Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Twilight

The soul of a new machine

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Over the weekend, I took part in a panel at Windycon titled “Evil Computers: Why Didn’t We Just Pull the Plug?” Naturally, my mind turned to the most famous evil computer in all of fiction, so I’ve been thinking a lot about HAL, which made me all the more sorry to learn yesterday of the death of voice actor Douglas Rain. (Stan Lee also passed away, of course, which is a subject for a later post.) I knew that Rain had been hired to record the part after Stanley Kubrick was dissatisfied by an earlier attempt by Martin Balsam, but I wasn’t aware that the director had a particular model in mind for the elusive quality that he was trying to evoke, as Kate McQuiston reveals in the book We’ll Meet Again:

Would-be HALs included Alistair Cooke and Martin Balsam, who read for the part but was deemed too emotional. Kubrick set assistant Benn Reyes to the task of finding the right actor, and expressly not a narrator, to supply the voice. He wrote, “I would describe the quality as being sincere, intelligent, disarming, the intelligent friend next door, the Winston Hibler/Walt Disney approach. The voice is neither patronizing, nor is it intimidating, nor is it pompous, overly dramatic, or actorish. Despite this, it is interesting. Enough said, see what you can do.” Even Kubrick’s U.S. lawyer, Louis Blau, was among those making suggestions, which included Richard Basehart, José Ferrer, Van Heflin, Walter Pigeon, and Jason Robards. In Douglas Rain, who had experience both as an actor and a narrator, Kubrick found just what he was looking for: “I have found a narrator…I think he’s perfect, he’s got just the right amount of the Winston Hibler, the intelligent friend next door quality, with a great deal of sincerity, and yet, I think, an arresting quality.”

Who was Winston Hibler? He was the producer and narrator for Disney who provided voiceovers for such short nature documentaries as Seal Island, In Beaver Valley, and White Wilderness, and the fact that Kubrick used him as a touchstone is enormously revealing. On one level, the initial characterization of HAL as a reassuring, friendly voice of information has obvious dramatic value, particularly as the situation deteriorates. (It’s the same tactic that led Richard Kiley to figure in both the novel and movie versions of Jurassic Park. And I have to wonder whether Kubrick ever weighed the possibility of hiring Hibler himself, since in other ways, he clearly spared no expense.) But something more sinister is also at play. As I’ve mentioned before, Disney and its aesthetic feels weirdly central to the problem of modernity, with its collision between the sentimental and the calculated, and the way in which its manufactured feeling can lead to real memories and emotion. Kubrick, a famously meticulous director who looked everywhere for insights into craft, seems to have understood this. And I can’t resist pointing out that Hibler did the voiceover for White Wilderness, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short, but also included a scene in which the filmmakers deliberately herded lemmings off a cliff into the water in a staged mass suicide. As Hibler smoothly narrates in the original version: “A kind of compulsion seizes each tiny rodent and, carried along by an unreasoning hysteria, each falls into step for a march that will take them to a strange destiny. That destiny is to jump into the ocean. They’ve become victims of an obsession—a one-track thought: ‘Move on! Move on!’ This is the last chance to turn back, yet over they go, casting themselves out bodily into space.”

And I think that Kubrick’s fixation on Hibler’s voice, along with the version later embodied by Rain, gets at something important about our feelings toward computers and their role in our lives. In 2001, the astronauts are placed in an artificial environment in which their survival depends on the outwardly benevolent HAL, and one of the central themes of science fiction is what happens when this situation expands to encompass an entire civilization. It’s there at the very beginning of the genre’s modern era, in John W. Campbell’s “Twilight,” which depicts a world seven million years in the future in which “perfect machines” provide for our every need, robbing the human race of all initiative. (Campbell would explore this idea further in “The Machine,” and he even offered an early version of the singularity—in which robots learn to build better versions of themselves—in “The Last Evolution.”) Years later, Campbell and Asimov put that relationship at the heart of the Three Laws of Robotics, the first of which states: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” This sounds straightforward enough, but as writers realized almost right away, it hinges on the definition of certain terms, including “human being” and “harm,” that are slipperier than they might seem. Its ultimate expression was Jack Williamson’s story “With Folded Hands,” which carried the First Law to its terrifying conclusion. His superior robots believe that their Prime Directive is to prevent all forms of unhappiness, which prompts them to drug or lobotomize any human beings who seem less than content. As Williamson said much later in an interview with Larry McCaffery: “The notion I was consciously working on specifically came out of a fragment of a story I had worked on for a while about an astronaut in space who is accompanied by a robot obviously superior to him physically…Just looking at the fragment gave me the sense of how inferior humanity is in many ways to mechanical creations.”

