Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Robert Anton Wilson

The playboy and the playwright

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In 1948, the playwright and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson spent four months teaching a legendary writing course at the University of Illinois. His lectures were published as The Human Nature of Playwriting, a book that until recently was remarkably difficult to find—I ended up photographing every page of it in the reading room of the Newberry Library. (A digital edition is now available for eight dollars on Kindle, which is a real bargain.) It’s as much about living a meaningful life as it is about becoming a good writer, and my favorite passage is Raphaelson’s praise of those who live by their wits:

I intend to gamble to my dying day on my capacity to provide bread and butter, a roof and an overcoat. That kind of gambling, where you pit yourself against the primary hazards of life, is something I believe in. Not merely for writers, but for everyone. I think security tends to make us timid. You do well at something, you know you can continue doing well at it, and you hesitate about trying anything else. Then you begin to put all your energies into protecting and reinforcing what you have. You become conservative and face all the dangers of conservatism in an age when revolutions, seen and unseen, are occurring every day.

One of the students in his class was the young Hugh Hefner, who was twenty-two years old. And the more I think about Hefner’s implausible career, which ended yesterday, the more I suspect that he listened intently to Raphaelson, even if his inner life was shaped less by the stage than by the movies. In Thy Neighbor’s Wife, Gay Talese writes of Hefner’s teenage days working as an usher at the Rockne Theater in Chicago: “As he stood watching in the darkened theater, he often wished that the lights would never turn on, that the story on the screen would continue indefinitely.”

And Hefner’s improbable existence starts to make more sense if see him as at the star of a movie that he was furiously writing in real time. These impulses were central to his personality, as Talese notes:

Not content with merely presenting fantasy, [Hefner] wished to experience it, connect with it, to synthesize his strong visual sense with his physical drives, and to manufacture a mood, a love scene, that he could both feel and observe…He was, and had always been, visually aware of whatever he did as he did it. He was a voyeur of himself. He acted at times in order to watch. Once he allowed himself to be picked up by a homosexual in a bar, more to see than to enjoy sex with a man. During Hefner’s first extramarital affair, he made a film of himself making love to his girlfriend, a 16mm home movie that he keeps with cartons of other personal documents and mementos, photo albums, and notebooks that depict and describe his entire personal life.

Talese observes elsewhere that as Playboy grew in popularity, Hefner dressed the set with the obsessiveness of an experienced stage manager:

The reclusive Hefner was now beginning to reveal himself in his own pages…by inserting evidence of his existence in the backgrounds of nude photographs that were shot exclusively for Playboy. In a picture of a young woman taking a shower, Hefner’s shaving brush and comb appeared on the bathroom sink. His tie was hung near the mirror. Although Hefner was now presenting only the illusion of himself as the lover of the women in the pictures, he foresaw the day when, with the increasing power of his magazine, he would truly possess these women sexually and emotionally; he would be realizing his readers’ dreams, as well as his own, by touching, wooing, and finally penetrating the desirable Playmate of the Month.

“[Hefner] saw himself as a fantasy matchmaker between his male readers and the females who adorned his pages,” Talese writes, and the logical conclusion was to assume this role in reality, as a kind of Prospero composing encounters for real men and women. In The Human Nature of Playwriting, Raphaelson advises:

If you start writing and suddenly it isn’t going where you want it to go, what you expected to happen can’t happen, and you are within five pages of your second-act curtain and you’re stuck, there is a procedure which I have found invaluable. I make a list of my principal characters and check to see if each character has had a major scene with every other character, and by “major” I mean a scene in which they are in conflict and explore each other…I would say a good play, all other things being equal, should have thorough exploration of each other by all the major characters.

