Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Michael Crichton

Into the West

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A few months ago, I was on the phone with a trusted adviser to discuss some revisions to Astounding. We were focusing on the prologue, which I had recently rewritten from scratch to make it more accessible to readers who weren’t already fans of science fiction. Among other things, I’d been asked to come up with ways in which the impact of my book’s four subjects was visible in modern pop culture, and after throwing some ideas back and forth, my adviser asked me plaintively: “Couldn’t you just say that without John W. Campbell, we wouldn’t have Game of Thrones?” I was tempted to give in, but I ultimately didn’t—it just felt like too much of a stretch. (Which isn’t to say that the influence isn’t there. When a commenter on his blog asked whether his work had been inspired by the mythographer Joseph Campbell, George R.R. Martin replied: “The Campbell that influenced me was John W., not Joseph.” And that offhand comment was enough of a selling point that I put it in the very first sentence of my book proposal.) Still, I understood the need to frame the story in ways that would resonate with a mainstream readership, and I thought hard about what other reference points I could honestly provide. Star Trek was an easy one, along with such recent movies as Interstellar and The Martian, but the uncomfortable reality is that much of what we call science fiction in film and television has more to do with Star Wars. But I wanted to squeeze in one last example, and I finally settled on this line about Campbell: “For more than three decades, an unparalleled series of visions of the future passed through his tiny office in New York, where he inaugurated the main sequence of science fiction that runs through works from 2001 to Westworld.”

As the book is being set in type, I’m still comfortable with this sentence as it stands, although there are a few obvious qualifications that ought to be made. Westworld, of course, is based on a movie written and directed by Michael Crichton, whose position in the history of the genre is a curious one. As I’ve written elsewhere, Crichton was an unusually enterprising author of paperback thrillers who found himself with an unexpected blockbuster in the form of The Andromeda Strain. It was his sixth novel, and his first in hardcover, and it seems to have benefited enormously from the input of editor Robert Gottlieb, who wrote in his memoir Avid Reader:

The Andromeda Strain was a terrific concept, but it was a mess—sloppily plotted, underwritten, and worst of all, with no characterization whatsoever. [Crichton’s] scientists were beyond generic—they lacked all human specificity; the only thing that distinguished some of them from the others was that some died and some didn’t. I realized right away that with his quick mind, swift embrace of editorial input, and extraordinary work habits he could patch the plot, sharpen the suspense, clarify the science—in fact, do everything necessary except create convincing human beings. (He never did manage to; eventually I concluded that he couldn’t write about people because they just didn’t interest him.) It occurred to me that instead of trying to help him strengthen the human element, we could make a virtue of necessity by stripping it away entirely; by turning The Andromeda Strain from a documentary novel into a fictionalized documentary. Michael was all for it—I think he felt relieved.

The result, to put it mildly, did quite well, and Crichton quickly put its lessons to work. But it’s revealing that the flaws that Gottlieb cites—indifferent plotting, flat writing, and a lack of real characterization—are also typical of even some of the best works of science fiction that came out of Campbell’s circle. Crichton’s great achievement was to focus relentlessly on everything else, especially readability, and it’s fair to say that he did a better job of it than most of the writers who came up through Astounding and Analog. He was left with the reputation of a carpetbagger, and his works may have been too square and fixated on technology to ever be truly fashionable. Yet a lot of it can be traced back to his name on the cover. In his story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” Jorge Luis Borges speaks of enriching “the slow and rudimentary act of reading by means of a new technique—the technique of deliberate anachronism and fallacious attribution.” In this case, it’s pretty useful. I have a hunch that if The Terminal Man, Congo, and Sphere had been attributed on their first release to Robert A. Heinlein, they would be regarded as minor classics. They’re certainly better than many of the books that Heinlein was actually writing around the same time. And if I’m being honest, I should probably confess that I’d rather read Jurassic Park again than any of Asimov’s novels. (As part of my research for this book, I dutifully made my way through Asimov’s novelization of Fantastic Voyage, which came out just three years before The Andromeda Strain, and his fumbling of that very Crichtonesque premise only reminded me of how good at this sort of thing Crichton really was.) If Crichton had been born thirty years earlier, John W. Campbell would have embraced him like a lost son, and he might well have written a better movie than Destination Moon.

