Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Stephen King

My ten great books #9: It

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Stephen King's It

We read fiction for a lot of reasons, but its most fundamental attraction has to be the chance to experience lives other than our own. At their best, novels can create men and women who seem as real as ourselves or our own friends, and places that feel as familiar as the landscape of the towns where we grew up. A lot of books have done this for me, but the one that still haunts my dreams the most is Stephen King’s It, perhaps because it seems like such an unlikely candidate for one of America’s greatest popular novels. Yes, it’s about an evil clown who stalks the children of a small town in Maine, but that description doesn’t do justice to the richness of this book, in which King, one of our shrewdest storytellers, distills everything he knows about youth, imagination, and the melancholy process by which we all leave our childhood selves behind. King has always been the most intensely personal of bestselling novelists, and at his finest, he uses horror to get at issues revolving around death, loss, and survival that stand out more clearly when they’re cast into a fantastic form. This doesn’t deny King’s roots in the great pulp tradition that values scares for their own sake, but like many of the authors on my list, the qualities that drew me to his work on my first encounter aren’t necessarily the ones that have kept me there. As a horror novel, It no longer scares me much, any more than The Shining does on my twentieth viewing, but its characters and tone—delivered in King’s inimitable voice, often copied but never equalled—have drawn me back again and again.

The result is one of the few works of fiction that make me feel as if I’d be objectively poorer if I’d never read it, especially now that I’ve reached the age of its adult protagonists, and I’ve begun the process of forgetting my own childhood that King warned me would happen one day. I first read It when I was eleven or twelve, or just a little too young, which, as I’ve mentioned before, is the perfect time to discover King. Even now, I can’t look at the cover without remembering the library in my hometown where I borrowed it for the first time, and reading it over again, I’m even more impressed. It is a densely structured novel that moves back and forth between multiple time periods, with room for excursions into remote corners of the history of Derry, Maine, but it’s also one of the great natural reads of all time: I can open it to any page and get sucked in all over again. King is an intuitively strong teller of tales and also a fine craftsman, and the novel is crammed with sequences—my favorite is Ben Hanscom’s encounter with the clown by the frozen river—that read like master classes in the use of atmosphere, detail, and suspense. There’s also a relaxed, genial curiosity that permeates even the most frightening scenes: King is as intrigued by this town as we are, and he spends many pages exploring its neighborhoods, landmarks, and secrets, until we feel that we could find our own way around it without a map. Derry is a haunted place, and King works mightily to remind us of this, but he also loves it. That tension between nostalgia and terror is never resolved, and It is like a dream that oscillates unbearably between a nightmare and a place where you’re still the child you always meant to be.

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May 18, 2017 at 9:00 am

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My ten great books #5: Couples

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In his discussion of the aesthetic flaw of frigidity in The Art of Fiction, John Gardner says: “When a skillful writer writes a shallow, cynical, merely amusing book about extramarital affairs, he has wandered—with far more harmful effect—into the same unsavory bog.” There’s little doubt in my mind that he’s thinking of John Updike, of whom a very different author, Lawrence Block, states in Writing the Novel: “It’s probably safe to assume that John Updike wrote Couples out of comparable cupidity, but it’s hardly vintage Updike, and the author’s own detachment from it is evident throughout.” Given the fact that this novel was based so closely on the writer’s personal life that it scandalized his circle of friends in Ipswich, it might seem hard to describe it as shallow, cynical, and detached—which doesn’t mean that it can’t be all of these things as well. Couples made Updike rich and famous, and it was clearly conceived as a mainstream novel, but this was less a question of trying to write a bestseller than of shaping it for the cultural position that he hoped it would attain. Updike had already been promised the cover of Time magazine before it came out, and, as he later recalled: “Then they read the book and discovered, I think, that, the higher up it went in the Time hierarchy, the less they liked it.” As Jonathan Franzen did with The Corrections, Updike seems to have known that his next effort was positioned to break through in a huge way, and he engineered it accordingly, casting his obsessions with sex, death, and mortality into a form that would resonate with a wider audience. The back cover of my paperback copy calls it “an intellectual Peyton Place,” and I think that the quote must have pleased him.

