Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Good Place

Astounding Stories #22: None But Lucifer

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Note: This is the latest entry in a series in which I highlight works of speculative fiction that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

None But Lucifer, a short novel by H.L. Gold and L. Sprague de Camp that appeared in the September 1939 issue of Unknown, opens with its lead character figuring out a foolproof way of getting whatever he wants—and it isn’t a fantasy. The story begins with its protagonist, Hale, living in deliberate poverty in a tenement in New York, and within the space of a few pages, merely as an experiment, he talks his way into a lucrative job, a beautiful apartment, and a luxurious lifestyle, mostly just to prove that he can. Hale’s system depends on aiming absurdly high while showing as much apparent contempt for his true goal as possible. As he explains to an incredulous listener:

I can get anything I want any time I want it…Moreover, anybody can use my system…I go after what I want obliquely, by seeming to aim at something else, but grabbing sideways at what I really want…I can be aiming at money, fame, love, an easy life, or influence—but I wouldn’t show which one I really wanted. You’d have to guess…The main thing is to keep your mouth shut about what you really want. The next most important thing is to get out of your social class. You can depend on your own class or the one just above it to defeat you…But if you break out of your class, the one you’re crashing isn’t sure of your aims, and can’t crush you so effectively.

He concludes: “If you’re trying to get a job as a clerk, your objective is pathetically simple to figure out. You want to eat. But if you go after a hundred-thousand-a-year position, with a crack at the boss’s daughter, it gets tougher to analyze your goal.” And that’s particularly true if you manage to break through the barriers that your social class has imposed.

As a list of commandments for con artists and other hustlers—you keep your motives hidden, avoid your own social class, and show as much contempt for possible for what you really want—this approach is as valid as ever, and there are times when it reminds me queasily of Neil Strauss’s The Game. But Gold and de Camp have larger ambitions of their own. The man to whom Hale is describing his strategy isn’t an ordinary human being at all. It’s Lucifier himself, who has been quietly running the world for thousands of years in the guise of an unassuming businessman named Mr. Johnson. Hale has figured out the sinister truth, which is that our world is Hell, and we’re all being punished without our knowledge for sins that we committed in a previous lifetime. (Hale’s first clue came from a line from the novelist Arnold Bennett: “Of all the inhabitants of the inferno, none but Lucifer knows that hell is hell.” Or as Eleanor Shellstrop memorably realized: This is the Bad Place!”) With this information in hand, Hale approaches Lucifer with an ultimatum. He wants to be an equal partner in the management of Hell, or he’ll tell the world about his system for getting whatever you want, which will upset the delicate balance of suffering. Lucifer agrees, and he takes Hale under his wing. And while we reasonably suspect that there’s more to the deal than meets the eye, for the moment, we’re more interested in hearing Lucifer expound on his methods of keeping mankind in an ideal state of misery. For instance:

Running Hell on an efficient basis happens to be my business, and I run it the same as any other businessman runs his business, by practical, common-sense methods…I’m immortal, of course. Hence I can control the world’s money simply by investing a little and waiting for the interest charges to pile up. Outside of that, I can run the world merely by a magnificent system of obtaining information, an understanding of men’s desires, and a knowledge of how to use pivot men. And, of course, the ability to start and stop the flow of money. In most cases the last can be done without a penny.

This is a terrific premise for a story, although None But Lucifer—which de Camp rewrote from Gold’s initial draft, with uncredited contributions from John W. Campbell—doesn’t quite live up to its opening. The middle sags a bit, and it doesn’t follow through completely on its promise. But it’s deliciously quotable throughout, and I can hardly imagine the effect that it must have had on the impressionable teenagers who bought it for twenty cents in 1939. Here, for example, is Lucifer on the efficiency of his strategies for causing pain, which don’t involve tracking every last person on earth, but just a few crucial people: “It’s enough to keep track of trade and production and social, political, and economic movements, with the key figures in each category, their influence, their motives and objectives, and what effect certain…uh…stimuli will have on their own categories and on society in general…No black magic—just detailed information and a knowledge of human nature.” A few pages later, Lucifer explains his attitude toward war:

Except in unusual cases, I never concentrate on tormenting a single person. That would be inefficient…The chronic state of crisis, never quite reaching war, which I have labored incessantly to create, is kept simmering. The world was growing apathetic, but now there is a very gratifying turmoil. Millions of people have been made afraid and unhappy. Others have had their hopes raised. At the proper moment those hopes will be dashed, and they, too, will be unhappy.

