Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Unknown

Astounding Stories #11: The Moon is Hell

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The Moon is Hell

Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

On May 11, 1953, the science fiction editor John W. Campbell wrote a long letter to his stepmother Helen. He never mailed it, but it was preserved among his papers, and it’s a document of immense biographical interest. Campbell, who was chafing under what he saw as his father’s lack of appreciation for what he had achieved in his career, spent a full page listing his professional accomplishments, and he concluded:

My current plans are long-range; when I took over Astounding seventeen years ago, my plans were long range, too…The next step which literature must take is to develop a novel-like story in which the story shows the development of a culture through various experiences…Science fiction is now trying to develop the presentation techniques whereby an individual can understand and appreciate the developmental processes affecting entire cultures. Naturally, we haven’t completed the development of these techniques yet, and we have, in consequence, a rather patchy, unsuccessful literature. It’s like the first automobiles; they were less reliable, rougher riding, noisier, and smellier than the horse and buggy.

But their developmental stage was well worth the effort; their inadequacies in the early days were properly forgiven, but also properly recognized as inadequacies.

When I read these lines, I found myself thinking of Campbell’s novel The Moon is Hell, which first appeared in book form in 1951. It’s best remembered now as one of the very few stories that Campbell published in the three decades after he became the editor of Astounding Science Fiction. By all indications, it’s an apprentice work that was first written sometime in the early thirties, but it appears to have been carefully revised by its author before publication—the writing is far smoother and more accomplished than anything else Campbell was putting out at that stage. And the timing of its release was significant in itself. Science fiction was in a transitional moment: the impact of dianetics was just beginning to be felt, ambitious new competitors were appearing on newsstands, and authors like Heinlein were making their big push into the mainstream. For Campbell, it must have seemed like a good time for a statement of purpose, which is what The Moon is Hell really is—the quintessential hard science fiction novel, built from the ground up from first principles. As the author P. Schuyler Miller wrote in his review in Astounding:

Surely everyone who has done any science fiction has dreamed of writing a realistic story of the first men on another world, worked out with an absolute minimum of hokum—no green princesses, no ruins of alien civilizations, no hostile high priests. The ultimate would be the story of the first men on the Moon—a world without air, without life, or the possibility of life.

John W. Campbell, Jr.

And that’s exactly what Campbell gives us here. The Moon is Hell is told in the form of a journal kept by Dr. Thomas Ridgley Duncan, a physicist and second in command of the first mission to the dark side of the Moon. After the expedition’s relief ship crashes on landing, the astronauts are left stranded with no way to contact Earth; a steadily diminishing supply of food, air, and water; and the knowledge that it will be months before anyone back home realizes that they need to be rescued. They set to work with admirable discipline to obtain the necessities of life from the rocks around them, extracting hydrogen and oxygen from gypsum, developing new techniques for synthesizing nutrients, building generators and engines, turning the starch in their clothes and books into bread, and finally digging out an entire settlement underground, complete with a library and swimming pool. (Much of the plot anticipates The Martian in its determination to science the shit out of the situation.) The diary format allows Campbell to deliver all of this material unencumbered by any interruptions: long sections of it read like a briefing or an extract from a textbook. It’s a novel written by a chemist for other chemists, posing a series of ingenious scientific problems and solutions, and it has enough good ideas to fuel a dozen hard science fiction stories. Reading it, I was reminded of the joke title of the book on which the three protagonists are working in Foucault’s Pendulum: The Wonderful Adventure of Metals. Because although there are no recognizable characters in sight, this is a calculated choice—the real hero is chemistry itself.

The result, to be honest, can be pretty hard going, and although it gets better toward the end, the pages don’t exactly fly by. I found myself admiring each paragraph while vaguely dreading the next: it’s a relatively short novel, but it seems very long. (In its original edition, it was published together with The Elder Gods, a story that Campbell wrote on assignment for Unknown—its original author, Arthur J. Burks, had failed to deliver a publishable manuscript—that provides a much more engaging display of his talents.) But it’s also exactly the novel that Campbell wanted to publish. It provides as perfect a summation as you could want of its author’s strengths and limitations, as well as those of hard science fiction as a whole. This isn’t a narrative about individuals, but about the scientific method itself, and it succeeds in some respects in his goal of telling a story about a culture: it’s implied that the stranded astronauts are laying the foundations for a permanent presence in space. And although it doesn’t work as a novel by any conventional standard, it’s indispensable as a sort of baseline. It’s as if Campbell decided to stake out the limits of hard science fiction as an example to his readers and writers: this is a novel that nobody ought to imitate, but which provides an essential reference point by which all efforts in that vein can be judged. And it’s no accident that it was published at a moment when Campbell was about to push into dianetics, psionics, and fringe science, as if he had already gone as far in the other direction as he possibly could. As Emerson said of Shakespeare, Campbell wanted to plant the standard of humanity “some furlongs forward into chaos,” but first, he had to give us an ideal of order, even if it was hell to read.

