Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Douglas Hofstadter

The surprising skepticism of The X-Files

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Gillian Anderson in "Jose Chung's From Outer Space"

Note: To celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the premiere of The X-Files, I’m republishing a post that originally appeared, in a somewhat different form, on September 9, 2013.

Believe it or not, this week marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of The X-Files, which aired its first episode on September 10, 1993. As much as I’d like to claim otherwise, I didn’t watch the pilot that night, and I’m not even sure that I caught the second episode, “Deep Throat.” “Squeeze,” which aired the following week, is the first installment that I clearly remember seeing on its original broadcast, and I continued to tune in afterward, although only sporadically. In its early days, I had issues with the show’s lack of continuity: it bugged me to no end that after every weekly encounter with the paranormal—any one of which should have been enough to upend Scully’s understanding of the world forever—the two leads were right back where they were at the start of the next episode, and few, if any, of their cases were ever mentioned again. Looking back now, of course, it’s easy to see that this episodic structure was what allowed the show to survive, and that it was irrevocably damaged once it began to take its backstory more seriously. In the meantime, I learned to accept the show’s narrative logic on its own terms. And I’m very grateful that I did.

It’s no exaggeration to say that The X-Files has had a greater influence on my own writing than any work of narrative art in any medium. That doesn’t mean it’s my favorite work of art, or even my favorite television show—only that Chris Carter’s supernatural procedural came along at the precise moment in my young adulthood that I was most vulnerable to being profoundly influenced by a great genre series. I was thirteen when the show premiered, toward the end of the most pivotal year of my creative life. Take those twelve months away, or replace them with a different network of cultural influences, and I’d be a different person altogether. It was the year I discovered Umberto Eco, Stephen King, and Douglas R. Hofstadter; Oliver Stone’s JFK set me on a short but fruitful detour into the literature of conspiracy; I bought a copy of Very by the Pet Shop Boys, about which I’ll have a lot more to say soon; I acquired copies of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories; and I took my first deep dive into the work of David Lynch and, later, Jorge Luis Borges. Some of these works have lasted, while others haven’t, but they all shaped who I became, and The X-Files stood at the heart of it all, with imagery drawn in equal part from Twin Peaks and Dealey Plaza and a playful, agnostic spirit that mirrored that of the authors I was reading at the same time.

Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny in The X-Files pilot

And this underlying skepticism—which may seem like a strange word to apply to The X-Files—was a big part of its appeal. What I found enormously attractive about the show was that although it took place in a world of aliens, ghosts, and vampires, it didn’t try to force these individual elements into one overarching pattern. Even in its later seasons, when it attempted, with mixed results, to weave its abduction and conspiracy threads into a larger picture, certain aspects remained incongruously unexplained. The same world shaped by the plans of the Consortium or Syndicate also included lake monsters, clairvoyants, and liver-eating mutants, all of whom would presumably continue to go about their business after the alien invasion occurred. It never tried to convert us to anything, because it didn’t have any answers. And what I love about it now, in retrospect, is the fact that this curiously indifferent attitude toward its own mysteries arose from the structural constraints of network television itself. Every episode had to stand on its own. There was no such thing as binge-watching. The show had to keep moving or die.

Which goes a long way toward explaining why even fundamentally skeptical viewers, like me, could become devoted fans, or why Mulder and Scully could appear on the cover of the Skeptical Inquirer. It’s true that Scully was never right, but it’s remarkable how often it seemed that she could be, which is due as much to the show’s episodic construction as to Gillian Anderson’s wonderful performance. (As I’ve mentioned before, Scully might be my favorite character on any television show.) Every episode changed the terms of the game, complete with a new supporting cast, setting, and premise—and after the advent of Darin Morgan, even the tone could be wildly variable. As a result, it was impossible for viewers to know where they stood, which made a defensive skepticism seem like the healthiest possible attitude. Over time, the mythology grew increasingly unwieldy, and the show’s lack of consistency became deeply frustrating, as reflected in its maddening, only occasionally transcendent reboot. The X-Files eventually lost its way, but not until after a haphazard, often dazzling initial season that established, in spite of what its creators might do in the future, that anything was possible, and no one explanation would ever be enough. And it’s a lesson that I never forgot.