Which brings us back to the singularity. Its central assumption was vividly expressed by the mathematician I.J. Good, who also served as a consultant on 2001:

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.

That last clause is a killer, but even if we accept that such a machine would be “docile,” it also embodies the fear, which Campbell was already exploring in the early thirties, of a benevolent dictatorship of machines. And the very Campbellian notion of “the last invention” should be frightening in itself. The prospect of immortality may be enticing, but not if it emerges through a technological singularity that leaves us unprepared to deal with the social consequences, rather than through incremental scientific and medical progress—and the public debate that it ought to inspire—that human beings have earned for themselves. I can’t imagine anything more nightmarish than a world in which we can all live forever without having gone through the necessary ethical, political, and ecological stages to make such a situation sustainable. (When I contemplate living through the equivalent of the last two years over the course of millennia, the notion of eternal life becomes considerably less attractive.) Our fear of computers taking over our lives, whether on a spacecraft or in society as a whole, is really about the surrender of control, even in the benevolent form embodied by Disney. And when I think of the singularity now, I seem to hear it speaking with Winston Hibler’s voice: “Move on! Move on!”

Farewell to Mystic Falls

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Note: Spoilers follow for the series finale of The Vampire Diaries.

On Friday, I said goodbye to The Vampire Diaries, a series that I once thought was one of the best genre shows on television, only to stop watching it for its last two seasons. Despite its flaws, it occupies a special place in my memory, in part because its strengths were inseparable from the reasons that I finally abandoned it. Like Glee, The Vampire Diaries responded to its obvious debt to an earlier franchise—High School Musical for the former, Twilight for the latter—both by subverting its predecessor and by burning through ideas as relentlessly as it could. It’s as if both shows decided to refute any accusations of unoriginality by proving that they could be more ingenious than their inspirations, and amazingly, it sort of worked, at least for a while. There’s a limit to how long any series can repeatedly break down and reassemble itself, however, and both started to lose steam after about three years. In the case of The Vampire Diaries, its problems crystallized around its ostensible lead, Elena Gilbert, as portrayed by the game and talented Nina Dobrev, who left the show two seasons ago before returning for an encore in the finale. Elena spent most of her first sendoff asleep, and she isn’t given much more to do here. There’s a lot about the episode that I liked, and it provides satisfying moments of closure for many of its characters, but Elena isn’t among them. In the end, when she awakens from the magical coma in which she has been slumbering, it’s so anticlimactic that it reminds me of what Pauline Kael wrote of Han’s revival in Return of the Jedi: “It’s as if Han Solo had locked himself in the garage, tapped on the door, and been let out.”

And what happened to Elena provides a striking case study of why the story’s hero is often fated to become the least interesting person in sight. The main character of a serialized drama is under such pressure to advance the plot that he or she becomes reduced to the diagram of a pattern of forces, like one of the fish in D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s On Growth and Form, in which the animal’s physical shape is determined by the outside stresses to which it has been subjected. Instead of making her own decisions, Elena was obliged to become whatever the series needed her to be. Every protagonist serves as a kind of motor for the story, which is frequently a thankless role, but it was particularly problematic on a show that defined itself by its willingness to burn through a year of potential storylines each month. Every episode felt like a season finale, and characters were freely killed, resurrected, and brainwashed to keep the wheels turning. It was hardest on Elena, who, at her best, was a compelling, resourceful heroine. After six seasons of personality changes, possessions, memory wipes, and the inexplicable choices that she made just because the story demanded it, she became an empty shell. If you were designing a show in a laboratory to see what would happen if its protagonist was forced to live through plot twists at an accelerated rate, like the stress tests that engineers use to put a component through a lifetime’s worth of wear in a short period of time, you couldn’t do much better than The Vampire Diaries. And while it might have been theoretically interesting to see what happened to the series after that one piece was removed, I didn’t think it was worth sitting through another two seasons of increasingly frustrating television.

