Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Stranger in a Strange Land

The analytical laboratory

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The Martian

Over the last few months, there’s been a surprising flurry of film and television activity involving the writers featured in my upcoming book Astounding. SyFy has announced plans to adapt Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in the Strange Land as a miniseries, with an imposing creative team that includes Hollywood power broker Scott Rudin and Zodiac screenwriter James Vanderbilt. Columbia is aiming to reboot Starship Troopers with producer Neal H. Mortiz of The Fast and the Furious, prompting Paul Verhoeven, the director of the original, to comment: “Going back to the novel would fit very much in a Trump presidency.” The production company Legendary has bought the film and television rights to Dune, which first appeared as a serial edited by John W. Campbell in Analog. Meanwhile, Jonathan Nolan is apparently still attached to an adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, although he seems rather busy at the moment. (L. Ron Hubbard remains relatively neglected, unless you want to count Leah Remini’s new show, which the Church of Scientology would probably hope you wouldn’t.) The fact that rights have been purchased and press releases issued doesn’t necessarily mean that anything will happen, of course, although the prospects for Stranger in a Strange Land seem strong. And while it’s possible that I’m simply paying more attention to these announcements now that I’m thinking about these writers all the time, I suspect that there’s something real going on.

So why the sudden surge of interest? The most likely, and also the most heartening, explanation is that we’re experiencing a revival of hard science fiction. Movies like Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, and Arrival—which I haven’t seen yet—have demonstrated that there’s an audience for films that draw more inspiration from Clarke and Kubrick than from Star Wars. Westworld, whatever else you might think of it, has done much the same on television. And there’s no question that the environment for this kind of story is far more attractive now than it was even ten years ago. For my money, the most encouraging development is the movie Life, a horror thriller set on the International Space Station, which is scheduled to come out next summer. I’m tickled by it because, frankly, it doesn’t look like anything special: the trailer starts promisingly enough, but it ends by feeling very familiar. It might turn out to be better than it looks, but I almost hope that it doesn’t. The best sign that a genre is reaching maturity isn’t a series of singular achievements, but the appearance of works that are content to color inside the lines, consciously evoking the trappings of more visionary movies while remaining squarely focused on the mainstream. A film like Interstellar is always going to be an outlier. What we need are movies like what Life promises to be: a science fiction film of minimal ambition, but a certain amount of skill, and a willingness to copy the most obvious features of its predecessors. That’s when you’ve got a trend.

Jake Gyllenhaal in Life

The other key development is the growing market for prestige dramas on television, which is the logical home for Stranger in a Strange Land and, I think, Dune. It may be the case, as we’ve been told in connection with Star Trek: Discovery, that there isn’t a place for science fiction on a broadcast network, but there’s certainly room for it on cable. Combine this with the increased appetite for hard science fiction on film, and you’ve got precisely the conditions in which smart production companies should be snatching up the rights to Asimov, Heinlein, and the rest. Given the historically rapid rise and fall of such trends, they shouldn’t expect this window to remain open for long. (In a letter to Asimov on February 3, 1939, Frederik Pohl noted the flood of new science fiction magazines on newsstands, and he concluded: “Time is indeed of the essence…Such a condition can’t possibly last forever, and the time to capitalize on it is now; next month may be too late.”) What they’re likely to find, in the end, is that many of these stories are resistant to adaptation, and that they’re better off seeking out original material. There’s a reason that there have been so few movies derived from Heinlein and Asimov, despite the temptation that they’ve always presented. Heinlein, in particular, seems superficially amenable to the movies: he certainly knew how to write action in a way that Asimov couldn’t. But he also liked to spend the second half of a story picking apart the assumptions of the first, after sucking in the reader with an exciting beginning, and if you aren’t going to include the deconstruction, you might as well write something from scratch.

As it happens, the recent spike of action on the adaptation front has coincided with another announcement. Analog, the laboratory in which all these authors were born, is cutting back its production schedule to six double issues every year. This is obviously intended to manage costs, and it’s a reminder of how close to the edge the science fiction digests have always been. (To be fair, the change also coincides with a long overdue update of the magazine’s website, which is very encouraging. If this reflects a true shift from print to online, it’s less a retreat than a necessary recalibration.) It’s easy to contrast the game of pennies being played at the bottom with the expenditure of millions of dollars at the top, but that’s arguably how it has to be. Analog, like Astounding before it, was a machine for generating variations, which needs to be done on the cheap. Most stories are forgotten almost at once, and the few that survive the test of time are the ones that get the lion’s share of resources. All the while, the magazine persists as an indispensable form of research and development—a sort of skunk works that keeps the entire enterprise going. That’s been true since the beginning, and you can see this clearly in the lives of the writers involved. Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert, and their estates became wealthy from their work. Campbell, who more than any other individual was responsible for the rise of modern science fiction, did not. Instead, he remained in his little office, lugging manuscripts in a heavy briefcase twice a week on the train. He was reasonably well off, but not in a way that creates an empire of valuable intellectual property. Instead, he ran the lab. And we can see the results all around us.

