Saturday, March 8, 2014

Chad Oliver on animals: the only known life in the universe

Chad Oliver's "King of the Hill" is set in a near future in which Earth's environment has been almost completely destroyed.  Desperate to find a new place to live, humanity sends out probes, establish deep-space telescopes, scour the universe looking for other planets that could support life.  They find "only barren rocks at the end of the road."
From this, he had drawn a characteristically modest conclusion.

Man, he decided, was alone in the accessible universe. [...]

The plain truth was that it was earth that was unique and alone.  Earth had produced life.  Not just self-styled Number One, not just Superprimate.  No.  He was a late arrival, the final guest.

("All these goodies just for me!")

Alone?  Man?

Well, not quite.

There were a million different species of insects.  (Get the spray-gun, Henry.)  Twenty thousand kinds of fish.  (I got one, I got one!)  Nine thousand types of birds.  (You can still see a stuffed owl in a museum.)  Fifteen thousand species of mammals.  (You take this arrow, see, and fit the string into the notch...)

Alone?  Sure, except for the kangaroos and bandicoots, shrews and skunks, bats and elephants, armadillos and rabbits, pigs and foxes, racoons and whales, beavers and lions, moose and mice, oryx and otter and opossum--

Oh well, them.

Yes.

They too had come from the earth.  Incredible, each of them.  Important?  Only if you happened to think that the only known life in the universe was important.
What a great way to pump non-anthropocentric environmentalist intuitions. Loads of people are interested in extra-terrestrial life, and few of those are interested because they want to eat it, or use it to fuel their cars. There must be something important about life other than what it can do for us, yes?

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A gripping story, avoided

Jack Williamson's "With Folded Hands" appears in SFWA's Science Fiction Hall of Fame, marking it as one of the most widely respected SF novellas of the 1940s.  For me it mostly illustrates a pet peeve I associate more closely with science fiction than with mainstream literary fiction.

The basic idea of the story: it's the future, but not the far future.  The main character is a salesman in the robotic domestic assistants game.  These robots barely clear the threshold of usefulness; they are big, clumsy, and dumb.  The main character's-- and everyone else's-- world is disrupted by the introduction, from a distant planet, of sophisticated humanoid robots capable of out-performing people along just about any dimension of evaluation.  They are programmed "to serve and obey and guard men from harm," and they rapidly take over all the difficult, dangerous, tedious, or otherwise unpleasant aspects of the industrial and service economies.  Almost overnight, there is nothing left for most people to do but enjoy their free time and the excellent products of free robot labor.

That setup is super interesting.  What would it be like to live in a world in which nothing I did was connected to the comfort, let alone the success, let alone the survival, of anyone?  What would it be like to have every possible use of my time boil down to leisure?  I think I want that.  But might there be downsides for me, or for other people in a similar position?  Would there be social downsides when everyone found themselves in that position?

Instead of developing the story to engage these questions, Williamson ducks them.  The humanoid super robots interpret their prime directive with a maximalist zeal.  They don't just protect people from serious harm, they prevent people from taking the kinds of risks that could lead to slightest harm.  They protect people from unpleasant states of mind. If a person is persistently stressed, frustrated, or unhappy, the robots intervene to remove surgically the unhappy portions of the brain.

So, duh.  No one would want to live in that world.  There isn't any question worth exploring.  Nothing about the difference between work and leisure, or their respective products.  Nothing about values at all.  We're left with half an unhelpful lesson story ("Boys and girls, you don't really want guaranteed safety and happiness!") and half a standard adventure story about escaping from confused benevolent oppressors.  (Our last hope for escape? A form a faster-than-light radiation that maybe possibly can scramble the circuits of the mothership from across the gulf of space.  Snore.)

I think:  did Williamson not see what an interesting issue he'd raised?  Why did he turn it into another adventure-story-slash-cautionary-tale when it could have been deep?  I think:  is there something wrong with me that so many people-- readers and writers alike-- hold this up as an example of the best SF has to offer?  Can it really be that a simple cautionary tale about technology was mind-expanding in 1947, two years after the atom bombs?

We can do such much better than lessons gussied up as fiction.  Science fiction is especially able to light up ambiguities that go overlooked in the real world and explore in new ways issues that are way too complicated to write essays about.  It's frustrating when writers pass up obvious opportunities to use the power the genre gives them, as Williamson does here.  And it's puzzling when readers react so enthusiastically to missed opportunities.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Cosmopolis and two kinds of surprise

I recently read Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis. I pretty much hated it, and it's easy to identify why: there are no rules structuring the narrative. In Cosmopolis, everything happens with the sullen randomness of the third act of a JJ Abrams twist-fest. (This happened, and then this other thing happened, and you won't believe what happened next!)

I tried to stay on board. I tried to focus on DeLillo's sentences, which are always rewarding, and to ignore the stupidity of the narrative. But when the main character, in his limousine in the year 2000, and for no real reason, used his wrist-watch to hack into his trophy wife's Swiss bank account, I gave up. There is no way I was not going to hate this book.