I’ve always been fascinated by the moment in the late sixties and early seventies that made it possible for the conventions of modernist realism—particularly its attitudes toward sex—to be appropriated by bestselling writers. The early novels of Stephen King are a key text here, but so, in its way, is Couples, which shows the line of influence running in the other direction. In his determination to write a big book, Updike drew on the structural symmetries of popular fiction, and the result was his most richly organized novel of any kind. Like Mad Men, which takes place in the same era, it draws you in with its superficial pleasures and then invites you to go deeper, although many readers or viewers seem happy to stop at the surface. Gardner fretted about this possibility at length in On Moral Fiction:

[Updike is] a master of symbolic complexity, but one can’t tell his women apart in a book like Couples; his characters’ sexual preoccupations, mostly perverse, are too generously indulged; and the disparity between the surface and sub-surface of his novels is treacherous: to the naive reader (and most readers of popular bestsellers are likely to be naive), a novel like A Month of Sundays seems like a merry, bourgeois-pornographic book…while to the subtler reader, the novel may be wearily if not ambivalently satirical, a sophisticated attack on false religion…Since the irony—the presumably satiric purpose—is nowhere available on the surface…one cannot help feeling misgivings about Updike’s intent.

It’s certainly possible to read Couples, as I often do, purely for entertainment, or as a kind of gossipy cultural reportage. (No other novel tells us more about what it must have really been like to be a member of the upper middle class at the time of the Kennedy assassination.) Yet we’re also implicated by that choice. I own a copy of the first hardcover edition, which I bought, in a symbolic act that might have struck even Updike as a little too on the nose, on the morning of my wedding day. As it turns out, my life resembles it in a lot of the small ways but none of the big ones. But maybe that’s because Updike got there first.

The book of laughter and forgetting

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In her autobiography, Agatha Christie makes a confession that might strike those of us who haven’t written more than sixty novels as rather strange:

Murder at the Vicarage was published in 1930, but I cannot remember where, when, or how I wrote it, why I came to write it, or even what suggested to me that I should select a new character—Miss Marple—to act as the sleuth in the story.

Christie says the same thing about a novel that followed two years later: “Peril at End House was another of my books which left so little impression on me that I cannot even remember writing it.” In On Writing, Stephen King makes a similar admission: “There’s one novel, Cujo, that I barely remember writing at all. I don’t say that with pride or shame, only with a vague sense of sorrow and loss. I like that book. I wish I could remember enjoying the good parts as I put them down on the page.” To be fair, Christie and King were monstrously prolific, and in both cases, there may have been other factors involved—Christie had suffered from a “fugue state” several years earlier in which she disappeared for ten days without explanation, while King was drinking heavily and using drugs. But even novelists with more mundane lifestyles have reported a similar kind of amnesia. On rereading her novel The Autograph Man, which she bought on an impulse at an airport, Zadie Smith recounts: “The book was genuinely strange to me; there were whole pages I didn’t recognize, didn’t remember writing.”

I find these testimonials oddly reassuring, because they tell me that I’m not alone. Recently, I realized that I couldn’t remember how I came up with one of the most important characters in the trilogy of novels that began with The Icon Thief. If I tried, I could probably reconstruct it, and I’ve even written a whole author’s commentary devoted to preserving this kind of information. But it’s still troubling. I’ve published only three novels, the most recent of which appeared less than four years ago, but I don’t think I could tell you much about them today. This is partially due to the fact that I don’t like reading my old work: in the essay that I quoted above, Smith refers to the “nausea” that overcomes her when she looks back at her books, as well as “a feeling of fraudulence,” and I think most authors can relate to that revulsion. Yet it doesn’t entirely account for how little I remember. In the moment, writing a novel feels unbelievably hard, and it consists of so many discrete choices that I’ve even used it as an argument in favor of the existence of free will—but afterward, it seems to evaporate completely. Which just means that it’s like everything else in life, except that it leaves a more tangible trace of itself behind. In his memoir Self-Consciousness, John Updike writes:

That we age and leave behind this litter of dead, unrecoverable selves is both unbearable and the commonest thing in the world—it happens to everybody…In the dark one truly feels that immense sliding, that turning of the vast earth into darkness and eternal cold, taking with it all the furniture and scenery, and the bright distractions and warm touches, of our lives.

