Posts Tagged ‘Peter Thiel’
A few weeks ago, The New Yorker published a fascinating article by Evan Osnos on the growing survivalist movement among the very rich. Osnos quotes an unnamed source who estimates that fifty percent of Silicon Valley billionaires have some kind of survival plan in place—an estimate that strikes me, if anything, as a little too low. (As one hedge fund manager is supposed to have said: “What’s the percentage chance that Trump is actually a fascist dictator? Maybe it’s low, but the expected value of having an escape hatch is pretty high.”) Osnos also pays a visit to the Survival Condo Project, a former missile silo near Wichita, Kansas that has been converted into a luxury underground bunker. It includes twelve private apartments, all of which have already been sold, and which prospective residents can decorate to their personal tastes:
We stopped in a condo. Nine-foot ceilings, Wolf range, gas fireplace. “This guy wanted to have a fireplace from his home state”—Connecticut—“so he shipped me the granite,” [developer Larry] Hall said. Another owner, with a home in Bermuda, ordered the walls of his bunker-condo painted in island pastels—orange, green, yellow—but, in close quarters, he found it oppressive. His decorator had to come fix it.
Osnos adds: “The condo walls are fitted with L.E.D. ‘windows’ that show a live video of the prairie above the silo. Owners can opt instead for pine forests or other vistas. One prospective resident from New York City wanted video of Central Park.”
As I read the article’s description of tastefully appointed bunkers with fake windows, it occurred to me that there’s a word that perfectly sums up most forms of survivalism, from the backwoods prepper to the wealthy venture capitalist with a retreat in New Zealand. It’s kitsch. We tend to associate the concept of kitsch with cheapness or tackiness, but on a deeper level, it’s really about providing a superficial emotional release while closing off the possibility of meaningful thought. It offers us sentimental illusions, built on clichés, in the place of real feeling. As the philosopher Roger Scruton has said: “Kitsch is fake art, expressing fake emotions, whose purpose is to deceive the consumer into thinking he feels something deep and serious.” Even more relevant is Milan Kundera’s unforgettable exploration of the subject in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in which he observes that kitsch is the defining art form of the totalitarian state and concludes: “Kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.” This might seem like an odd way to characterize survivalism, which is supposedly a confrontation with the unthinkable, but it’s actually a perfect description. The underling premise of survivalism is that by stocking up on beans and bullets, you can make your existence after the collapse of civilization more tolerable, even pleasant, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. It’s a denial of shit on the most fundamental level, in which a nuclear war causing the incendiary deaths of millions is sentimentalized into a playground for the competent man. And, like all kitsch, it provides a comforting daydream that allows its adherents to avoid more important questions of collective survival.
Survivalism has often been dismissed as a form of consumerism, an excuse to play Rambo with expensive guns and toys, but it also embodies a perverse form of nostalgia. The survivalist mindset is usually traced back to the Cold War, in which schoolchildren were trained to duck and cover in their classrooms while the government encouraged their parents to build fallout shelters, and it came into its own as a movement during the hyperinflation and oil shortages of the seventies. In fact, the impulse goes back at least to the days after Pearl Harbor, when an attack on the East or West Coasts seemed like a genuine possibility, leading to blackout drills, volunteer air wardens, and advice on how to prepare for the worst at home. (I have a letter from John W. Campbell to Robert A. Heinlein dated December 12, 1941, in which he talks about turning his basement into a bomb shelter, complete with porch furniture and a lamp powered by a car battery, and coldly evaluates the odds of an air raid being directed at his neighborhood in New Jersey.) It’s significant that World War II was the last conflict in which the prospect of a conventional invasion of the United States—and the practical measures that one would take to prepare for it—was even halfway plausible. Faced with the possibility of the war coming to American shores, households took precautions that were basically reasonable, even if they amounted to a form of wishful thinking. And what’s horrifying is how quickly the same assumptions were channeled toward a nuclear war, an utterly different kind of event that makes nonsense of individual preparations. Survivalism is a type of kitsch that looks back fondly to the times in which a war in the developed world could be fought on a human scale, rather than as an impersonal cataclysm in which the actions of ordinary men and women were rendered wholly meaningless.
Like most kinds of kitsch, survivalism reaches its nadir of tastelessness among the nouveau riche, who have the resources to indulge themselves in ways that most of us can’t afford. (Paul Fussell, in his wonderful book Class, speculated that the American bathroom is the place where the working classes express the fantasy of “What I’d Do If I Were Really Rich,” and you could say much the same thing about a fallout shelter, which is basically a bathroom with cots and canned goods.) And it makes it possible to postpone an uncomfortable confrontation with the real issues. In his article, Osnos interviews one of my heroes, the Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, who gets at the heart of the problem:
[Brand] sees risks in escapism. As Americans withdraw into smaller circles of experience, we jeopardize the “larger circle of empathy,” he said, the search for solutions to shared problems. “The easy question is, How do I protect me and mine? The more interesting question is, What if civilization actually manages continuity as well as it has managed it for the past few centuries? What do we do if it just keeps on chugging?”
Survivalism ignores these questions, and it also makes it possible for someone like Peter Thiel, who has the ultimate insurance policy in the form of a New Zealand citizenship, to endorse an experiment in which millions of the less fortunate face the literal loss of their insurance. But we shouldn’t be surprised. When you look at the measures that many survivalists take, you find that they aren’t afraid of the bomb, but of other Americans—the looters, the rioters, and the leeches whom they expect to descend after the grid goes down. There’s nothing wrong with making rational preparations for disaster. But it’s only a short step from survival kits to survival kitsch.
Maybe if I’m part of that mob, I can help steer it in wise directions.
—Homer Simpson, “Whacking Day”
Yesterday, Tesla founder Elon Musk defended his decision to remain on President Trump’s economic advisory council, stating on Twitter: “My goals are to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy and to help make humanity a multi-planet civilization.” A few weeks earlier, Peter Thiel, another member of the PayPal mafia and one of Trump’s most prominent defenders, said obscurely to the New York Times: “Even if there are aspects of Trump that are retro and that seem to be going back to the past, I think a lot of people want to go back to a past that was futuristic—The Jetsons, Star Trek. They’re dated but futuristic.” Musk and Thiel both tend to speak using the language of science fiction, in part because it’s the idiom that they know best. Musk includes Asimov’s Foundation series among his favorite books, and he’s a recipient of the Heinlein Prize for accomplishments in commercial space activities. Thiel is a major voice in the transhumanist movement, and he’s underwritten so much research into seasteading that I’m indebted to him for practically all the technical background of my novella “The Proving Ground.” As Thiel said to The New Yorker several years ago, in words that have a somewhat different ring today:
One way you can describe the collapse of the idea of the future is the collapse of science fiction. Now it’s either about technology that doesn’t work or about technology that’s used in bad ways. The anthology of the top twenty-five sci-fi stories in 1970 was, like, “Me and my friend the robot went for a walk on the moon,” and in 2008 it was, like, “The galaxy is run by a fundamentalist Islamic confederacy, and there are people who are hunting planets and killing them for fun.”
Despite their shared origins at PayPal, Musk and Thiel aren’t exactly equivalent here: Musk has been open about his misgivings toward Trump’s policy on refugees, while Thiel, who seems to have little choice but to double down, had a spokesperson issue the bland statement: “Peter doesn’t support a religious test, and the administration has not imposed one.” Yet it’s still striking to see two of our most visible futurists staking their legacies on a relationship with Trump, even if they’re coming at it from different angles. As far as Musk is concerned, I don’t agree with his reasoning, but I understand it. His decision to serve in an advisory capacity to Trump seems to come down to his relative weighting of two factors, which aren’t mutually exclusive, but are at least inversely proportional. The first is the possibility that his presence will allow him to give advice that will affect policy decisions to some incremental but nontrivial extent. It’s better, this argument runs, to provide a reasonable voice than to allow Trump to be surrounded by nothing but manipulative Wormtongues. The second possibility is that his involvement with the administration will somehow legitimize or enable its policies, and that this risk far exceeds his slight chance of influencing the outcome. It’s a judgment call, and you can assign whatever values you like to those two scenarios. Musk has clearly thought long and hard about it. But I’ll just say that if it turns out that there’s even the tiniest chance that an occasional meeting with Musk—who will be sharing the table with eighteen others—could possibly outweigh the constant presence of Steve Bannon, a Republican congressional majority, and millions of angry constituents in any meaningful way, I’ll eat my copy of the Foundation trilogy.
Musk’s belief that his presence on the advisory council might have an impact on a president who has zero incentive to appeal to anyone but his own supporters is a form of magical thinking. In a way, though, I’m not surprised, and it’s possible that everything I admire in Musk is inseparable from the delusion that underlies this decision. Whatever you might think of them personally, Musk and Thiel are undoubtedly imaginative. In his New Yorker profile, Thiel blamed many of this country’s problems on “a failure of imagination,” and his nostalgia for vintage science fiction is rooted in a longing for the grand gestures that it embodied: the flying car, the seastead, the space colony. Achieving such goals requires not only vision, but a kind of childlike stubbornness that chases a vanishingly small chance of success in the face of all evidence to the contrary. What makes Musk and Thiel so fascinating is their shared determination to take a fortune built on something as prosaic as an online payments system and to turn it into a spaceship. So far, Musk has been much more successful at translating his dreams into reality, and Thiel’s greatest triumph to date has been the destruction of Gawker Media. But they’ve both seen their gambles pay off to an extent that might mislead them about their ability to make it happen again. It’s this sort of indispensable naïveté that underlies Musk’s faith in his ability to nudge Trump in the right direction, and, on a more sinister level, Thiel’s eagerness to convince us to sign up for a grand experiment with high volatility in both directions—even if most of us don’t have the option of fleeing to New Zealand if it all goes up in flames.
This willingness to submit involuntary test subjects to a hazardous cultural project isn’t unique to science fiction fans. It’s the same attitude that led Norman Mailer, when asked about his support of the killer Jack Henry Abbott, to state: “I’m willing to gamble with a portion of society to save this man’s talent. I am saying that culture is worth a little risk.” (And it’s worth remembering that the man whom Abbott stabbed to death, Richard Adan, was the son of Cuban immigrants.) But when Thiel advised us before the election not to take Trump “literally,” it felt like a symptom of the suspension of disbelief that both science fiction writers and startup founders have to cultivate:
I think a lot of the voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously but not literally. And so when they hear things like the Muslim comment or the wall comment or things like that, the question is not “Are you going to build a wall like the Great Wall of China?” or, you know, “How exactly are you going to enforce these tests?” What they hear is “We’re going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy.”
We’ll see how that works out. But in the meantime, the analogy to L. Ron Hubbard is a useful one. Plenty of science fiction writers, including John W. Campbell, A.E. van Vogt, and Theodore Sturgeon, were persuaded by dianetics, in part because it struck them as a risky idea with an unlimited upside. Yet whatever psychological benefits dianetics provided—and it probably wasn’t any less effective than many forms of talk therapy—were far outweighed by the damage that Hubbard and his followers inflicted. It might help to mentally replace the name “Trump” with “Hubbard” whenever an ethical choice needs to be made. What would it mean to take Hubbard “seriously, but not literally?” And if Hubbard asked you to join his board of advisors, would it seem likely that you could have a positive influence, even if it meant adding your name to the advisory council of the Church of Scientology? Or would it make more sense to invest the same energy into helping those whose lives the church was destroying?
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.
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:
- The Marshall Islands once contracted with a company to perform a series of iron fertilization experiments.
- Iron fertilization has been linked to increased levels of pseudonitzschia, which produces domoic acid.
- 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.
Note: Over the next three days, I’ll be 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.
Usually, whenever I start working on a story, I try to begin with as few preconceptions about it as possible. Years ago, in a post called “The Anthropic Principle of Fiction,” I made the argument that the biggest, most obvious elements of the narrative—the setting, the characters, the theme—should be among the last things that the writer figures out, and that the overall components should all be chosen with an eye to enabling a pivotal revelation toward the end. This isn’t true of all plots, of course, but for the sort of scientific puzzle stories in which I’ve come to specialize, it’s all but essential. Mystery writers grasp this intuitively, but it can be harder to accept in science fiction, perhaps because we’ve been trained to think in terms of worldbuilding from an initial premise, rather than reasoning backward from the final result. But both are equally valid approaches, if followed with sufficient logic and imagination. As I wrote in my first treatment of the subject:
Readers will happily accept almost any premise when it’s introduced in the first few pages, but as the story continues, they’ll grow increasingly skeptical of any plot element that doesn’t seem to follow from that initial set of rules—so you’d better make sure that the world in which the story takes place has been fine-tuned to allow whatever implausibilities you later decide to include.
Which led me to formulate a general rule: The largest elements of the story should be determined by its least plausible details.
