Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Verge

The Thing from Another Manuscript

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On March 2, 1966, Howard Applegate, the administrator of manuscripts at Syracuse University, wrote to the editor John W. Campbell to ask if he’d be interested in donating his papers to their archives. Two weeks later, Campbell replied:

Sorry…but the Harvard Library got all the old manuscripts I had about eight years ago! Since I stopped writing stories when I became editor of Astounding/Analog, I haven’t produced any manuscripts since 1938…So…sorry, but any scholarly would-be biographers are going to have a tough time finding any useful documentation on me! I just didn’t keep the records!

Fortunately for me, this turned out to be far from the case, and I was only able to read these words in the first place because of diligent fans and archivists—notably the late Perry Chapdelaine—who had done what they could to preserve Campbell’s correspondence. When I came across his exchange with Applegate, in fact, I was busy working through thousands of pages of the editor’s surviving letters, which provided the indispensable foundation for my book Astounding. But the reference to Harvard surprised me. At that point, I had been working on this project for close to a year, and I had never heard the slightest whisper about a collection of his manuscripts in Cambridge. (I subsequently realized that Campbell had referred to it in passing to Robert A. Heinlein in a letter dated October 7, 1955, but I didn’t notice this until much later.)

When I looked into it further, nothing came up in a casual search online, but I finally found an entry for it buried deep in the catalog for Houghton Library. (I’ve never seen it mentioned anywhere else, not even in scholarly works on science fiction, which implies that the papers were sent to Harvard and then promptly forgotten.) The description was intriguing, but I had plenty to do in the meantime, and I didn’t have a chance to follow up on it until last September, when I sent a request for more information through the library’s query system. About a week later, I heard back from a very helpful librarian, who had taken the time to examine the carton and send me a list of the labels on the folders inside. There were about fifty in all, and while most bore the titles of stories or articles that I recognized—“Out of Night,” “The Elder Gods,” The Moon is Hell—there were quite a few that were unfamiliar to me. I was particularly interested in the folder labeled “Frozen Hell,” which I knew from Campbell’s correspondence had been the original title of “Who Goes There?”, the classic novella that was adapted three times for the movies as The Thing. At that point, I knew that I had to check it out, if only because I didn’t want to get scooped by anybody else, and although I wasn’t able to travel to Cambridge in person, I managed to hire a research assistant to go to the library and scan the pages on my behalf. She did a brilliant job, and after a few rounds of visits, I had copies of everything that I needed. As I had hoped, there was a lot of great stuff in that box, including previously unpublished works by Campbell and the only known story credited to his remarkable wife Doña, which I hope to discuss here in depth one day. But the very first file that I opened was the one called “Frozen Hell.”

When I sat down to read these pages, I was mostly just hoping to get some insight into the writing of “Who Goes There?”, which has been rightly ranked as the greatest science fiction suspense story of all time. But what I found there was so remarkable that I still can’t quite believe it myself. “Who Goes There?” is famously about an Antarctic research expedition that stumbles across a hideous extraterrestrial buried in the ice, and as it originally appeared in Astounding Science Fiction in 1938, the novella opens with the alien’s body already back at the base, with everything that happened beforehand—the magnetic anomaly that led the team to the site, the uncovering of the spaceship, and its accidental destruction—recounted in dialogue. In the draft of “Frozen Hell” that was preserved in Campbell’s papers, it’s narrated in detail from the beginning, with a huge forty-five page opening section, never before published, about the discovery of the spacecraft itself. (Apart from a few plot points and character names, the rest tracks the established version fairly closely, although there are some interesting surprises and variations.) We know that Campbell discussed the story with the editors F. Orlin Tremaine and Frank Blackwell, and at some point, they evidently decided that most of this material should be cut or integrated elsewhere. Judging from the other manuscripts that I found at Harvard, Campbell often cut the beginnings from his stories, which reflected the advice that he later gave to other writers, including Isaac Asimov, that you should enter the story as late as possible. But when you restore this material, which is written on the same high level as the rest, you end up with something fascinating—a story that shifts abruptly from straight adventure into horror. This is the kind of structure that I love, and there’s something very modern about the way in which it switches genres halfway through.

The result amounted to an entirely different version, and a completely worthwhile one, of one of the most famous science fiction stories ever written, which had been waiting there at Harvard all this time. As far as I can tell, no one else ever knew that it existed, and the more I thought about its potential, the more excited I became. I began by reaching out to Campbell’s daughter Leslyn, whom I had gotten to know through working on his biography, and she referred me in turn to John Gregory Betancourt, the writer and editor who manages the estate. John agreed that it was worth publishing, and he ultimately decided to release it through his own imprint, Wildside Press, in a special edition funded through a campaign on Kickstarter. The result went live last week, with a goal of raising $1,000, and it quickly blew past everyone’s expectations. As I type this, its pledges have exceeded $27,000, and it shows no sign of stopping. (Andrew Liptak of The Verge had a nice writeup about the project, which seems to have helped, and word of mouth is still spreading.) At the moment, the package will include an introduction by Robert Silverberg, original fiction by Betancourt and G.D. Falksen, and cover and interior illustrations by Bob Eggleton, with more features to follow as it reaches its stretch goals. I’ll be contributing a preface in which I’ll talk more about the manuscript, Campbell’s writing process, and some of the variant openings that were also preserved in his papers. Publication is scheduled for early next year, and I’m hoping to have more updates soon—although I’m already thrilled beyond measure by the response so far. Astounding comes out tomorrow, and I’m obviously curious about what its reception will be. There are some big developments just around the corner. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Frozen Hell ends up being the best thing to come out of this entire project.

The time bind

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Last month, The Verge posted a leaked copy of a fascinating short film titled “The Selfish Ledger,” which was produced two years ago for internal consumption at Google. It’s only eight minutes long, and it’s well worth watching in its entirety, but this summary by journalist Vlad Savov does a good job of capturing its essence:

The nine-minute film starts off with a history of Lamarckian epigenetics, which are broadly concerned with the passing on of traits acquired during an organism’s lifetime. Narrating the video, [Google design head Nick] Foster acknowledges that the theory may have been discredited when it comes to genetics but says it provides a useful metaphor for user data…The way we use our phones creates “a constantly evolving representation of who we are,” which Foster terms a “ledger,” positing that these data profiles could be built up, used to modify behaviors, and transferred from one user to another…The middle section of the video presents a conceptual Resolutions by Google system, in which Google prompts users to select a life goal and then guides them toward it in every interaction they have with their phone…with the ledger actively seeking to fill gaps in its knowledge and even selecting data-harvesting products to buy that it thinks may appeal to the user. The example given in the video is a bathroom scale because the ledger doesn’t yet know how much its user weighs.

With its soothing narration and liberal use of glossy stock footage, it’s all very Black Mirror, and when asked for comment, a spokesperson at Google seemed to agree: “We understand if this is disturbing—it is designed to be. This is a thought-experiment by the Design team from years ago that uses a technique known as ‘speculative design’ to explore uncomfortable ideas and concepts in order to provoke discussion and debate. It’s not related to any current or future products.”

There’s a lot to unpack here, and I’m hoping to discuss various aspects of the film over the next few days. For now, though, I’d like to focus on one detail, which is the notion that the “ledger” of a user’s data amounts to a repository of useful information that can be passed down from one generation to another. (The title of the film is an open homage to The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, which popularized an analogous concept in the realm of natural selection.) In a voiceover, Foster says:

User data has the capability to survive beyond the limits of our biological selves, in much the same way as genetic code is released and propagated in nature. By considering this data through a Lamarckian lens, the codified experiences within the ledger become an accumulation of behavioral knowledge throughout the life of an individual. By thinking of user data as multi-generational, it becomes possible for emerging users to benefit from the preceding generations’ behaviors and decisions. As new users enter an ecosystem, they begin to create their own trail of data. By comparing this emergent ledger with the mass of historical user data, it becomes possible to make increasingly accurate predictions about decisions and future behaviors. As cycles of collection and comparison extend, it may be possible to develop a species-level understanding of complex issues such as depression, health and poverty. Our ability to interpret user data combined with the exponential growth in sensor-enabled objects will result in an increasingly detailed account of who we are as people. As these streams of information are brought together, the effect is multiplied: new patterns become apparent and new predictions become possible.

In other words, the data that we create is our legacy to those who will come after us, who can build on what we’ve left behind rather than starting from scratch.

The funny thing, of course, is that we’ve been doing something like this for a while now, at least on a societal level, using a decidedly less sexy format—the book. In fact, the whole concept of “emerging users [benefiting] from the preceding generations’ behaviors and decisions” is remarkably close to the idea of time-binding, as defined by the Polish philosopher Alfred Korzybski, whose work had a profound impact on the science fiction of the thirties and forties. In the monumental, borderline unreadable Science and Sanity, the founding text of General Semantics, Korzybski describes this process in terms that might have been drawn directly from “The Selfish Ledger,” using language that is nearly a century old: “I defined man functionally as a time-binder, a definition based on a…functional observation that the human class of life differs from animals in the fact that, in the rough, each generation of humans, at least potentially, can start where the former generation left off.” Elsewhere, he adds:

The human rate of progress is swifter than that of the animals, and this is due mainly to the fact that we can summarize and transmit past experiences to the young generation in a degree far more effective than that of the animals. We have also extra-neural means for recording experiences, which the animals lack entirely.

The italics are mine. Korzybski uses the example of a mathematician who “has at his disposal an enormous amount of data; first, his personal experiences and observation of actual life…and also all the personal experiences and observations of past generations…With such an enormous amount of data of experience, he can re-evaluate the data, ‘see’ them anew, and so produce new and more useful and structurally more correct higher order abstractions.” And this sounds a lot like “The Selfish Ledger,” which echoes Korzybski—whose work was an important precursor to dianetics—when it speaks of reaching a better understanding of such issues as “depression, health and poverty.”

I don’t know whether “The Selfish Ledger” was directly influenced by Korzybski, although I would guess that it probably wasn’t. But he provides a useful starting point for understanding why the world evoked in the film feels so disturbing, when it’s really a refinement of a process that is as old as civilization itself. On some level, it strikes viewers as a loss of agency, with the act of improvement and refinement outsourced from human hands to an impersonal corporation and its algorithms. We no longer trust companies like Google, if we ever did, to guide us as individuals or as a society—although much of what the video predicts has already come to pass. Google is already an extension of my memory, and it determines my ability to generate connections between information in ways that I mostly take for granted. Yet these decisions have long been made for us by larger systems in ways that are all but invisible, by encouraging certain avenues of thought and action while implicitly blocking off others. (As Fredric Jameson put it: “Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.”) Not all such systems are inherently undesirable, and you could argue that science, for instance, is the best way so far that the ledger of society—which depended in earlier periods on myth and religion—has found to propagate itself. It’s hard to argue with Korzybski when he writes: “If the difference between the animal and man consists in the capacity of the latter to start where the former generation left off, obviously humans, to be humans, should exercise this capacity to the fullest extent.” The problem, as usual, lies in the choice of tactics, and what we call “culture” or even “etiquette” can be seen as a set of rules that accomplish by trial and error what the ledger would do more systematically. Google is already shaping our culture, and the fact that “The Selfish Ledger” bothers to even explore such questions is what makes it a worthwhile thought experiment. Tomorrow, I’ll be taking a closer look at its methods, as well as the question of how speculative design, whether by corporations or by artists, can lead to insights that lie beyond even the reach of science fiction.

A change of hobbit

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Peter Jackson on the set of The Hobbit

When I’m working through my beloved special features on the Lord of the Rings box set, I sometimes need to remind myself that they aren’t the primary work, and that it’s the films themselves that should matter most. Yet it’s easy to get caught up in the supplemental materials—the richest I’ve seen on any home video release—to the point where you start to neglect the movies they’re supposed to document. And there seems to be something about Tolkien himself, or the world he created, that encourages this kind of attitude. When you look at the endless shelves of notes, discarded drafts, and miscellaneous backstory that Christopher Tolkien has published from his father’s archives, you begin to feel as if the original novels were just one possible manifestation of the author’s underlying decades of thought. That’s true of any work of art, to some extent, but the degree to which Tolkien’s creative process has been documented makes it seem as if the books were created to enable the work behind them, rather than the other way around. (Tolkien, who wrote the trilogy initially as an excuse to develop his Elvish languages, might have agreed.) And the same philosophy seems to have affected the Peter Jackson adaptations, which chronicle the production process so exhaustively that the movies themselves can come off as incidental. And while this might be unfair to The Lord of the Rings, it’s less so with The Hobbit, which still strikes me, to quote Bilbo, as “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”

I still haven’t seen The Battle of the Five Armies, but I may need to check out the special edition, judging from a production featurette that was recently released online. Bryan Bishop of The Verge describes it as “the most honest promotional video of all time,” and in fact, it provides some startling—and discouraging—insights into why The Hobbit turned out to be so underwhelming. Even in the earliest footage released from the shoot, Peter Jackson looked tired and discouraged, and in this glimpse behind the scenes, we start to understand why. According to the featurette, Guillermo Del Toro’s abrupt departure from the production and Jackson’s equally sudden arrival left every creative department scrambling to catch up, and they never managed to get ahead of the game. The Weta design guru Richard Taylor, who is one of my secret heroes, says that they were constantly delivering the props needed for each day’s filming, and he waxes nostalgic about The Lord of the Rings, in which they had over three years to prepare, with entire racks of armor ready months in advance. In the words of production manager Brigitte Yorke: “Peter never got a chance to prep these movies. I can’t say that. But he didn’t!” Jackson came straight from Tintin, got sick for six weeks, and had only two months to restart the process from scratch before shooting commenced. For much of that time, he was operating on three hours of sleep a night, hoping to keep going in any way he could. As Taylor puts it: “You’re laying the tracks directly in front of the train.”

Peter Jackson

By Jackson’s own account, he was able to “wing it” fairly well—telling the crew to take a long lunch while he puzzled out problems alone on the set, even as the scripts continued to be rewritten—until he had to film the titular Battle of Five Armies itself, when his lack of time to think finally caught up with him. Andy Serkis’s second unit was banking entire rolls of generic fight elements when Jackson told them to stop, and production was halted, much to the shock of the crew, until the following year. Jackson says: “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.” And as much as this explains some of the problems that clearly afflicted The Hobbit from the beginning, it’s hard to understand why everyone is being so candid. (In The Verge, Bishop writes: “I’m frankly shocked that any promotional clip would be this straightforward about the problems the film had, but hey—whatever gets people talking about the movie.”) Part of it is probably due to the fact that documenting every stage of the production had turned into a habit itself, and it’s hard to stop that process even when the shoot itself goes sideways. It doesn’t go quite so far as such documentaries as Hearts of Darkness or Burden of Dreams, but as far as bonus features are concerned, the shift in tone captured here seems unique. Not even The Lovely Bones, which produced some of the most painstakingly assembled featurettes imaginable for a fatally flawed film, gives you quite the same sense of a movie spiraling out of control.

Yet there’s another explanation that gets closer to the heart of the matter. The video that we see here feels like the first half of a narrative familiar from all creative stories, cinematic or otherwise: the triumph over impossible odds. Despite formidable setbacks, the artist wins out in the end over all the constraints that time, money, and energy imposed, and the result vindicates the years he devoted to the acquisition of his craft. And for the first Lord of the Rings trilogy—which was beset by its share of production woes—that narrative made sense. (It also absorbs the myth that we find in the stories themselves, in which a ragtag fellowship triumphs over the seemingly invincible forces of Sauron.) If The Battle of the Five Armies had emerged as a masterpiece, the pessimistic tone of this featurette would more than satisfy the narrative function it was meant to fill, as Gandalf’s deep breath before the plunge. Instead, it gives us the first half of the cliché but not the second, and the mediocre quality of the resulting movie makes its candor seem bewildering. But that’s a lesson in itself. On this blog, I’ve often glamorized the role that constraints play in the creative process: “To achieve great things,” Leonard Bernstein is supposed to have said, “two things are needed—a plan, and not quite enough time.” But that’s usually as true of bad works of art as of good. We tend to remember the successes and forget the failures. That can be a hard truth to swallow. And if the example of The Hobbit has any value, it’s to remind us that not every creative road leads out of Mordor.

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