Not only can’t I recall much about writing The Icon Thief, but when I look at pictures of my daughter as a baby, from just two or three years ago, I can barely seem to remember that, either. I’d laugh about it, but it also makes me very sad.

And I suspect that a lot of parents would report the same phenomenon. Part of this is because we tend to have children at an age when time already seems to pass more quickly, but there’s also something else involved. It’s generally agreed that forgetting plays an important role in memory. In a paper first published in 1970, the psychologist Robert A. Bjork argued that forgetting is a way of minimizing interference between old and new experiences:

When people voice complaints about their memory, they invariably assume that the problem is one of insufficient retention of information. In a very real sense, however, the problem may be at least partly a matter of insufficient or inefficient forgetting. If one views the human cognitive apparatus as an ongoing information-handling system, it is clear that some mechanism to update the system, to keep the system current, is crucial…The positive function of any such forgetting mechanism is to prevent information no longer needed from interfering with the handling of current information.

Bjork went on to provide an example that seems more resonant the more I think about it:

Consider the information processing task faced by the typical short-order cook. He must process one by one…a series of orders that have high interorder similarity. Once he is through with “scramble two, crisp bacon, and an English,” his later processing of similar but not identical orders can only suffer to the degree that he has not, in effect, discarded “scrambled two, crisp bacon, and an English.”

The crucial phrase here, I think, is “interorder similarity.” It’s the everyday things that we tend to forget first. I have trouble reconstructing my daily routine from earlier periods in my life, like what I ate for breakfast in my twenties, but exceptional events, like travel to foreign countries, remain relatively vivid. There’s nothing odd about the idea that unusual or striking memories would persist more strongly, but you could also turn that argument on its head: the days that were more or less the same as the ones that followed are more likely to be discarded because they interfere with surrounding information. This allows us to focus on the problems of each day without distraction, but over time, it can turn entire years into a blur. That’s certainly true of writing novels, in which the sameness of each day’s work allows for those rare moments in which inspiration takes place. (It’s noteworthy that both Christie and King were genre novelists who reworked the same conventions over the course of many books. You could also say the same thing about many “literary” authors like Updike, whose novels tend to blend together. And I’d be curious to know if a writer whose style and themes change radically between novels, like David Mitchell or Mark Helprin, would have a different perspective.) Writing a novel, like raising a baby, can also be unpleasant, and perhaps this selective amnesia is what fools us into trying it again. Smith writes of The Autograph Man: “Between that book and me there now exists a sort of blank truce, neither pleasant nor unpleasant.” Sometimes you have to make a similar kind of truce with the past to go on living, and forgetfulness is where it begins. As Hercule Poirot would say, it’s a matter of little grey cells, and we can’t expect to hold onto them forever.

Written by nevalalee

May 4, 2017 at 9:05 am

The tyranny of the calendar

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George R.R. Martin

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on January 12, 2016.

When a novelist reaches a certain level of commercial success, the charge is inevitably leveled—as it still is against the likes of Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, and most recently George R.R. Martin—that he or she is no longer being edited. And it often seems like the evidence is right before our eyes. The books grow visibly longer, as they did most dramatically in the case of Harry Potter, or they take more installments to cover the same amount of ground, as with A Song of Ice and Fire. Familiar tics, like the folksy voice that King likes to assume, expand into full-blown affectations, and the novels themselves start to seem looser and shaggier. Something has clearly changed, and the underlying assumption is that the writers themselves are to blame: nobody likes being edited, and once their careers have advanced to the point where they carry sufficient financial clout with their publishers, they simply refuse to take any additional notes. As King himself said in an interview from the early eighties:

At this point, I think that if there were any change suggested to me that I didn’t want, all I would need to say would be, “No. I won’t do that.” And it would never be a question of their withdrawing my contract, would it? They’d just finally say, “Well, okay then, don’t do it that way. “Which means, in effect, that if I’m willing to be really intransigent, there’ll be no editing at all.