When Lucifer poses the problem of what should be done as humanity proceeds toward an inevitable global conflict, Hale gives the correct answer: “I guess I’d try to prevent war…To keep the world frightened for as long as possible.” Lucifer praises his insight, but he adds a reminder: “Even though the war crisis is our most absorbing problem at the moment, we must never cease using the smaller torments.”

None But Lucifer was written before the outbreak of war in Europe, and it was on newsstands when Hitler invaded Poland. Typically, in a later issue, Campbell was quick to play up the coincidence: “None But Lucifer was begun last spring, worked out in detail last summer, bought and started on the process of being set in type late last summer. And it was on the stands at the time Europe was busily proving for the world that Lucifer does rule this planet.” Yet there are few points in history when its insights wouldn’t seem relevant. Reading it over recently, I was most struck by the passage in which Hale marvels at the universal state of suffering:

Millions out of work; increase in the relief budget attacked by the economy lobby—and effectively, since they were now so powerful; hunger marches, riots, strikes, lockouts, freezing of credit. Out of all that torment and strife there should have been a little happiness. The isolationists and the economizers should have felt jubilant. But actually they were as frightened as the rest of the country…It seemed that people were unhappy no matter what you did.

Throughout the story, Hale wonders what the world’s inhabitants could possibly have done in a previous life to deserve such torment, and he never really finds out. In a closing twist, however, he finds that the very worst sinners are given the darkest punishment of all—in the next life, they’re doomed to become Lucifer himself. “Evidently we—those of us who are doomed, from time to time, to the supreme torment of indeterminate immortality as manager of Hell—committed the most unspeakable crimes in some other existence,” Lucifer explains before handing over the reins to the newly reluctant Hale. “While Hell would no doubt supply plenty of torment without our help, a manager is evidently required to assure the most efficient and economical distribution of misery.”

I’ll be appearing tonight at the Tuesday Funk reading series at Hopleaf Bar at 5148 N. Clark St. in Chicago at 7:30pm. Hope to see some of you there!

A better place

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Note: Spoilers follow for the first and second seasons of The Good Place.

When I began watching The Good Place, I thought that I already knew most of its secrets. I had missed the entire first season, and I got interested in it mostly due to a single review by Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker, which might be my favorite piece so far from one of our most interesting critics. Nussbaum has done more than anyone else in the last decade to elevate television criticism into an art in itself, and this article—with its mixture of the critical, personal, and political—displays all her strengths at their best. Writing of the sitcom’s first season finale, which aired the evening before Trump’s inauguration, Nussbaum says: “Many fans, including me, were looking forward to a bit of escapist counterprogramming, something frothy and full of silly puns, in line with the first nine episodes. Instead, what we got was the rare season finale that could legitimately be described as a game-changer, vaulting the show from a daffy screwball comedy to something darker, much stranger, and uncomfortably appropriate for our apocalyptic era.” Following that grabber of an opening, she continues with a concise summary of the show’s complicated premise:

The first episode is about a selfish American jerk, Eleanor (the elfin charmer Kristen Bell), who dies and goes to Heaven, owing to a bureaucratic error. There she is given a soul mate, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), a Senegal-raised moral philosopher. When Chidi discovers that Eleanor is an interloper, he makes an ethical leap, agreeing to help her become a better person…Overseeing it all was Michael, an adorably flustered angel-architect played by Ted Danson; like Leslie Knope, he was a small-town bureaucrat who adored humanity and was desperate to make his flawed community perfect.

There’s a lot more involved, of course, and we haven’t even mentioned most of the other key players. It’s an intriguing setup for a television show, and it might have been enough to get me to watch it on its own. Yet what really caught my attention was Nussbaum’s next paragraph, which includes the kind of glimpse into a critic’s writing life that you only see when emotions run high: “After watching nine episodes, I wrote a first draft of this column based on the notion that the show, with its air of flexible optimism, its undercurrent of uplift, was a nifty dialectical exploration of the nature of decency, a comedy that combined fart jokes with moral depth. Then I watched the finale. After the credits rolled, I had to have a drink.” She then gives away the whole game, which I’m obviously going to do here as well. You’ve been warned:

In the final episode, we learn that it was no bureaucratic mistake that sent Eleanor to Heaven. In fact, she’s not in Heaven at all. She’s in Hell—which is something that Eleanor realizes, in a flash of insight, as the characters bicker, having been forced as a group to choose two of them to be banished to the Bad Place. Michael is no angel, either. He’s a low-ranking devil, a corporate Hell architect out on his first big assignment, overseeing a prankish experimental torture cul-de-sac. The malicious chuckle that Danson unfurls when Eleanor figures it out is both terrifying and hilarious, like a clap of thunder on a sunny day. “Oh, God!” he growls, dropping the mask. “You ruin everything, you know that?”

