Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Philip K. Dick

The chance operation

with 2 comments

If you were looking for insights into leading the life of an artist at a time of political turmoil, it would be hard to find a more intriguing example than Judith Malina, who spent five decades wrestling with the problem in public as the head of the Living Theatre. Beginning in the early fifties, Malina and her husband, Julian Beck, staged a series of shows in New York and Paris that appear to have been equal parts innovative, radical, and unbearable. In 1952, for example, their production of Paul Goodman’s Faustina seems to have strained the audience’s patience to the breaking point. As Erika Munk writes in a chapter of the book Restaging the Sixties:

Goodman—a great influence as anarchist thinker, Malina’s therapist, and gay-but-married exemplar to Beck—wanted theater that provoked: “Either the audience is terribly offended…or in two hours the play effects a character-change in the audience, more than all the manifestoes can accomplish.” At the end of Faustina, which concerned Rome in the time of Marcus Aurelius, the actor playing the title character was supposed to address the spectators directly, telling them they were responsible for its murderous climax because they didn’t leap onstage and stop the action. The actor playing Faustina refused to address the audience, and Malina took her place. They still didn’t leap.

Munk concludes: “Faustina was a disaster. No surprise, when sophisticated playgoers were asked to feel real guilty for not taking steps to stop a purely fictive crime.” And I can’t say that I especially wish that I had been in the audience that night.

Yet I also respect Malina’s lifelong obsession with exploring the relationship between society and art, which she expressed in the only way that she could—by forcibly transferring it to the actors and the audience. In the program notes, she wrote: “We are the creators in an art where every night hundreds of people are ignored, a pretense is made that they do not exist; and then we wonder that the actor has grown apart from society; and then we wonder that the art itself staggers lamely behind its hope of being part of life.” Her tentative solution was to explicitly acknowledge the audience’s presence, which led to a stark contradiction in itself. She was still imposing her will on the spectators, not to mention her reluctant actors, and her response was elegant, if not entirely convincing:

The play is a ritual. Any play is a ritual, but in this play the ritual is overt and we speak out about it with real brazenness…The I Ching says, “It is the Creative that begets things but they are brought to birth by the receptive.” And it says of me further, “The person in question is not in an independent position, but is acting as an assistant. This means that he must achieve something.” I consulted this book of ancient Chinese oracle not only for myself but for my audience. To allow ourselves to be led, all of us assistants in the ritual, which hasn’t any power, but from which power is derived. The play does not take place in pagan Rome. Believe me, believe me that it takes place in the theatre. In this theatre and tonight.

In other words, the play itself was in control, and both the performers and the audience had to surrender to its logic in order to achieve a deeper form of liberation.

It’s also revealing that Malina turned to the I Ching, which is the ideal vehicle for this kind of process. A year earlier, Malina and Beck had served as performers—or “operators”—at the debut of Imaginary Landscape No. 4 by their friend John Cage, which was presented by randomly changing the station and volume on twenty-four radios according to the instructions derived from the oracle. For Cage, these mechanisms were intended to serve as a means of surrendering control, as he explained in a passage that I quoted here a few months ago:

Chance operations are not mysterious sources of “the right answers.” They are a means of locating a single one among a multiplicity of answers, and, at the same time, of freeing the ego from its taste and memory, its concerns for profit and power, of silencing the ego so that the rest of the world has a chance to enter into the ego’s own experience, whether that be outside or inside.

And Cage expressly saw the use of chance operations as an artistic reaction against political dogmatism and oppression. Elsewhere in the same talk, “Lecture on the Weather,” he explains: “Now our government thinks of us also as the policemen of the world…The desire for the best and the most effective in connection with the highest profits and the greatest power led to the fall of nations before us: Rome, Britain, Hitler’s Germany. Those were not chance operations. We would do well to give up the notion that we alone can keep the world in line, that only we can solve its problems.”

And out of all forms of divination, the I Ching might be the best one to use when enacting the relationship between the individual and authority, precisely because its tone is bureaucratic and vaguely dictatorial. As Joseph Needham writes in Science and Civilisation in China:

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…The Book of Changes might almost be said to have constituted an organization for “routing ideas through the right channels to the right departments.”

