Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Virginia Heffernan

Astounding Stories #12: “Izzard and the Membrane”

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Izzard and the Membrane

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

“The Internet is the great masterpiece of civilization,” Virginia Heffernan writes in her new book Magic and Loss, and whether or not you agree with her, it’s hard to deny its importance. It touches every aspect of our lives, at least in the parts of the world where it’s possible for you to read these words now, and any attempt to write about how we live today has to take it into account. For those who like to define science fiction as a predictive literature, its failure to collectively foresee the Internet in a meaningful way—in the sense that it devoted so much energy to such subjects as space travel—is perhaps the genre’s greatest cause for regret. You could say, fairly enough, that it’s easy to point out such shortcomings in hindsight, or even that science fiction’s true strength doesn’t lie in prediction, but in preparing its readers for developments that none of us can see coming. But there’s no denying that the absence of anything like the Internet in the vast majority of science fiction has enormous practical consequences. It means that most visions of the future are inevitably dated, and that we need to continuously suspend disbelief to read stories about galactic empires in which computers or information technology don’t play any part at all. (In some ways, the internal logic of Dune, in which thinking machines have been outlawed, has allowed it to hold up in respects that Frank Herbert himself probably never anticipated.)

Of course, in a literature that constantly spun out wild notions in all directions, there were a few stories that were bound to seem prescient, if only by the law of truly large numbers. The idea of a worldwide machine that runs civilization—and the problems that an ordinary mortal would have in dealing with it—was central to R. DeWitt Miller’s “The Master Shall Not Die,” which was published in 1938. Eight years later, A.E. van Vogt’s visionary novel Slan showed its hero interacting through a computer with a Bureau of Statistics that put “a quadrillion facts” at his disposal. Most impressive of all is Will Jenkins’s “A Logic Named Joe,” which appeared a short time earlier: Jenkins, better known under the pen name Murray Leinster, built the story around an interlinked computer network that can answer any conceivable question, and which has already replaced most of the world’s filing clerks, secretaries, and messenger services. When one of the computers accidentally develops “ambition,” it gleefully provides users with advice on how to murder their wives, shows dirty videos to children, and makes suggestions for other illegal queries they might want to ask. (When faced with the prospect of simply turning the system off, a character objects: “If we shut off logics, we go back to a kind of civilization we have forgotten how to run!”) It not only looks forward with eerie accuracy to the Internet, but speculates about what might come next. And yet the clues it provided went mostly unexplored.

But the story that fills me with the most awe is “Izzard and the Membrane” by Walter M. Miller, Jr., which was published in the May 1951 issue of Astounding. Miller is best known today as the author of A Canticle for Leibowitz, but he was also a prolific author of short fiction, and in a single novelette, he manages to lay out most of the concerns of the contemporary transhumanist movement. It’s about an American cyberneticist who has developed an innovative synaptic relay system—a neural network, in other words—that can be used to build a gigantic computer. After being kidnapped by the Russians, who break his will by showing him faked footage of his wife having an affair, he agrees to build a machine for them, called Izzard, that can analyze itself and suggest improvements to its own architecture. Izzard is designed to oversee the coming invasion of the United States, but it also becomes self-aware and develops a method, not just for reproducing attributes of consciousness, but of uploading an existing brain into its data banks. The hero uses it to replicate his wife, who has died, along with himself, so that his soul merges with its image in the machine. Once inside, he gradually becomes aware of another presence, who turns out to be a member of a race that has achieved transcendence already, and which is closely monitoring his work. In the end, he uses his newfound powers to foil the invasion, and he’s reunited with his wife in a virtual simulation, via a portal called the membrane, that allows him to start a new life in the universe inside his own mind.

The result is one of my ten favorite science fiction stories of all time, and not simply because it predicts a dazzling array of issues—the singularity, mind uploading, simulated reality—that seem to have entered the mainstream conversation only in the last decade or so. It’s also an exciting read, full of action and ingenious plot twists, that takes more than one reading to appreciate. Yet like “A Logic Named Joe,” it was an outlier: it doesn’t seem to have inspired other writers to take up its themes in any significant way. To some extent, that’s because it carries its premise about as far as it could possibly go, and if any story can be truthfully described as ahead of its time, it’s this one. But it’s intriguing to think about an alternative direction that science fiction might have taken if “Izzard and the Membrane” had served as the starting point for a line of speculation that the authors of the time had collaborated in developing, with some of the enthusiasm that the editor John W. Campbell devoted instead to channeling the energies of his writers into psionics. It might not have affected the future directly: in some ways, we’re still catching up to the vision that Miller provides here. But we might be better prepared to confront the coming challenges if we had absorbed them as part of the common language of science fiction over the last sixty years. “The future,” William Gibson famously observed, “is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” And that’s true of science fiction, too.

“Let’s get out of here!”

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The script of Django Unchained
Over the weekend, Virginia Heffernan of The New York Times Magazine published a short essay on the most versatile line of dialogue in movies: “Let’s get out of here!” She quotes examples from films ranging from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Grease to Titanic, and she notes that Roger Ebert once “casually ranked” it as one of the most common lines in cinema, alongside “Look out!” and “Take this!” Heffernan doesn’t mention—or perhaps she was unaware—that the line’s apparent popularity is more than just a hunch, at least according to Guinness Film Facts and Feats, which states:

The most hackneyed line in movie scripts is “Let’s get outta here.” A survey of 150 American features of the period 1938-74 (revived on British television) showed that it was used at least once in 84 per cent of Hollywood productions and more than once in 17 percent.

And although this particular source is four decades out of date, I don’t doubt that an updated study would yield much the same result. A quick search on Subzin, which pulls in quotes from movie and television subtitles, reveals thousands of examples, including many instances from recent movies like Birdman, Fury, Lone Survivor, and Muppets Most Wanted.

Heffernan goes on to make the case, based on her readings of the scripts of this year’s Oscar nominees, that the line that resonates more with us now is “Stay.” It’s a little too anecdotal to be entirely convincing, and it smacks a bit of a Ctrl-F search. But I love the way she explains the appeal of the earlier phrase:

“Let’s get out of here” may be the five most productive monosyllables in American movies. It confers agency on whoever says it. It draws a line under what’s gone before. It propels action. It justifies a change of scene, no matter how abrupt. No wonder screenwriters can’t get enough of it.

In other words, it’s a kind of screenwriting multitool, a line that comes in handy in any number of situations. I’ve noted before that writers of all kinds are always on the lookout for reliable tricks, and “Let’s get out of here” might be the best of them all. It’s like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” but for real—something you can always say when you can’t think of anything else. If you’re writing a script or a story and you’re stuck on a line, you can have a character say those five little words, and more often than not, it’ll work.

Script for American Hustle

And what makes “Let’s get out of here” so useful is that has all the qualities that Heffernan notes—it confers agency, drives the story forward, and prompts a change of scene—while being uninflected enough to pass unremarked. Your average cliché is rendered useless, or of limited utility, once it becomes familiar enough to be noticeable, but “Let’s get out of here” is to screenplay structure what a subordinating conjunction, like “in order that” or “as soon as,” is to ordinary grammar. It’s a connective that bridges two units of action, and it’s so commonplace that we don’t even hear it. Yet it still retains its power, in part because of the subtle way in which it differs from similar sentiments like “Let’s leave” or “Let’s go.” As Heffernan says:

“Let’s get out of here” is our bold spin on the innocuous “Let’s leave,” sending a signal to the nervous system that we’re slipping the knot, and we’re doing it together. The offhand contempt in the phrase is what makes it so satisfying: When we’re getting out of here, we’re not going to some idealized destination. Who knows where we’re going, really? Anywhere but here.

Occasionally, screenwriters try to invent a new phrase that serves the same purpose, but the results aren’t nearly as neat as the gold standard that has gradually evolved over time. There was a moment in the last decade when every other movie—Children of Men, The Hangover, Star Trek, Iron Man—seemed to include some version of the line “Walk with me.” You can see why it might catch a screenwriter’s eye: it’s pithy, it provides a neat justification for a walk and talk, and the imperative form is all business, as if the character has too much on his mind to simply say “Let’s take a walk.” The only trouble is that it doesn’t sound much like anything a real human being would say, unless he or she is mimicking a movie. It rings false, at least to me, and it always takes me out of the story for a second: I’m aware of the screenwriter straining just a tad too hard. And it isn’t necessary. “Let’s get out of here” is perfectly fine, and it works its magic without drawing attention to itself. (It also seems to appear more often in the movies themselves in their original scripts, implying that it was improvised on the set, which only shows how intuitive it is.) So there’s little point in tinkering with something that already works so beautifully: in movies, as in most kinds of storytelling, the only important thing is to get from here to there.

Written by nevalalee

February 24, 2015 at 10:07 am

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