At its best, the television version of Westworld represents an attempt to reconcile Crichton’s gifts for striking premises and suspense with the more introspective mode of the genre to which he secretly belongs. (It’s no accident that Jonathan Nolan had been developing it in parallel with Foundation.) This balance hasn’t always been easy to manage, and last night’s premiere suggests that it can only become more difficult going forward. Westworld has always seemed defined by the pattern of forces that were acting on it—its source material, its speculative and philosophical ambitions, and the pressure of being a flagship drama on HBO. It also has to deal now with the legacy of its own first season, which set a precedent for playing with time, as well as the scrutiny of viewers who figured it out prematurely. The stakes here are established early on, with Bernard awakening on a beach in a sequence that seems like a nod to the best film by Nolan’s brother, and this time around, the parallel timelines are put front and center. Yet the strain occasionally shows. The series is still finding itself, with characters, like Dolores, who seem to be thinking through their story arcs out loud. It’s overly insistent on its violence and nudity, but it’s also cerebral and detached, with little possibility of real emotional pain that the third season of Twin Peaks was able to inflict. I don’t know if the center will hold. Yet’s also possible that these challenges were there from the beginning, as the series tried to reconcile Crichton’s tricks with the tradition of science fiction that it clearly honors. I still believe that this show is in the main line of the genre’s development. Its efforts to weave together its disparate influences strike me as worthwhile and important. And I hope that it finds its way home.

Exploring “The Proving Ground,” Part 2

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The Seasteading Institute

Note: My novella “The Proving Ground,” which was first published in the January/February 2017 issue of Analog, is being reprinted this month in Lightspeed Magazine. It will also be appearing in the upcoming edition of The Year’s Best Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois, and is a finalist for the Analytical Laboratory award for Best Novella. This post on the story’s conception and writing originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on January 10, 2017. 

The editor John W. Campbell once pointed out that an industrial safety manual is really the perfect handbook for a saboteur—if you just do the opposite of whatever it says. You see the same mindset in a lot of science fiction, which is often founded on constructing an elaborate futuristic scenario and then figuring out all the things that could possibly go wrong. This is central to most forms of storytelling, of course, but it takes on an added resonance in a genre that purports to tell us how the future will look, and at times, it can be hard to distinguish between the author’s own feelings on the subject and the conflict required for a good story. If dystopias seem more common than utopias, this may be less a prediction than a shrewd narrative choice, and it frequently leads to a streak of what looks like technophobia even in writers who seem otherwise inclined to celebrate all that technology can accomplish. (This is especially true when you start out with the intention of writing a thriller. In the case of someone like Michael Crichton, it can be difficult to tell where his instincts as a novelist leave off and his genuine pessimism begins. Nothing goes right in Jurassic Park, but this has less to do with chaos theory than with the conventions of suspense.) When I started work on “The Proving Ground,” I had a wealth of information at my disposal from the seasteading movement, much of which was devoted to arguing that an ocean colony would be viable and safe. But it also provided me with a list of story ideas, as soon as I began to read it with an eye to the worst that could happen.

For instance, in an online book about seasteading by Patri Friedman, the former executive director of Peter Thiel’s Seasteading Institute, we read: “The ocean is a dangerous environment. There are massive waves, hurricanes, and even pirates.” Taken out of context, this is either an argument for risk mitigation or a line from a pitch to Jerry Bruckheimer. And while I didn’t think much about the possibility of pirates—although for the life of me I can’t remember why—I spent a long time looking into waves and hurricanes. A hurricane or typhoon seemed like a better prospect, mostly because it provided more of a natural buildup than a wave, and it would be easier to structure a story around it. I even read The Perfect Storm from cover to cover to see if it would spark any ideas. What I ultimately concluded was that there was probably a good story to be told about a seastead that was hit by a hurricane, and that if I could work out the logistics, it would be pretty exciting. But it felt more like a disaster movie, and so did most of the other possibilities that I explored for damaging or destroying my seastead. (Looking back at my notes, it seems that I also briefly considered building a plot around a sabotage attempt, which seems a little lazy.) The trouble was that all of these crises were imposed from the outside, and none seemed to emerge naturally from the premise of climate change in the Marshall Islands. So after almost a week of pursuing the hurricane angle, I gave it up, which is a long time to devote to a wrong turn.

Tippi Hedren in The Birds

I was saved by an idea that came from an altogether different direction. One of the first things I had to decide was when the story would be set, both in the chronology of the seastead itself and in the world as a whole. Was the seastead under construction, or had it been occupied for years or decades? Were we talking about a scenario in which the threat of rising sea levels was still a distant one, or had it already happened? And what was taking place elsewhere? I spent a while looking into the various proposals that have been floated for the technological mitigation of global warming, such as the idea of releasing sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight back into space. (Even if it wasn’t central to the story, it seemed like it might make a good ironic counterpoint to the plot. The Marshall Islands probably won’t survive, no matter what else we do in the meantime.) I was especially interested in iron fertilization, in which tiny pellets of iron are released into the oceans to encourage the growth of plankton that can suck up carbon dioxide. It’s unclear how well this works, however and there are other potential issues, as I found in a paper with the unpromising title “Iron enrichment stimulates toxic diatom production in high-nitrate, low-chlorophyll areas.” In particular, it can lead to high levels of pseudonitzschia, a plankton species that produces the poison domoic acid, which accumulates in fish and squid. And it turned out that the Marshall Islands leased its offshore waters in the nineties to a private company to conduct iron fertilization on a limited scale, before it was outlawed as a form of illegal dumping.

