Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘David Brin

The fall of the foundation

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Note: Spoilers follow for the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov.

At the World Science Fiction Convention two years ago in Kansas City, I attended a panel where an audience member asked a question about Donald Trump. There were audible groans from the room, but one of the panelists—I think it was David Brin—drew a parallel between Trump and Nehemiah Scudder, the religious demagogue who casts an ominous shadow across Heinlein’s Future History. It was a clever comparison, but as time goes on, I’ve come to realize that there’s an even better surrogate from the golden age of science fiction. I’ve seen it mentioned here and there online, but the most thorough treatment is by Chris Taylor of Mashable, who writes of the psychohistorians of Asimov’s Foundation series:

They hope to preserve all the knowledge of civilization after the collapse of the Empire, as predicted by foresighted futurist Hari Seldon. We see them overcome various “Seldon crises,” gaining more and more star systems—until the Empire collapses halfway through the second book, Foundation and Empire, ahead of schedule. At this point in the story, the Foundation seems as secure as Obama-era technocracy did. It’s the end of history, basically—and though a group of underground democrats grumble about its rigid political system, the rational, enlightened, science-friendly Foundation has clearly triumphed over the forces of darkness and anarchy…Then out of nowhere comes the Mule, a terrifying warlord who conquers the entire Foundation in the space of a year. Seldon’s…prediction turns out to be badly wrong—as useless, say, as pre-election polling in November 2016. He didn’t see the Mule coming…[The Mule] turns out to have developed a one-in-a-trillion genetic mutation that gives him a strange power: the ability to implant the emotion of his choice in others. So the Mule instills his followers with ecstatic, fanatical loyalty, and sticks his opponents with despair and “a miserable sense of defeat.”

Taylor’s excellent article, which is worth reading in its entirety, highlights passages from Asimov’s stories—much of which the Mule spends in disguise as a clown—that have taken on an uncanny resonance. Here, for instance, we see Han Pritcher, a decorated military hero who once opposed the Mule, only to be converted by him after a failed assassination attempt:

Pritcher caught a mental breath and tried to think back. How had he been before the Mule had Converted him from the diehard democrat that he had been? It was hard to remember. He could not place himself mentally. He could not break the lining wires that bound him emotionally to the Mule…There had been no sensation the first time. There had been no pain, no mental jar—not even a feeling of discontinuity. He had always loved the Mule. If there had ever been a time long before—as long before as five short years—when he had thought he hadn’t loved him, that he had hated him—that was just a horrid illusion. The thought of that illusion embarrassed him.

And a little while later, when the First Speaker of the Second Foundation addresses the Mule directly at last:

Emotional contact such as you and I possess is not a very new development…but the faculty of direct emotional contact tended to atrophy with the development of speech a million years back…[But] you were born with it…We calculated the extent to which a megalomania would take control of you and we thought we were prepared…The added psychic distortion due to your inferiority complex passed us by. We allowed only for megalomania—not for an intensely psychopathic paranoia as well.

And if you’re wondering whether these parallels might have occurred to anyone within the Republican Party itself—well, it’s possible. Here’s what one prominent conservative wrote two decades ago in a book titled To Renew America, which seems now like a slightly less catchy version of Trump’s favorite slogan:

While Toynbee was impressing me with the history of civilizations, Isaac Asimov was shaping my view of the future in equally profound ways…For a high school student who loved history, Asimov’s most exhilarating invention was the “psychohistorian” Hari Seldon. The term does not refer to Freudian analysis but to a kind of probabilistic forecasting of the future of whole civilizations. The premise was that, while you cannot predict individual behavior, you can develop a pretty accurate sense of mass behavior. Pollsters and advertisers now make a good living off the same theory.

The author was Newt Gingrich, whose love of science fiction has been amply documented elsewhere—he wrote science fiction novels, participated in Jerry Pournelle’s think tank on the Strategic Defense Initiative, gave a controversial speech at the Nebula Awards, and mused during his last presidential campaign about placing a permanent base on the moon. And he really likes the Foundation series. As Ray Smock, the former historian of the House of Representatives, wrote in a fascinating article on the subject: “The greatest influence on Newt Gingrich, the conservative Republican, was the liberal atheist Isaac Asimov…Newt saw not just entertainment but a master plan using the Foundation trilogy as his political handbook, a guide to how one man creates a new force for civilized life.”