But the truth, as always, is a little more complicated. The quotation above comes from an interview with King first published in the second volume of the Dream Makers series by Charles Platt. It dates from an intriguing moment in King’s career, around the time of Christine, when he was already a force on bestseller lists but not the institution he later became. And he says of his editorial process during that period:

I like to write three drafts: a first, a second, and what I think of as the editorial draft, when I sit down and take an editor’s criticism and work it through in my own mind, and put the whole book through the typewriter again, and repolish the other stuff as well. But as the successes have mushroomed, it’s been tougher and tougher for me to get my editors to give me time to do that third draft. What I’m really afraid of now is that one of them will say, “I think this is great,” just because it fits their publication schedule. Every year, I’m on a faster and faster track…I am supposed to read the proofs [of Different Seasons] in five days. Now, what if we let a bunch of dumb errors go through? It isn’t a matter of creativity, or trying to do the best book possible, that’s governing things right now—it’s advertising. And that scares the hell out of me, because we’ll fuck up real good one of these days, and then people can say “Steve King writes for money,” and at that point they will be right.

Stephen King

This obviously reflects King’s own perspective on the matter, but it’s still a fascinating point, and it remains relevant when we flash forward more than thirty years to George R.R. Martin. In a blog post from 2009 titled “To My Detractors,” he recounts how he told his publishers that he wouldn’t be able to deliver the next book in the series on time, and he says of their response:

I thought they’d be sick about it…but I have to say, my editors and publishers are great, and they took it with surprising equanimity. (Maybe they knew it before I did.) They already had contingencies in place. They had made plans to speed up production. If I could deliver Winds of Winter by the end of the year, they told me, they could still get it out before the end of March.

Martin didn’t meet that deadline either, of course, and after describing his predicament in more detail, he concludes: “Best guess, based on our previous conversations, is that Bantam (and presumably my British publisher as well) can have the hardcover out within three months of delivery, if their schedules permit.” And although this line wasn’t much discussed in the fury of analysis that ensued, it may be the most astonishing tidbit in the entire post. Even if you just consider the physical challenge of printing a million hardcover copies, three months to take a novel from manuscript to bookstores is insane. With such a huge machine trembling to go into action, something’s got to give—and it’s probably going to be the editing.

What I’m suggesting, in other words, is that the perceived lack of editing in many big bestsellers isn’t due to authorial stubbornness or editorial laziness. Instead, it’s a structural consequence of fitting blockbuster books into a relentless publishing cycle. When you consider how the whole process is being squeezed on one side by the author’s pressure to finish and on the other side by the pressure to deliver the book to readers, it’s no surprise if certain crucial steps get truncated or eliminated along the way. And it makes sense that the first casualty would be editing. Authors often complain that no one really gets what they do, and that’s doubly true for editors. A process that is so opaque to outsiders is bound to fall by the wayside when there’s so much else to consider: you’ve got to drop something to keep on schedule, and it may as well be the editorial phase, which nobody understands anyway. (Which leads me to a crucial point that deserves a blog post of its own: this is also why tentpole movies these days seem to be consistently half an hour too long. There just isn’t the time to edit them properly.) If The Winds of Winter comes out three months after Martin delivers his “final” draft, there’s no way that it gets the edit it deserved: every other stage demands a fixed amount of time to complete, and it’s the edit that ends up paying the price. So when you worry that the books in your favorite series are getting longer and more self-indulgent, you don’t need to blame the editor or the author. You can blame the calendar.