At this point, I presumably had a vague idea that it might be possible to build a story around iron fertilization in the Marshall Islands and an ensuing outbreak of domoic acid poisoning, which can cause seizures and death. But then I came across a paper that proposed that a similar outbreak might have been responsible for the unexplained incident on August 18, 1961, in which the towns of Capitola and Santa Cruz in California were attacked by mobs of seabirds—an event that also caught the eye of Alfred Hitchcock. Which meant that I knew the following facts:

  1. The Marshall Islands once contracted with a company to perform a series of iron fertilization experiments.
  2. Iron fertilization has been linked to increased levels of pseudonitzschia, which produces domoic acid.
  3. Domoic acid can cause brain damage in seabirds that eat contaminated fish and squid, and it may have been responsible for the attack that inspired The Birds.

Needless to say, I immediately forgot all about my hurricane. If there’s one thing I love about being a writer, it’s when a long process of shapeless research and daydreaming suddenly crystalizes into a form that seems inevitable, and this felt about as inevitable as it gets. Somebody was going to write this story eventually, and I figured that it might as well be me. Tomorrow, I’ll describe how I brought The Birds to the Marshall Islands, and why I ended up combining it with the ghosts of Bikini Atoll.

Written by nevalalee

March 6, 2018 at 8:32 am

Present tense, future perfect

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Michael Crichton

Note: I’m taking a few days off for the holidays, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on August 11, 2016.

Science fiction is set in the future so frequently that it’s hard for many readers, or writers, to envision it in any other way. Yet there are times when a futuristic setting actively interferes with the story. If you think that the genre’s primary function is a predictive one, it’s hard to avoid, although I’ve made it pretty clear that I believe that it’s the other way around—the idea that science fiction is a literature of prediction emerged only after most of its elements were already in place. But if you see it as a vehicle for telling compelling stories in which science plays an important role, or as a sandbox for exploring extreme social or ethical situations, you realize that it can be even more effective when set in the present. This is especially true of science fiction that trades heavily on suspense and paranoia. My favorite science fiction novel ever, Eric Frank Russell’s Sinister Barrier, is set in the near future for no particular reason: its premise of invisible alien beings who manipulate human civilization would work even better in ordinary surroundings, and nothing fundamental about the story itself would have to change. You could say much the same about Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, which is indebted to Russell’s story in more ways than one. And there’s a sense in which The X-Files actually plays better today, as a period piece, than it did when it initially aired: in hindsight, the early nineties have become the definition of mundanity, and a perfect setting for horror. (At a time when we seem to be actually living in an alternate history novel, its assumption that a sinister government conspiracy had to be kept secret can seem downright comforting.)

When you push science fiction into the present, however, something curious happens: people start to think of it as something else. In particular, it tends to be labeled as a technothriller. This is ultimately just a marketing category, and slipperier than most, but it can be defined as science fiction that limits itself to a single line of extrapolation, usually in the form of a new technology, while grounding the rest in the period in which the book was written. And you’d think that this approach would be seen as worthwhile. Plausibly incorporating a hypothetical technology or scientific advance into the modern world can be just as hard as inventing an entire future society, and it allows the writer to tackle themes that lie close to the heart of the genre. If we’re looking to science fiction to help us work out the implications of contemporary problems, to simulate outcomes of current trends, or to force us to look at our own lives and assumptions a little differently, a story that takes place against a recognizable backdrop can confront us with all of these issues more vividly. A futuristic or interplanetary setting has a way of shading into fantasy, which isn’t necessarily bad, but risks turning the genre into exactly what John W. Campbell always insisted it wasn’t—a literature of escapism. In theory, then, any effort to coax science fiction back into the present is enormously important, and we should welcome the technothriller as a matrix in which the tools of the genre can be brought to bear on the reality around us.