Astounding Stories #5: Death’s Deputy and Final Blackout

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Final Blackout

Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

Of all the millions of words that have been written about and by L. Ron Hubbard, the one observation that I always try to keep in mind appears in Going Clear by Lawrence Wright:

The many discrepancies between Hubbard’s legend and his life have overshadowed the fact that he genuinely was a fascinating man: an explorer, a best-selling author, and the founder of a worldwide religious movement. The tug-of-war between Scientologists and anti-Scientologists over Hubbard’s biography has created two swollen archetypes: the most important person who ever lived and the world’s greatest con man. Hubbard himself seemed to revolve on this same axis, constantly inflating his actual accomplishments in a manner that was rather easy for his critics to puncture. But to label him a pure fraud is to ignore the complex, charming, delusional, and visionary features of his character that made him so compelling to the many thousands who followed him and the millions who read his work. One would also have to ignore his life’s labor in creating the intricately detailed epistemology that has pulled so many into its net—including, most prominently, Hubbard himself.

This is a carefully worded and closely reasoned passage from an excellent book, and I think it’s fundamentally correct. And it’s very tempting to believe that the same holds true for Hubbard’s science fiction: that he was a major author whose undeniable accomplishments have been overshadowed by what he later became.

Unfortunately, this is only half true. As I’ve gone back to read all of Hubbard’s stories from Astounding and Unknown, I’ve been struck by two points. The first is the relatively small percentage of his total output that science fiction represents, although he’s invariably categorized as a science fiction writer; the second is how indifferent he often seems to the genre itself. Hubbard’s earliest works for Campbell, like “The Dangerous Dimension” and “The Tramp,” are comic fantasies iced with the lightest imaginable frosting of scientific jargon, and subsequent efforts like “General Swamp, C.I.C.” are straight military or naval fiction that could be transferred from Venus to Earth with a minimum of revision. He wasn’t the only author to write something else and call it science fiction, of course, but Hubbard has a palpable lack of interest in even maintaining the illusion. (Later stories like “The Kilkenny Cats” are written with what feels like a vein of genuine contempt for the genre’s conventions, and it isn’t until the Ole Doc Methuselah series, almost a decade down the line, that we find Hubbard writing it with anything like affection.) He was always more suited for fantasy, and his stories for Unknown are something else: undeniably dated, but written with real energy and enthusiasm. Reading any of his early Astounding stories followed by Slaves of Sleep reminds you of the difference between an author who is just going through the motions and one who is tickled by his own plot. And the half dozen short novels that he wrote for Unknown—along with one really nice, nasty shorter story, “Borrowed Glory”—are still fun and readable, although of limited interest to anyone who isn’t already a hardcore fan.

Death's Deputy

There are two exceptions. One is Death’s Deputy, a surprisingly superb short fantasy novel that first appeared in Unknown in 1940. Its hero is a pilot in the Canadian Air Force who is shot down over France, only to be saved by the intervention of a supernatural entity who later introduces himself as Destruction Incarnate. After refusing to serve him, the pilot is returned to the world of the living, where he finds that he’s become both unbelievably lucky and a curse to the people around him, who tend to die gruesome deaths that anticipate Final Destination. It’s inventive, vividly written, and enriched by what feels like Hubbard’s real interest in the subject—qualities that so much of his other fiction lacks. The other exception is Final Blackout, usually regarded as his single best novel, which was published two months later in Astounding. It follows a mythic figure known only as the Lieutenant as he leads a brigade of soldiers through a Europe devastated by decades of plague and nuclear war. They engage in small, meaningless skirmishes with the pockets of enemy troops they encounter, treating the rival officers with mutual respect while scavenging for food and supplies. The Lieutenant himself is so effective and beloved that he becomes a threat to the few remaining generals, who recall him to headquarters to be relieved of command. From there, events rapidly escalate into a conflict with global consequences, all of it narrated with an understated professionalism, even eloquence, that is utterly unlike Hubbard’s usual style. Of all his stories, it’s the one on which he imposes himself the least, and the only one in which he seems personally curious about what happens next.