Written by nevalalee

April 17, 2017 at 7:30 am

Stranger in the same land

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Stranger Things

Note: Spoilers follow for Stranger Things.

One of the first images we see on the television show Stranger Things is a poster for John Carpenter’s The Thing. (In fact, it’s only as I type this now that it occurs to me that the title of the series, which premiered earlier this summer on Netflix, might be an homage as well.) It’s hanging in the basement of one of the main characters, a twelve year old named Mike, who is serving as the Dungeon Master of a roleplaying campaign with three of his best friends. You can see the poster in the background for most of the scene, and in a later episode, two adults watch the movie at home, oblivious to the fact that a monster from another dimension is stalking the inhabitants of their town in Indiana. Not surprisingly, I was tickled to see my favorite story by John W. Campbell featured so prominently here: Campbell wrote “Who Goes There?” back in 1937, and the fact that it’s still a reference point for a series like this, almost eighty years later, is astounding. Yet apart from these two glimpses, The Thing doesn’t have much in common with Stranger Things. The former is set in a remote Antarctic wasteland in which no one is what he seems; the latter draws from a different tradition in science fiction, with gruesome events emerging from ordinary, even idyllic, surroundings, and once we’ve identified all the players, everything is more or less exactly what it appears to be. It flirts with paranoia, but it’s altogether cozy, even reassuring, in how cleverly it gives us just what we expect.

That said, Stranger Things is very good at achieving what it sets out to do. The date of the opening scene is November 6, 1983, and once Mike’s best friend Will is pulled by a hideous creature into a parallel universe, the show seems determined to reference every science fiction or fantasy movie of the previous five years. Its most obvious touchstones are E.T., Poltergeist, The Goonies, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but there are touches of The Fury as well, and even shades of Stephen King. (Will’s older brother, played by Charlie Heaton, looks eerily like a young King, and the narrative sometimes feels like an attempt to split the difference between Firestarter and It.) Visually, it goes past even Super 8 in its meticulous reconstruction of the look and feel of early Steven Spielberg, and the lighting and cinematography are exquisitely evocative of its source. The characters and situations are designed to trigger our memories, too, and the series gets a lot of mileage out of recombining the pieces: we’re invited to imagine the kids from The Goonies going after whatever was haunting the house in Poltergeist, with a young girl with psychokinetic powers taking the place of E.T. As Will’s mother, Winona Ryder initially comes off as a combination of the Melinda Dillon and Richard Dreyfuss characters from Close Encounters—she’s frantic at Will’s disappearance, but she also develops an intriguing streak of obsession, hanging up holiday lights in her house and watching them flicker in hopes of receiving a message from her missing son. And it can be fun to see these components slide into place.

Winona Ryder on Stranger Things

It’s only when the characters are asked to stand for something more than their precursors that the series starts to falter. Ryder’s character doesn’t develop after the first couple of episodes, and she keeps hitting the same handful of notes. Once the players have been established, they don’t act in ways that surprise us or push against the roles that they’ve been asked to embody, and most of the payoffs are telegraphed well in advance. The only adult character who really sticks in the mind is the police chief played by David Harbour, and that’s due less to the writing than to Harbour’s excellent work as a rock-solid archetype. Worst of all, the show seems oddly uncertain about what to do with its kids, who should be the main attraction. They all look great with their bikes and walkie-talkies, and Gaten Matarazzo’s Dustin is undeniably endearing—he’s the show’s only entirely successful character. But they spend too much time squabbling among themselves, when a story like this really demands that they present a unified front against the adult world. For the most part, the interpersonal subplots do nothing but mark time: we don’t know enough about the characters to be invested in their conflicts or romances, and far too many scenes play like a postponement of the real business at hand. Any story about the paranormal is going to have one character trying to get the others to believe, but it’s all in service of the moment when they put their differences aside. When everyone teams up on Stranger Things, it’s satisfying, but it occurs just one episode before the finale, and before we have a chance to absorb or enjoy it, it’s over.