Gillian Anderson in War of the Coprophages

In practice, that isn’t how it turns out. The technothriller is often dismissed as a disreputable subgenre or a diluted version of the real thing, and not always without reason. There are a few possible explanations for this. One is that because of the technothriller’s natural affinity for suspense, it attracts literary carpetbaggers—writers who seem to opportunistically come from outside the genre, rather than emerging from within it. Michael Crichton, for instance, started out by writing relatively straight thrillers under pen names like Jeffrey Hudson and John Lange, and it’s interesting to wonder how we’d regard The Andromeda Strain, or even Sphere or Congo, if he had worked his way up in the pages of Analog. Other reasons might be the genre’s pervasive strain of militarism, which reflects the association of certain kinds of technological development with the armed forces; its emphasis on action; or even the sort of writer that it attracts. Finally, there’s the inescapable point that most technothrillers are providing escapism of another kind, with hardware taking the place of original characters or ideas. That’s true of a lot of science fiction, too, but a technothriller doesn’t even ask readers to make the modicum of effort necessary to transport themselves mentally into another time or place. It’s just like the world we know, except with better weapons. As a result, it appeals more to the mundanes, or readers who don’t think of themselves as science fiction fans, which from the point of view of fandom is probably the greatest sin of all.

Yet it’s worth preserving the ideal of the technothriller, both because it can be a worthwhile genre in itself and because of the light that it sheds on science fiction as a whole. When we think of the didactic, lecturing tone that dominated Crichton’s late novels, starting with Rising Sun, it’s easy to connect it to the psychological role that hardware plays within a certain kind of thriller. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, because the writer gets certain technical details right, we’re more inclined to believe what he says when it comes to other issues, at least while we’re still reading the book. But it takes another level of insight to realize that this is also true of Heinlein. (The story of Campbellian science fiction is one of writers who were so good at teaching us about engineering that we barely noticed when they moved on to sociology.) And the strain of technophobia that runs through the genre—which is more a side effect of the need to generate suspense than a philosophical stance—can serve as a corrective to the unthinking embrace of technology that has characterized so much science fiction throughout its history. Finally, on the level of simple reading pleasure, I’d argue that any attempt to bring suspense into science fiction deserves to be encouraged: it’s a tool that has often been neglected, and the genre as a whole is invigorated when we bring in writers, even mercenary ones, who know how to keep the pages turning. If they also have great, original ideas, they’re unstoppable. This combination doesn’t often appear in the same writer. But the next best thing is to ensure that they can push against each other as part of the same healthy genre.

Written by nevalalee

December 22, 2017 at 9:00 am

Exploring “The Proving Ground,” Part 2

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The Seasteading Institute

Note: I’m discussing the origins of my novella “The Proving Ground,” the cover story for the January/February 2017 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. You can purchase a copy and read a long excerpt of it here.  

The editor John W. Campbell once pointed out that an industrial safety manual is really the perfect handbook for a saboteur—you just do the opposite of everything it says. You see the same mindset in a lot of science fiction, which is often founded on constructing an elaborate futuristic scenario and then figuring out all the things that could possibly go wrong with it. This is central to most forms of storytelling, of course, but it takes on an added resonance in a genre that purports to tell us how the future will look. At times, it can be hard to distinguish between the author’s own views on the subject and the conflict required for a good story. It’s why dystopias are so much more common than utopias; why hubris is usually punished rather than rewarded; and why you frequently see a streak of what looks like technophobia even in writers who seem otherwise inclined to celebrate all that technology can accomplish. (This is especially true when you start out with the intention of writing a thriller. In the case of someone like Michael Crichton, it can be difficult to tell where his instincts as a novelist leave off and his genuine pessimism begins. Nothing goes right in Jurassic Park, but this has less to do with chaos theory than with the conventions of suspense.) When I started work on “The Proving Ground,” I had a wealth of information at my disposal from the seasteading movement, much of which was devoted to arguing that an ocean colony would be viable and safe. But along the way, it also inadvertently provided me with a list of story ideas, as soon as I began to read it with an eye to the worst that could happen.

For instance, in an online book about seasteading by Patri Friedman, the former executive director of Peter Thiel’s Seasteading Institute, we read: “The ocean is a dangerous environment. There are massive waves, hurricanes, and even pirates.” Taken out of context, this is either an argument for risk mitigation or a line from a pitch to Jerry Bruckheimer. And while I didn’t think much about the possibility of pirates—although for the life of me I can’t remember why—I spent a long time looking into waves and hurricanes. A hurricane or typhoon seemed like a better prospect, mostly because it provided more of a natural buildup than a wave, and it would be easier to structure a story around it. I even read The Perfect Storm from cover to cover to see if it would spark any ideas. What I ultimately concluded was that there was probably a good story to be told about a seastead that was hit by a hurricane, and that if I could work out the logistics, it would be pretty exciting. But it felt more like a disaster movie, and so did most of the other possibilities that I explored for damaging or destroying my seastead. (Looking back at my notes, it seems that I also briefly considered building a plot around a sabotage attempt, which seems a little lazy.) The trouble was that all of these crises were imposed from the outside, and none seemed to emerge naturally from the premise of climate change in the Marshall Islands. So after almost a week of pursuing the hurricane angle, I gave it up, which is a long time to devote to a wrong turn.