Hefner clearly conceived of the Playboy Mansion as a stage where such “thorough exploration” could take place, and its habitués included everyone from Gene Siskel to Shel Silverstein. The Playboy offices also attracted a curious number of science fiction writers, including Ray Russell and my hero, Robert Anton Wilson, who answered the letters in the Playboy Forum as an associate editor for five years. (Wilson writes in Cosmic Trigger: “You all want to know, of course, does Hef really fuck all the Playmates, and is he really homosexual…We have no real inside information—but our impression is that Hef has made love to a lot of the Playmates, though by no means all of them, and that he is not homosexual.”) On September 2, 1962, after participating in a symposium on the future, Robert A. Heinlein attended a party at the mansion, of which he recalled:

This fabulous house illustrated a couple of times in Playboy—and it really is fabulous, with a freeform swimming pool in the basement, a bar under that with a view window into the pool, and all sorts of weird and wonderful fancies…I saw my chum Shel Silverstein…I got into a long, drunken, solemn discussion with Hefner in the bar and stayed until 7:30am—much too late or early, both from health and from standpoint of proper behavior of a guest. I like Hefner very much—my kind of son of a bitch. No swank at all and enjoying his remarkable success.

But it can be dangerous when a man creates a dream, walks into it, and invites the rest of us to follow. Hefner sometimes reminds me of John Updike—another aspiring cartoonist who took the exploration of extramartial sex as his artistic territory—but he’s also uncomfortably reminiscent of another famous figure. Talese writes: “Although there were numerous men who were far wealthier than Hefner, the public was either unaware or unenvious of them since they rarely appeared on television and never called attention to the fact that they were enjoying themselves.” It’s hard to read these words now without thinking at once of Donald Trump, whose victory over Ted Cruz in the primaries Hefner hailed as “a sexual revolution in the Republican Party.” Like Trump, Hefner became a caricature of himself over time, perhaps failing to heed Raphaelson’s warning: “When you make money and are known as being a competent and well-heeled fellow, it’s natural to accept yourself at that value and to be horrified at the thought that you should ever again be broke—that is, that anyone should know of it.” And Talese’s description of Hefner in the sixties carries a new resonance today:

Hugh Hefner saw himself as the embodiment of the masculine dream, the creator of a corporate utopia, the focal point of a big-budget home movie that continuously enlarged upon its narcissistic theme month after month in his mind—a film of unfolding romance and drama in which he was simultaneously the producer, the director, the writer, the casting agent, the set designer, and the matinee idol and lover of each desirable new starlet who appeared on cue to enhance, but never upstage, his preferred position on the edge of satiation.

This sounds a lot like our current president. Trump had a long association with Playboy, and while we may never know how much of his personality was shaped in some way by Hefner, I suspect that it was just as profound as it was for countless other American males of his generation. It might seem a stretch to draw the line from Raphaelson to Hefner to Trump—but we’re all part of the play now. And the curtain hasn’t fallen yet.

A Hawk From a Handsaw, Part 3

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Hermann Göring with falcon

Over the last few days, I’ve been doing my best Robert Anton Wilson impression, and, like him, I’ve been seeing hawks everywhere. Science fiction is full of them. Skylark of Space, which is arguably the story that kicked off the whole business in the first place, was written by E.E. Smith and his friend Lee Hawkins Garby, who is one of those women who seem to have largely fallen out of the history of the genre. Then there’s Hawk Carse, the main character of a series of stories, written for Astounding by editors Harry Bates and Desmond W. Hall, that have become synonymous with bad space opera. And you’ve got John W. Campbell himself, who was described as having “hawklike” features by the fan historian Sam Moskowitz, and who once said of his own appearance: “I haven’t got eyes like a hawk, but the nose might serve.” (Campbell also compared his looks to those of The Shadow and, notably, Hermann Göring, an enthusiastic falconer who loved hawks.) It’s all a diverting game, but it gets at a meaningful point. When Wilson’s wife objected to his obsession with the 23 enigma, pointing out that he was just noticing that one number and ignoring everything else, Wilson could only reply: “Of course.” But continued to believe in it as an “intuitive signal” that would guide him in useful directions, as well as an illustration of the credo that guided his entire career:

Our models of “reality” are very small and tidy, the universe of experience is huge and untidy, and no model can ever include all the huge untidiness perceived by uncensored consciousness.

