Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Philip K. Dick

The Borges Test

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In his introduction to The Garden of Forking Paths, Jorge Luis Borges, who was arguably the greatest writer of speculative fiction of the twentieth century, offers a useful piece of advice:

It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books—setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that these books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them. That was Carlyle’s procedure in Sartor Resartus, Butler’s in The Fair Haven—though those works suffer under the imperfection that they themselves are books, and not a whit less tautological than the others. A more reasonable, more inept, and more lazy man, I have chosen to write notes on imaginary books. Those notes are “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” and “A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain.”

Later stories in the same vein include “Three Versions of Judas” and “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” one of my favorites, in which Borges writes: “In my spare evenings I have conceived this plot—which I will perhaps commit to paper but which already somehow justifies me.” It’s a considerate way of saving time for both the author and the reader, and it’s unfortunate that it’s become so associated with Borges that it’s hard for other writers to utilize it without turning it into an homage. And it only works for stories in which an idea, rather than characterization or style, constitutes the primary attraction.

It’s also no accident that Borges arrived at this method after years as a great reader of mystery fiction and, to a lesser extent, of science fiction and fantasy, which are the genres most vulnerable to the charge that they have nothing to offer but an idea. The most damning case against the hard science fiction epitomized by John W. Campbell’s Astounding is that many of these stories could be reduced to a paragraph of plot summary with minimal loss. Most fans, I think, can relate to the experience of being halfway through a story and impatiently skipping to the end, since the writing and characters don’t provide nearly enough incidental pleasure to justify wading through the rest. At its worst, you get the kind of scientific problem story published by Analog at its least inviting, with the reader forced to stare at names on the page and incomprehensible jargon for twenty minutes, only to be rewarded with the narrative equivalent of a word problem in a physics textbook. And this doesn’t extend to bad stories alone, but to some of the important works ever published in the genre. I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that almost all of Asimov’s robot stories could be condensed to a few sentences that lay out the situation and the solution without losing much of the experience. (A trickier example is Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which I suspect would work better as a five-page Borges story. The idea of an alternate World War II novel in which the characters are reading an alternate World War II novel about our own world, filled with plausible inaccuracies, is one that Borges would have loved. Ursula K. LeGuin famously referred to Dick as “our own homegrown Borges,” and it’s noteworthy that Dick, as an American novelist, just went ahead and wrote the whole book.)

You could say much the same of detective fiction of the locked-room variety, which exists entirely to deliver the twist, and which might work better as one of the one-minute mysteries that children consume in grade school. (“What made Encyclopedia Brown so sure? Turn to page 61 for the solution to ‘The Case of the Giant Mousetrap.’”) This frequent inability of the mystery to rise above its origins as a puzzle is part of the reason that they irritated the critic Edmund Wilson, who wrote in his famous essay “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?”:

I finally got to feel that I had to unpack large crates by swallowing the excelsior in order to find at the bottom a few bent and rusty nails…It is not difficult to create suspense by making people await a revelation, but it does demand a certain talent to come through with a criminal device which is ingenious or picturesque or amusing enough to make the reader feel that the waiting has been worth while…You cannot read such a book, you run through it to see the problem worked out.

Under such circumstances, it can be a courtesy for one reader to summarize the contents of such a story for another. Many of Borges’s best essays consist of little more than a condensed version of another book, from William Beckford’s Vathek to Farid ud-Din Attar’s The Conference of the Birds, as filtered through his unique sensibilities. And you see a similar impulse, at much lower level, when we go online to read the spoilers for a bad movie that we have no intention of ever seeing.

But when you’re a writer, particularly of mystery or science fiction, you need to constantly ask yourself why your story is better than its own summary. (If anything, this is especially true of science fiction mysteries, which is the category in which I tend to write.) One obvious answer is to make it as short as possible. There’s a grand tradition of short science fiction—one of the first anthologies I ever owned was One Hundred Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories, which I still love—and the platonic ideal is a story that takes no longer to read than it would to be orally told the premise. The other approach is to emphasize qualities that can’t be summarized, like character, style, atmosphere, and suspense. In science fiction, my favorite example is A.E. van Vogt, whose plots defy summarization, and who justifies his existence only by making readers feel as if they’ve lived through an experience that they can’t explain. On the mystery side, Edmund Wilson hints at this when he describes the Sherlock Holmes stories as “fairy tales,” and in his consideration of Raymond Chandler, he also gets at one of the risks:

It is not simply a question here of a puzzle which has been put together but of a malaise conveyed to the reader, the horror of a hidden conspiracy that is continually turning up in the most varied and unlikely forms…It was only when I got to the end that I felt my old crime-story depression descending upon me again—because here again, as is so often the case, the explanation of the mysteries, when it comes, is neither interesting nor plausible enough.

If you can’t do either of the above, then the idea probably isn’t ready yet. That’s the Borges test. And if you decide that it would work better as a short story by Borges, you can console yourself with the fact that it’s far from alone.

Written by nevalalee

June 21, 2017 at 9:10 am

Astounding Stories #8: The World of Null-A

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The World of Null-A

Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

If you were going to invent a pulp science fiction writer who went on to become the founder of a worldwide religious movement, working solely from first principles, you’d probably end up with someone less like L. Ron Hubbard than like A.E. van Vogt. And the lives of the two men paralleled each other in surprising ways. They were born almost exactly one year apart, and they both entered science fiction relatively late, after working extensively in other genres—Hubbard in adventure and western fiction, van Vogt in confession stories. (Van Vogt later said: “When I wrote confession-type stories, every sentence…had to contain an emotion in it. For example, you don’t say, ‘I lived at 323 Brand Street.’ You say, ‘Tears came to my eyes as I thought of my tiny bedroom at 323 Brand Street.’”) But the different paths by which they ended up in the pages of Astounding Science Fiction are revealing in themselves. Hubbard wandered in because he was invited to contribute stories by the upper management, and he wasn’t about to turn down a new market, although he had little instinctive feel or love for the field; van Vogt was galvanized by the release of John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?”, the first half of which he read, unbelievably excited, while standing up at a newsstand. From the beginning, you can see the difference: Hubbard is professional but mercenary, falling back on the same easy formulas and twists, while van Vogt writes the way he does because he can’t seem to help himself.

This isn’t to say that van Vogt lacked a working writer’s pragmatism: he structured his plots in chunks of eight hundred words, with new developments or complications arriving like clockwork, and he carefully studied such manuals as John Gallishaw’s The Only Two Ways to Write a Story. Without that kind of scaffolding, his stories would disintegrate or fly apart out of centrifugal force into their component pieces, as they constantly threaten to do. Van Vogt was simultaneously the crudest and most advanced of the science fiction writers of his generation, and his work is often bewildering. Stories like “Black Destroyer” or “Vault of the Beast” leave you feeling as if you’ve lived through an experience that you can’t entirely explain, and it’s hard to tell where a simple lack of polish shades into a deliberate tone of alienation, or an agonized attempt to work out ideas that can’t be expressed in ordinary ways. Hubbard’s acolytes like to say that he used his writing to fund his serious research, and that his work reflects his ongoing interest in the mind, a claim that isn’t sustained by the stories themselves: he never shows much of an interest in ideas beyond what he needs to get from one sentence to the next. (The most generous interpretation is that he wanted to keep his theories to himself, out of fear that Campbell would try to take them over—a concern that was more than justified by what actually happened with dianetics.) But other writers seized on the opportunity that science fiction afforded to explore tangled philosophical concepts in a popular setting, and none did so more feverishly than van Vogt.