After the finale was shot, series creators Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec made the rounds of interviews to discuss the ending, and they shared one particular detail that fascinates me. If you haven’t watched The Vampire Diaries, all you need to know is that its early seasons revolved around a love triangle between Elena and the vampire brothers Stefan and Damon, a nod to Twilight that quickly became one of the show’s least interesting aspects. Elena seemed fated to end up with Stefan, but she spent the back half of the series with Damon, and it ended with the two of them reunited. In a conversation with Deadline, Williamson revealed that this wasn’t always the plan:

Well, I always thought it would be Stefan and Elena. They were sort of the anchor of the show, but because we lost Elena in season six, we couldn’t go back. You know Nina could only come back for one episode—maybe if she had came back for the whole season, we could even have warped back towards that, but you can’t just do it in forty-two minutes.

Dobrev’s departure, in other words, froze that part of the story in place, even as the show around it continued its usual frantic developments, and when she returned, there wasn’t time to do anything but keep Elena and Damon where they had left off. There’s a limit to how much ground you can cover in the course of a single episode, so it seemed easier for the producers to stick with what they had and figure out a way to make it seem inevitable.

The fact that it works at all is a tribute to the skill of the writers and cast, as well as to the fact that the whole love triangle was basically arbitrary in the first place. As James Joyce said in a very different context, it was a bridge across which the characters could walk, and once they were safely on the other side, it could be blown to smithereens. The real challenge was how to make the finale seem like a definitive ending, after the show had killed off and resurrected so many characters that not even death itself felt like a conclusion. It resorted to much the same solution that Lost did when faced with a similar problem: it shut off all possibility of future narrative by reuniting its characters in heaven. This partially a form of wish fulfillment, as we’ve seen with so many other television series, but it also puts a full stop on the story by leaving us in an afterlife, where, by definition, nothing can ever change. It’s hilariously unlike the various versions of the world to come that the series has presented over the years, from which characters can always be yanked back to life when necessary, but it’s also oddly moving and effective. Watching it, I began to appreciate how the show’s biggest narrative liability—a cast that just can’t be killed—also became its greatest asset. The defining image of The Vampire Diaries was that of a character who has his neck snapped, and then just shakes it off. Williamson and Plec must have realized, consciously or otherwise, that it was a reset button that would allow them to go through more ideas than would be possible than a show on which a broken neck was permanent. Every denizen of Mystic Falls got a great death scene, often multiple times per season, and the show exploited that freedom until it exhausted itself. It only really worked for three years out of eight, but it was a great run while it lasted. And now, after life’s fitful fever, the characters can sleep well, as they sail off into the mystic.

“Where all other disguises fell away…”

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"Where all other disguises fell away..."

Note: This post is the forty-sixth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 45. You can read the previous installments here.

Occasionally, a piece of technology appears in the real world that fits the needs of fiction so admirably that authors rush to adopt it in droves. My favorite example is the stun gun. The ability to immobilize characters without killing or permanently incapacitating them is one that most genre writers eventually require. It allows the hero to dispatch a henchman or two while removing the need to murder them in cold blood, which is essential if your protagonist is going to remain likable, and it also lets the villain temporarily disable the hero while still keeping him alive for future plot purposes. Hence the ubiquitous blow to the back of the head that causes unconsciousness, which was a cliché long before movies like Conspiracy Theory ostentatiously drew attention to it. The beauty of the stun gun is that it produces all of the necessary effects—instantaneous paralysis with no lasting consequences—that the convention requires, while remaining comfortably within the bounds of plausibility. In my case, it was the moment when Mathis is conveniently dispatched toward the end of Casino Royale that woke me up to its possibilities, and I didn’t hesitate to use it repeatedly in The Icon Thief. By now, though, it’s become so overused that writers are already seeking alternatives, and even so meticulous an entertainment as the David Fincher version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo falls back on the even hoarier device of knockout gas. But the stun gun is here to stay.