We’re living at a time in which the events of the morning can be spun into two contradictory narratives by early afternoon, so it doesn’t seem all that original to observe that you can draw whatever conclusion you like from a sufficiently rich and random corpus of facts. On some level, all too many mental models come down to looking for hawks, noting their appearances, and publishing a paper about the result. And when you’re talking about something like the history of science fiction, which is an exceptionally messy body of data, it’s easy to find the patterns that you want. You could write an overview of the genre that draws a line from A.E. van Vogt to Alfred Bester to Philip K. Dick that would be just as persuasive and consistent as one that ignores them entirely. The same is true of individuals like Campbell and Heinlein, who, like all of us, contained multitudes. It can be hard to reconcile the Campbell who took part in parapsychological experiments at Duke and was editorializing in the thirties about the existence of telepathy in Unknown with the founder of whatever we want to call Campbellian science fiction, just as it can be difficult to make sense of the contradictory aspects of Heinlein’s personality, which is something I haven’t quite managed to do yet. As Borges writes:

Let us greatly simplify, and imagine that a life consists of 13,000 facts. One of the hypothetical biographies would record the series 11, 22, 33…; another, the series 9, 13, 17, 21…; another, the series 3, 12, 21, 30, 39…A history of a man’s dreams is not inconceivable; another, of the organs of his body; another, of the mistakes he made; another, of all the moments when he thought about the Pyramids; another, of his dealings with the night and the dawn.

It’s impossible to keep all those facts in mind at once, so we make up stories about people that allow us to extrapolate the rest, in a kind of lossy compression. The story of Arthur C. Clarke’s encounter with Uri Geller is striking mostly because it doesn’t fit our image of Clarke as the paradigmatic hard science fiction writer, but of course, he was much more than that.

The Falcon Killer

I’ve been focusing on places where science fiction intersects with the mystical because there’s a perfectly valid history to be written about it, and it’s a thread that tends to be overlooked. But perhaps the most instructive paranormal encounter of all happened to none other than Isaac Asimov. In July 1966, Asimov and his family were spending two weeks at a summer house in Concord, Massachusetts. One evening, his daughter ran into the house shouting: “Daddy, Daddy, a flying saucer! Come look!” Here’s how he describes what happened next:

I rushed out of the house to see…It was a cloudless twilight. The sun had set and the sky was a uniform slate gray, still too light for any stars to be visible; and there, hanging in the sky, like an oversize moon, was a perfect featureless metallic circle of something like aluminum.

I was thunderstruck, and dashed back into the house for my glasses, moaning, “Oh no, this can’t happen to me. This can’t happen to me.” I couldn’t bear the thought that I would have to report something that really looked as though it might conceivably be an extraterrestrial starship.

When Asimov went back outside, the object was still there. It slowly began to turn, becoming gradually more elliptical, until the black markings on its side came into view—and it turned out to be the Goodyear blimp. Asimov writes: “I was incredibly relieved!” Years later, his daughter told the New York Times: “He nearly had a heart attack. He thought he saw his career going down the drain.”

It’s a funny story in itself, but let’s compare it to what Geller writes about Clarke: “Clarke was not there just to scoff. He had wanted things to happen. He just wanted to be completely convinced that everything was legitimate.” The italics are mine. Asimov, alone of all the writers I’ve mentioned, never had any interest in the paranormal, and he remained a consistent skeptic throughout his life. As a result, unlike the others, he was very rarely wrong. But I have a hunch that it’s also part of the reason why he sometimes seems like the most limited of all major science fiction writers—undeniably great within a narrow range—while simultaneously the most important to the culture as a whole. Asimov became the most famous writer the genre has ever seen because you could basically trust him: it was his nonfiction, not his fiction, that endeared him to the public, and his status as a explainer depended on maintaining an appearance of unruffled rationality. It allowed him to assume a very different role than Campbell, who manifestly couldn’t be trusted on numerous issues, or even Heinlein, who convinced a lot of people to believe him while alienating countless others. But just as W.B. Yeats drew on his occult beliefs as a sort of battery to drive his poetry, Campbell and Heinlein were able to go places where Asimov politely declined to follow, simply because he had so much invested in not being wrong. Asimov was always able to tell the difference between a hawk and a handsaw, no matter which way the wind was blowing, and in some ways, he’s the best model for most of us to emulate. But it’s hard to write science fiction, or to live in it, without seeing patterns that may or may not be there.