Tippi Hedren in The Birds

I was saved by an idea that came from an altogether different direction. One of the first things I had to decide was when the story would be set, both in the chronology of the seastead itself and in the world as a whole. Was the seastead under construction, or had it been occupied for years or decades? Were we talking about a scenario in which the threat of rising sea levels was still a distant one, or had it already happened? And what was taking place elsewhere? I spent a while looking into the various proposals that have been floated for the technological mitigation of global warming, such as the idea of releasing sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight back into space. (Even if it wasn’t central to the story, it seemed like it might make a good ironic counterpoint to the plot: the Marshall Islands probably won’t survive, no matter what else we do in the meantime.) I was especially interested in iron fertilization, in which tiny pellets of iron are released into the oceans to encourage the growth of plankton that can suck up carbon dioxide. It’s unclear how well this works, however and there are other potential issues, as I found in a paper with the unpromising title “Iron enrichment stimulates toxic diatom production in high-nitrate, low-chlorophyll areas.” In particular, it can lead to high levels of pseudonitzschia, a plankton species that produces the poison domoic acid, which accumulates in fish and squid. And it turned out that the Marshall Islands leased its offshore waters in the nineties to a private company to conduct iron fertilization on a limited scale, before it was outlawed as a form of illegal dumping.

At this point, I presumably had a vague idea that it might be possible to build a story around iron fertilization in the Marshall Islands and an ensuing outbreak of domoic acid poisoning, which can cause seizures and death. But then I came across a paper that proposed that a similar outbreak might have been responsible for the unexplained incident on August 18, 1961, in which the towns of Capitola and Santa Cruz in California were attacked by mobs of seabirds—an event that also caught the eye of Alfred Hitchcock. Which meant that I knew the following facts:

  1. The Marshall Islands once contracted with a company to perform a series of iron fertilization experiments.
  2. Iron fertilization has been linked to increased levels of pseudonitzschia, which produces domoic acid.
  3. Domoic acid can cause brain damage in seabirds that eat contaminated fish and squid, and it may have been responsible for the attack that inspired The Birds.

Needless to say, I immediately forgot all about my hurricane. If there’s one thing I love about being a writer, it’s when a long process of shapeless research and daydreaming suddenly crystalizes into a form that seems inevitable, and this felt about as inevitable as it gets. Somebody was going to write this story eventually, and I figured that it might as well be me. Tomorrow, I’ll describe how I brought The Birds to the Marshall Islands, and how I ended up combining it with the ghosts of Bikini Atoll.

Written by nevalalee

January 10, 2017 at 9:26 am

The western tradition

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Ed Harris on Westworld

As we were watching the premiere of Westworld last week, my wife turned to me and said: “Why would they make it a western park?” Or maybe I asked her—I can’t quite remember. But it’s a more interesting question than it sounds. When Michael Crichton’s original movie was released in the early seventies, the western was still a viable genre. It had clearly fallen from its peak, but major stars were doing important work in cowboy boots: Eastwood, of course, but also Newman, Redford, and Hoffman. John Wayne was still alive, which may have been the single most meaningful factor of all. As a result, it wasn’t hard to imagine a theme park with androids designed to fulfill that particular fantasy. These days, the situation has changed. The western is so beleaguered an art form that whenever one succeeds, it’s treated as newsworthy, and that’s been true for the last twenty years. Given the staggering expense and investment involved in a park like this, it’s hard to see why the western would be anybody’s first choice. (Even with the movie, I suspect that Crichton’s awareness of his relatively low budget was part of the decision: it was his first film as a director, with all of the limitations that implies, and a western could be shot cheaply on standing sets in the studio backlot.) Our daydreams simply run along different lines, and it’s easier to imagine a park being, say, set in a medieval fantasy era, or in the future, or with dinosaurs. In fact, there was even a sequel, Futureworld, that explored some of these possibilities, although it’s fair to say that nobody remembers it.

The television series Westworld, which is arriving in a markedly different pop cultural landscape, can’t exactly ditch the premise—it’s right there in the title. But the nice thing about the second episode, “Chestnut,” is that it goes a long way toward explaining why you’d still want to structure an experience like this around those conventions. It does this mostly by focusing on a new character, William, who arrives at the park knowing implausibly little about it, but who allows us to see it through the eyes of someone encountering it for the first time. What he’s told, basically, is that the appeal of Westworld is that it allows you to find out who you really are: you’re limited only by your inhibitions, your abilities, and your sense of right and wrong. That’s true of the real world, to some extent, but we’re also more conscious of the rules. And if the western refuses to go away as a genre, it’s because it’s the purest distillation of that seductive sense of lawlessness. The trouble with telling certain stories in the present day is that there isn’t room for the protagonist that thrillers have taught us to expect: a self-driven hero who solves his problems for himself in matters of life and death. That isn’t how most of us respond to a crisis, and in order to address the issue of why the main character doesn’t just go to the police, writers are forced to fall back on various makeshift solutions. You can focus on liminal figures, like cops or criminals, who can take justice into their own hands; you can establish an elaborate reason why the authorities are helpless, indifferent, or hostile; or you can set your story in a time or place where the rules are different or nonexistent.