Gingrich, like the economist Paul Krugman, wanted to be Hari Seldon, and at first, he pursued his goals in the manner of any aspiring psychohistorian. (As Smock writes with a straight face: “While Hari Seldon created the Foundation to carry out his work, Newt used a variety of foundations and organizations to foster his work.”) So how did he become such a vocal defender of our generation’s equivalent of the Mule? Helpfully, Gingrich published an entire book on the subject, Understanding Trump, which includes a passage that sheds some light on the problem, mostly by speaking of Trump as if he were a super empath:

[Donald Trump] has a sixth sense about connecting with the American people. For instance, Trump routinely spoke to crowds of ten to twenty thousand people, but if you watched his gestures and body language, you saw that he was connecting with audience members one by one…Trump’s familiarity and comfortableness with working-class Americans also enables him to intuit what people care about and what they are looking for…In addition to giving strength and resolve to his supporters, I am sure the rallies were critical to maintaining Trump’s spirit as well. He was able to stay in tune with, and be guided by, the will of the people.

And if you want to understand the fundamental strangeness of what remains of the Republican Party, it helps to see it as an organization of men who thought fondly that they were a foundation of Hari Seldons, but who turned out to be embarrassingly eager to throw in their lot with the Mule, contenting themselves with “wins” on specific issues even as their party was irrevocably transformed. Trump, like the Mule, seems to have only gradually understood the extent of his power: “Slowly, I learned that I could reach into those minds and turn the pointer to the spot I wished, that I could nail it there forever.” Now he clearly knows what he can do. And he fooled many of us for a long time into thinking that he was a clown.

Reading your own future

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Ender's Game

If you were to ask me why you should bother reading the science fiction of the thirties and forties, I’d say that you probably shouldn’t. At least not until you really felt like it. “The golden age of science fiction is twelve,” the fan Peter Graham famously said, and he was even more right than he knew: most readers get into science fiction in their preteens, and they read it in the way everyone should at that age—which is to say, essentially at random. A tattered paperback cover that catches your eye counts for a lot more than a recommendation from any adult, and you follow your nose from one title to the next, like a bee moving between flowers. For my generation, the gateway drug was likely to be a novel like Ender’s Game, which is still going strong, but the specific books and authors don’t matter very much. What counts is that science fiction scratches an itch that certain young readers never knew they had, and once they’ve experienced that feeling, they’re bound to seek it out again, even if it’s in a haphazard fashion. And it should be haphazard, at least at first. Science fiction has always been characterized by the intense pleasure that it gives to its readers, and by the inexpressible psychic craving that it satisfies, and the writers who do it best for any given individual can’t be predicted in advance. What young readers are really doing, aside from falling in love with the idea of the genre, is refining their instincts about where the loot is buried, which often involves finding characters who look and talk more or less like they do. They take plenty of wrong turns and they read a lot of junk along the way, but it mostly evens out in the end.

Here’s the funny thing: a young reader of twelve today, left to his or her own devices, is recreating exactly the same process that led to the creation of the science fiction community more than eighty years ago. Readers of that generation weren’t particularly picky. They were mostly limited to what appeared in the newsstand pulps every month, much of which was frankly terrible, and there weren’t any anthologies available. When you go back to read some of those forgotten stories now, it’s easy to wonder how the genre survived at all. But if it hung on so tenaciously, even as the magazines themselves struggled or folded, it was because of the urgent, primal need that it filled. When you’re reading to save your life, or to convince yourself that there’s something more to this world than the sticky hell of early adolescence, you’re not going to be overly discriminating in what you consume. This isn’t to say that fans couldn’t criticize the stories once they were done: one of the first things you notice when you go back to read the old letters columns in Astounding is how cheerfully the readers savage the magazines that they claimed to love. Tearing apart stories that don’t meet your standards is a pastime as honorable as fandom itself, and it only works when your confidence isn’t limited by your age or experience. Their opinions were idiosyncratic, unreasonable, prone to falling into violent disputes over tiny differences, and cobbled together from some of the least orderly reading lives imaginable. They were sorting it out for themselves, and the last thing you wanted was to tell them what to read—no more than you’d try to control a preteen who was discovering science fiction for the first time today. The only project that matters is the creation of the reader, and it emerges when it’s left mostly alone.

The World of Null-A

This doesn’t happen overnight. It might take six months, or twenty years. But once that reader bursts into existence—full of conviction, righteous prejudice, and disdain for the status quo—it becomes easier to see why it’s worth going back to those older writers. Along the way, the average fan will have read scraps of the old tradition here and there, but as soon as you go back to engage with it more systematically, it’s usually for a reason. As Paul Valéry said: “One only reads well that which one reads with some quite personal purpose. It may be to acquire some power. It can be out of hatred for the author.” And it’s fair to say that you can only arrive at these emotions after you’ve spent a while figuring out the genre for yourself. The reasons will differ widely between readers. You may read these stories so that you can cross a title off a list and say so, even if it’s just to a hypothetical interlocutor in your head. Maybe you’re starting to write your own stories, and you see yourself as “a wildcat miner drilling out resources that are shrinking,” in David Brin’s words, which means that you have to see what your predecessors have done for the sake of competitive advantage. You might be reading them solely with an eye to picking them apart. And you might even simply be reading these authors because you’ve heard from multiple sources that you’ll enjoy the hell out of the experience. None of these motivations is better than any other, and they probably only achieve their true strength in combination. But reading the stories of the past is just one aspect, and not always the most important one, of a reading life that can hardly help but assume its own unique, necessary form.

And along the way, something strange happens. If you’ve remained true to yourself, followed your nose, and expressed strong opinions in advance of having the knowledge to back them up, you discover that you’re part of a conversation that has been going on since long before you were born. The test for admission isn’t the mastery of any particular list of stories, but the fact of having been a certain kind of twelve year old—and it’s never too late to begin. Unlike most conversations, much of it took place in print, so you’ll eventually want to investigate what has been said before you arrived on the scene. You may not see much of yourself in the writers you discover, and they might not have seen much of themselves in you, but you also have more in common with them than you will with anyone else. Maybe you’ll only dig a little, or not at all, or maybe you’ll dig so deeply that it becomes an obstacle to your development in itself. But you’re building up an inner life that won’t look like any other, and you’ll spend much of it raiding other writers for parts. Sooner or later, I think, most readers realize that there are useful components that they won’t find if they confine themselves to the obvious: it’s how I felt when I discovered A.E. van Vogt, whom I never would have read if I hadn’t made a conscious effort to seek out these older stories. It will probably be someone else for you, and I can’t tell you who it will be or where to begin, although I’m happy to give you a list if you want it. All that matters is that you become the reader you were meant to be, who is both utterly unlike and surprisingly similar to all those who came before you. Because the only future science fiction has ever been good at predicting is that of its own readers.

Written by nevalalee

August 12, 2016 at 8:43 am

A trap baited with grass

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David Brin

Last month, in a post about the origins of my novelette “Stonebrood,” I quoted the author David Brin, who compared writing science fiction—with tongue in cheek—to wildcat oil drilling. Here’s more of what he said:

If you think that the territory of notions is limited, then the hard SF writer is like a wildcat miner drilling out resources that are shrinking. For whatever it’s worth, some people think that way. A lot of SF writers aren’t writing hard science fiction because they think most of it has been written. If their reasoning is true—and I don’t think it is—one of the reasons is that you have writers like Larry Niven out there mining out whole veins and leaving nothing left for the rest of us to explore…He not only mines all those marvelous veins of ideas, he mines them to exhaustion.

Brin may not believe that writing is really like wildcatting, but his image gets at something meaningful about how authors work. When you embark on a project of any length, you’re making an excursion into unexplored territory. You can pick the area based on promising signs in the landscape, but in the end, you have no choice but to start digging and hope that the effort pays off. There’s skill involved, but also a lot of luck.