A Hawk From a Handsaw, Part 2

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Detail from the cover of the January 1974 issue of Analog

Yesterday, I mentioned the series of incidents from the early seventies that the writer Robert Anton Wilson memorably described as “some mysterious hawks that follow Uri Geller around.” Geller, the Israeli magician and purported telepath, claimed to be in contact with an alien entity that three other men—Saul-Paul Sirag, Andrija Puharich, and Ray Stanford—believed they had seen in the form of a hawk. A few months after his own encounter, in which he thought he saw Geller turn into a bird of prey, Sirag was startled to see the Kelly Freas cover of the January 1974 issue of Analog, which depicted a man with a hawklike helmet and the last name “Stanford” embroidered over his breast pocket. The story, “The Horus Errand” by William E. Cochrane, follows a psychic named Stanford as he attempts to guide the consciousness of a deceased millionaire through its reincarnation into the body of a newly born infant, only to lose track of his client along the way. (There are shades of Heinlein’s I Will Fear No Evil, which had been published a few years earlier.) Egyptian imagery plays a significant role in the plot, with Stanford comparing his task to that of the mythological Isis, who gathered up the pieces of the dead Osiris and used them to conceive their son Horus. An enormous modern pyramid serves as a backdrop to the action. Decades later, the real Ray Stanford, who was associated with research into unidentified flying objects, provided a sketch, pictured below, of what he said was the real insignia on the famous spacecraft seen in Socorro, New Mexico on April 24, 1964 by police officer Lonnie Zamora. It looks a lot like a pyramid.

In itself, it isn’t surprising to see Egyptian symbolism turning up repeatedly in these contexts. Such images are popular for much the same reason that a character in Foucault’s Pendulum says you find pyramids on both sides of the Atlantic: “Because the wind produces dunes in the shape of pyramids and not in the shape of the Parthenon.” (Another character responds: “I hate the spirit of the Enlightenment.”) But the timing is suggestive for other reasons. We can start with Andrija Puharich, the parapsychological researcher who introduced Geller to a large popular audience. In his book Uri, which presents Geller as a kind of messiah figure who draws his abilities from extraterrestrial sources, Puharich describes a few hawk encounters of his own. He had traveled to Tel Aviv to study Geller, and he quickly became convinced of the other man’s powers. While driving through the countryside on New Year’s Day of 1972, Puharich saw two white hawks, followed by others at his hotel two days later:

At times one of the birds would glide in from the sea right up to within a few meters of the balcony; it would flutter there in one spot and stare at me directly in the eyes. It was a unique experience to look into the piercing, “intelligent” eyes of a hawk. It was then that I knew I was not looking into the eyes of an earthly hawk. This was confirmed about 2 P.M. when Uri’s eyes followed a feather, loosened from the hawk, that floated on an updraft toward the top of the Sharon Tower. As his eye followed the feather to the sky, he was startled to see a dark spacecraft parked directly over the hotel.

Geller insisted that there weren’t any hawks in Israel, and that the birds had been sent to protect them. “I dubbed this hawk ‘Horus’ and still use this name each time he appears to me,” Puharich concludes, adding that he saw it on two other occasions.

The Socorro Symbol

As it turns out, there are, in fact, hawks in Israel, and based on a few minutes of research and Puharich’s description—a two-foot wingspan, with gray plumage and a white underside with “darker stippling”—I think they might have been Eurasian sparrowhawks, which are sometimes observed around Tel Aviv. But the most striking point goes unspoken. Puharich’s book is set during a period of heightened tension between Israel and Egypt, and much of the action revolves Geller allegedly receiving information from a higher power about a pending Egyptian invasion. During a hypnotic trance on December 1, 1971, Geller heard the message: “Plans for war have been made by Egypt, and if Israel loses, the entire world will explode into war.” Similarly, in a second session: “In Khartoum and in Egypt there may be many dead. Sadat will be taken by his officers. Syria will attack. Jordan will not intervene. There will be many Egyptian soldiers in Jordan. You, you are the only one to save mankind.” Puharich spent much of his visit praying for peace, and ultimately, no attack took place, with the strong implication that Geller’s efforts had something to do with averting it. When the Yom Kippur War did break out on on October 6, 1973, Geller and Puharich consulted their extraterrestrial source, who replied: “The fight and the war will be fought just like an ordinary war. This war had to come, and they shall fight it out alone. You are not needed this time.” Earlier in the book, Puharich writes:

If [a cosmic being] wishes to appear to some earth person, it chooses a form suitable to the local taste. In ancient Egypt the sun god, Ra, for example, was said to appear in the form of a hawk called Hor, or as corrupted by the Greeks, Horus.