This rigidity is part of the reason why I’ve never much cared for the I Ching as a creative tool—but if you’re looking to simulate the surrender of agency to an impersonal system of power, it’s perfect. (It probably isn’t an accident that Philip K. Dick turned to the I Ching to make narrative decisions while writing The Man in the High Castle, which imagines an alternate history in which the United States was divided between Germany and Japan after World War II.) And at a moment when issues of authoritarianism seem more urgent then ever, it might be a good time to revisit such tools, which force the artist to abandon the insidious inclination toward control itself. As the priestess says in Faustina: “It’s a lot of shit, but that’s how we do it.”

Crumb and Dick in Disneyland

leave a comment »

In 1986, the cartoonist Robert Crumb published an eight-page story, “The Religious Experience of Philip K. Dick,” in the underground comic book Weirdo. The combination of these two singular personalities seems both appropriate and somehow incongruous, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Crumb wasn’t a fan of Dick, or of science fiction in general, as we read in the new companion book to an exhibition of his work in Paris: “Crumb is known to have no interest in science fiction and no acquaintance with Philip K. Dick’s novels, but what seems to have interested him here is the undecidable nature of the writer’s experience: was this a schizophrenic episode or the authentic mystical experience of a spirit touched by divine grace?” (His primary source appears to have been Dick’s famous speech “How To Build A Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later,” along with the interview with Gregg Rickman reprinted as The Last Testament.) Crumb was fifteen years younger than Dick, and they never seem to have met, but they had a number of surprising affinities. Both spent much of their lives in the Bay Area; both were major artists who first made their mark in vaguely disreputable genres; and both were indelibly linked with psychedelic culture, although they developed the most distinctive elements of their styles long before their earliest encounters with drugs. They were both obsessive record collectors who must have haunted some of the same music shops a decade apart, although their tastes, with one possible exception, were different—Dick preferred classical, Crumb the jazz and blues of the twenties and thirties.

Yet it isn’t surprising that Crumb would be drawn to Dick’s story, which would have been common knowledge in the circles in which he was moving. His comic adaptation opens with an account of Dick’s mystical vision in March 1974, when he had a wisdom tooth removed under sodium pentothal and received a prescription for painkillers. When a woman came to his house to deliver the medication, he was struck by the fish necklace she was wearing, which she explained was a symbol used by the early Christians. At that moment, Dick was hit by a sudden revelation, as freely adapted by Crumb:

I remembered who I was and where I was. In an instant, in the twinkling of an eye, it all came back to me. And not only could I remember it but I could see it. The girl was a secret Christian and so was I. We lived in fear of detection by the Romans. We had to communicate in cryptic signs. She had just told me all this, and it was true. I saw the world as the world of the apostolic Christian times of ancient Rome, when the fish sign was in use.

Dick was never able to explain to his own satisfaction what the experience truly signified, apart from what it implied about the unreality of time itself. But it left him with a sense that the Rome of the early Christian era somehow underlay the visible world, leading to a series of equally odd events, including a truly inexplicable incident in which he correctly diagnosed his young son with an inguinal hernia, after falling into a trance while listening to “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

Crumb renders these incidents with his usual exquisite technical skill, without any apparent effort at editorial commentary, much as he would later illustrate the entirety of The Book of Genesis. For a hint of his attitude toward the material, we can turn to an interview with Jean-Pierre Mercier printed in R. Crumb: Conversations, in which he discusses the biographical comics that he was producing at the time:

The idea was to do classic comics like the old American “Classic Comics” that were out in the fifties when I was a kid…In all those literary things that I did, I saw something comic in the characters that was probably not intended there in the original. Even Sartre, there was something comical…The same thing with Philip K. Dick and his religious experiences. There’s something absurd and comical about his paranoia and his religious visions and how he interpreted them.

There’s something undeniably humorous in his presentation of Dick’s testament in the “Classic Comics” style, but he doesn’t condescend to the subject, either. In the interview, Crumb speaks of the difficulty in paring a dense biographical narrative down to ten pages, and it’s revealing that he chose one particular passage from Dick, who speaks with a howl of messianic anger: “The Lord of Darkness is very powerful. We have powerful adversaries. They don’t give up their interest in power voluntarily, their power must be taken from them. We are in a crisis situation of the like this planet has never seen before. We have lunatics in power with the capacity of blowing up the planet. Therefore, if we are delivered from these people, the planet survives; the ecosphere is not destroyed.”