And I’m not sure where it came from. The two novels appeared almost back to back, after a six-month break in which Hubbard published only one short story for Campbell, at a time when he was engaged in a fruitless effort to get a job with the War Department. And both narratives are obviously influenced by the situation in Europe, lending them a tone of fundamental seriousness that is rarely in evidence elsewhere in his work—which is fortunate, because his sense of humor hasn’t aged well. Before long, in stories like “The Professor was a Thief” and The Indigestible Triton, he would be back in his usual groove, alternating between science fiction that doesn’t seem to have interested even its author and engaging fantasy that only completists should bother to read today. (Two of the novels from this period, Typewriter in the Sky and Fear, are sometimes still regarded with respect, but both are uneven stories with ideas that would have been better developed at half the length, although the latter has a good twist ending.) But Final Blackout is powerful, and Death’s Deputy is a real find, which makes it all the more inexplicable that Galaxy Press, which otherwise seems determined to publish every last piece of pulp that Hubbard ever wrote, hasn’t bothered to release it. After the war, Hubbard would go on to write The End is Not Yet, an agonizingly sincere serial that Campbell later said he agreed to publish mostly out of pity—but by then, we’re deep into the next act of his life, which would culminate in Dianetics. In some ways, it’s the solution to the mystery with which this post began: Hubbard is remembered as a major science fiction author because dianetics made its debut in Astounding, not the other way around. And that’s a twist that even Hubbard himself might not have seen coming.

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April 13, 2016 at 10:00 am

The myth of the competent man

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Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp

If there’s a single figure who haunts the golden age of science fiction, it’s that of the competent man. The author Michael Moorcock, who was no fan of John W. Campbell, once wrote that Astounding Science Fiction became “full of crewcut wisecracking, cigar-chewing, competent guys” whom, he concluded, were ultimately “like Campbell’s image of himself.” And while I don’t entirely agree with that assessment, it gets close enough at the truth to sting. There’s always been an undeniable cult of competence in science fiction, usually centered on a heroic engineer—almost invariably a man—who can fix a spaceship or rig up a superweapon at the drop of a hat. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: genre fiction loves protagonists who are good at their jobs. But it can run into real trouble when it starts to treat all problems, including social and ethical ones, as subsets of engineering. It’s easy, maybe a little too easy, to see this impulse as a product of the Great Depression and World War II, which created a market for inspiring narratives about the triumph of ingenuity and hard work, or even a reaction to modernist or absurdist literary fiction, which tended to emphasize mankind’s helplessness. Astounding was there to provide an alternative myth that its readers wanted to see. And there’s a sense in which many of the conventions of science fiction emerged to provide a stage on which a particular fable about the competent man could be played out again and again, until it began to look like a prediction of the future.

To understand how this kind of story works, we can start with the novel Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp, which was originally published as a serial in Astounding’s sister fantasy magazine Unknown. It’s about a scholar from the present day, Martin Padway, who is flung back in time to the Roman Empire in the era of Justinian and Belisarius. He quickly uses his knowledge of modern science to distill brandy, introduce Arabic numbers and modern bookkeeping, and invent the first printing press, both to save his own skin and to prevent the coming of the Dark Ages. Padway is lucky enough to speak passable Latin, but he doesn’t know everything: he has trouble remembering the formula for gunpowder, for instance, which so many other time travelers seem to have memorized. But the story still serves as a form of wish-fulfillment. Padway overcomes the politics and military might of an entire civilization with little more than smarts, ingenuity, and a touch of luck, and we’re conscious of de Camp gently skewing the odds in his favor all the while. (It’s interesting to note that Belisarius, who plays a minor role in the story, is a figure who crops up repeatedly in classic science fiction: he inspired the character of Bel Riose in Asimov’s Foundation series, and he’s mentioned in Hubbard’s The End is Not Yet. This is partially because all these writers seem to have read Robert Graves’s bestselling novel of the same name, but also because he embodies a certain kind of competent man whom we see all the time in Hubbard’s work: the lone noble soldier in an army of fools.)