And a writer is less like a modern oil company with a team of geologists than a lone wildcatter driven by an obsession, like Daniel Plainview at the start of There Will Be Blood. Brian Frehner, in his interesting study Finding Oil, refers to them as “vernacular prospectors,” and describes how some relied on dowsing rods and mysterious black boxes called doodlebugs to identify potential sources of oil. It was crackpot science, but to the extent that it worked, it was as a way of focusing the user’s own hunches:

Like a blind man navigating the terrain with a cane, the most successful doodlebug prospectors also surveyed the landscape, and this activity cultivated within them an instinct for recognizing changes in topography and vegetation that indicated the presence of oil. In order to operate a doodlebug, [a prospector] explained that “you’ve got to have a lot of common sense and some knowledge of oil to get any effective results.”

Similarly, any writer eventually develops his or her own bag of superstitious tricks for identifying promising material, even if they’re ultimately just a means of enabling extended thought or reflection. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the specific tools that writers use, from mind maps to tarot cards, are less important in themselves than as an excuse that forces you to sit and think for the necessary number of hours that any idea requires.

Robert Caro

But sometimes your intuition can fail you, even if you’re an experienced writer who has navigated the blank places on the map before. I got to thinking about this after reading Robert A. Caro’s description of the Hill Country of Texas in The Path to Power, the first volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson. Describing the view that greeted settlers in the nineteenth century, Caro writes:

The tall grass of the Hill Country stretched as far as the eye could see, covering valleys and hillsides alike…To these men the grass was proof that their dreams would come true. In country where grass grew like that, cotton would surely grow tall, and cattle fat—and men rich. In a country where grass grew like that, they thought, anything would grow.

He concludes bleakly: “How could they know about the grass?” In reality, the grass of the Hill Country had taken centuries to form, growing on a thin, fragile layer of soil over limestone, and as soon as it was eaten by cattle or otherwise denuded, it would never return. In Caro’s memorable words, the Hill Country was “a trap baited with grass.” And any writer can relate to the problem of encountering what seems like a promising area for a story—just look at all that grass!—only to end up striking bare rock.

Even worse, it can take weeks, months, or even years of effort before the writer realizes that the land has gone sour. (As Ted Hughes once said, quoting an unnamed playwright: “Dramatists waste eighty percent of their productive life on unworkable ideas that have to be abandoned.”) And even caution and long experience can’t always defend you against such mistakes. Caro continues:

Moreover, as to the adequacy of rainfall, the evidence of the settlers’ own eyes was often misleading, for one aspect of the trap was especially convincing—and especially cruel…Rain can be plentiful in the Hill Country not just for one year, but for two or three—or more—in a row. Men, even cautious men, therefore could arrive during a wet cycle and conclude—and write home confidently—that rainfall was adequate, even abundant. And when, suddenly, the cycle shifted…who could blame these men for being sure that the dry spell was an aberration; that it would surely rain the next year—or the next? It had to, they felt; there was plenty of rain in the Hill Country—hadn’t they seen it with their own eyes?

The italics are mine. All the caution in the world can’t prevent us from sinking months or years of our lives into ideas that won’t pay off in the way we hoped. The only way to avoid it is to stick only to the areas that have been thoroughly explored, which can lead to its own kind of disappointment. Any ambitious writer—which is to say, any writer determined to strike off on his or her own—will fall into that trap sooner or later. And when it happens, all we can do is pull up stakes, try somewhere else, and hope that this time we’ll find the land that we need.

Written by nevalalee

October 6, 2015 at 8:54 am

The Making of “Stonebrood,” Part 1

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A RoboBee

Note: For the next three days, I’ll discussing how I conceived and wrote my novelette “Stonebrood,” the lead story in the October issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. A long excerpt can be found here, and the whole thing is available both on newsstands and for purchase online.

At this point in my life, I’ve written a bunch of short stories, and you’d think that the process would have gotten a little easier by now. Invariably, though, whenever I sit down to write something from scratch, I’m paralyzed by the fear that I won’t be able to do it again, and I can barely remember—despite the detailed notes that I keep about my process—how I’ve done it before. And this insecurity isn’t entirely unfounded. When you’re a reasonably prolific writer, you end up caught in an arm’s race between two competing trends. On the one hand, you’re a stronger, more efficient craftsman than you were when you first started, and you’ve learned a few tricks along the way about plot and character, even if, as Jack Woodford notes, you can’t always articulate what it is that you’re doing. On the other hand, once you’ve written half a dozen stories for public consumption, you find yourself boxed in, not just by the possibilities of any one idea, but by all the other ideas that you’ve already used. If you don’t want to repeat yourself, you soon realize that each story you write closes off certain avenues for future exploration. As David Brin once wrote: “If you think that the territory of notions is limited, then the hard [science fiction] writer is like a wildcat miner drilling out resources that are shrinking.” And while that’s true of the field as a whole, it’s also true of any one writer and his or her own backlog of ideas.