Written by nevalalee

September 14, 2018 at 9:00 am

Life Itself and the art of the memoir

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Roger Ebert

Over the weekend, I finally picked up a copy of Life Itself, the late Roger Ebert’s extraordinary memoir and valediction for one of the richest of recent American lives. I’m not sure why it took me so long to read it, but I suspect that it had something to do with my own resistance to Ebert’s shifting cultural role in his final years: as someone who grew up on his reviews—and basically learned how to read and think in the process—I liked to think of Ebert as more of a private friend. As the reaction to his illness and death made abundantly clear, though, that’s how he seemed to many of us. He was funny, accessible, unfailingly wise, and the last of the great figures from a golden age of journalism. Not surprisingly, his memoir is a delight, the first book in ages that I’ve been physically unable to put down. Ebert’s personality always came through in his reviews and essays, which amount to a disguised autobiography delivered over five decades, but here he speaks more candidly about the subjects he couldn’t discuss before: his alcoholism, his love life, his struggles with weight, and the curious business of being both a critic and a public figure with greater name recognition than many of the filmmakers he covered.

Life Itself is organized thematically, which allows me to skip from chapter to chapter in search of whatever tidbits I feel like reading about at the moment. There are juicy sections devoted to Ebert’s friendships and interactions with such directors as Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, and Russ Meyer, and an especially memorable chapter on Gene Siskel, all crammed with anecdotes, jokes, and memories. Ebert’s closing mediations on sickness, silence, and mortality are all the more moving because of the crowded eventfulness of the life that preceded it. And the way the memoir moves from one subject to the next, allowing the reader to browse with ease, creates a curious impression: it feels less like a book than a conversation, or even like the man himself, as if we’ve all been given the chance to hear Ebert’s voice on whatever we feel like talking about one last time. As far back as Montaigne, who concealed his autobiography beneath a series of seemingly disconnected reflections, readers and writers alike have known that an author lives most fully within a structure that makes that kind of interaction possible, allowing us to open happily to the middle and dive in—which, after all, is the way we experience the lives and minds of those around us.

Vladimir Nabokov

When I look at the memoirs and autobiographies I’ve enjoyed and revisited the most, I find that most of them have this kind of thematic structure, so that the life becomes less a dry series of dates and events than a set of perspectives that allow us to regard the author from every angle. As Borges writes:

A history of a man’s dreams is not inconceivable; another, of all the organs of his body; another, on the mistakes he made; another, of all the moments when he thought about the Pyramids; another, of his dealings with the night and with the dawn.

Such a book, with each chapter devoted to a different inner history, would be much more readable than the staid chronological scheme favored by most biographers. (Borges continues: “One life of Poe consists of seven hundred octavo pages; the author, fascinated by changes of residence, barely manages one parenthesis for the Malestrom or the cosmogony of ‘Eureka.'”) And while this book can only be written by one person—its subject—that’s all the more reason to wish that more writers would take this approach when the time came to set down something meaningful about their lives.

My own short list of favorite memoirs, for instance, consists almost entirely of works with this sort of arrangement: Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov, Self-Consciousness by John Updike, I, Asimov by you know who. (Curiously, one of my favorite autobiographies of all, Asimov’s earlier volumes In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt, takes the opposite approach, treating each minor event in the author’s life as if he had no knowledge of what was coming next. The fact that Asimov gets away with it—especially given that most of his life was spent at a writing desk—only speaks to his talents.) It’s perhaps no accident that all these books, like Ebert’s, are obsessed by the idea of mortality, as expressed in Nabokov’s opening lines: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” Writing one’s memoirs, like writing of any kind, is an attempt to cheat death, or of ensuring that some fragment of our thoughts or personalities will survive us when we’re gone. And if you want to outlive yourself, the best way is to tell us what you thought about a few important things, as Douglas Hofstadter writes of his late friend Randy Read: “Perhaps these musings, dancing and sparking in the neurons of a few thousand readers out there, will keep alive, in scattered form, a tiny piece of his soul.”

The surprising skepticism of The X-Files

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Gillian Anderson in "Jose Chung's From Outer Space"

Tomorrow, believe it or not, marks the twentieth anniversary of The X-Files, which aired its first episode on September 10, 1993. As much as I’d like to claim otherwise, I didn’t watch the pilot that night; I’m not even sure I watched the second episode, “Deep Throat.” “Squeeze,” which aired the following week, is the first installment I remember seeing on its original broadcast, and later, I continued to tune in, although only sporadically at first. In its early days, I had some issues with the show’s lack of continuity: it bugged me to no end that after every weekly encounter with the paranormal—any one of which should have been enough to upend Mulder or Scully’s understanding of the world forever—the two leads were right back where they were at the start of the next episode, and few, if any cases were ever mentioned again. Looking back now, of course, it’s easy to see that this episodic structure was what allowed the show to survive, and that it was irrevocably damaged once it began to take its backstory more seriously. In the meantime, I eventually learned to accept the show’s narrative logic on its own terms. And I’m very grateful that I did.

It’s no exaggeration to say that The X-Files has had a greater influence on my own writing than any work of narrative art in any medium. That doesn’t mean it’s my favorite work of art, or even my favorite television show. What it does mean is that Chris Carter’s supernatural procedural came along at just the point in my life when I was ready to be profoundly influenced by a great genre series. I was thirteen when the show premiered, and the more I age, the more this starts to seem like the pivotal year of my creative development. Take that year away, or replace it with a different set of cultural influences, and I’d be a different person altogether. It was the year I discovered the work of Umberto Eco and Douglas Hofstadter; Oliver Stone’s JFK set me on a short but fruitful detour into the literature of conspiracy; and it marked my first deep dive into the work of David Lynch and, later, Jorge Luis Borges. Some of these works have lasted for me, while others haven’t, but they’ve all played a part in shaping who I am, and The X-Files stood at the heart of it all, with imagery drawn in equal part from Twin Peaks and Dealey Plaza and a playful, agnostic spirit that mirrored those of the intellectuals and authors I was reading at the same time.

Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny in The X-Files pilot

And this underlying skepticism—which may seem like a strange word to apply to The X-Files—was a big part of its appeal. What I found enormously attractive about the show was that although it took place in a world filled with aliens, ghosts, and vampires, it didn’t try to force all of these individual elements into one overarching pattern. Even in its later seasons, when it attempted, with mixed results, to weave its abduction and conspiracy threads into a larger picture, certain aspects remained stubbornly, incongruously unexplained: the same world shaped by the plans of the Consortium or Syndicate also included lake monsters, clairvoyants, and liver-eating mutants, all of whom would presumably continue to go about their own lives after the alien invasion occurred. The show, remarkably, never tried to convert us to anything. It didn’t have any answers. And what I love about it now, in retrospect, is the fact that this oddly indifferent attitude toward its own mysteries arose from the vagaries of network television itself. Every episode had to stand on its own. There was no such thing as binge-watching. The show had to keep moving or die.

Which goes a long way toward explaining why even fundamentally skeptical viewers, like me, could become devoted fans—or why Mulder and Scully could appear on the cover of the Skeptical Inquirer. It’s true that Scully was never right, but it’s remarkable how often it seemed that she could be, or should be, which is due as much to the show’s episodic construction as to Gillian Anderson’s wonderful performance. (As I’ve mentioned before, Scully might be my favorite character on any television show.) With every episode changing the terms of the game, complete with a new supporting cast, setting, and premise, it was impossible for viewers to know where they stood, and a defensive skepticism was as healthy an attitude as any. If the show premiered again today, I have a feeling that much of this quality would be lost: there would be greater pressure to establish a mythology up front, or to tell overarching stories that required thirteen episodes to completely unfold. The X-Files did go this way eventually, alas, but not until after a haphazard, remarkably rich initial season that established, in spite of what its creators might try in the future, that anything was possible, and no one explanation would ever be enough. Tomorrow, I’ll talk a little more about how deeply the result has influenced my own fiction, and why I suspect that it will continue to do so.