And part of the problem, I think, is that Stranger Things tells the kind of story that might have been better covered in two hours, rather than eight. When I go back and watch the Spielberg films that the series is trying to evoke, what strikes me first is an unusual absence of human conflict. In both Close Encounters and E.T., the shadowy government operatives turn out to be unexpectedly benevolent, and the worst villains we see are monsters of venality, like the councilmen who keep the beaches open in Jaws or the developers who build on a graveyard in Poltergeist. For the most part, the characters are too busy dealing with the wonders or terrors on display to fight among themselves. In The Goonies, the kids are arguing all the time, like the crew in Jaws, but it never slows down the plot: they keep stumbling into new set pieces. It’s a strategy that works fine for a movie, in which the glow of the images and situations is enough to carry us to the climax, but a season of television can’t run on that battery alone. As a result, Stranger Things feels obliged to bring in conflicts that will keep the wheels turning, even if it lessens the appeal of the whole. The men in black are anonymous bad guys, full stop, and the show isn’t above using them to pad an episode’s body count, with the psychokinetic girl Eleven snapping their necks with her mind. (I kept expecting her to simply blow up the main antagonist, as Amy Irving—Spielberg’s future wife—did to John Cassavetes in The Fury, and I was half right.) Sustaining a sense of awe or dread over multiple episodes would have been a much harder trick than getting the lighting just right. And the strangest thing about Stranger Things is that it makes us think it might have been possible.

Return to Dimension X

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Dimension X

Over the last week, I’ve been listening to a lot of classic radio programs from the fifties, including Dimension X, X Minus One, Stroke of Fate, and Exploring Tomorrow. They’re all science fiction shows, and although they suffered from the shifting time slots and unreliable scheduling that always seem to plague the genre, they attracted devoted followings and laid the groundwork for shows like The Twilight Zone. (Stroke of Fate was an alternate history series, and I’ll confess that I couldn’t resist starting with the episode that imagines what would have happened if Aaron Burr, rather than Alexander Hamilton, had died in that duel.) Given the growing popularity of science fiction in podcast form, it’s worth asking what writers and producers can learn from these older shows, many of which are available for streaming, and it turns out that they have a lot in common with modern efforts in the same line. Just as podcasts often benefit from sponsorships from existing media, many of these programs partnered with science fiction magazines, usually Astounding or Galaxy, both as a source of content and to take advantage of a known brand. If I were trying to start a science fiction podcast, I’d do the same thing. An established magazine would serve as a conduit for talent and ideas, and adapting, say, one story per issue could provide another way of building an audience. It couldn’t be done for free, and it can be challenging to adapt science fiction—which can be hard to follow even in print—to a radio format. But it’s because the genre is so hard to pull off that we remember the few shows that have taken the trouble to do it well. And the example of old-time radio provides a few useful guidelines here, too.

For instance, in these classic shows, we rarely hear more than two voices at once. This might seem like too obvious a point to even mention: even on the page, it’s difficult for the reader to keep track of more than two new characters at a time, and without any visual cues, it makes sense to restrict the speakers to a number that the listener can easily follow. This was also a function of budget: many of these shows were limited to casts of three actors per episode, usually two men and one woman, the latter of whom was also pressed into service for any children’s parts. But it’s worth keeping in mind as a basic structural tool, particularly when it comes to adaptations. Dimension X did a very satisfying job of presenting Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles in less than half an hour, focusing on the high points of a few stories—“Rocket Summer,” “Ylla,” “And the Moon Be Still as Bright,” “There Will Come Soft Rains,” “The Off Season,” and “The Million-Year Picnic”—and reworking them as a series of two-handers. (They did much the same in an earlier episode with Bradbury’s “Mars is Heaven!”, which Stephen King later recalled in Danse Macabre as his first encounter with horror.) A scene between two characters, particularly a man and a woman, is immediately more engaging than one in which we have to work hard to follow three male voices. It buys you breathing room that you can use to advance the story, rather than wasting time playing defense. And if I were trying to adapt a story for radio and didn’t know where to begin, I’d start by asking myself if it could be structured as five two-person dialogue scenes, ideally for one actor and one actress.