Reading such an extreme example of rule-free fiction helped give some structure to some previously inchoate attitudes, so in that sense I'm glad I read it. The lesson lesson I took away from Cosmopolis:

Being surprised by a story is one of the main pleasures of fiction. "Predictable" is, in the context of fiction, everywhere pejorative. But there are different kinds of surprises. One kind of surprise invites a reaction like "that is what would happen-- why didn't I see that coming?" Another kind of surprise invites a reaction like "wow. I had no idea that could happen." I love the first kind of surprise, and I hate the second. There is no pleasure, for me, in discovering that the author has been withholding important rules, characters, or information from me. There is nothing better known rules, characters, and information snapping together in an unexpected way.

(A bit of introspection. The distinction between these two kinds of surprises is, effectively, the criterion I use for distinguishing science fiction from fantasy. I say I like science fiction, because it is characteristic of the kind of science fiction I like that it takes the world as given and changes no more than a few of the familiar rules. I say I don't like fantasy because it is characteristic of the fantasy I don't like that any rules are open to emendation at any time.

This obviously isn't going to work as a genuine criterion of distinction. Far-future science fiction, which I can't tolerate, has effectively no rules. And when fantasy authors talk about world-building, one of the things they're talking about is setting up a set of rules. But having realized that this is how I divide the genres in my own mind, I should be able to talk more temperately about fantasy.)

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

"...you think that you will never make it home."

Bright Lights, Big City is written in the second person, present tense. Both times I've read it, I found this jarring and distracting for about the first fifty pages. From that point on, the technique steadily develops power until, by the end of the book, I'm convinced it couldn't have been as good-- anywhere near as good-- if it had been written in the first or third person.

The first time I read it, about ten years ago, I discussed the second-person narration with some people who had been assigned the book in college. Their view was that it is a powerful technique because it invites the reader to identify more closely than usual with the narrator. "You put yourself in the story," or something. That is just obviously wrong. It doesn't even make sense on its face-- the first person literally invites the reader into the mind of the narrator. You can't get closer to the narrator, or to the events of a story, than the first person.

The most familiar use of the second person, for those of us who grew up in the 80s, is the Choose Your Own Adventure series. In those books, the second person really is an invitation to readers to imagine these events happening to them. This works because the Choose Your Own Adventure books don't characterize their protagonists. The whole point is for kids to imagine themselves experiencing an adventure.

That is not the case with Bright Lights, Big City. McInerney's narrator is characterized in detail. I know what clothes he likes (and they aren't the same clothes I like). He spends most of the book seeking or snorting cocaine (and I've never tried cocaine). He's younger than I am, he's more emotionally frayed than I am, he works a job I've never had. I understand the ambivalence he feels toward Tad Allagash, even though I am not ambivalent: I loathe the guy.

So the narrator is not a blank on which I am supposed to project myself. And the choice of the second person is distancing, at least relative to the first or limited-third person. Why is it, in this case, so powerful?

Stacey Richter has a short story in the second person, "The Land of Pain," and it is excellent. It includes a digression about the second person that I think answers the question. Richter's story is about a woman suffering from chronic pain, who is raising a brainless clone of herself that, she hopes, will eventually provide her with a new, pain-free body.
You take your medicine and sack out in front of the television (which you can only really watch when you manage to nudge the pirouetting brainless clone into a corner). Now is the hour when citizens on talk shows tell their tragic stories in the second person, saying you you you about all the bad, traumatic, unfortunate experiences in their lives ("You just feel so betrayed when you see that little panda pulling a gun") as though they have a genetic defect that prevents them from using the pronoun "I." This is sloppy and angers the grammar and usage thug in you. You've concluded that citizens telling their tales of adversity find the second person compelling because "you" is impersonal and removed, yet somehow includes everyone in its scope ("It could be you staring down the barrel at that panda bear next, sweetheart!") whereas "I" is an orphaned baby doe blinking in a dark forest.

"You are aways in pain," for example, is a more manageable utterance than the direct, final, "I am always in pain."

At nightfall, you can't find the assistive animal anywhere. Finally, you locate her curled up in the cage with the brainless clone, nose tucked under her tail. They adore each other. And you, you my friend, are filled with jealousy.
Yes! The second person is powerful because it is impersonal and removed. It is a pattern of speech characteristic of people who are in the process of struggling (and as yet failing) to digest, to accept "all the bad, traumatic, unfortunate experiences in their lives." As I get deeper into Bright Lights, Big City, the choice of the second person starts to read less like youthful flamboyance from McInerney and more like a coping mechanism of the narrator's. Long before we start to understand just what bad, traumatic, unfortunate experiences have messed up our narrator, we start to develop the visceral, dreadful sense that he's in real pain. That's the second person in action.

(Richter also helps explain why the second person is usually paired with the present tense. It's present pain, not remembered pain, that forces people into the shelter of you you you.)

Thursday, March 8, 2012

What is it like to be a coke-addled bat?

My limited experience discussing intro-philosophy standards with fiction writers suggests that fiction writers, as a group, are especially taken by Thomas Nagel's "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" Why? I think Jay McInerney might have an answer.

I had forgotten that in Bright Lights, Big City, the main character spends a night with a philosophy grad student named Vicky. The next day he loses his job, and his (former) co-workers press him for details about how and why it happened.
"I really don't even know," you say. They're wondering: Could this happen to me? and you would like to reassure them, tell them it's just you. They're trying to imagine themselves in your shoes, but it would be a tough thing to do. Last night Vicky was talking about the ineffability of inner experience. She told you to imagine what it was like to be a bat. Even if you knew what sonar was and how it worked, you could never know what it feels like to have it, or what it feels like to be a small, furry creature hanging upside down from the roof of a cave. She said that certain facts are accessible only from one point of view-- the point of view of the creature who experiences them. You think she meant that the only shoes we can ever wear are our own. Meg can't imagine what it's like for you to be you, she can only imagine herself being you.
Interesting! If it is true that the only shoes we can wear are our own, writers should worry that the entire project of fiction is threatened. If the effort writers put into characterization is to be something other than self-delusion, then writers, at least, must think they're imagining what it is like to be someone else. And if their effort is to be valuable, they might hope that readers, too, are imagining what it is like to be the character.

I suppose there's a spectrum of possible imaginative projections. An easy imaginative projection is me imagining what it would feel like to me if I were experiencing the events of a story. (Good video games exploit the easy end of the spectrum reasonably well.)

At the hopelessly difficult end of the spectrum is Nagel's bat: no one can imagine what it feels like for a bat to be a bat.

Good fiction must fall somewhere in the middle. A lot then turns on just how much middle there is. How closely must readers and characters resemble each other before readers can imagine what it is like for the character to be that character? How closely must writers resemble their characters before they can write them well?

So Nagel's paper, of all the post-war classics in philosophy of mind, really is specially relevant to fiction writers. Neat!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

I was there: spy novel edition

Over the summer, Crystal and I met up with my parents in London. We stayed in the Hyde Park Rooms in Sussex Gardens, about 100 yards south of Paddington Station, a hotel that, for all I know, is the very same one described by Le Carre in the opening paragraph of part 2 of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (page 119 in my edition).
The Hotel Islay in Sussex Gardens-- where, on the day after his visit to Ascot, George Smiley under the name of Barraclough had set up his operational headquarters-- was a very quiet place, considering its position, and perfectly suited to his needs. It lay a hundred yards south of Paddington Station, one of a terrace of elderly mansions cut off from the main avenue by a line of plane trees and a parking patch. The traffic roared past it all night. But the inside, though it was a fire-bowl of clashing wallpapers and copper lampshades, was a place of extraordinary calm.
I sent that paragraph to my parents, and my dad replied, "travel makes so many dimensions of life more interesting, doesn't it," which seems to me exactly right.

(A ton of human history has unfolded on that little fleck of land. I spent two weeks walking around London, and that's all it took to cover the territory reasonably well. Novels and news stories, short stories, songs about Soho and assorted Underground stations, the little bits of history I stumble on-- Shakespeare and the Globe, Victoria, Elizabeth, Henry VIII-- in two weeks of walking I've been to those places.

A friend from college is doing graduate work at University College London and staying in a dorm around the corner from where I (and George Smiley!) stayed. In class last semester I singled out a particular piece of art for scorn. I'd seen it at the Tate Modern, and although I didn't mention that, a student later told me that she knew exactly the piece I was talking about-- she'd seen it at the Tate, too. More than the other places I've been, London is a bottleneck in the world.)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

We're doomed: authorship question edition

Ads have started popping up on campus for Anonymous, a new movie advancing the stupid idea at the Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, who died ten years before Shakespeare died, is the real author of Shakespeare's plays.

The authorship question has always struck me as the most pointless species of coffee-shop bullshit, given that there's no reason to think Shakespeare didn't write those plays. No reason, that is, except chauvinism: the belief that only a member of the genetic aristocracy could possibly write fine plays.

As it happens, I just read Bill Bryson's Shakespeare book last month. The final chapter is devoted to this trumped-up controversy, which he entertains and dismisses more concisely than I ever could. His discussion culminates on page 195:
[It] is possible, with a kind of selective squinting, to endow the alternative claimants [the Earl of Oxford, the Earl of Derby, Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, and others] with the necessary time, talent, and motive for anonymity to write the plays of William Shakespeare. But what no one has ever produced is the tiniest particle of evidence to suggest that they actually did so. These people must have been incredibly gifted-- to create, in their spare time, the greatest literature ever produced in English, in a voice patently not their own, in a manner so cunning that they fooled virtually everyone during their own lifetimes and for four hundred years afterward. The Earl of Oxford, better still, additionally anticipated his own death and left a stock of work sufficient to keep the supply of new plays flowing at the same rate until Shakespeare himself was ready to die a decade or so later. Now that is genius!
What is it about the allure of conspiracy theories that makes otherwise smart people stupid?