Crumb never would have used these words himself, but he might have identified with their indignation, as well as with the fine line between artistry and madness—a relationship that he knew well from his own family life. (His other great work along these lines, “Jelly Roll Morton’s Voodoo Curse,” appeared a year earlier in Raw, and Dick, interestingly, mentions Morton by name in his novel Dr. Futurity.) And their deepest connection might have been as close as Disneyland. While Dick was shaped by his childhood encounters with Astounding, Crumb’s earliest influences were Disney comics and movies, including Carl Barks’s Donald Duck and the movie adaptation of Treasure Island, as filtered through the skewed perspective of his older brother Charles. He spent much of his career working through his memories of these works, which “profoundly enthralled” him, much as Dick broke apart and reassembled the conventions of the golden age. And he must have noticed how Dick opens “How To Build A Universe” with greetings from Disneyland, presenting himself as an official spokesperson of the theme park, and he offers a fantasy that seems curiously close to Crumb:

In Disneyland there are fake birds worked by electric motors which emit caws and shrieks as you pass by them. Suppose some night all of us sneaked into the park with real birds and substituted them for the artificial ones. Imagine the horror the Disneyland officials would feet when they discovered the cruel hoax. Real birds! And perhaps someday even real hippos and lions. Consternation. The park being cunningly transmuted from the unreal to the real, by sinister forces.

And Dick closes with perhaps the single most prophetic line in all his work: “When time ends, the birds and hippos and lions and deer at Disneyland will no longer be simulations, and, for the first time, a real bird will sing.”

Note: The Chicago Public Library announced yesterday that this year’s selection for the One Book, One Chicago program will be Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I’ll be discussing Dick’s place in the history of science fiction with Gary K. Wolfe at an event at the Sulzer Regional Branch on November 15.

The electric dream

with 4 comments

There’s no doubt who got me off originally and that was A.E. van Vogt…The basic thing is, how frightened are you of chaos? And how happy are you with order? Van Vogt influenced me so much because he made me appreciate a mysterious chaotic quality in the universe that is not to be feared.

—Philip K. Dick, in an interview with Vertex

I recently finished reading I Am Alive and You Are Dead, the French author Emmanuel Carrère’s novelistic biography of Philip K. Dick. In an article last year about Carrère’s work, James Wood of The New Yorker called it “fantastically engaging,” noting: “There are no references and very few named sources, yet the material appears to rely on the established record, and is clearly built from the same archival labor that a conventional biographer would perform.” It’s very readable, and it’s one of the few such biographies—along with James Tiptree, Jr. by Julie Phillips and a certain upcoming book—aimed at intelligent audience outside the fan community. Dick’s life also feels relevant now in ways that we might not have anticipated two decades ago, when the book was first published in France. He’s never been as central to me as he has for many other readers, mostly because of the accidents of my reading life, and I’ve only read a handful of his novels and stories. I’m frankly more drawn to his acquaintance and occasional correspondent Robert Anton Wilson, who ventured into some of the same dark places and returned with his sanity more or less intact. (One notable difference between the two is that Wilson was a more prolific experimenter with psychedelic drugs, which Dick, apart from one experience with LSD, appears to have avoided.) But no other writer, with one notable exception that I’ll mention below, has done a better job of forcing us to confront the possibility that our understanding of the world might be fatally flawed. And it’s quite possible that he serves as a better guide to the future than any of the more rational writers who populated the pages of Astounding.