A.E. van Vogt

It all culminated in The World of Null-A, a serial published in 1945 that looks more or less as you’d expect an attempt to incorporate elements of non-Aristotelean logic into a pulp context to look—that is, like an utterly insane mess. To say that the plot defies summarization isn’t just a figure of speech. It opens with its hero, Gilbert Gosseyn, preparing to enter “the games,” a series of tests that will determine whether he is mentally advanced enough to join a colony of enlightened citizens on Venus. (Gosseyn, like the other members of the upper classes, has been trained using the general semantics of Alfred Korzybski, who in the world of the story is revered as something like a prophet.) In a succession of chaotic developments, Gosseyn discovers that he isn’t who he thinks he is; that all his memories are false; that he’s the target of a conspiracy that involves the President of the United States and his daughter, designed to destroy the machine that keeps civilization on its course; and that whenever he dies, which he does more than once, he’s resurrected in a new body. And this is all before he also realizes that Earth is a strategic planet in a struggle between two competing factions of the Galactic Empire, that he himself contains both a supercharged “extra brain” and the secret to immortality, and that he can only learn the whole truth if he tracks down a mysterious figure called X. There is much, much more, and the result, by any measure, is the weirdest story ever published in Astounding. As Campbell wrote in a note to readers: “Two days after you finish the story, you’ll realize its size more fully.”

In The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Peter Nicholls and John Clute refer to van Vogt and Hubbard as “the two rogue members of the early Campbell pantheon.” This is correct, up to a point, except that Hubbard’s stake in the genre was rarely more than opportunistic, while van Vogt was closer to an inspired madman who drew heavily on his own dreams. He was the single greatest influence on Philip K. Dick, which puts him near the heart of science fiction’s main line of development, but, like E.E. Smith, he’s a major figure who remains largely unknown outside the field. It’s possible to link his relative obscurity to Hubbard as well: in 1950, the Los Angeles branch of the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation was all but thrust into van Vogt’s hands, taking him out of science fiction for most of a decade in which writers like Asimov and Heinlein were making incursions into the mainstream. If his career hadn’t been derailed, he might well have attained the cultural prominence that he deserves—although he may also have been too weird, too intense, and too unclassifiable to fit comfortably within conventional boundaries. In The World of Null-A, van Vogt writes: “Countless billions of people had lived and died without ever suspecting that every word they spoke, or that was spoken at them, had helped to create the disordered brains with which they confronted the realities of their worlds.” And for all his flaws, he came closer to any writer of his era to revealing a reality unlike the one we take for granted, and to affording us a glimpse of our own disordered minds.

The Book of Changes

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The I Ching

If there’s a single theme to which I’ve repeatedly returned for the five years and more I’ve been writing this blog, it’s the importance of randomness in the creative process. I’ve always tried to systematically incorporate elements of chance into my work, in a large part because I’m temperamentally the opposite: I’m an architect, not a gardener, and nearly everything I’ve written—fiction and nonfiction alike—has been planned, outlined, and structured within an inch of its life. I adopted this approach as a kind of survival strategy: I figured out early in my career that I had a better chance of finishing a project, rather than abandoning it halfway through, if I had a blueprint to follow. And that’s still true. But the fact that I’ve always been a fundamentally rational writer has led me to think about creative randomness and serendipity to a greater extent, I suspect, than many of those who naturally take a more intuitive approach. An author who begins a story without a clear end point in mind, apart from a willingness to follow the narrative wherever it leads, doesn’t need to consciously worry about randomness: it’s baked into the process from the beginning. But because I’m predisposed to lay everything out before I type the first sentence, I’ve tried to be diligent about keeping that fertilizing aspect of chance alive.