Thandie Newton on Westworld

The western, in theory, is an ideal setting for a story in which the hero has to rely on himself. It’s a genre made up of limitless open spaces, nonexistent government, unreliable law enforcement, and a hostile native population. If there’s too much civilization for your story to work, your characters can just keep riding. To move west, or to leave the center of the theme park, is to move back in time, increasing the extent to which you’re defined by your own agency. (A western, revealingly, is a celebration of the qualities that we tend to ignore or dismiss in our contemporary immigrant population: the desire for a new life, the ability to overcome insurmountable obstacles, and the plain observation that those who uproot themselves and start from scratch are likely to be more competent and imaginative, on average, than those who remain behind.) The western is the best narrative sandbox ever invented, and if it ultimately exhausted itself, it was for reasons that were inseparable from its initial success. Its basic components were limited: there were only so many ways that you could combine those pieces. Telling escapist stories involved overlooking inconvenient truths about Native Americans, women, and minorities, and the tension between the myth and its reality eventually became too strong to sustain. Most of all, its core parts were taken over by other genres, and in particular by science fiction and fantasy. This began as an accidental discovery of pulp western writers who switched genres and realized that their tricks worked equally well in Astounding, and it was only confirmed by Star Trek—which Gene Roddenberry famously pitched as Wagon Train in space—and Star Wars, which absorbed those clichés so completely that they became new again.

What I like about Westworld, the series, is that it reminds us of how artificial this narrative always was, even in its original form. The Old West symbolizes freedom, but only if you envision yourself in the role of the stock protagonist, who is usually a white male antihero making the journey of his own volition. It falls apart when you try to imagine the lives of the people in the background, who exist in such stories solely to enable the protagonist’s fragile range of options. In reality, the frontier brutally circumscribed the lives of most of those who tried to carve out an existence there, and the whole western genre is enabled by a narrative illusion, or a conspiracy, that keeps its solitary and brutish aspects safely in the hands of the characters at the edges of the frame. Westworld takes that notion to its limit, by casting all the supporting roles with literal automatons. They aren’t meant to have inner lives, any more than the peripheral figures in any conventional western, and the gradual emergence of their consciousness implies that the park will eventually come to deconstruct itself. (The premiere quoted cleverly from The Searchers and Unforgiven, but I almost wish that it had saved those references until later, so that the series could unfold as a miniature history of the genre as it slowly attained self-awareness.) If you want to talk about how we picture ourselves in the heroes of our own stories, while minimizing or reducing the lives of those at the margins, it’s hard to imagine a better place to do it than the western, which depended on a process of historical amnesia and dehumanization from the very beginning. I’m not sure I’d want to visit a park like Westworld. But there will always be those who would.

Written by nevalalee

October 10, 2016 at 8:36 am

The Westworld expansion

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Anthony Hopkins on Westworld

Note: Spoilers follow for the series premiere of Westworld.

Producing a television series, as I’ve often said here before, is perhaps the greatest test imaginable of the amount of control that a storyteller can impose on any work of art. You may have a narrative arc in mind that works beautifully over five seasons, but before you even begin, you know that you’ll have to change the plan to deal with the unexpected: the departure of a star, budgetary limitations, negotiations with the network. Hanging overhead at all times is the specter of cancellation, which means that you don’t know if your story will be told over an hour, one season, or many years. You may not even be sure what your audience really wants. Maybe you’ve devoted a lot of thought to creating nuanced, complicated characters, only to realize that most viewers are tuning in for sex, violence, and sudden death scenes. It might even be to your advantage to make the story less realistic, keeping it all safely escapist to avoid raising uncomfortable questions. If you’re going to be a four-quadrant hit, you can’t appeal to just one demographic, so you’ve got to target some combination of teenagers and adults of both sexes. This doesn’t even include the critics, who are likely to nitpick the outcome no matter what. All you can really do, in the end, is set the machine going, adjust it as necessary on the fly, try to keep the big picture in mind, and remain open to the possibility that your creation will surprise you—which are conditions that the best shows create on purpose. But it doesn’t always go as it should, and successes and failures alike tend to wreak havoc with the plans of their creators. Television, you might say, finds a way.

The wonderful thing about Westworld, which might have the best pilot for any show since Mad Men, is that it delivers exceptional entertainment while also functioning as an allegory that you can read in any number of ways. Michael Crichton’s original movie, which I haven’t seen, was pitched as a commentary on the artificially cultivated experience offered to us by parks like Disney World, an idea that he later revisited with far more lucrative results. Four decades later, the immersive, open world experience that Westworld evokes is more likely to remind us of certain video games, which serve as a sandbox in which we can indulge in our best or worst impulses with maximum freedom of movement. (The character played by Ed Harris is like a player who has explored the game so throughly that he’s more interested now in looking for exploits or glitches in the code.) Its central premise—a theme park full of androids that are gradually attaining sentience—suggests plenty of other parallels, and I’m sure the series will investigate most of them eventually. But I’m frankly most inclined to see it as a show about the act of making television itself. Series creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have evidently mapped out a narrative for something like the next five or six seasons, which feels like an attempt to reassure viewers frustrated by the way in which serialized, mythology-driven shows tend to peter out toward the end, or to endlessly tease mysteries without ever delivering satisfying answers. But I wonder if Nolan and Joy also see themselves in Dr. Ford, played here with unusual restraint and cleverness by Anthony Hopkins, who looks at his own creations and muses about how little control he really has over the result.

Evan Rachel Wood on Westworld

It’s always dangerous to predict a show’s future from the pilot alone, and I haven’t seen the other episodes that were sent to critics for review. Westworld’s premise is also designed to make you even more wary than usual about trying to forecast a system as complicated as an ambitious cable series, especially one produced by J.J. Abrams. (There are references to the vagaries of television production in the pilot itself, much of which revolves around a technical problem that forces the park’s head writer to rewrite scenes overnight, cranking up the body count in hopes that guests won’t notice the gaps in the narrative. And one of its most chilling moments comes down to the decision to recast a key supporting role with a more cooperative performer.) After the premiere, which we both loved, my wife worried that we’ll just get disillusioned by the show over time, as we did with Game of Thrones. It’s always possible, and the number of shows over the last decade that have sustained a high level of excellence from first episode to last basically starts and ends with Mad Men—which, interestingly, was also a show about writing, and the way in which difficult concepts have to be sold and marketed to a large popular audience. But I have high hopes. The underlying trouble with Game of Thrones was a structural one: one season after another felt like it was marking time in its middle stretches, cutting aimlessly between subplots and relying on showy moments of violence to keep the audience awake, and many of its issues arose from a perceived need to keep from getting ahead of the books. It became a show that only knew how to stall and shock, and I would have been a lot more forgiving of its sexual politics if I had enjoyed the rest of it, or if I believed that the showrunners were building to something worthwhile.

I have more confidence in Westworld, in part because the pilot is such a confident piece of storytelling, but also because the writers aren’t as shackled by the source. And I feel almost grateful for the prospect of fully exploring this world over multiple seasons with this cast and these writers. Jonathan Nolan, in particular, has been overshadowed at times by his brother Christopher, who would overshadow anyone, but his résumé as a writer is just as impressive: the story for Memento, the scripts for The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, and that’s just on the movie side. (I haven’t seen Person of Interest, but I’ve heard it described as the best science fiction show on television, camouflaged in plain sight as a procedural.) Nolan has always tended to cram more ideas into one screenplay than a movie can comfortably hold, which is a big part of his appeal: The Dark Knight is so overflowing with invention that it only underlines the limpness of the storytelling in most of the Marvel movies. What excites me about Westworld is the opportunity it presents for Nolan to allow the story to breathe, going down interesting byways and exploring its implications at length. And the signs so far are very promising. The plot is a model of story construction, to the point where I’d use it as an example in a writing class: it introduces its world, springs a few big surprises, tells us something about a dozen characters, and ends on an image that is both inevitable and deliciously unexpected. Even its references to other movies are more interesting than most. A visual tribute to The Searchers seems predictable at first, but when the show repeats it, it becomes a wry commentary on how an homage can take the place of real understanding. And a recurring bit with a pesky fly feels like a nod to Psycho, which implicated the audience in similar ways. As Mrs. Bates says to us in one of her last lines: “I hope they are watching. They’ll see.”