The Ultimate Adventure by L. Ron Hubbard

This is a formula to which the science fiction and fantasy of the golden age repeatedly returns, and it doesn’t always require time travel. Most of the novels that Hubbard published in Unknown—including The Ultimate AdventureSlaves of Sleep, The Case of the Friendly Corpse, Typewriter in the Sky, and probably a few more I’ve forgotten—have the same underlying plot: they’re about an ordinary guy, often comically weak or hassled by his family, who is translated by magic into a world straight out of Scheherazade. (Hubbard’s fascination with The Arabian Nights, incidentally, is an aspect of his career that deserves to be explored in depth. In his introduction to Slaves of Sleep, he recommends the translation by Richard Francis Burton, who was essentially the competent man brought to life, and with whom Hubbard seems to have personally identified.) The hero is initially panicked and overwhelmed by the situation, but he quickly adapts himself, and in most cases, he ends up ruling the kingdom. And the story wouldn’t be nearly as effective if the lead character didn’t come from our world. Without a connection to reality, however contrived, it would seem like just another fairy tale. What Hubbard does instead is create a world in which a modern man, complete with a business suit and tie, can live up to his full potential. If the hero succeeds beyond his wildest dreams, it’s largely because the rules have been rigged by the author, and we’re more likely to accept this in the context of a fantasy than in a realistic story.

But the key realization here is that this is true of much of science fiction as well, which offers up an idealized world designed to allow a certain kind of competent man to shine. Campbell’s writers were rarely interested in seriously exploring how human behavior would change between now and the far future: George O. Smith’s stories, for instance, read now like Mad Men set in orbit around Venus, and not just because everyone is smoking. But that’s part of the point. The heroes of these stories are emphatically men from the writer’s own time, only a little braver and more competent, and they’re plunged into situations, often in deep space, that draw upon the skill set of a perfect engineer. In real life, scientists and engineers are subject to forces outside their control, and World War II, in particular, would expose how complicated that relationship could be. But in a spaceship, far from home, the engineer could be king, and most of his problems could be resolved by technical solutions that he alone was qualified to invent, without the intrusion of external complications. This isn’t true of all stories from that era, and the conflict between science and politics is one that Astounding would continue to explore. But if so many of these plots come down to the wits of an engineer with a radio or a spanner in one hand, it’s because the writer has deliberately put him in a situation that only he can fix—or, more accurately, has grown the rest of the world around him for the sake of that one moment. It may look like the future. But it’s often just another fairy tale. And it’s still with us today.

Astounding Stories #4: Sinister Barrier

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Sinister Barrier

Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

At the beginning of the only episode worth watching of the tenth season of The X-Files, a dejected Mulder says wearily to Scully: “Charles Fort spent his entire life researching natural and scientific anomalies, which he published in four books, all of which I know by heart. And at the end of his life, Fort himself wondered if it hadn’t all been a waste…Is this really how I want to spend the rest of my days? Chasing after monsters?” To which Scully gently replies: “We’ve been given another case, Mulder. It has a monster in it.” And while Mulder’s air of despondency can be attributed in large part to the sensibilities of writer Darin Morgan—who once had a character divided over whether to commit suicide or become a television weatherman—the reference to Fort is revealing. Charles Fort, who died in 1932, was a tireless cataloger of anomalous events from newspapers and scientific journals, mostly gathered in the reading room of the New York Public Library, and he’s something of a secular saint to those of us who try to take an agnostic approach to the unexplained. During his life, he was the object of a small but devoted following that included the authors Theodore Dreiser and Ben Hecht, and in the years that followed, he became the hidden thread that ran through an entire subgenre of science fiction. The X-Files, as Morgan implies, falls directly in his line of descent, and if I’m honest with myself, when I look at the science fiction I’ve published, it’s obvious that I do, too.

And I’m not the only one. Take Sinister Barrier by Eric Frank Russell, which I think is one of the four or five best science fiction novels ever written. It was originally published in 1939 in the inaugural issue of Unknown, and there’s a persistent rumor that John W. Campbell founded the entire magazine solely to find a place for this sensational story, which wasn’t quite right for Astounding. The truth is a little more complicated than that, but there’s no question that the novel made a huge impression on Campbell, as it still does on receptive readers today. After a quick nod to Charles Fort on the very first page, it opens with one of the great narrative hooks of all time: scientists across the world are committing suicide in exceptionally gruesome ways, and the only factor connecting the deaths, at least at first, is the fact that each man had painted his upper arm with iodine and dosed himself with mescal and methylene blue. Bill Graham, a kind of proto-Mulder working for military intelligence, is assigned to the investigation, and as he digs even deeper into the case, the anomalies continue to multiply. He discovers that one of the dead scientists had been looking into the low rate of goiter among the institutionally insane, and in a page of discarded notes, he reads the words: Sailors are notoriously susceptible. And he ultimately realizes that an excess of iodine—common in a seafaring diet, and inversely correlated with goiter—leads to changes in the eye and nervous system that allowed the scientists to stumble across a terrible truth.

Eric Frank Russell

By this point in the novel, I was sitting up in my chair, because what Russell is doing here is so close to what I’ve spent so many stories trying to achieve. And the big revelation more than lives up to our expectations. It turns out that humanity isn’t the highest form of life on this planet: instead, we’re little more than cattle being raised and devoured by aliens called Vitons that live in the upper atmosphere. Normally, they exist in the infrared range, so they’re invisible, but after being dosed with iodine, mescal, and methylene blue, we can see them for what they really are: balls of glowing plasma that descend on their unwilling victims and suck out their emotional energy. The Vitons can also read minds, which means that they can target and destroy anyone who glimpses the truth, and once Graham realizes what is going on, he finds that his own thoughts—and even his dreams—can betray him to the enemy. Other human beings can also be controlled by the Vitons, turning them into murderous automatons, which means that he can trust no one. This only complicates his efforts to fight the menace, which he soon identifies as the secret cause behind countless seemingly unrelated events. The Vitons deliberately inflame religious hatred and incite wars, in order to feed off the violent emotions that ensue, and they’re the explanation for such disparate mysteries as the disappearance of the Mary Celeste, the enigma of Kaspar Hauser, ball lightning, and, of course, alien abductions and unidentified flying objects. And as a global cataclysm ensues, Graham finds himself at the center of the resistance movement aimed at freeing mankind from its unseen oppressors.

In all honesty, the third act of Sinister Barrier doesn’t quite live up to that amazing opening, and it all comes down to the development of a superweapon that can destroy the alien menace, a plot device that was already a cliché by the late thirties. And it suffers, like much of the science fiction of its era, from a poorly developed love interest, when Russell’s heart is so clearly elsewhere. But it’s still an amazing read. It takes the novel less than eighty pages to accelerate from that initial string of unconnected deaths to action on a planetary scale, and it’s crammed throughout with action. At its best, it’s unbelievably fun and ingenious, and at times, it eerily anticipates developments to come. (For instance, it speculates that the Vitons were behind the actual unexplained suicide of the astronomer William Wallace Campbell, who, decades later, would lend his name to the Campbell Crater on Mars—which also honors a certain science fiction editor.) It’s so good, in fact, that it makes later efforts in the same line seem almost superfluous. To modern eyes, it reads like an entire season’s worth of The X-Files compressed into a single breathless narrative, and it even anticipates The Matrix in its vision of the entire human race enslaved and fed upon without its knowledge. If Fort was the godfather of the paranormal, Russell was the first author to fully realize its possibilities in fiction, and anyone who explores the same ground is in his debt, knowingly or otherwise. And I’m strangely glad that I didn’t discover this novel until I’d already made a few similar efforts of my own. If I’d known about it, I might have been too daunted to go any further. Because a little knowledge, as Russell warns us, can be a dangerous thing.

Developing the edges

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Stephin Merritt

Of all the pieces of writing advice I know, one of the most useful, at least in terms of immediate applicability, is that you should strive to omit the beginning and end of each scene, and jump from middle to middle. (I’m pretty sure that the original source of this admonition is William Goldman, either in Which Lie Did I Tell? or Adventures in the Screen Trade, although for the life of me I’ve never been able to track down the passage itself.) This only means that when you’re writing a first draft, your initial stab at the material has a way of gradually ramping into the chapter or sequence and then ramping down again, as you work your way into and out of the events taking place in your imagination, and in the rewrite, most of this material can be cut. In its simplest form, this involves nothing more than cutting the first and last few paragraphs of every chapter and seeing how it reads, a trick I first learned from David Morrell, author of First Blood. This expedient got me out of a major jam in The Icon Thief—the first third of the book never really flowed until I ruthlessly cut the beginning and end of each scene—and ever since, I’ve made a point of consciously reviewing everything I write to see if the edges can be trimmed.