What deserves to be remembered about Dick, though, is that he loved the science fiction of the golden age, and he’s part of an unbroken chain of influence that goes back to the earliest days of the pulps. In I Am Alive and You Are Dead, Carrère writes of Dick as a young boy: “He collected illustrated magazines with titles like Astounding and Amazing and Unknown, and these periodicals, in the guise of serious scientific discussion, introduced him to lost continents, haunted pyramids, ships that vanished mysteriously in the Sargasso Sea.” (Carrère, weirdly, puts a superfluous exclamation point at the end of the titles of all these magazines, which I’ve silently removed in these quotations.) Dick continued to collect pulps throughout his life, keeping the most valuable issues in a fireproof safe at his house in San Rafael, California, which was later blown open in a mysterious burglary. Throughout his career, Dick refers casually to classic stories with an easy familiarity that suggests a deep knowledge of the genre, as in a line from his Exegesis, in which he mentions “that C.L. Moore novelette in Astounding about the two alternative futures hinging on which of two girls the guy marries in the present.” But the most revealing connection lies in plain sight. In a section on Dick’s early efforts in science fiction, Carrère writes:

Stories about little green men and flying saucers…were what he was paid to write, and the most they offered in terms of literary recognition was comparison to someone like A.E. van Vogt, a writer with whom Phil had once been photographed at a science fiction convention. The photo appeared in a fanzine above the caption “The Old and the New.”

Carrère persistently dismisses van Vogt as a writer of “space opera,” which might be technically true, though hardly the whole story. Yet he was also the most convincing precursor that Dick ever had. The World of Null-A may be stylistically cruder than Dick at his best, but it also appeared in Astounding in 1945, and it remains so hallucinatory, weird, and undefinable that I still have trouble believing that it was read by twelve-year-olds. (As Dick once said of it in an interview: “All the parts of that book do not add up; all the ingredients did not make a coherency. Now some people are put off by that. They think it’s sloppy and wrong, but the thing that fascinated me so much was that this resembled reality more than anybody else’s writing inside or outside science fiction.”) Once you see the almost apostolic line of succession from van Vogt to Alfred Bester to Dick, the latter seems less like an anomaly within the genre than like an inextricable part of its fabric. Although he only sold one short story, “Impostor,” to John W. Campbell, Dick continued to submit to him for years, before concluding that it wasn’t the best use of his time. As Eric Leif Davin recounts in Partners in Wonder: “[Dick] said he’d rather write several first-draft stories for one cent a word than spend time revising a single story for Campbell, despite the higher pay.” And Dick recalled in his collection The Minority Report:

Horace Gold at Galaxy liked my writing whereas John W. Campbell, Jr. at Astounding considered my writing not only worthless but as he put it, “Nuts.” By and large I liked reading Galaxy because it had the broadest range of ideas, venturing into the soft sciences such as sociology and psychology, at a time when Campbell (as he once wrote me!) considered psionics a necessary premise for science fiction. Also, Campbell said, the psionic character in the story had to be in charge of what was going on.

As a result, the two men never worked closely together, although Dick had surprising affinities with the editor who believed wholeheartedly in psionics, precognition, and genetic memory, and whose magazine never ceased to play a central role in his inner life. In his biography, Carrère provides an embellished version of a recurring dream that Dick had at the age of twelve, “in which he found himself in a bookstore trying to locate an issue of Astounding that would complete his collection.” As Dick describes it in his autobiographical novel VALIS:

In the dream he again was a child, searching dusty used-book stores for rare old science fiction magazines, in particular Astoundings. In the dream he had looked through countless tattered issues, stacks upon stacks, for the priceless serial entitled “The Empire Never Ended.” If he could find it and read it he would know everything; that had been the burden of the dream.

Years later, the phrase “the empire never ended” became central to Dick’s late conviction that we were all living, without our knowledge, in the Rome of the Acts of the Apostles. But the detail that sticks with me the most is that the magazines in the dream were “in particular Astoundings.” The fan Peter Graham famously said that the real golden age of science fiction was twelve, and Dick reached that age at the end of 1940, at the peak of Campbell’s editorship. The timing was perfect for Astounding to rewire his brain forever. When Dick first had his recurring dream, he would have just finished reading a “priceless serial” that had appeared in the previous four issues of the magazine, and I’d like to think that he spent the rest of his life searching for its inconceivable conclusion. It was van Vogt’s Slan.

The Borges Test

with one comment

Note: To celebrate the World Science Fiction Convention this week in San Jose, I’m republishing a few of my favorite pieces on various aspects of the genre. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on June 21, 2017.

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.”

His 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. 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 the same amount of time to read as it would for someone to tell us 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, 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

August 14, 2018 at 9:00 am

The Borges Test

leave a comment »

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

leave a comment »

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

with 2 comments

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.

%d bloggers like this: