poorly developed love interest, when Russell’s heart is so clearly elsewhere. But it’s still an amazing read. It takes the novel less than eighty pages to accelerate from that initial string of unconnected deaths to action on a planetary scale, and it’s crammed throughout with action. At its best, it’s unbelievably fun and ingenious, and at times, it eerily anticipates developments to come. (For instance, it speculates that the Vitons were behind the actual unexplained suicide of the astronomer William Wallace Campbell, who, decades later, would lend his name to the Campbell Crater on Mars—which also honors a certain science fiction editor.) It’s so good, in fact, that it makes later efforts in the same line seem almost superfluous. To modern eyes, it reads like an entire season’s worth of The X-Files compressed into a single breathless narrative, and it even anticipates The Matrix in its vision of the entire human race enslaved and fed upon without its knowledge. If Fort was the godfather of the paranormal, Russell was the first author to fully realize its possibilities in fiction, and anyone who explores the same ground is in his debt, knowingly or otherwise. And I’m strangely glad that I didn’t discover this novel until I’d already made a few similar efforts of my own. If I’d known about it, I might have been too daunted to go any further. Because a little knowledge, as Russell warns us, can be a dangerous thing.

Our struggle, part two

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William B. Davis on The X-Files

Note: Spoilers follow for the X-Files episode “My Struggle II.”

“The writers we absorb when we’re young bind us to them, sometimes lightly, sometimes with iron,” Daniel Mendelsohn once wrote in The New Yorker. “In time, the bonds fall away, but if you look very closely you can sometimes make out the pale white groove of a faded scar, or the telltale chalky red of old rust.” That’s true of movies, television, and other forms of art, too, and it’s particularly powerful when it happens in your early teens. If you want to change somebody’s life forever, just find him when he’s thirteen—and give him a book. I’ve increasingly come to recognize that two-thirds of my inner life was shaped by half a dozen objects that I happened to encounter, almost by accident, during a window of time that opened up when I was twelve and closed about two years later. They included a copy of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, a movie and a television series by David Lynch, and a pair of novels by Umberto Eco. Take any of these props away, and the whole edifice comes crashing down, or at least reassembles itself into a drastically different form. And of all the nudges I received that put me on the course I’m on today, few have been more dramatic than that of The X-Files, which premiered as I was entering the eighth grade and left a mark, or a scar like that of a smallpox vaccination, that I can still see now.

I’m writing this because I’ve realized that a young person encountering The X-Files today for the first time at age thirteen, as I did, wouldn’t even have been born when the original finale aired. It’s likely, then, that there’s a version of me being exposed to this premise and these characters courtesy of the show’s revival who has never seen the series in any other form. And I honestly have no idea what that kid must be thinking right now. Aside from a miracle of an episode from Darin Morgan, the reboot has been an undeniable letdown even for longtime fans, but to new viewers, it must seem totally inexplicable. It’s easy to picture someone watching this week’s finale—which is devoid of thrills, suspense, or even basic clarity—and wondering what all the fuss was about. I’ve long since resigned myself to the fact that my favorite television series, or at least the one that had the greatest impact on what I’ve ended up doing with my life, was so uneven that I don’t need to watch the majority of its episodes ever again. But to someone who hasn’t made that mental adjustment, or isn’t familiar with the heights the show could reach on those rare occasions when it was firing on all cylinders, the revival raises the question of why anyone was clamoring for its return in the first place. If I were watching it with someone who had never seen it before, and who knew how much I loved it, I’d be utterly humiliated.

Lauren Ambrose and Gillian Anderson on The X-Files

I don’t think anyone, aside perhaps from Chris Carter, believes that this season gained many new fans. But that isn’t the real loss. The X-Files, for all its flaws, was a show that could change lives. I’ve written here before of the Scully effect that led young women to pursue careers in science, medicine, and law enforcement—which would be completely incomprehensible to someone who knows Scully only from her reappearance here. (Gillian Anderson does what she can, as always, but she still sounds as if she’s reading the opening narration to “My Struggle II” at gunpoint. And when she sequences her own genome in what feels like record time, I just wanted her to say that she was sending it to Theranos.) The reboot isn’t likely to spark anyone’s curiosity about anything, aside from the question of why so many people cared. And while it’s a tall order to ask a television show to change lives, it isn’t so unreasonable when you consider how it once pulled it off. The X-Files entered my life and never left it because it was clever, competent, and atmospheric; it featured a pair of attractive leads whom I’d be happy to follow anywhere; and its premise pointed toward a world of possible stories, however little of it was fulfilled in practice. It changed me because it came along at the right time and it did what it was supposed to do. The reboot didn’t even manage that. If anything, it made me retroactively question my own good taste.

I won’t bother picking apart “My Struggle II” in detail, since the episode did a fine job of undermining itself, and there are plenty of postmortems available elsewhere. But I’ve got to point out the fundamental narrative miscalculation of keeping Mulder and Scully apart for the entire episode, which is indefensible, even if it was the result of a scheduling issue. Even at the revival’s low points, the chemistry between the leads was enough to keep us watching, and removing it only highlights how sloppy the rest really was. It doesn’t help that Scully is paired instead with Lauren Ambrose, giving a misdirected interpretation of a character who isn’t that far removed from Scully herself in the show’s early seasons—which just reminds us of how much Anderson brought to that part. The episode falls to pieces as you watch it, packing a contagion storyline that could have filled an entire season into less than fifty minutes, reducing Joel McHale’s right-wing pundit, who was such a promising character on paper, to a device for delivering exposition. (Since the episode ends on a cliffhanger anyway, it could have just moved it to earlier in the story, ending on the outbreak, which would have given it some breathing room. Not that I think it would have mattered.) As the revival slunk to its whimper of a close, my wife said that I’d been smart to keep my expectations low, but as it turns out, they weren’t low enough. If the series comes back, I’ll still watch it, in yet another triumph of hope over experience. Keeping up my hopes will be a struggle. But it wouldn’t be the first time.

Written by nevalalee

February 24, 2016 at 9:48 am

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