Like any good rule, though, even this one can be overused, so I’ve also learned to keep an eye out for the exceptions. In screenwriting parlance, a story that dashes from one high point to another is “all legs,” with no room for anything but the plot, which robs the reader of any chance to process the incidents or get to know the characters. Usually, when you’re blocking out a story, lulls in the plot will naturally suggest themselves—if anything, they can start to seem too abundant—but it’s also worth asking yourself, when a story seems to be all business and no atmosphere, whether you can pull back slightly from time to time. In other words, there will be moments when you’ll want to invert your normal practice: you’ll cut the middle and develop the edges. This results in a change of pace, a flat stretch that provides a contrast to all those peaks, and it allows the reader to regroup while setting the climaxes into greater relief. (In musical terms, it’s something like the hypothetical song that Stephin Merritt once described, which moves repeatedly between the first and fourth chords while avoiding the fifth, creating a sense of wandering and unrealized expectations.)

Jessica Paré and Jon Hamm on Mad Men

There are other benefits to focusing on the edges of the scene as well, particularly if you’ve explicitly stated or dramatized something that might be more effectively left to implication. I’ve quoted the director Andrew Bujalski on this point before, but I’m not ashamed to cite him again, since it’s one of the most interesting writing tidbits I’ve seen all year:

Write out the scene the way you hear it in your head. Then read it and find the parts where the characters are saying exactly what you want/need them to say for the sake of narrative clarity. (E.g., “I’ve secretly loved you all along, but I’ve been too afraid to tell you.”) Cut that part out. See what’s left. You’re probably close.

This is especially true when it comes to elements that inherently grab a reader’s attention, like violence or sex. These are powerful tools, but only when used sparingly, and novels that contain too much of either can seem exhausting. In particular, I’ve learned to save extended depictions of violence—which might otherwise overwhelm the kinds of stories I’m telling—for two or three climactic points per novel, while writing around it as much as possible in the meantime.

And final point to bear in mind is that when we look back at the works of art we’ve experienced, it’s often the stuff at the edges that we remember the most. Mad Men, for instance, has increasingly become a show about those edge moments, and I can’t remember a single thing about the Liam Neeson thriller Unknown, which is crammed with action and chases, except for one quiet scene between the two great character actors Frank Langella and Bruno Ganz. A truly great artist, like Wong Kar-Wai at his best or Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in A Canterbury Tale, can even give us a story that is about nothing but the edges, although this is probably something that only geniuses should attempt. Even for the rest of us, though, it’s worth acknowledging that even the most crowded, eventful story needs to make room for anticipation, pauses, and silence, as Moss Hart understood. So the next time you’re reading over a story and you find your interest starting to flag, instead of ratcheting up the tension even further, try restructuring part of it to emphasize the edge over the center. In many cases, you’ll find that the center is still there, exerting its gravitational pull, but you just can’t see it.

Written by nevalalee

March 12, 2014 at 9:36 am

The bomb under the table

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In the classic study Hitchcock/Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock offers up a moment of insight so profound that it’s been quoted endlessly ever since, which won’t stop me from quoting it once again:

Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it…In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the secret.

Hitchcock concludes: “In the first case, we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed.”

This advice, as simple as it sounds, should be tattooed behind the eyeballs of all serious writers of horror and suspense, but today it’s strangely neglected. These days, thrillers seem obsessed by surprise, seeking out increasingly ludicrous twist endings, even if they make nonsense of everything that came before. For every movie like The Sixth Sense or The Others that retrospectively enriches the story with a closing revelation, we have a movie like Perfect Stranger, in which the audience’s only response is an incredulous “Really?” When something like this works, there’s an undeniable frisson of excitement, but usually, all it does is sacrifice fifteen minutes of suspense—or more—for fifteen seconds of surprise, which is mathematically unsound.