That’s a legitimately great twist, and when I suggested to my wife—who didn’t know anything about it—that we check it out on Netflix, it was partially so that I could enjoy her surprise at that moment, like a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire eagerly watching an unsuspecting friend during the Red Wedding.

Yet I was the one who really got fooled. The Good Place became my favorite sitcom since Community, and for almost none of the usual reasons. It’s very funny, of course, but I find that the jokes land about half the time, and it settles for what Nussbaum describes as “silly puns” more often than it probably should. Many episodes are closer to freeform comedy—the kind in which the riffs have less to do with context than with whatever the best pitch happened to be in the writers room—than to the clockwork farce to which it ought to aspire. But its flaws don’t really matter. I haven’t been so involved with the characters on a series like this in years, which allows it to take risks and get away with formal experiments that would destroy a lesser show. After the big revelation in the first season finale, it repeatedly blew up its continuity, with Michael resetting the memories of the others and starting over whenever they figured out his plan, but somehow, it didn’t leave me feeling jerked around. This is partially thanks to how the show cleverly conflates narrative time with viewing time, which is one of the great unsung strengths of the medium. (When the second season finally gets on track, these “versions” of the characters have only known one another for a couple of weeks, but every moment is enriched by our memories of their earlier incarnations. It’s a good trick, but it’s not so different from the realization, for example, that all of the plot twists and relationships of the first two seasons of Twin Peaks unfolded over less than a month.) It also speaks to the talent of the cast, which consistently rises to every challenge. And it does a better job of telling a serialized story than any sitcom that I can remember. Even while I was catching up with it, I managed to parcel it out over time, but I can also imagine binging an entire season at one sitting. That’s mostly due to the fact that the writers are masters of structure, if not always at filling the spaces between act breaks, but it’s also because the stakes are literally infinite.

And the stakes apply to all of us. It’s hard to come away from The Good Place without revisiting some of your assumptions about ethics, the afterlife, and what it means to be a good person. (The inevitable release of The Good Place and Philosophy might actually be worth reading.) I’m more aware of how much I’ve internalized the concept of “moral desert,” or the notion that good behavior will be rewarded, which we should all know by now isn’t true. In its own unpretentious way, the series asks its viewers to contemplate the problem of how to live when there might not be a prize awaiting us at the end. It’s the oldest question imaginable, but it seems particularly urgent these days, and the show’s answers are more optimistic than we have any right to expect. Writing just a few weeks after the inauguration, Nussbaum seems to project some of her own despair onto creator Michael Schur:

While I don’t like to read the minds of showrunners—or, rather, I love to, but it’s presumptuous—I suspect that Schur is in a very bad mood these days. If [Parks and Recreation] was a liberal fantasia, The Good Place is a dystopian mindfork: it’s a comedy about the quest to be moral even when the truth gets bent, bullies thrive, and sadism triumphs…Now that his experiment has crashed, [the character of] Michael plans to erase the ensemble’s memories and reboot. The second season—presuming the show is renewed (my mouth to God’s ear)—will start the same scheme from scratch. Michael will make his afterlife Sims suffer, no matter how many rounds it takes.

Yet in the second season hinges on an unlikely change of heart. Michael comes to care about his charges—he even tries to help them escape to the real Good Place—and his newfound affection doesn’t seem like another mislead. I’m not sure if I believe it, but I’m still grateful. It isn’t a coincidence that Michael shares his name with the show’s creator, and I’d like to think that Schur ended up with a kinder version of the series than he may have initially envisioned. Like Nussbaum, he tore up the first draft and started over. Life is hard enough as it is, and the miracle of The Good Place is that it takes the darkest view imaginable of human nature, and then it gently hints that we might actually be capable of becoming better.

Written by nevalalee

September 27, 2018 at 8:39 am

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