Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Frank Herbert

The search for the zone

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Note: This post discusses plot points from Twin Peaks.

Last night’s episode of Twin Peaks featured the surprise return of Bill Hastings, the high school principal in Buckhorn, South Dakota who is somehow connected to the headless body of Major Garland Briggs. We hadn’t seen Hastings, played by Matthew Lillard, since the season premiere, and his reappearance marked one of the first times that the show has gone back to revisit an earlier subplot. Hastings, we’re told, maintained a blog called The Search for the Zone, in which he chronicled his attempts to contact other planes of reality, and the site really exists, of course, in the obligatory manner of such online ephemera as Save Walter White and the defunct What Badgers Eat. It’s a marketing impulse that seems closer to Mark Frost than David Lynch—if either of them were even involved—and I normally wouldn’t even mention it at all. Along with its fake banner ads and retro graphics, however, the page includes a section titled “Heinlein Links,” with a picture of Robert A. Heinlein and a list of a few real sites, including my friends over at The Heinlein Society. As “Hastings” writes: “Science Fiction has been a source of enjoyment for me since I was ten years old, when I read Orphans of the Sky.” Frankly, this already feels like a dead end, and, like the references to L. Ron Hubbard and Jack Parsons in The Secret History of Twin Peaks, it recalls some of the show’s least intriguing byways. (Major Briggs and the villainous Windom Earle, you might recall, were involved in Project Blue Book, the study of unidentified flying objects conducted by the Air Force, but the thread didn’t really lead anywhere, except perhaps to set off a train of thought for Chris Carter.) I enjoyed last night’s episode, but it was the most routine installment of the season so far, and this attempt at virality might be the most conventional touch of all. But since this might represent the only time in which my love of Twin Peaks will overlap with my professional interests, I should probably dig into it.

Orphans of the Sky, which was originally published as the two novellas “Universe” and “Common Sense” in Astounding Science Fiction in 1941, is arguably the most famous treatment of one of the loveliest ideas in science fiction—the generation starship, a spacecraft designed to travel for centuries or millennia until it reaches its destination. (Extra points if the passengers forget that they’re on a spaceship at all.) It’s also one of the few stories by Heinlein that can be definitively traced back to an idea provided by the editor John W. Campbell. On September 20, 1940, Campbell wrote to Heinlein with a detailed outline of the premise:

Sometime along about 3763, an expedition is finally launched from Earth to outer space—and I mean outer space…[The ship is] five miles in diameter, intended for about two thousand inhabitants, and equipped with gardens, pasturage, etc., for animals. It’s a self-sustaining economy…They’re bound for Alpha Centauri at a gradually building speed…The instruments somehow develop a systematic error, due to imperfect compensation for the rotation; they miss Centauri, plunging past it too rapidly and too far away to make landing. A brief revolt leads to the death of the few men aboard fully competent to make the necessary changes of mechanism for changing course and backtracking to Centauri. The ship can only plunge on.

But the story would be laid somewhere about 1430 After the Beginning. The characters are the remote descendants of those who took off, centuries before, from Earth. And they’re savages. The High Chiefs are the priest-engineers, who handle the small amount of non-automatic machinery…There are princes and nobles—and dull peasants. There are monsters, too, who are usually killed at birth, since every woman giving birth is required to present her baby before an inspector. That’s because of mutations, some of which are unspeakably hideous. One of which might, however, be a superman, and the hero of the story.

If you’ve read “Universe,” you can see that Campbell laid out most of it here, and that Heinlein used nearly all of it, down to the smallest details, although he later played down the extent of Campbell’s influence. (Decades later, in the collection Expanded Universe, Heinlein flatly, and falsely, stated that the unrelated serial Sixth Column “was the only story of mine ever influenced to any marked degree by John W. Campbell, Jr.”) But the two men also chose to emphasize different aspects of the narrative, in ways that reflected their interests and personalities. Most of Campbell’s letter, when it wasn’t talking about the design of the spacecraft itself, was devoted to the idea of the “scientisthood,” or a religion founded on a misinterpretation of science:

They’ve lost science, save for the priest class, who study it as a religion, and horribly misunderstand it because they learn from books written by and for people who dwelt on a planet near a sun. Here, the laws of gravity are meaningless, astronomy senseless, most of science purely superstition from a forgotten time. Naturally, there was a religious schism, a building-up of a new bastard science-religion that based itself on a weird and unnatural blending of the basic laws of science and the basic facts of their own experience…Anything is possible, and might be darned interesting. Particularly the queer, fascinating system of science-religion and so forth they’d have to live by.