But as far as I can tell, neither Puharich nor Geller comment on the incongruity of a cosmic entity reaching out to an Israeli psychic in 1971 in the form of the Egyptian god of war.

If interest in paranormal phenomena tends to spike during times of uncertainty, it isn’t all that strange that it would draw upon Egyptian symbolism in a decade when global anxieties were shifting toward the Middle East. But there’s one other instance I want to mention. In 1956, the science fiction writers Damon Knight and Judith Merril organized the first Milford Science Fiction Writers’ Conference, which drew such authors as Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, and L. Sprague de Camp. Also in attendance was Cyril Kornbluth, who brought along a young woman, Jane Roberts, whom Knight describes as “slender and dark, thin to the point of emaciation,” with “enormous dark eyes.” During the conference, Kornbluth invited Knight, James Blish, and Algis Budrys to join him in Roberts’s hotel room. Here’s how Knight, in his book The Futurians, describes what occurred there:

I have often wished I had asked Cyril what he really had in mind and what he expected to happen. My memories of what did happen are fragmentary. I remember that after a while Jane was sitting on a straight chair with the rest of us grouped together, and that she went into a trance and prophesied. I have forgotten every word of what she said. Still later we were grouped in a tight circle with our arms around each other; all the lights had been turned out except one dim one; it may have been a candle. Cyril was expressing his misery, and I began to sob, feeling as I did so that I was crying as his surrogate. We left the meeting with a feeling of closeness that went beyond friendship.

Two years later, Kornbluth was dead of a heart attack, while Budrys subsequently denied that the incident had ever taken place. As for Jane Roberts, she later became famous for channeling “an energy personality” that first received widespread attention in a series of books published in the early seventies. The personality called itself Seth—which, of course, is the name of the Egyptian god who was the enemy of Horus. Tomorrow, I’ll do what I can to make sense of all this, and I’ll also talk about its relevance today, when a different kind of Israeli hawk seems to be making a comeback.

A Hawk From a Handsaw, Part 1

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Uri Geller

I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.

Hamlet

In the summer of 1974, the Israeli magician and purported psychic Uri Geller arrived at Birkbeck College in Bloomsbury, London, where the physicist David Bohm planned to subject him to a series of tests. Two of the scheduled observers were the writers Arthur Koestler and Arthur C. Clarke, of whom Geller writes in his autobiography:

Arthur Clarke…would be particularly important because he was highly skeptical of anything paranormal. His position was that his books, like 2001 and Childhood’s End, were pure science fiction, and it would be highly unlikely that any of their fantasies would come true, at least in his own lifetime.

Geller met the group in a conference room, where Koestler was cordial, although, Geller says, “I sensed that I really wasn’t getting through to Arthur C. Clarke.” A demonstration seemed to be in order, so Geller asked Clarke to hold one of his own housekeys in one hand, watching it closely to make sure that it wasn’t being swapped out, handled, or subjected to any trickery. Sure enough, the key began to bend. Clarke cried out, in what I like to think was an inadvertent echo of one of his most famous stories: “My God, my eyes are seeing it! It’s bending!”

Geller went on to display his talents in a number of other ways, including forcing a Geiger counter to click at an accelerated rate merely by concentrating on it. (It has been suggested by the skeptic James Randi that Geller had a magnet taped to his leg.) “By that time,” Geller writes, “Arthur Clarke seemed to have lost all his skepticism. He said something like, “My God! It’s all coming true! This is what I wrote about in Childhood’s End. I can’t believe it.” Geller continues:

Clarke was not there just to scoff. He had wanted things to happen. He just wanted to be completely convinced that everything was legitimate. When he saw that it was, he told the others: “Look, the magicians and the journalists who are knocking this better put up or shut up now. Unless they can repeat the same things Geller is doing under the same rigidly controlled conditions, they have nothing further to say.”

Clarke also told him about the plot of Childhood’s End, which Geller evidently hadn’t read: “It involves a UFO that is hovering over the earth and controlling it. He had written the book about twenty years ago. He said that, after being a total skeptic about these things, his mind had really been changed by observing these experiments.”

The Horus Errand

It’s tempting to think that Geller is exaggerating the extent of the author’s astonishment, but here’s what Clarke himself wrote about it:

Although it’s hard to focus on that hectic and confusing day at Birkbeck College in 1974…I suspect that Uri Geller’s account in My Story is all too accurate…In view of the chaos at the hastily arranged Birkbeck encounter, the phrase “rigidly controlled conditions” is hilarious. But that last sentence is right on target, for [the reproduction of Geller’s effects by stage magicians] is precisely what happened…Nevertheless, I must confess a sneaking fondness for Uri; though he left a trail of bent cutlery and fractured reputations round the world, he provided much-needed entertainment at a troubled and unhappy time.

Geller has largely faded from the public consciousness, but Clarke—who continued to believe long afterward that paranormal phenomena “can’t all be nonsense”—wasn’t the only science fiction writer to be intrigued by him. Robert Anton Wilson, one of my intellectual heroes, discusses him at length in the book Cosmic Trigger, in which he recounts the strange experience of his friend Saul-Paul Sirag. The year before the Birkbeck tests, Sirag was speaking to Geller when he saw the other man’s head turn into a “bird of prey,” like a hawk: “His nose became a beak, and his entire head sprouted feathers, down to his neck and shoulders.” (Sirag was also taking LSD at the time, which Wilson neglects to mention.) The hawk, Sirag thought, was the form assumed by an extraterrestrial intelligence that was allegedly in contact with Geller, and he didn’t know then that it had appeared in the same shape to two other men, including a psychic named Ray Stanford and another who had nicknamed it “Horus,” after the Egyptian god with a hawk’s head.

It gets weirder. A few months later, Sirag saw the January 1974 issue of Analog, which featured the story “The Horus Errand” by William E. Cochrane. The cover illustration depicted a man wearing a hawklike helmet, with the name “Stanford” written over his breast pocket. According to one of Sirag’s friends, the occultist Alan Vaughan, the character even looked a little like Ray Stanford—and you can judge the resemblance for yourself. Vaughan was interested enough to write to the artist, the legendary Kelly Freas, for more information. (Freas, incidentally, was close friends with John W. Campbell, to the point where Campbell even asked him to serve as the guardian for his two daughters if anything ever happened to him or his wife.) Freas replied that he had never met Stanford in person or knew how he looked, but that he had once received a psychic consultation from him by mail, in which Stanford said that “Freas had been some sort of illustrator in a past life in ancient Egypt.” As a result, Freas began to employ Egyptian imagery more consciously in his work, and the design of the helmet on the cover was entirely his own, without any reference to the story. At that point, the whole thing kind of peters out, aside from serving as an example of the kind of absurd coincidence that was so close to Wilson’s heart. But the intersection of Arthur C. Clarke, Uri Geller, and Robert Anton Wilson at that particular moment in time is a striking one, and it points toward an important thread in the history of science fiction that tends to be overlooked or ignored. Tomorrow, I’ll be writing more about what it all means, along with a few other ominous hawks.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

January 2, 2017 at 7:30 am

Looking for quarters

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Robert Anton Wilson

In his odd, unclassifiable book Prometheus Rising, the writer Robert Anton Wilson, who has long been one of my intellectual heroes, proposes the following experiment:

1. Visualize a quarter vividly, and imagine vividly that you are going to find the quarter on the street. Then, look for the quarter every time you take a walk, meanwhile continuing to visualize it. See how long it takes you to find the quarter.

2. Explain the above experiment by the hypothesis of “selective attention”—that is, believe there are lots of lost quarters everywhere and you were bound to find one by continually looking. Go looking for a second quarter.

3. Explain the experiment by the alternative “mystical” hypothesis that “mind controls everything.” Believe that you made the quarter manifest in this universe. Go looking for a second quarter.

Wilson closes, crucially, by asking the reader to compare how long it takes to find the second quarter using either of the two hypotheses. And while I suspect that most of us instinctively come down in favor of one or the other model of reality, the whole point of Wilson’s exercise is to cultivate a healthy skepticism even—or especially—about what seems the most obvious.

Because there’s another, very similar exercise that’s much harder to dismiss. It involves going out into the world and looking, not for quarters, but ideas—and in particular for the kind of ideas that a writer needs when working on a story, which I think we can agree are worth more than a quarter apiece. These can range from a premise for an entire novel to solutions to specific narrative problems to self-contained observations of the kind that novelists use to fill out the fictional dream. Most writers don’t leave the house each day in the state of active visualization that Wilson describes, but what actually happens isn’t all that different: when you’re working on a writing project, your attentiveness to everything is subtly heightened, and you find yourself stumbling across useful material more often than seems explicable by chance. (A writer’s life can be seen as an ongoing experiment in observation: you alternate between stretches of work and inactivity, and you quickly become aware of the difference this makes in how you see the world.) You’ll frequently come across a detail or combination of ideas, totally by accident, that fits the story you’re developing so perfectly that it seems as if the universe is conspiring in your favor. There isn’t a writer who hasn’t felt this. And when we ask ourselves the same question that Wilson poses about those quarters, we find that the answer is harder to pin down. Is this a case of selective attention, with the writer finding more ideas because he or she is continually looking? Or has the writer’s mind somehow made these concepts manifest in the world?

John Updike

I don’t think that the answer to this question is at all clear—which, I might add, is the secret moral behind Wilson’s exercise with the quarters. You could argue that whatever a writer puts into a story is something that already exists, if the result is meant to be an accurate reflection of human life, and that a writer’s ability lies in how fluently he or she can translate these common impressions into words. Graham Greene, whom I quoted here earlier this morning, was famously annoyed by reviewers who described his works as taking place in an imaginary “Greeneland,” and he countered: “They call it Greeneland, as though it bore no relation to the real world. And yet, one is simply trying to describe the real world as accurately as one sees it.” Which is true enough. But it also feels like a mistake to think of a novelist merely as a sedate repackager of sensory data. This applies to professional noticers like Nabokov or Updike, who seem to be willing quarters into existence that can be collected and spent as cold hard cash, but also to writers like Tolstoy, whose appeal rests on the illusion that he’s delivering reality to the reader with a minimum of authorial interference. There’s an element of active intervention even in fiction that defines itself as reportage, and it gets even stickier when you venture into nonfiction, which depends on the discovery, selection, and arrangement of details that no one else has collated before. It’s critical, even central, to nonfiction’s authority to imply that those quarters were there on the ground all along, but it often seems as if the writer has conjured them out of thin air. Which doesn’t mean that they aren’t legal tender.

All I know is that you find more ideas in certain states of mind than in others, which is a good argument for having a project brewing at all times. In fact, when writers are told that they should write every day, it’s less about the number of words produced or the habit of working—which are undeniably important in themselves—than about cultivating an intensity of awareness that persists even when you aren’t at your desk. (Note that it’s unclear which way the causal arrow runs: you could argue that an inhumanly fertile writer like Updike produced so many stories because he was noticing things all the time, but you could also say, with equal plausibility, that he was noticing things all the time because he was always writing a story.) It might even be worthwhile to conduct an experiment of the kind that Wilson proposes, and to see which approach is more effective: the writer as a transparent eyeball, or as an active inventor of meaning. In practice, you often find yourself alternating between one mindset and the other, as if you were switching between views of a Necker cube, which is ultimately a strategy for keeping your sanity intact. One is about receptivity, the other about imposition, and you can run into trouble if you neglect either one. But it’s also worth remembering that ideas exist to be used. All too many aspiring writers end up with the equivalent of a big jar of coins that never gets taken to the bank, or with something like fairy gold, which leaves the owner with nothing but a handful of withered blossoms at dawn. It’s important to find all the quarters you can. But it’s also important to spend them.

Written by nevalalee

April 4, 2016 at 9:58 am

Santa Claus conquers the Martians

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Santa Claus by Mauri Kunnas

Like most households, my family has a set of traditions that we like to observe during the holiday season. A vinyl copy of A Charlie Brown Christmas spends most of December on our record player, and I never feel as if I’m really in the spirit of things until I’ve listened to Kokomo Jo’s Caribbean Christmas—a staple of my own childhood—and The Ventures’ Christmas Album. My wife and I have started watching the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode Santa Claus, not to be confused with Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, on an annual basis: it’s one of the best episodes that the show ever did, and I’m still tickled by it after close to a dozen viewings. (My favorite line, as Santa deploys a massive surveillance system to spy on the world’s children: “Increasingly paranoid, Santa’s obsession with security begins to hinder everyday operations.”) But my most beloved holiday mainstay is the book Santa Claus and His Elves by the cartoonist and children’s author Mauri Kunnas. If you aren’t Finnish, you probably haven’t heard of it, and readers from other countries might be momentarily bemused by its national loyalties: Santa’s workshop is explicitly located on Mount Korvatunturi in Lapland. As Kunnas writes: “So far away from human habitation is this village that no one is known to have seen it, except for a couple of old Lapps who stumbled across it by accident on their travels.”