I still believe this. For “The Proving Ground,” however, I broke that rule, along with an even more important one, which is that you should resist building stories around an explicit political theme. Any discussion of this novella, then, has to begin with the disclaimer that I don’t recommend writing this way—and if the result works at all, it’s because of good luck and more work than I ever hope to invest in a short story again. (I write most of my stories in about two weeks, but “The Proving Ground” took twice that long.) Fortunately, it came out of a confluence of factors that seem unlikely to repeat themselves. A friend of mine was hoping to write a series of freelance editorials about climate change, and she asked me to come on board as a kind of unofficial consultant. She began by giving me a reading list, and I spent about a month working my way through such books as The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein, Windfall by McKenzie Funk, and Don’t Even Think About It by George Marshall. Ultimately, we didn’t end up working together, mostly because we each got distracted by other projects. But it allowed me to think at length about what I still believe is the central issue of our time, and even though I didn’t come away with any clear answers, it provided me with plenty of story material. Climate change has been a favorite subject of science fiction for decades, but the result tends to take place after sea levels have already risen, and I wanted to write something that was in my wheelhouse—a story set in the present or near future that tackled the theme using the tools of suspense.
I ended up focusing on an idea that I first encountered in Funk’s Windfall. The Marshall Islands are among the countries that are the most threatened by global warming, as well as one of the most likely beneficiaries of climate-change reparations from more developed nations. In order to qualify for reparations, however, they have to fulfill the legal definition of a country, which means that they need to have land—but it’s precisely for the loss of that land that they hope to be compensated. It’s easy to imagine them caught in a regulatory twilight zone, with rising sea levels erasing their territory, while also depriving them of the sovereign status from which they could initiate proceedings in the international court system. Funk does a nice job of laying out the dilemma, and it could lead to any number of stories. A different writer, for instance, might have taken it as the basis for a dark, bitter satire. That isn’t a mode in which I’m comfortable operating, though, and I was more intrigued by another detail, which is that one of the proposed solutions to the territorial problem is a seastead, or an artificial island that would allow the Marshallese to maintain their claim to statehood. This struck me as a pretty good backdrop for whatever story I ended up writing, and although I could have started it at a point in which a seastead had already been built, it seemed more promising to begin when it was still under construction. Science fiction is often structured around a major engineering project, both because it allows for future technology to be described in a fairly organic way and because it can be used to create the interim objectives and crises that a story needs to keep moving. (It also provides a convenient stage on which the competent man can shine.)
I knew, then, that this was going to be a story about the construction of a seastead in the Marshall Islands, which was pretty specific. There was also plenty of background material available, ranging from general treatments of the idea in books like The Millennial Project by Marshall T. Savage—which had been sitting unread on my shelf for years—to detailed proposals for seasteads in the real world. (The obvious example is The Seasteading Institute, a libertarian pipe dream funded by Peter Thiel, who has since gone on to even more dubious ventures. But it generated a lot of useful proposals and plans along the way, as long as you treat it as the legwork for a science fiction story, rather than as a project on which you’re hoping to get someone to actually spend fifty billion dollars.) As I continued to read, however, I became uncomfortably aware that I had broken my one rule. Instead of working backward from a climax, I was moving forward from a setting, on the assumption that I’d find something in my research that I could turn into a proper story. It isn’t impossible, but it also isn’t an approach that I’d recommend: not only does it double the investment of time required, but it increases the chances that you’ll distort the facts to fit them into the framework that you’ve imposed on yourself. In this instance, I think I pulled it off, but there’s no guarantee that I will again, and as it happens, I’ve just finished and submitted a new story in which I’m frankly not sure if it works. “The Proving Ground” took a lot of wrong turns, and it was only through sheer good fortune that I was able to find a story that I felt able to write. Tomorrow, I’ll talk more about how I nearly followed one potential premise into a dead end, and how I found myself writing the story, much to my surprise, as an homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.
One way you can describe the collapse of the idea of the future is the collapse of science fiction. Now it’s either about technology that doesn’t work or about technology that’s used in bad ways. The anthology of the top twenty-five sci-fi stories in 1970 was, like, “Me and my friend the robot went for a walk on the moon,” and in 2008 it was, like, “The galaxy is run by a fundamentalist Islamic confederacy and there are people who are hunting planets and killing them for fun.”