X Minus One

Another strategy that many of these episodes share is an unapologetic reliance on narration. In the movies, voiceover is often a crutch, and it’s particularly irritating in literary adaptations that read whole chunks of the original prose over the action. But there’s a good case to be made for it in radio. It saves time, for one thing, and it can provide transitional material to bridge the gaps between narrative units. Building on the rule of thumb that I mentioned above, if there’s a piece of important action that can’t be boiled down to a two-person dialogue scene, you might just want to insert some narration and be done with it. It should be used sparingly, and only after the writer has done everything possible to convey this information in some other fashion. But it’s an important part of the radio playwright’s bag of tricks, and it would be pointless to ignore it. There’s a reason why narration plays such a central role in radio journalism and podcasting: as I’ve noted elsewhere, it deliberately usurps the role of the listener’s inner monologue, telling us what the action means so that we’re freed up to pay attention to what comes next. It’s very hard for anyone to follow along on two levels of thought at once, and most of the listener’s attention should rightly be devoted to what is happening at this moment, rather than to figuring out what has happened already. Narration is a great way of doing this, and it doesn’t need to be used throughout the episode. (An excellent example is X Minus One’s adaptation of Frederik Pohl’s “The Tunnel Under the World,” which still works like gangbusters.)

But it’s also possible to take these rules too far. Of all the radio shows I’ve heard, the most frustrating is Exploring Tomorrow, which was hosted for about half a year by none other than John W. Campbell, with stories drawn from the pages of Astounding. Campbell would speak before, during, and after each episode, commenting on the action and providing transitional or expository material, and his role as an identifiable host anticipates the persona that Rod Serling would later assume. Yet the show was a flop. Why? Campbell wasn’t a natural radio presence, which didn’t help, but his narration also detracted far more than it added: it spelled out themes that should have been implicit in the action, and it ended up undermining the drama in the process. A story like “The Cold Equations,” for instance, should have been perfect for the format—it’s already a gripping two-hander with one male and one female character, and it had been adapted successfully by previous shows. Yet the version on Exploring Tomorrow just sort of sits there, because Campbell insists on telling us what has happened and what it means. (He also spoon-feeds us a lot of exposition that should have been conveyed through dialogue, if only because it would have forced the writers to work harder.) In theory, it isn’t so far from Ira Glass’s description of radio as “anecdote then reflection, over and over,” but it doesn’t work here. Campbell was a born lecturer, both in his magazine and in the office, but people didn’t want to invite him into their homes. And if a show can’t manage that, all the craft in the world won’t save it.

Astounding Stories #9: “The Mule”

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"The Mule" by Isaac Asimov

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

Of the four writers who stand at the heart of Astounding, the one who has been the hardest to pin down is Isaac Asimov. This might seem surprising, given that the other three figures are John W. Campbell, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard, all of whom, by any measure, had personalities and private lives of daunting complexity. Asimov, by contrast, seems like a relatively accessible figure: his life was comparatively uneventful in its externals, and he spent much of it in the lab at Boston University, giving speeches, or writing at home. He was also the author of two enormously detailed volumes of autobiography, In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt, that track his life on almost a daily basis, which would make them indispensable primary sources even if they weren’t also a huge pleasure to read. (A third volume, I, Asimov, is less essential, but still a must for fans.) He was also more of a public figure than any other science fiction writer of his time. With his glasses and sideburns, he was instantly recognizable, and I suspect that he might be the novelist, of any era, whom the greatest number of living Americans would be able to identify at sight. Decades after his death, he still has the highest name recognition of any writer in the genre. But separating the persona that he deliberately cultivated from the real man underneath presents undeniable challenges—all the more so because Asimov managed to convince millions of readers that they knew him well, when he really kept so many aspects of himself under close guard.