Written by nevalalee

October 3, 2016 at 9:45 am

Present tense, future perfect

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Michael Crichton

Science fiction is set in the future so frequently that it’s hard for many readers—or writers—to envision it as anything else. Yet it doesn’t have to be that way, and there are times when a futuristic setting actively gets in the way of the story. If you think that science fiction’s primary function is a predictive one, it’s hard to avoid, although I’ve made it pretty clear that I believe that it’s the other way around: the idea that this is a literature of prediction emerged only after most of its elements were already in place. But if you see it more as a vehicle for telling exciting stories in which science plays a crucial role, or as a sandbox for exploring extreme social or ethical situations, you quickly come to realize that it can be even more effective when set in the present. This is especially true of science fiction that trades heavily on suspense and paranoia. My favorite science fiction novel ever, Eric Frank Russell’s Sinister Barrier, is set in the future for no particular reason: its premise of invisible alien beings who control our lives and manipulate human civilization would work even better in ordinary surroundings, and nothing fundamental about the story itself would have to change. You could say much the same about Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, which is indebted to Russell’s story in more ways than one. And there’s a sense in which The X-Files actually plays better today, as a period piece, than it did when it initially aired: the early nineties have become even more mundane with time, and a perfect setting for horror.

When you push science fiction into the present, however, something curious happens: people start to think of it as something else. To be more specific, it ends up being labeled as a technothriller. This is, above all, a marketing category, and an even slipperier one than most, but it’s worth defining it simply as science fiction that limits itself to a single line of extrapolation, usually in the form of a new technology, while grounding the rest in the period in which the book was written. And you’d think that this would be seen as a worthwhile approach. Plausibly incorporating a hypothetical technology or scientific advance into the modern world can be just as hard, if done right, as inventing an entire future society, and it allows the writer to tackle themes that lie near the heart of the genre. If we’re looking to science fiction to help us work out the implications of contemporary problems, to simulate outcomes of current trends, or to force us to look at our own lives and assumptions a little differently, a story that takes place against a recognizable backdrop can confront us with these issues more vividly. A future or interplanetary setting has a way of shading into fantasy, which isn’t necessarily bad, but tends to turn the genre into exactly what Campbell always insisted it wasn’t—a literature of escapism. In theory, then, any effort to coax science fiction back into the present is enormously important, and we should welcome the technothriller as a place in which the tools of the genre can be brought to bear on the reality around us.

Gillian Anderson in War of the Coprophages

In practice, of course, that isn’t how it turns out. The technothriller is often dismissed as a disreputable subgenre, or a diluted version of the real thing—and not always without reason. There are a few possible explanations. One is that because of the technothriller’s natural affinity for suspense, it attracts literary carpetbaggers: writers who seem to opportunistically come from outside the genre, rather than emerging from within it. Michael Crichton, for instance, started out by writing relatively straight thrillers under pen names like Jeffrey Hudson and John Lange, and it’s interesting to wonder how we’d regard The Andromeda Strain, or even Sphere or Congo, if he had worked his way up in the pages of Analog. Another is the genre’s pervasive strain of militarism, which may reflect the fact that we associate certain kinds of technological development with the armed forces; the convenient excuse for action that it provides; or even the sort of writer that the genre attracts. Finally, there’s the inescapable point that most technothrillers are just providing escapism of another kind, with hardware taking the place of original characters or ideas. That’s true of a lot of science fiction, too, but a technothriller doesn’t even ask readers to make the modicum of effort necessary to transport themselves mentally into another time or place: it’s just like the world we know, except with better weapons. As a result, it appeals more to the mundanes, or readers who don’t think of themselves as science fiction fans, which from the point of view of the fandom is probably the greatest sin of all.

Yet it’s worth preserving the ideal of the technothriller, both because it can be a worthwhile genre in itself and because of the light it sheds on science fiction as a whole. When we think of the hectoring didacticism that dominated Crichton’s late novels, it’s easy to see it as an instance of the role that hardware plays within a certain kind of thriller: as I’ve discussed elsewhere, because the writer gets certain technical details right, we’re more inclined to believe what he says when it comes to the larger issues, at least while we’re reading the book. But it takes another level of insight to realize that this is also true of Heinlein. (The evolution of Campbellian science fiction is largely one of writers who were so good at lecturing us about engineering that we barely noticed when they moved on to sociology.) And the strain of technophobia that runs through the genre—which is more a side effect of suspense than a fully developed intellectual stance—can serve as a corrective to the unthinking embrace of technology that has characterized science fiction for so much of its history. Finally, on the level of simple reading pleasure, I’d argue that any attempt to bring suspense into science fiction deserves to be encouraged: it’s a tool that has often been neglected or employed in rote ways, and the genre as a whole is invigorated when we bring in writers, even mercenary ones, who know how to structure a story to keep the pages turning. Combine this with great, original ideas, and you’re unstoppable. This combination doesn’t often appear in the same writer. But the next best thing is to ensure that they can push against each other as part of the same healthy genre.

Written by nevalalee

August 11, 2016 at 8:27 am

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