But it isn’t just about the numbers. Suspense is preferable to surprise, as Hitchcock notes, because it actively involves the audience in the telling of a story, until they aren’t just spectators, but participants. In a perfectly constructed work of suspense, like The Wages of Fear or A History of Violence, we aren’t watching passively, but caught up in both plot and artistic technique, and constantly telling stories to ourselves about what might happen next. This kind of anticipation is the best kind of interactivity that fiction affords. As I’ve noted before, transferring the twist in Vertigo from the end of the film to the start of the third act contributes enormously to that movie’s power. And one of the most potent discoveries in all of literature, dating back to Greek tragedy, is that there’s no better way of identifying with a protagonist, paradoxically, than by knowing something that he doesn’t.

The sweetest thing of all, of course, is to combine both suspense and surprise: to allow the audience to anticipate, suspensefully, what will happen next, before surprising them with an unexpected outcome. In comedy, this can be something like what writers on The Simpsons call a “screw the audience” joke, as when Homer, on the run from the police, ducks into a costume shop—in order to hide in the bathroom. In a thriller or horror movie, this reversal of expectations can be almost indecently satisfying. Psycho does this beautifully, as does The Silence of the Lambs, but even a lesser film can occasionally pull it off: the quiet scene between Frank Langella and Bruno Ganz in Unknown is a small masterpiece of reversed expectations in an otherwise shoddy movie. But even a stopped ticking clock is right twice a day.

Unknown and the problem of fridge logic

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Last night, as part of Redbox’s free movie promotion, my wife and I rented Unknown, a Liam Neeson thriller that is slightly more polished than Taken, but features significantly less throat-punching. If there was ever a movie meant to be rented for free on a random Thursday night, it’s this one: director Jaume Collet-Serra has a nice, slick visual style that keeps the story clocking along, and there’s one short scene between Bruno Ganz and Frank Langella that is a quiet masterpiece of suspense, but in the end, the movie founders on a script that squanders a clever premise for a series of generic action beats. As the implausibilities mount, it becomes impossible to take any of it seriously: it’s the kind of film where you walk out of the theater humming the plot holes.

Of course, nobody expects thrillers to be airtight. For a movie to mislead audiences, it’s usually obliged to reach some kind of accommodation with plausibility, working in the moment without necessarily standing up to extended scrutiny. Hence the phenomenon of fridge logic: a detail in a movie that seems fine at the time, but later strikes the viewer as ridiculous. Ted Tally, the screenwriter of The Silence of the Lambs, instructively quotes Jonathan Demme on this point:

“That’s a refrigerator question.” A refrigerator question? “You know. You’ve just come home from a movie, you had a great time, you go to the refrigerator to get a beer, you open the door, and you say ‘Wait a minute…'”

Tally concludes by saying that Demme doesn’t worry much about refrigerator questions. And for good reason. Because even the best thrillers tend to fall apart on closer examination, but if we’re emotionally engaged, we don’t care.

Take Vertigo, for instance. This is easily the greatest of all thrillers, and one without which a movie like Unknown might not even exist, but it contains so many implausibilities—among other things, how Madeline managed to disappear from her hotel room, and how anyone could be sure that Scotty wouldn’t make it to the top of the bell tower—that we can thank it for the term “fridge logic” itself: Hitchcock referred to such moments as “icebox” scenes, since they start to bother you “after you’ve gone home and start pulling cold chicken out of the icebox.” And the greater the thriller, the more likely we are to discover such problems, if only because we’re drawn to revisit it more than once. If there are numerous elements of The Usual Suspects that I no longer believe, it’s only because I’ve seen it over thirty times. By any measure, then, the movie succeeded.

So why can’t I forgive the plot problems in Unknown? The issue is one of delay: if Unknown had managed to postpone my objections until even five minutes after the closing credits, I would have enjoyed it more. As it stands, I found myself annoyed by its implausibilities long before the end of the movie, at which point fridge logic becomes a simple plot hole. That delay of five minutes may seem like a small thing, but it’s no different than any act of sleight of hand, in which a few seconds of misdirection can make all the difference. A movie like Unknown is a reminder that ordinary professionalism can take a movie ninety percent of the way, but the last ten percent requires something more. And that last bit of effort, as Hitchcock and Demme know, is what pushes a plot hole out of the movie and safely into the fridge.

Written by nevalalee

August 26, 2011 at 9:14 am

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