Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Sword of Achilles

The stories of our lives

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Last week, I mentioned the evocative challenge that the writer and literary agent John Brockman recently posed to a group of scientists and intellectuals: “Ask the question for which you will be remembered.” I jokingly said that my own question would probably resemble the one submitted by the scholar Jonathan Gottschall: “Are stories bad for us?” As often happens with such snap decisions, however, this one turned out to be more revealing than I had anticipated. When I look back at my work as a writer, it’s hard to single out any overarching theme, but I do seem to come back repeatedly to the problem of reading the world as a text. My first novel, The Icon Thief, was openly inspired by Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco, which inverts the conventions of the conspiracy thriller to explore how we tell ourselves stories about history and reality. I didn’t go quite as far as Eco did, but it was a subject that I enjoyed, and it persisted to a lesser extent in my next two books. My science fiction stories tend to follow a formula that I’ve described as The X-Files in reverse, in which a paranormal interpretation of a strange event is supplanted by another that fits the same facts into a more rational pattern. And I’m currently finishing up a book that is secretly about how the stories that we read influence our behavior in the real world. As Isaac Asimov pointed out in his essay “The Sword of Achilles,” most readers are drawn to science fiction at a young age, and its values and assumptions subtly affect how they think and feel. If there’s a single thread that runs through just about everything I’ve written, then, it’s the question of how our tendency to see the world as a story—or a text—can come back to haunt us in unexpected ways.

As it happens, we’re all living right now through a vast social experiment that might have been designed to test this very principle. I got to thinking about this soon after reading an excellent essay, “The Weight of the Words,” by the political scientist Jacob T. Levy. He begins with a discussion of Trump’s “shithole countries” remark, which led a surprising number of commentators—on both the right and the left—to argue that the president’s words were less important than his actions. Levy summarizes this view: “Ignore the tweets. Ignore Trump’s inflammatory language. Ignore the words. What counts is the policy outcomes.” He continues:

I have a hard time believing that anyone really thinks like this as a general proposition…The longstanding view among conservatives was that Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech and Reagan’s call to “tear down this wall” were important events, words that helped to mobilize western resistance to Communism and to provide moral clarity about the stakes of that resistance.

On a more basic level, since it’s impossible for the government to accomplish everything by force, much of politics lies in emotional coercion, which suggest that words have power in themselves. Levy refers to Hannah Arendt’s argument in The Human Condition, in which a familiar figure appears:

The stature of the Homeric Achilles can be understood only if one sees him as “the doer of great deeds and the speakers of great words”…Thought was secondary to speech, but speech and action were considered to be coeval and coequal, of the same rank and the same kind; and this originally meant not only that most political action, in so far as it remains outside the sphere of violence, is indeed transacted in words, but more fundamentally that finding the right words at the right moment, quite apart from the information or communication they may convey, is action.

Levy then lists many of the obvious ways in which Trump’s words have had tangible effects—the erosion of America’s stature abroad, the undermining of trust in law enforcement and the civil service, the growth of tribalism and xenophobia, and the redefinition of what it means to be a Republican. (As Levy notes of Trump’s relationship to his supporters: “He doesn’t speak for them; how many of them had a view about ‘the deep state’ two years ago? He speaks to them, and it matters.”) Trump routinely undercuts the very notion of truth, in what seems like the ultimate example of the power of speech over the world of fact. And Levy’s conclusion deserves to be read whenever we need to be reminded of how this presidency differs from all the others that have come before:

The alleged realism of those who want to ignore words will often point to some past president whose lofty rhetoric obscured ugly policies. Whether those presidents are named “Reagan and George W. Bush” or “JFK and Barack Obama” varies in the obvious way, but the deflationary accounts are similar; there are blunders, crimes, abuses, and atrocities enough to find in the record of every American president. But all those presidents put forward a public rhetorical face that was better than their worst acts. This inevitably drives political opponents crazy: they despise the hypocrisy and the halo that good speeches put on undeserving heads. I’ve had that reaction to, well, every previous president in my living memory, at one time or another. But there’s something important and valuable in the fact that they felt the need to talk about loftier ideals than they actually governed by. They kept the public aspirations of American political culture pointed toward Reagan’s “shining city on a hill.”