Asimov’s unique status as a celebrity also encourages a number of misconceptions about his career. He’s often cited as a monstrous fiction-writing machine, as Stephen King did in a recent essay for the New York Times on whether a novelist can be too productive. After evoking the likes of Max Brand and Alexandre Dumas, King continues: “And then there’s Isaac Asimov, who sold his first short story at nineteen, hammered out more than five hundred books, and revolutionized science fiction.” But there’s a big misapprehension here. Asimov was undoubtedly one of the most prolific writers who ever lived, but not on the fiction side. When you add up his novels and short stories, it’s an impressive body of work, but not that much larger than that of many other writers of his generation, and Asimov could go for years without producing much in the way of fiction at all. It was in nonfiction, and particularly in popular science, that he made his greatest mark on the world’s libraries, as well as on the consciousness of the public. For most of his life, Asimov was among the most highly regarded of authors within the closed circle of science fiction readers, but he didn’t have a mainstream bestseller until he returned to the Foundation series toward the end of his career. It was in the sheer volume of his nonfiction—which Asimov was among the first to realize would be newsworthy in itself—that he became famous to a general audience, less because of any one book than thanks to the familiarity of his face and byline.

Portrait of Isaac Asimov by Rowena Morrill

This makes it a little harder to objectively evaluate his fiction. There’s no doubt that he would be regarded as a major writer within the genre, even if he hadn’t become so famous outside of it, but his output is frankly more mixed than that of, say, Heinlein. It took Asimov a while to find his footing—although we should never forget, as King points out, that he was unbelievably young when he sold his first stories, and that he did much of his growing up as an author in full view. His single greatest breakthrough, “Nightfall,” has been voted the best science fiction story of all time on multiple occasions, although Asimov himself felt that it was overrated. The positronic robot stories are an indisputable landmark as a whole, but I’m not sure if any one installment in the series inspires particularly warm feelings in readers, and its most significant element, the Three Laws of Robotics, was really developed by Campbell. And Asimov’s limitations as a writer are more evident than they are in the best of his contemporaries. I’ve come to believe that Heinlein, Sturgeon, and the writing team of C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner, to name only the most obvious examples, could do just about anything, while Asimov seemed more comfortable working within a narrow range: it’s impossible to imagine him writing a story like “Vintage Season” or “Killdozer.” He helped define the genre, but he rarely strayed from a specific subset of it during the golden age, and it wasn’t until later, in stories like “The Last Question,” that he began to push into unexplored regions.

But I don’t want to understate his talent, because many of the stories he wrote during this early period are extraordinary. My personal favorite is “The Red Queen’s Race,” a relatively unheralded work about a professor who tries to change the future by sending physics textbooks back in time to ancient Greece: maybe it’s because of my own classics background, but I think it’s a perfect story. And then there’s the Foundation series, which remains his most lasting achievement, despite what even Asimov, on rereading it after three decades, saw as a decided lack of action or conventional suspense. (“I read it with mounting uneasiness. I kept waiting for something to happen, and nothing ever did.”) Elsewhere, the writer James Gunn notes that “the romance is almost invisible,” which is another way of saying that there are almost no women in sight. Still, it remains a fascinating work, in part because of the appeal of the notion of a secret society of psychohistorians, which had a strange afterlife when Campbell tried to create one for real at the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation in Elizabeth, New Jersey. And it includes one undeniably great novella, “The Mule,” which was Asimov’s own favorite. It benefits from having a significant female character for once, in the form of Bayta Darell, and a stunning twist ending that still works like gangbusters today. Asimov wrote it in response to Campbell’s insistence that the Seldon Plan, the “connecting backbone” of the series, had to be disrupted: “I was horrified. No, I said, no, no, no. But Campbell said: Yes, yes, yes, yes, and I knew I wasn’t going to sell him a no, no.” And as Asimov himself knew well, even the best of plans have a way of going in unexpected directions—and in life as well as in fiction.

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