As Gregory Bateson wrote: “Creative thought must always contain a random component. The exploratory process—the endless trial and error of mental progress—can achieve the new only by embarking upon pathways randomly presented, some of which when tried are somehow selected for survival.” Elsewhere, Bateson is reported to have said to his secretary: “I am going to build a church some day. It will have a holy of holies and a holy of holy of holies, and in that ultimate box will be a random number table.” And the search for productive forms of randomness has been one of the most absorbing parts of my writing life over the last ten years. I’ve written at length here about how I’ve tried most of the usual suspects, like Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, and how the most useful repository of random connections I’ve found has been Ted Hughes’s anthology A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse, which helpfully provides more than two hundred numbered quotations that I pick out of a virtual hat whenever I’m trying to crack a creative problem. I’ve also dabbled with methods associated with divination, which, as a sources of symbols for inspiring unexpected trains of thought, can be genuinely valuable tools. As I once wrote about the tarot:

It’s really a portable machine for generating patterns…It results in a temporary structure—in the form of the cards spread across the table—that can be scrutinized from various angles. At its best, it’s an externalization or extension of your own thoughts: instead of confronting the problem entirely in your own head, you’re putting a version of it down where you can see it, examine it, or even walk away from it.

The Tarot of Marseilles

But there’s one obvious resource that I’ve never been able to use to my own satisfaction: the I Ching. I’ve always been a little surprised by this, since it’s probably the most famous of all oracular texts. I’ve toyed with various translations, notably the Richard Wilhelm edition, and I had a reasonable amount of success with The Portable Dragon by R.G.H. Siu, which pairs the original hexagrams with illuminating quotations from both eastern and western sources. But the results have always left me cold, and it’s taken me a long time to figure out why. I found a helpful clue in a discussion of the subject in Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China, the legendary seven-volume masterpiece that I was recently delighted to find is available for download at Monoskop. In his section on the I Ching, which he thinks had a negative influence on the history of thought in China, Needham writes:

The elaborated symbolic system of the Book of Changes was almost from the start a mischievous handicap. It tempted those who were interested in Nature to rest in explanations which were no explanations at all. The Book of Changes was a system for pigeon-holing novelty and then doing nothing more about it. Its universal system of symbolism constituted a stupendous filing-system. It led to a stylization of concepts almost analogous to the stylizations which have in some ages occurred in art forms, and which finally prevented painters from looking at Nature at all.

And I think he’s onto something. The I Ching has a way of closing off pathways of thought—unlike the tarot, which opens them up—because it’s almost too comprehensive and organized. The tarot is a mess, but in the best possible way: the patterns it generates are necessarily incomplete, and they require a secondary act of consolidation in the user’s brain. The I Ching feels more like a card catalog. (Needham shrewdly compares it to the bureaucratic organization of much of classical Chinese society, and says: “The Book of Changes might almost be said to have constituted an organization for ‘routing ideas through the right channels to the right departments.'”) And after trying valiantly for years to incorporate it into my writing routine, I set it aside: it seemed to have some of the same freezing effect on my work that Needham identifies in Chinese culture as a whole. This is all very subjective, of course, and it clearly doesn’t apply to everyone: the I Ching played an important role in the careers of such artists as John Cage and Philip K. Dick, and I wouldn’t discourage any writer from at least trying it out. But when I relinquished it at last, it was with something like relief. The central principle of the I Ching is resonance, but for whatever reason, it just never resonated with me. And if a tool doesn’t work, it has to be put away. Because the search for randomness is too important to be left to chance.

A choice of futures

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Jack Williamson

A plausible impossibility is always preferable to an improbable possibility.


Yesterday, I was reading an interview with the legendary science fiction author Jack Williamson when I came across a statement that struck a nerve. When asked about the genre’s supposed ability to predict the future, Williamson replied:

The average [science fiction] author is more stage magician, a creator of convincing illusions, than scientist or serious prophet. In practice, once you’re into the process of actually writing a work of fiction, the story itself gets to be more important than futurology. You become more involved in following the fictional logic you’ve invented for your characters, the atmosphere, the rush of action; meanwhile, developing real possibilities recedes. You may find yourself even opting for the least probable event rather than the most probable, simply because you want the unexpected.

This resonated with me, because I often feel the same way about my own fiction. I’m not all that interested in extrapolating future trends for their own sake, mostly because I feel that other writers are better at it: instead, I’m more drawn to stories that put known facts into surprising juxtapositions that lend themselves to a final twist. And in practice, this often means that the plot turns on a highly unlikely combination of factors that I needed to make that particular story possible. (See “The Boneless One,” “Kawataro,” and just about everything else I’ve ever written.)

Obviously, I try to conceal any underlying improbabilities from the reader, mostly by following what I’ve called the anthropic principle of fiction, in which a story’s setting and basic premises are chosen to enable the twist, rather than the other way around. There’s no denying that there’s an element of sleight of hand involved, and you could even argue that it could be dangerous, especially when the requirements of an entertaining plot are confused with science fiction’s reputation for accurate predictions. As the great semanticist S.I. Hayakawa wrote in an early review of L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics:

I have long felt that there are dangers to the writer as well as to the reader in pulp fiction. It did not occur to me until I read Dianetics to try to analyze the special dangers entailed in the profession of science-fiction writing. The art consists in concealing from the reader, for novelistic purposes, the distinctions between established scientific facts, almost-established scientific hypotheses, scientific conjectures, and imaginative extrapolations far beyond what has even been conjectured. The danger of this technique lies in the fact that, if the writer of science-fiction writes too much of it too fast and too glibly and is not endowed from the beginning with a high degree of semantic self-insight…he may eventually succeed in concealing the distinction between his facts and his imaginings from himself.

Tom Cruise in Minority Report

But we aren’t worried that an author of mystery novels, say, will become so enamored of his account of a perfect crime that he’ll feel obliged to carry it out himself. Science fiction, at least of the hard variety, differs from similar genres in that much of its appeal arises from its apparent foundation in fact. As a result, it’s easier to imagine an author failing to distinguish between reality and his own speculations, even as he elides that boundary in his fiction for the sake of a good story. In the interview quoted above, Jack Williamson talks about “the popular myth of [science fiction’s] futurological accuracy,” which is still a major aspect of the field’s reputation, and a reason why many writers are drawn to it in the first place—even though science fiction has a mixed track record at nailing down the details. If a story does happen to get something right, it’s often by accident, and incidental to the main thrust of the story. When we talk about movies that do a good job of predicting how the future might look, one of the first to come up is Minority Report, which makes some remarkably shrewd guesses about facial recognition, driverless cars, and gesture interfaces. What’s funny, of course, is that few of these gadgets have anything to do with the plot itself, which is based less on science than on fantasy: they have more to do with art direction than storytelling, and don’t have much to do at all with the original story by Philip K. Dick, who was far more interested in mood, theme, and paradox than in forecasting how we’d interact with our screens.

Yet that’s exactly as it should be, and it’s something that both readers and writers of science fiction should keep in mind whenever they think about the choice of futures that a story makes. Frederik Pohl once said: “The mistake you must never make about science fiction is in thinking that, because it is about the future, it is necessarily about the future.” Stanley Schmidt, the former editor of Analog, recently quoted Pohl’s reminder and followed it up with an observation of his own: “Writers in this field are seldom trying to predict what the future will be, but rather to imagine a wide range of ways it could be—and how each of them, if it came to pass, would affect our lives.” This is perfectly correct, but it’s also worth remembering why we do it. The novelist Georges Simenon stated that the goal of his fiction was to find situations that would oblige his characters “to go to their limit,” and that’s true of most good science fiction as well, with the difference that the inciting incident is something rooted, however tenuously, in scientific extrapolation. When choosing between futures, or between the consequences of a particular idea, we’re often less interested in what we think could actually happen than in what will put the most pressure on our characters, and, by extension, our readers. (This also explains why dystopian futures are so prevalent in fiction these days—they’re more immediately promising as a source of narrative material.) On its highest level, science fiction is about the possible, but in the trenches where readable stories are made, it’s often more about Aristotle’s plausible impossibilities. And if that weren’t true, these stories probably wouldn’t exist at all.

Philip K. Dick on a novelist’s trove of ideas

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A novelist carries with him constantly what most women carry in large purses: much that is useless, a few absolutely essential items, and then, for good measure, a great number of things that fall in between. But the novelist does not transport them physically because his trove of possessions is mental. Now and then he adds a new and entirely useless idea; now and then he reluctantly cleans out the trash—the obviously worthless ideas—and with a few sentimental tears sheds them. Once in a great while, however, he happens by chance onto a thoroughly stunning idea new to him that he hopes will turn out to be new to everyone else. It is this final category that dignifies his existence. But such truly priceless ideas…perhaps during his entire lifetime he may, at best, acquire only a meager few. But that is enough; he has, through them, justified his existence to himself and to his God.

Philip K. Dick, “If You Find This World Bad, You Should See Some of the Others”

Written by nevalalee

December 18, 2011 at 10:00 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

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Adjusting The Adjustment Bureau

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Last week, my wife and I rented The Adjustment Bureau, a movie that, aside from its clunky title, seems to have a lot going for it: a cast that includes Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, and the great John Slattery; a talented screenwriter, George Nolfi, in his directorial debut; and a nifty premise, courtesy of Philip K. Dick. Apparently there’s a team of supernatural adjusters, taking the form of sinister men in hats, whose job is to make sure that the world proceeds according to “the plan,” as defined by an unseen Chairman. The adjusters make whatever changes are necessary to keep our lives on track, but encounter an unexpected problem when David Norris, a congressman running for Senate, accidentally falls in love with Elise Sellas, a dancer in New York, threatening to put both of their lives—and the future of the world, obviously—off course.

The resulting movie is reasonably enjoyable, but content to coast on the level of light fantasy, and in retrospect, it’s hard not to lament all the wasted potential. The questions the film implies but never answers are endless: Is there another adjustment bureau above the one we’ve seen, and so on ad infinitum? Can adjusters abuse the system to their own ends? Does a second team of adjusters work for Satan? Is it possible for a man like David to cleverly game the system? Why doesn’t David blame the adjustment bureau for the deaths of everyone in his family, which the bureau could have prevented? We’re told that the adjusters have trouble dealing with bodies of water—does this mean that we have more free will on boats, or small islands? Was 9/11 part of the plan? And why does the poster and tagline for The Adjustment Bureau look so much like the one for Michael Clayton?

These may seem like nitpicky questions, but part of the pleasure of speculative fiction comes from the author’s exploration of the implications of his premise. A movie like Being John Malkovich isn’t content just to show us a portal into a famous actor’s brain—it also asks what would happen if Malkovich entered his own portal, or tried to push invaders down into his subconscious. Inception didn’t just give us its characters entering a dream, or a dream within a dream, but five levels of dreams, and cheerfully exploited the paradoxes of time dilation and our notions of dreams vs. reality. And perhaps most relevantly, Minority Report, also a mainstream action movie based on a story by Philip K. Dick, began by telling us the rules of precrime, then showed us how a smart individual could subvert the system, resulting in a surprisingly satisfying mystery. These films began with a great premise and drilled deeper, while The Adjustment Bureau is content to skate along the surface.

Part of the problem is that with the film’s biggest star playing David, the movie naturally gravitates toward the love story, which is much less compelling than the workings of the bureau itself. (If Damon had signed on to play one of the adjusters instead, we might have gotten a much more intriguing film.) As it stands, the central story could have been a great first act for a more ambitious movie, but taken on its own, it’s a little thin, and also thematically unsatisfying. The Adjustment Bureau knows that it needs a hero with a grand destiny that will go unfulfilled if he doesn’t agree to the plan, so it turns David into a future President of the United States. Fine—a movie doesn’t need to be subtle. But in the process, it reduces Elise to a character who is defined entirely by the impact she has on her more important male counterpart’s life. It would have been more interesting, perhaps, to get to the end and discover that Elise, not David, was the one whose life was truly important to the balance of the universe. But that’s more ingenuity, alas, than The Adjustment Bureau seems willing to expend.

Written by nevalalee

September 6, 2011 at 8:54 am

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