He concludes of all of our previous presidents: “In words, even if not in deeds, they championed a free and fair liberal democratic order, the protection of civil liberties, openness toward the world, rejection of racism at home, and defiance against tyranny abroad. And their words were part of the process of persuading each generation of Americans that those were constitutively American ideals.” America, in short, is a story that Americans tell one another—and the world—about themselves, and when we change the assumptions behind this narrative, it has profound implications in practice. We treat others according to the roles that we’ve imagined for ourselves, or, more insidiously, that our society has imagined for us. Those roles are often restrictive, but they can also be liberating, both for good and for bad. (Levy perceptively notes that the only federal employees who don’t feel devalued these days are immigration and border agents.) And Levy sounds a warning that we would all do well to remember:

“Ignore the tweets, ignore the language, ignore the words” is advice that affects a kind of sophistication: don’t get distracted by the circus, keep your eye on what’s going on behind the curtain. This is faux pragmatism, ignoring what is being communicated to other countries, to actors within the state, and to tens of millions of fellow citizens. It ignores how all those actors will respond to the speech, and how norms, institutions, and the environment for policy and coercion will be changed by those responses. Policy is a lagging indicator; ideas and the speech that expresses them pave the way.

“Trump has spent a year on the campaign trail and a year in office telling us where he intends to take us,” Levy concludes. And we’re all part of this story now. But we should be even more worried if the words ever stop. As Arendt wrote more than half a century ago: “Only sheer violence is mute.”

Going with the flow

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On July 13, 1963, New York University welcomed a hundred attendees to an event called the Conference on Education for Creativity in the Sciences. The gathering, which lasted for three days, was inspired by the work of Dr. Myron A. Coler, the director of the school’s Creative Science Program. There isn’t a lot of information available online about Coler, who was trained as an electrical engineer, and the best source I’ve found is an unsigned Talk of the Town piece that ran earlier that week in The New Yorker. It presents Coler as a scholar who was interested in the problem of scientific creativity long before it became fashionable: “What is it, how does it happen, how is it fostered—can it be isolated, measured, nurtured, predicted, directed, and so on…By enhancing it, you produce more from what you have of other resources. The ability to exploit a resource is in itself a resource.” He conducted monthly meetings for years with a select group of scientists, writing down everything that they had to say on the subject, including a lot of wild guesses about how to identify creative or productive people. Here’s my favorite:

One analyst claims that one of the best ways that he knows to test an individual is to take him out to dinner where lobster or crab is served. If the person uses his hands freely and seems to enjoy himself at the meal, he is probably well adjusted. If, on the other hand, he has trouble in eating the crab, he probably will have trouble in his relations with people also.

The conference was overseen by Jerome B. Wiesner, another former electrical engineer, who was appointed by John F. Kennedy to chair the President’s Science Advisory Committee. Wiesner’s interest lay in education, and particularly in identifying and training children who showed an early aptitude for science. In an article that was published a few years later in the journal Daedalus, Wiesner listed some of the attributes that were often seen in such individuals, based on the work of the pioneering clinical psychologist Anne Roe:

A childhood environment in which knowledge and intellectual effort were so highly valued for themselves than an addiction to reading and study was firmly established at an early age; an unusual degree of independence which, among other things, led them to discover early that they could satisfy their curiosity by personal efforts; an early dependence on personal resources, and on the necessity to think for oneself; an intense drive that generated concentrated, persistent, time-ignoring efforts in their studies and work; a secondary-school training that tended to emphasize science rather than the humanities; and high, but not necessarily remarkably high, intelligence.

But Wiesner also closed on a note of caution: “We do not now have useful techniques for predicting with comfortable reliability which individuals will turn out to be creative in the sciences or in any other field, no matter how great an investment we make in their education. Nor does it appear likely that such techniques will be developed in the immediate future.”

As it happened, one of the attendees at the conference was Isaac Asimov, who took the bus down to New York from Boston. Years afterward, he said that he couldn’t remember much about the experience—he was more concerned by the fact that he lost the wad of two hundred dollars that he had brought as emergency cash—and that his contributions to the discussion weren’t taken seriously. When the question came up of how to identify potentially creative individuals at a young age, he said without hesitation: “Keep an eye peeled for science-fiction readers.” No one else paid much attention, but Asimov didn’t forget the idea, and he wrote it up later that year in his essay “The Sword of Achilles,” which was published by The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. His views on the subject were undoubtedly shaped by his personal preferences, but he was also probably right. (He certainly met most of the criteria listed by Weisner, aside from “an unusual degree of independence,” since he was tied down for most of his adolescence to his father’s candy store.) And science fiction had more in common with Coler and Wiesner’s efforts than they might have appreciated. The editor John W. Campbell had always seen the genre as a kind of training program that taught its readers how to survive in the future, and Weisner described “tomorrow’s world” in terms that might have been pulled straight from Astounding: “That world will be more complex than it is today, will be changing more rapidly than now, and it will have jobs only for the well trained.” Weisner closed with a quotation from the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead:

In the conditions of modern life, the rule is absolute, the race which does not value trained intelligence is doomed…Today we maintain ourselves. Tomorrow science will have moved forward one more step, and there will be no appeal from the judgment which will then be pronounced on the uneducated.

