Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Stuart Kauffman

“There were many ways to kill a man…”

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"There were many ways to kill a man..."

Note: This post is the tenth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 11. You can read the previous installments here.

I don’t think there’s ever been a better depiction of the creative process on film than the one we find in Apollo 13. If you’ve seen the movie, you remember the scene. A team of engineers at NASA is confronted with the problem of converting the carbon scrubbers on the damaged spacecraft to ones that will work on the lunar module, using only the materials that the astronauts have on board. As they dump a bunch of boxes full of equipment—space suits, tubing, the inevitable duct tape—onto a conference table, the lead technician holds up a pair of carbon scrubbers and announces: “We gotta find a way to make this fit into a hole for this using nothing but that.” (My favorite touch is the voice in the background saying: “Better get some coffee going, too.”) As I’ve noted before, it’s a lovely illustration of what Stuart Kauffman calls “the adjacent possible,” the creation of something new from whatever happens to be lying around, and I know for a fact that it inspired one of my oldest friends to become an engineer. And I’ve started to realize that I became a novelist for many of the same reasons.

In the arts, the idea of the adjacent possible is better known as bricolage, literally “tinkering,” as memorably described by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss: “[The bricoleur’s] universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand,’ that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogenous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project.” And although the possibilities at a writer’s disposal might seem infinite, in practice, we start engaging in bricolage as soon as we begin a story, and continue to do so throughout the process. Taking a challenging premise and doing our best to execute it within the constraints it presents is one kind of bricolage; so is solving a tricky narrative problem in a way consistent with everything that has come before. We’re acting as bricoleurs when we visit a location and work out a chase scene using the real layout of a building or street, or when we start with a twist ending and engineer the story backwards so that the result seems inevitable. And the greater the number of constraints we impose on the universe of potential materials, the more interesting the result tends to be.

"When the solvents had evaporated..."

There’s a nice little example from Chapter 11 of Eternal Empire, in which one of my lead characters is forced, a la MacGyver, to engage in a bit of bricolage himself. While incarcerated at Belmarsh Prison, Ilya is ordered to kill another convict in order to prove his loyalty, and it all has to be done in a way that won’t implicate him. Prisoners, of course, are some of the original bricoleurs: a glance at the improvised weapons that inmates have constructed out of a plastic comb, a shoelace, and a bit of wire offers us a particularly murderous illustration of the adjacent possible. (If we’re looking for a pair of martyrs to the act of bricolage, we couldn’t do better than the gangsters Harry Pierpont and Charles Makley, who tried—and failed—to escape from prison using fake guns carved from soap and painted with shoe polish.) While I could have had Ilya put together some kind of clever shiv, it seemed more fun to see what else I could do using the materials available. And as it happened, I had a useful source of information: the list of items that inmates can purchase with their commissary accounts at Belmarsh, as helpfully reproduced in its entirety by Jeffrey Archer in his memoir A Prison Diary.

The result was the sort of logic puzzle that thriller and mystery writers delight in setting for themselves. Looking at the commissary list that Archer provides—which consists mostly of tobacco, batteries, toiletries, stationary, and salted snacks—I was able to cobble together a plan in which Ilya uses tea bags, butane, and alcohol to extract the nicotine from several packs of cigarettes. (On this point, at least, no exaggeration was necessary: pure nicotine is one of the most potent poisons imaginable, and sixty milligrams on the skin can be fatal.) I had to fudge a few of the steps, and I departed from the commissary inventory in a number of ways: the alcohol was provided by a flask of bootleg prison liquor, while the plastic syringe that Ilya uses to administer the poison was appropriated from a workshop where inmates refill printer cartridges. Still, when I was done, it felt like literally the only solution that worked within the limits the story had imposed, and the fact that it used poison seemed particularly appropriate, since toxins of one sort or another play an important thematic role elsewhere in the series. And while killing an inmate might hold less immediate appeal than saving three astronauts, in both cases, as Apollo 13 famously puts it, it all starts when we have a problem…

Written by nevalalee

March 5, 2015 at 9:37 am

Apollo 13 and the adjacent possible

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In The Name Above the Title, his wonderful, if somewhat unreliable, autobiography, the director Frank Capra describes seeing a silent comedian go onto a set, pick up the props that are lying around—a chair, a lamp, a basket of fruit—and immediately start improvising gags based on the materials at hand. I love this image, just as I love the idea of television shows wringing every possible variation out of a handful of standing sets, or low-budget exploitation films, like those of Roger Corman, that make inventive use of whatever happens to be available. (The original Little Shop of Horrors was shot in two days on sets that were left over from another movie.) While the results can sometimes be mixed, I can’t help seeing this as an example of artistic ingenuity in its purest form, and especially as a useful model for writers, who can often be paralyzed by the range of possible options.

Steven Johnson, in his book Where Good Ideas Come From, follows the scientist Stuart Kauffman in calling this concept “the adjacent possible”—the act of creating something new out of what happens to be lying around. His favorite example comes from the movie Apollo 13, in which a team of NASA engineers is confronted with the problem of converting the carbon scrubbers on the damaged spacecraft into ones that will work on the lunar module, using only materials that the astronauts have on board. As they dump a bunch of boxes full of equipment—space suits, tubing, the inevitable duct tape—onto a conference table, the lead technician announces, holding up a pair of carbon scrubbers: “We gotta find a way to make this fit into a hole for this using nothing but that.” The engineers get to work, sorting the mess into piles, as we hear a voice in the background saying: “Better get some coffee going, too.”

It’s a great scene, and I know for a fact that one of my best friends became an engineer because of that very moment—he wanted to be one of those guys standing around the table. And it isn’t hard to see why the idea is so appealing. It’s the kind of MacGyver-type problem we all like to think we’d be able to solve under pressure, given enough coffee, and while we may never have to save a spacecraft, we’re often confronted with analogous situations. This is especially true in the intermediate stages of any creative project, like a novel or screenplay. When we begin, we can do whatever we like, but each decision we make seems to narrow our options, until, by the end, we’re left with what feels like a table full of spare parts that we need to fit together. But it’s at moments like this that the most creative solutions tend to present themselves.

In my experience, when you’re looking to solve a problem in any story, the odds are that the answer is right there in front of you, in the collection of pieces you’ve already assembled. I’m always turning up useful spare parts in my own work. When I’m trying to solve a plot problem, I’ve found that it’s often best to go back and check what’s there, in the standing sets I’ve built, because the answer may lie in a throwaway line or a detail that can be put to some other use. (Like the Plains Indians, we try to use every part of the animal.) And when I’m writing a blog post and find myself searching for a snappy closing sentence, chances are, it already exists: it’s just a matter of looking over what I’ve written and relocating the best sentence so it sits at the end. See?

Written by nevalalee

May 3, 2012 at 10:00 am

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