The astrological song

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Astrologers in Utriusque cosmi historia

A touchstone to determine the actual worth of an “intellectual”—find out how he feels about astrology.

—Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

But what did Heinlein really mean by that? Frankly, it might not be what you think. Yesterday, I was reading Stranger in a Strange Land for the first time in years when my attention was caught by a passage that I don’t remember ever noticing before. Jubal Harshaw and Dr. Mahmoud are discussing Alexandra Vesant, or Allie, the astrologer who has become a member of the Martian religious movement founded by Valentine Michael Smith. Jubal says, “Astrology is nonsense and you know it.” Dr. Mahmoud replies:

Oh, certainly. Even Allie knows it. And most astrologers are clumsy frauds. Nevertheless Allie practices it even more assiduously than she used to…It’s her device for grokking. It could be a pool of water, or a crystal ball, or the entrails of a chicken. The means do not matter. Mike has advised her to go on using the symbols she is used to…That she used as meaningless a symbol as astrology is beside the point. A rosary is meaningless, too…If it helps to turn your hat around during a poker game—then it helps. It is irrelevant that the hat has no magic powers.

I don’t always agree with Heinlein’s pronouncements, whether delivered through the voice of an authorial surrogate or not, but I found myself nodding as I read this. And while astrology might seem like a strange beachhead from which to mount a defense of divination, its very “meaninglessness,” as Heinlein must have sensed, is what makes it so potent an example.

The usual objection to astrology, aside from the point that there’s no known mechanism by which it could work, is that it does nothing but provide a few vague statements that users can interpret pretty much however they like. Here, for instance, is a reading that the psychologist Bertram Forer has prepared specifically for you:

Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, weary, and reserved. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. You pride yourself on being an independent thinker and do not accept others’ opinions without satisfactory proof. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety, and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done right right thing. Disciplined and controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome or insecure on the inside…You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a strong need for other people to like you and for them to admire you.

As Douglas R. Hofstadter wrote, after quoting this “reading” in Metamagical Themas: “Pretty good fit, eh?” In reality, it was cobbled together by Forer from a paperback astrology book in 1948, and when he asked his students to rate the result—telling each of them that it was the result of a customized personality test—nearly all of them said that it was excellent. Which all just demonstrates, as if we needed a reminder, that astrology offers up little more than a series of platitudes that anybody can fit to his or her own situation.

The signs of the zodiac

This is true enough. But this isn’t a bug—it’s a feature. When we read a horoscope like the one above, what we’re doing, essentially, is taking a few generic sentences and asking ourselves: “How is this statement like me? In what sense is my situation like this?” And like it or not, this can lead to an interesting insight, as long as you’re willing to look for it. Going to a daily horoscope site, for instance, I find:

Your slow and steady approach may need a sharp kick in the pants today, Gemini. Don’t withhold your opinions. This is a time to get it all out on the table, despite the tension that it may cause. Strong forces are at work, so don’t be surprised if things get a bit more heated than you’re used to. The fact is that incredible breakthroughs can be made through disagreements among different types of people.

If you insist on treating astrology as a way to predict the future, there isn’t much to go on. But if you’re more inclined to look at it for clues about how to approach the present, there’s something to be said for it, provided that we approach it with the right attitude, and remember that any string of words can be used to trigger a useful train of thought. Reading my horoscope, my natural tendency is to think: “Hmmm…I guess there’s a sense in which I’ve been holding back on that problem that has been bugging me. Maybe I should get the ball rolling.” And if I’m lucky, I’ll come up with a new angle on the situation, especially if the connection between the reading and my circumstances isn’t immediately obvious. (On a similar level, I’ve often thought a book like The Secret Language of Birthdays would be a valuable tool for filling out a fictional character in a story. You’d just pick a profile at random, and ask yourself: “How, exactly, is my character like this?”)

As Heinlein points out, the means don’t matter. Astrology isn’t any less useful a way of generating random associations than, say, Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, even if the quality of the material leaves something to be desired. It might be wiser, in fact, to cast your horoscope yourself, which would create the kind of mental blank space that I’ve elsewhere found in tarot cards. In my post on the subject from a few years ago, I wrote:

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. It’s a variation of what we do when we write notes to ourselves, which are really dispatches from a past version of ourself to the future, even if it’s only a few seconds or minutes away. The nice thing about tarot is that it concretizes the problem in a form that’s out of our control, forcing us to take the extra step of mapping the issues we’re mulling over onto the array of symbols that the deck has generated. If we’re patient, inventive, or imaginative enough, we can map it so closely that the result seems foreordained, a form of note-taking that obliges us to collaborate with something larger.

And although I haven’t tried it, it seems that casting a horoscope, properly understood, would provide many of the same benefits: the arrangement and interpretation of arbitrary symbols, according to a preexisting system, is a great way to do some thinking. The future isn’t in the stars—but if they nudge us into new directions of thought about the present, they can’t be entirely useless. And I think Heinlein would agree.

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