Written by nevalalee

September 9, 2013 at 9:06 am

A writer’s code

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Anagram generator from Foucault's Pendulum

One of the small pleasures in writing this blog—and in particular in coming up with the quotes of the day—has been a renewed appreciation of the affinities between writing fiction and computer programming. There’s a remarkably rich body of literature on the art of coding, and simply by browsing through the available works in search of memorable insights, I’ve come to realize that coders deal with many of the same problems that I’ve had to confront in my novels, especially structure, clarity, and managing complexity. Hacking, like writing, requires a balance between formal elegance and quick and dirty fixes, and a coder is often required to choose between ingenuity and readability: a clever solution may be beautiful in the moment, but it can be all but impenetrable if the author—or anyone else—comes back to pick it apart months or years later. And unlike novelists, coders get immediate feedback on the validity of their solutions from a rigorous, if somewhat unimaginative, reader.

The problem is that I haven’t done a lot of hacking on my own. Growing up, I spent hours messing with BASIC on an ancient “portable” computer that didn’t even have a hard drive. (My earliest program, written when I was thirteen or so, involved expanding the anagram generator that Umberto Eco provides in Foucault’s Pendulum to handle words of more than four characters.) Later, I took a computer science class or two in high school, but I haven’t done anything meaningful since.  More recently, I’ve found myself longing to jump back into programming for a fairly specific reason: not to do any serious coding of my own, and certainly not to get paid for it, but simply to gain access to the enormous amount of material written by coders on how they approach their work. Compared to the handful of well-worn tidbits that writers repeatedly invoke on craft, it strikes me as admirably pragmatic, dense, and varied, and even at a glance, it clearly has elements that I can put into practice.

A snippet of source code from Doom 3

This leaves me with the question of which language to learn, an issue that inspires predictably strong opinions on all sides. Not surprisingly, I made the final call based on the books I wanted to read. At the moment, I’m working through The C Programming Language by Dennis Ritchie and Brian Kernighan, which is generally regard as the best book of its kind, and I’m planning to follow it up with The Design and Evolution of C++ by Bjarne Stroustrup, which is one of those extended looks into a sustained design process that I find so irresistible, whether the subject is writing, animation, or cuisine. C and C++ might seem like odd choices for recreational coding, but they’re useful for my purposes because there’s so much source code available, along with what I can only describe as a highly specialized form of literary criticism, like Shawn McGrath’s recent appreciation of the beauty of Doom 3. There’s a whole world of material out there, and I’ve found that it only takes a little work to start to appreciate the basics.

Once I’ve played with C and C++ to my satisfaction, I’m hoping to jump into Lisp. This might seem like another strange choice, and I hope to explore it further in a future post. Suffice to say that Lisp, like C, offers a range of interesting reading material, from Paul Graham’s books on the subject to Douglas Hofstadter’s three essays in Metamagical Themas to Peter Seibel’s Practical Common Lisp. (Seibel, a former English major, is also the author of Coders at Work, which attempts to do for hacking what the Paris Review interviews did for fiction.) Lisp also strikes me as the most novelistic programming language, and the one with the greatest natural affinities to creative writing—but we’ll see. When you’re a writer, you’re always looking for tricks that your peers haven’t discovered yet, as well as any source of insight or competitive advantage, and given my interests and approach to craft, I think a deep dive into coding is the next logical step. Whether or not it yields anything useful is something I’m still waiting to find out. But if it does, you’ll be reading about it here.

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