These issues tend to come to the forefront during times of national anxiety, and it’s no surprise that we’re seeing a resurgence in them today. In last week’s issue of The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik rounded up a few recent titles on education and child prodigies, which reflect “the sense that American parents have gone radically wrong, making themselves and their kids miserable in the process, by hovering over them like helicopters instead of observing them from a watchtower, at a safe distance.” The catch is that while the current wisdom says that we should maximize our children’s independence, most child prodigies were the result of intensive parental involvement, which implies that the real secret to creative achievement lies somewhere else. And the answer may be right in front of us. As Gopnik writes of the author Ann Hulbert’s account of of the piano prodigy Lang Lang:

Lang Lang admits to the brutal pressures placed on him by his father…He was saved because he had, as Hulbert writes, “carved out space for a version of the ‘autotelic experience’—absorption in an activity purely for its own sake, a specialty of childhood.” Following the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Hulbert maintains that it was being caught in “the flow,” the feeling of the sudden loss of oneself in an activity, that preserved Lang Lang’s sanity: “The prize always beckoned, but Lang was finding ways to get lost in the process.”

This is very close to the “concentrated, persistent, time-ignoring efforts” that Weisner described fifty years ago, as well as his characterization of learning as “an addiction.” Gopnik concludes: “Accomplishment, the feeling of absorption in the flow, of mastery for its own sake, of knowing how to do this thing, is what keeps all of us doing what we do, if we like what we do at all.” And it seems to have been this sense of flow, above all else, that led Asimov to write more than four hundred books. He was addicted to it. As he once wrote to Robert A. Heinlein: “I like it in the attic room with the wallpaper. I’ve been all over the galaxy. What’s left to see?”

Asimov’s Sword, or the intelligent twelve-year-old

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For my twelfth birthday, my parents must have given me a few good presents, but the only one I still vividly remember, close to two decades later, is the June 1992 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. I’m not sure what inspired them to pick it up—it’s the only time they ever got me a copy—but I read it cover to cover, and still remember many of the stories, including “The Big Splash” by L. Sprague de Camp, “Grownups” by Ian R. MacLeod, and “Monsters” by James Patrick Kelly. (The latter two novelettes, incidentally, benefited from excellent artwork, which I can still picture to this day, by Laurie Harden, who nineteen years later would go on to illustrate my story “The Boneless One.”) And I have to admit that whenever I get a story into Analog, I secretly hope that among the magazine’s declining but faithful band of readers, there’s at least one twelve-year-old boy or girl on whose imagination I’ll make a similarly lasting impression.

Because smart twelve-year-olds are the best audience in the world. Asimov himself realized this, almost fifty years ago, when he wrote his famous editorial “The Sword of Achilles” for the November 1963 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Asimov notes that it’s important to be able to identify young children who will go on to be creative scientists, in order to foster their talents from an early age, and that the best predictor for such gifts is an interest in what he calls “good science fiction.” He then lists a few authors who might qualify, such as Clarke, Pohl, and de Camp, and also the science fiction magazines “universally acknowledged to be of highest quality,” including, of course, Analog. Asimov concludes: “It is youngsters who are interested in these authors and these magazines, then, that we seek for.” And while the list itself has certainly evolved over the past fifty years, the underlying point remains true: one of the greatest functions of quality fiction lies in encouraging the imaginations of intelligent teens and preteens.

But the real takeaway here is that none of these authors was writing for children. They were writing for adults, and the kids found them anyway. This is one of the reasons why I have mixed feelings about the increasing dominance of young adult fiction. (Part of me suspects that these novels are really intended for adults who just want to read children’s books, but that’s another issue entirely.) At first glance, it seems like a positive development: teens and preteens have more books targeted at them than ever before, many of them thinly disguised versions of adult genres, and some are very good. But it isn’t enough to read books targeted at your own level: you need to read slightly above it. When I was growing up, there weren’t many options for young adults once I’d graduated past the likes of Zilpha Keatley Snyder, so I had no choice to plunge into Animal Farm and 1984, at which point there was no turning back. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m one of millions of teens who read Stephen King long before the appropriate age, which is exactly the right time to read him. But I’m not sure how many kids are doing this today.

As I see it, Asimov’s Sword needs to be slightly revised. If an interest in good science fiction is a predictor of scientific creativity, an early interest in good—or even bad—adult fiction is a predictor for creativity in general. Smart kids are always going to read things that are slightly inappropriate, and we need to encourage this, both actively, by giving them access to books beyond those available in the young adult section at Barnes & Noble, and passively, by looking the other way when they show up with the inevitable battered paperback copy of The Stand. My own novels are meant for adults, but I’d be thrilled to see them in the hands of sixth-graders. Because as Asimov points out, these books aren’t just predictors, but active influences in their own right. “Interest in science is stimulated by the reading,” he notes, “rather than the reverse.” And that’s true of most fiction—but only when written for adults. Because the smart kids will find it on their own.

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