The idea of a religion based on a misreading of the textbook Basic Modern Physics is a cute inversion of one of Campbell’s favorite plot devices—a fake religion deliberately dreamed up by scientists, which we see in such stories as the aforementioned Sixth Column, Isaac Asimov’s “Bridle and Saddle,” and Fritz Leiber, Jr.’s Gather, Darkness. In “Universe,” Heinlein touches on this briefly, but he was far more interested in the jarring perceptual and conceptual shift that the premise implied, which tied back into his interest in Alfred Korzybski and General Semantics: how do you come to terms with the realization that the only world you’ve ever known is really a small part of an incomprehensibly vaster reality?

“Universe” is an acknowledged landmark of the genre, although its sequel, “Common Sense,” feels more like work for hire. It isn’t hard to relate it to Hastings, whose last blog post reads in part:

We will have to reconcile with the question that if someone from outside our familiar world gains access to our plane of existence, what ramifications will that entail? There might be forces at work from deep dimensional space, or from the future…or are these one in [sic] the same?

But I’d hesitate to take the Heinlein connection too far. Twin Peaks—and most of David Lynch’s other work—has always asked us to look past the surface of things to an underlying pattern that is stranger than we can imagine, but it has little in common with the kind of cold, slightly dogmatic rationalism that we tend to see in Campbell and early Heinlein. Both men, like Korzybski or even Ayn Rand, claimed that they were only trying to get readers to think for themselves, but in practice, they were markedly impatient of anyone who disagreed with their answers. Lynch and Mark Frost’s brand of transcendence is looser, more dreamlike, and more intuitive, and its insights are more likely to be triggered by a song, the taste of coffee, or a pair of red high heels than by logical analysis. (When the show tries to lay out the pieces in a more systematic fashion, as it did last night, it doesn’t always work.) But there’s something to be said for the idea that beyond our familiar world, there’s an objective reality that would be blindingly obvious if we only managed to see it. With all the pop cultural baggage carried by Twin Peaks, it’s easy to forget that it’s also from the director and star of Dune, which took the opposite approach, with a unified past and future visible to the superhuman Kwisatz Haderach. Yet Lynch’s own mystical inclinations are more modest and humane, and neither Heinlein nor Frank Herbert have much in common with the man whose favorite psychoactive substances have always been coffee and cigarettes. And I’d rather believe in a world in which the owls are not what they seem than one in which nothing at all is what it seems. But there’s one line from “Universe” that can serve as a quiet undertone to much of Lynch’s career, and I’d prefer to leave it there: “He knew, subconsciously, that, having seen the stars, he would never be happy again.”

The analytical laboratory

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The Martian

Over the last few months, there’s been a surprising flurry of film and television activity involving the writers featured in my upcoming book Astounding. SyFy has announced plans to adapt Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in the Strange Land as a miniseries, with an imposing creative team that includes Hollywood power broker Scott Rudin and Zodiac screenwriter James Vanderbilt. Columbia is aiming to reboot Starship Troopers with producer Neal H. Mortiz of The Fast and the Furious, prompting Paul Verhoeven, the director of the original, to comment: “Going back to the novel would fit very much in a Trump presidency.” The production company Legendary has bought the film and television rights to Dune, which first appeared as a serial edited by John W. Campbell in Analog. Meanwhile, Jonathan Nolan is apparently still attached to an adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, although he seems rather busy at the moment. (L. Ron Hubbard remains relatively neglected, unless you want to count Leah Remini’s new show, which the Church of Scientology would probably hope you wouldn’t.) The fact that rights have been purchased and press releases issued doesn’t necessarily mean that anything will happen, of course, although the prospects for Stranger in a Strange Land seem strong. And while it’s possible that I’m simply paying more attention to these announcements now that I’m thinking about these writers all the time, I suspect that there’s something real going on.

So why the sudden surge of interest? The most likely, and also the most heartening, explanation is that we’re experiencing a revival of hard science fiction. Movies like Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, and Arrival—which I haven’t seen yet—have demonstrated that there’s an audience for films that draw more inspiration from Clarke and Kubrick than from Star Wars. Westworld, whatever else you might think of it, has done much the same on television. And there’s no question that the environment for this kind of story is far more attractive now than it was even ten years ago. For my money, the most encouraging development is the movie Life, a horror thriller set on the International Space Station, which is scheduled to come out next summer. I’m tickled by it because, frankly, it doesn’t look like anything special: the trailer starts promisingly enough, but it ends by feeling very familiar. It might turn out to be better than it looks, but I almost hope that it doesn’t. The best sign that a genre is reaching maturity isn’t a series of singular achievements, but the appearance of works that are content to color inside the lines, consciously evoking the trappings of more visionary movies while remaining squarely focused on the mainstream. A film like Interstellar is always going to be an outlier. What we need are movies like what Life promises to be: a science fiction film of minimal ambition, but a certain amount of skill, and a willingness to copy the most obvious features of its predecessors. That’s when you’ve got a trend.

Jake Gyllenhaal in Life

The other key development is the growing market for prestige dramas on television, which is the logical home for Stranger in a Strange Land and, I think, Dune. It may be the case, as we’ve been told in connection with Star Trek: Discovery, that there isn’t a place for science fiction on a broadcast network, but there’s certainly room for it on cable. Combine this with the increased appetite for hard science fiction on film, and you’ve got precisely the conditions in which smart production companies should be snatching up the rights to Asimov, Heinlein, and the rest. Given the historically rapid rise and fall of such trends, they shouldn’t expect this window to remain open for long. (In a letter to Asimov on February 3, 1939, Frederik Pohl noted the flood of new science fiction magazines on newsstands, and he concluded: “Time is indeed of the essence…Such a condition can’t possibly last forever, and the time to capitalize on it is now; next month may be too late.”) What they’re likely to find, in the end, is that many of these stories are resistant to adaptation, and that they’re better off seeking out original material. There’s a reason that there have been so few movies derived from Heinlein and Asimov, despite the temptation that they’ve always presented. Heinlein, in particular, seems superficially amenable to the movies: he certainly knew how to write action in a way that Asimov couldn’t. But he also liked to spend the second half of a story picking apart the assumptions of the first, after sucking in the reader with an exciting beginning, and if you aren’t going to include the deconstruction, you might as well write something from scratch.

As it happens, the recent spike of action on the adaptation front has coincided with another announcement. Analog, the laboratory in which all these authors were born, is cutting back its production schedule to six double issues every year. This is obviously intended to manage costs, and it’s a reminder of how close to the edge the science fiction digests have always been. (To be fair, the change also coincides with a long overdue update of the magazine’s website, which is very encouraging. If this reflects a true shift from print to online, it’s less a retreat than a necessary recalibration.) It’s easy to contrast the game of pennies being played at the bottom with the expenditure of millions of dollars at the top, but that’s arguably how it has to be. Analog, like Astounding before it, was a machine for generating variations, which needs to be done on the cheap. Most stories are forgotten almost at once, and the few that survive the test of time are the ones that get the lion’s share of resources. All the while, the magazine persists as an indispensable form of research and development—a sort of skunk works that keeps the entire enterprise going. That’s been true since the beginning, and you can see this clearly in the lives of the writers involved. Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert, and their estates became wealthy from their work. Campbell, who more than any other individual was responsible for the rise of modern science fiction, did not. Instead, he remained in his little office, lugging manuscripts in a heavy briefcase twice a week on the train. He was reasonably well off, but not in a way that creates an empire of valuable intellectual property. Instead, he ran the lab. And we can see the results all around us.

Quote of the Day

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Frank Herbert

For Dune, I also used what I call a “camera position” method—playing back and forth (and in varied orders depending on the required pace) between long shot, medium, closeup, and so on…The implications of color, position, word root, and prosodic suggestion—all are taken into account when a scene has to have maximum impact. And what scene doesn’t if a book is tightly written?

Frank Herbert

Written by nevalalee

August 27, 2015 at 7:20 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

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Quote of the Day

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Frank Herbert

A man is a fool not to put everything he has, at any given moment, into what he is creating…You’re not killing the goose, you’re just producing an egg.

Frank Herbert

Written by nevalalee

March 26, 2014 at 7:30 am

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“Make it recognizable!”

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David Mamet

I’ve mentioned before how David Mamet’s little book On Directing Film rocked my world at a time when I thought I’d already figured out storytelling to my own satisfaction. It provides the best set of tools for constructing a plot I’ve ever seen, and to the extent that I can call any book a writer’s secret weapon, this is it. But I don’t think I’ve ever talked about the moment when I realized how powerful Mamet’s advice really is. The first section of the book is largely given over to a transcript of one of the author’s seminars at Columbia, in which the class breaks down the beats of a simple short film: a student approaches a teacher to request a revised grade. The crucial prop in the scene, which is told entirely without dialogue, is the student’s notebook, its contents unknown—and, as Mamet points out repeatedly, unimportant. Then he asks:

Mamet: What answer do we give to the prop person who says “what’s the notebook look like?” What are you going to say?

The students respond with a number of suggestions: put a label on it, make it look like a book report, make it look “prepared.” Mamet shoots them down one by one, saying that they’re things that the audience can’t be expected to care about, if they aren’t intrinsically impossible:

Mamet: No, you can’t make the book look prepared. You can make it look neat. That might be nice, but that’s not the most important thing for your answer to the prop person…To make it prepared, to make it neat, to make it convincing, the audience ain’t going to notice. What are they doing to notice?
Student: That it’s the same book they’ve seen already.
Mamet: So what’s your answer to the prop person?
Student: Make it recognizable.
Mamet: Exactly so! Good. You’ve got to be able to recognize it. That is the most important thing about this report. This is how you use the principle of throughline to answer questions about the set and to answer questions about the costumes.

A recognizable notebook

Now, this might seem like a small thing, but to me, this was an unforgettable moment: it was a powerful illustration of how close attention to the spine of the plot—the actions and images you use to convey the protagonist’s sequence of objectives—can result in immediate, practical answers to seemingly minor story problems, as long as you’re willing to rigorously apply the rules. “Make it recognizable,” in particular, is a rule whose true value I’ve only recently begun to understand. In writing a story, regardless of the medium, you only have a finite number of details that you can emphasize, so it doesn’t hurt to focus on ones that will help the reader recognize and remember important elements—a character, a prop, an idea—when they recur over the course of the narrative. Mamet notes that you can’t expect a viewer to read signs or labels designed to explain what isn’t clear in the action, and it took me a long time to see that this is equally true of the building blocks of fiction: if the reader needs to pause to remember who a character is or where a certain object has appeared before, you haven’t done your job as well as you could.

And like the instructions a director gives to the prop department, this rule translates into specific, concrete actions that a writer can take to keep the reader oriented. It’s why I try to give my characters names that can be readily distinguished from one another, to the point where I’ll often try to give each major player a name that begins with a different letter. This isn’t true to life, where, as James Wood points out, we’re likely to know three people named John and three more named Elizabeth, but it’s a useful courtesy to the reader. The same applies to other entities within the story: it can be difficult to keep track of the alliances in a novel like Dune, but Frank Herbert helps us tremendously by giving the families distinctive names like House Atreides and House Harkonnen. (Try to guess which house contains all the bad guys.) This is also why it’s useful to give minor characters some small characteristic to lock them in the reader’s mind: we may not remember that we’ve met Robert in Chapter 3 when he returns in Chapter 50, but we’ll recall his bristling eyebrows. Nearly every choice a writer makes should be geared toward making these moments of recognition as painless as possible, without the need for labels. As Mamet says: “The audience doesn’t want to read a sign; they want to watch a motion picture.” And to be told a story.

Written by nevalalee

June 19, 2013 at 9:02 am

So what is science fiction?

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Like most authors, although I don’t always like to admit it, I’m very interested in other people’s reactions to my work. One of the singular things about being a writer these days is that one has access to a huge range of opinions about one’s writing: on review sites, blogs, discussion boards, and all the other venues for talking about fiction that didn’t exist even twenty years ago. As a result, every few days I’ll snoop around the web to see what people are saying. (One of my few disappointments following the publication of “Kawataro” was that it coincided with the demise of the Analog readers’ forum, where I had once been able to count on a spirited discussion—or at least a ruthless nitpicking—of my stories.)

For the most part, readers seem to enjoy my stuff well enough, and it’s always gratifying to find a positive review online. Over time, though, I’ve noticed a particular theme being struck repeatedly even by people who like my work: they don’t think it’s science fiction at all. Now, I’m pretty sure that my novelettes and short stories are science fiction—if they weren’t, they  wouldn’t be published in Analog, which doesn’t have much interest in anything else—but I can understand the source of the confusion. Thanks mostly to my X-Files roots, my stories are set in the present day. They all take place on this planet. I don’t do aliens or robots. And while the plots do turn on science, they’re more often structured as contemporary mysteries where the solution depends on scientific information, which I gather is fairly uncommon.

It’s worth asking, then, whether we can come up with a definition of science fiction broad enough to include both my work and, say, Kim Stanley Robinson’s. (Or even L. Ron Hubbard’s.) TV Tropes, usually a good starting point for this sort of thing, despite its sometimes breathless fangirl tone, argues that science fiction hinges on technology:

The one defining(-ish, definitions differ) trait of Science Fiction is that there is technology that doesn’t exist in the time period the story is written in.

Which automatically disqualifies most of my stories, since I don’t have much interest in technology for its own sake, at least not as a narrative device. I’m also not especially interested in world-building, another hallmark of conventional science fiction, if only because so many other writers are better at it than I am.

So if my stories don’t include technology or alien worlds, where does that leave me? Wikipedia comes to the rescue, defining science fiction as dealing with “imagined innovations in science or technology,” including one particular subcategory:

Stories that involve discovery or application of new scientific principles, such as time travel or psionics, or new technology, such as nanotechnology, faster-than-light travel or robots.

Which is basically where I fit in, as long as you stretch the definition to include connections between previously unrelated scientific principles. “Inversus,” my first published novelette, is basically about psionics, but links it to a number of existing phenomena, like situs inversus. “The Last Resort” takes a known phenomenon—limnic eruptions—and transfers it to a novel part of the world, with a speculative explanation of how it might be caused by human activity. “Kawataro” fictionalizes the case of the Al-Sayyid Bedouin, moves it to Japan, and connects it to another medical mystery. And my upcoming “The Boneless One” begins with a real scientific project, the effort to sample genetic diversity in the world’s oceans, and speculates as to how it might lead to unexpected—and murderous—consequences.

Much of my favorite fiction is about such connections, whether it’s the paranoid synthetic vision of Foucault’s Pendulum, Illuminatus!, or Gravity’s Rainbow, or the constructive impulse of the great science fiction novels. (Dune, for instance, gains much of its fascination from the variety of Frank Herbert’s interests—ecology, energy policy, the Bedouin, the story of T.E. Lawrence—and from how he juxtaposes them in astonishing ways.) My love of connections is what led me to focus on my two genres of choice, science fiction and suspense, both of which reward the ability to see connections that haven’t been noticed in print. And the ultimate playground for ideas is science. The science is real; the connections are plausible, but fictional. Put them together, and you get science fiction. Or something like it, anyway.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

January 17, 2011 at 7:55 am

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