I’ve been fascinated by this book ever since I was a child, and I was saddened when it inexplicably went missing for years, probably stashed away in a Christmas box in my parents’ garage. When my mother bought me a new copy, I was overjoyed, and as I began to read it to my own daughter, I was relieved to find that it holds up as well as always. The appeal of Kunnas’s book lies in its marvelous specificity: it treats Santa’s village as a massive industrial operation, complete with print shops, factories, and a fleet of airplanes. Santa Claus himself barely figures in the story at all. The focus is much more on the elves: where they work and sleep, their schools, their hobbies, and above all how they coordinate the immense task of tracking wish lists, making toys, and delivering presents. (Looking at Kunnas’s lovingly detailed illustrations of their warehouses and machine rooms, it’s hard not to be reminded of an Amazon fulfillment center—and although Jeff Bezos comes closer than anyone in history to realizing Santa’s workshop for real, complete with proposed deliveries by air, I’d like to think that the elves get better benefits.) As you leaf through the book, Santa’s operation starts to feel weirdly plausible, and everything from the “strong liniment” that he puts on his back to the sauna that he and the elves enjoy on their return adds up to a picture that could convince even the most skeptical adult.

Santa Claus by Mauri Kunnas

The result is nothing less than a beautiful piece of speculative fiction, enriched by the tricks that all such writers use: the methodical working out of a seemingly impossible premise, governed by perfect internal logic and countless persuasive details. Kunnas pulls it off admirably. In the classic study Pilgrims Through Space and Time, J.O. Bailey has an entire section titled “Probability Devices,” in which he states: “The greatest technical problem facing the writer of science fiction is that of securing belief…The oldest and perhaps the soundest method for securing suspension of disbelief is that of embedding the strange event in realistic detail about normal, everyday events.” He continues:

[Jules] Verne, likewise, offers minute details. Five Weeks in a Balloon, for instance, figures every pound of hydrogen and every pound of air displaced by it in the filling of the balloon, lists every article packed into the car, and states every detail of date, time (to the minute), and topography.

Elsewhere, I’ve noted that this sort of careful elaboration of hardware is what allows the reader to accept the more farfetched notions that govern the story as a whole—which might be the only thing that my suspense fiction and my short science fiction have in common. Filling out the world I’ve invented with small, accurate touches might be my single favorite part of being a writer, and the availability of such material often makes the difference between a finished story and one that never leaves the conceptual stage.

And when I look back, I wonder if I might not have imbibed much of this from the Santa Claus story, and in particular from Kunnas. Santa, in a way, is one of the first exposures to speculative fiction that any child gets: it inherently strains credulity, but you can’t argue with the gifts that appear under the tree on Christmas Day, and reconciling the implausibility of that story with the concrete evidence requires a true leap of imagination. Speculating that it might be the result of an organized conspiracy of adults is, if anything, an even bigger stretch—just as maintaining secrecy about a faked moon landing for decades would have been a greater achievement than going to the moon for real. Santa Claus, oddly enough, has rarely been a popular subject in science fiction, the Robot Santa on Futurama aside. As Gary Westfahl notes in The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: “As a literature dedicated by its very nature to breaking new ground, perhaps, science fiction is not well suited as a vehicle for ancient time-honored sentiments about the virtues of love and family life. (It’s no accident that the genre’s most famous treatment of Christmas lies in the devastating ending of Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Star,” which you should read right now if you haven’t before.) But I suspect that those impulses have simply been translated into another form. Robert Anton Wilson once commented on the prevalence of the “greenish-skinned, pointy-eared man” in science fiction and folklore, and he thought they might be manifestations of the peyote god Mescalito. But I prefer to think that most writers are secretly wondering what the elves have been doing all this time…

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