Much the same principle applies to the two most epochal technological developments of our time, which have affected fiction as much as they’ve transformed everyday life: the cell phone and the Internet. Even the simple flip phone was a game changer, instantly rendering obsolete all stories that depend on characters being unable to contact one another or the police—which is why service outages and spotty coverage seem so common in horror movies. It’s hard not to watch movies or television from earlier in this century without reflecting on how so many problems could be solved by a simple phone call. (I’m catching up on The People v. O.J. Simpson, and I find myself thinking about the phones they’re using, or the lack thereof, as much as the story itself.) And the smartphone, with the instant access it provides to all the world’s information, generates just as many new problems and solutions, particularly for stories that hinge on the interpretation of obscure facts. Anyone writing conspiracy fiction these days has felt this keenly: there isn’t much call for professional symbologists when ordinary bystanders can solve the mystery by entering a couple of search terms. In City of Exiles, there’s a dramatic moment when Wolfe asks Ilya: “What is the Dyatlov Pass?” On reading it, my editor noted, not unreasonably: “Doesn’t anybody there have a cell phone?” In the end, I kept the line, and I justified it to myself by compressing the timeline: Wolfe has just been too busy to look it up herself. But I’m not sure if it works.

"It was a search engine request..."

Search engines are a particularly potent weapon of storytelling, to the point where they’ve almost become dangerous. At their best, they can provide a neat way of getting the story from one plot point to the next: hence the innumerable movie scenes in which someone like Jason Bourne stops in an Internet café and conducts a few searches, cut into an exciting montage, that propel him to the next stage of his journey. Sometimes, it seems too easy, but as screenwriter Tony Gilroy has said on more than one occasion, for a complicated action movie, you want to get from one sequence to the next with the minimum number of intermediate steps—and the search engine was all but designed to provide such shortcuts. More subtly, a series of queries can be used to provide a glimpse into a character’s state of mind, while advancing the plot at the same time. (My favorite example is when Bella looks up vampires in the first Twilight movie.) Google itself was ahead of the curve in understanding that a search can provide a stealth narrative, in brilliant commercials like “Parisian Love.” We’re basically being given access to the character’s interior monologue, which is a narrative tool of staggering usefulness. Overhearing someone’s thoughts is easy enough in prose fiction, but not in drama or film, and conventions like the soliloquy and the voiceover have been developed to address the problem, not always with complete success.  Showing us a series of search queries is about as nifty a solution as exists, to the point where it starts to seem lazy.

And an additional wrinkle is that our search histories don’t dissipate as our thoughts do: they linger, which means that other characters, as well as the viewer or reader, have potential access to them as well. (This isn’t just a convention of fiction, either: search histories have become an increasingly important form of evidence in criminal prosecutions. This worries me a bit, since anyone looking without the proper context at my own searches, which are often determined by whatever story I’m writing at the time, might conclude that I’m a total psychopath.) I made good use of this in Chapter 45 of Eternal Empire, in which Wolfe manages to access Asthana’s search history on her home computer and deduces that she was looking into Maddy Blume. It’s a crucial moment in the narrative, which instantly unites two widely separated plotlines, and this was the most efficient way I could devise of making the necessary connection. In fact, it might be a little too efficient: it verges on unbelievable that Asthana, who is so careful in all other respects, would fail to erase her search history. I tried to make it more acceptable by adding an extra step with a minimum of technical gobbledegook—Asthana has cleared her browser history, so Wolfe checks the contents of the disk and memory caches, which are saved separately to her hard drive—but it still feels like something of a cheat. But as long as search histories exist, authors will use them as a kind of trace evidence, like the flecks of cigarette ash that Sherlock Holmes uses to identify a suspect. And unlike most clues, they’re written for all to see…

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