In my case, I’ve found that I tend to fall back repeatedly on a couple of stock formulas, notably the story in which what looks like a paranormal phenomenon turns out to have a valid, if highly unlikely, scientific explanation. (In a way, it follows the basic form of an episode of The X-Files while inverting its logic: my stories take place in an equally weird universe in which Dana Scully is always right.) In practice, this kind of story has a way of relying on the same handful of monkey tricks, in which, for instance, the events hinge on some obscure medical condition, the symptoms of which are misinterpreted until the end as something else. When the stories are read individually, there’s no reason why I can’t resort to that gimmick as often as it works, as long as the plot and setting are distinctive enough to make their similarities less obvious: these stories appear few and far between, and I don’t know how many readers remember them well enough to see a pattern there. But I’m also writing with one eye to that hypothetical day when all of these stories will be collected within book covers—if not by a conventional publisher, then at least in an electronic edition that I assemble myself for my own satisfaction. And when you read a string of such stories back to back, it soon becomes clear if a writer relies too often on the same kind of twist. Whether or not this is a valid concern is beside the point: if it motivates me to strike out in new directions, it’s probably a good thing.

Centralia, Pennsylvania

And if you’re really worried about writing the same kind of story too often, there are basically two things you can do. The first approach tackles the problem from the top down: you can pick a notably different story type or subcategory and see what happens when you try to work within those conventions. This was the tack that I followed with “Cryptids,” which was basically a straight monster story, and although the success of the outcome is debatable—many readers seem to have liked the result better than I did—you can’t say that it reads like the other stories I’ve written. The second approach, which is more interesting, is to start from the bottom up: you seek out raw material from a different source than the ones that have provided you with ideas in the past. Many of my premises have emerged from science journals or magazines, which lends itself to a particular kind of plot: the twist, when it comes, is surprising to the extent that it turns on a quirky fact that most readers wouldn’t be expected to know off the tops of their heads. When I decided, about a year ago, to write something new, I figured I’d start somewhere else. In this case, I picked up a stack of back issues of The Atlantic, which is hardly known for its science coverage, and browsed in it until something caught my eye. I was looking for articles that suggested a setting or general plot structure, preferably with a lot of background material that I could use, and I finally found it in the form of a long article by Brian Mockenhaupt on the tragic case of nineteen firefighters who died in a wildfire near Yarnell, Arizona.

It’s a compelling, beautifully researched piece, and I could tell at a glance that could form the basis of a good story. Even better, it reminded me of an article that I’d read and filed away a few months earlier with an eye to developing it later: a New York Times piece by Fernanda Santos about the convict crews that are increasingly being put to work fighting forest fires in places like Yarnell. At the time, I had the vague notion of writing up something like Con Air meets Backdraft, which is an idea I’m happy to pass to any aspiring screenwriters who might be reading. Since this was going to be a story for Analog, though, I started to look for a scientific angle using the dumbest method imaginable—I did a few searches in the archives of my favorite science magazines to see if I could find anything interesting about firefighting. As luck would have it, I found two articles right away in Discover that sparked a chain of ideas of their own. The first was about coal seam fires, the invisible infernos that can rage underground for decades, most famously in the ghost town of Centralia, Pennsylvania; the other was about the use of tiny drones, resembling bees, that might be used by firefighters to send back information about the inside of a burning building. Within seconds, I saw the outline of a story about a convict crew fighting a coal seam fire and using drones to map it. It was a nifty image, but it lacked characters or a plot. Tomorrow, I’ll talk a little more about how a narrative began to suggest itself, and why I named the story after a disease that can be caught by beekeepers.

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