Wednesday, November 23, 2011

So Long, Arthur C. Clarke

When I was a teenager (a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away), I loved Arthur C. Clarke. To me he was a father and mentor, and the only sci-fi author worth reading or even mentioning. (Asimov was, at best, a distant second where I was concerned.)
The problem with having idols is that you are inevitably confronted with their feet of clay.
I’m not referring to his personal life, which admittedly was a mixed bag. Clarke was a private man who failed at marriage, a polio survivor, and a closeted homosexual. He said that some of his private diaries would be sealed until 30 years after his death, because "there might be all sorts of embarrassing things in them”.
But I knew nothing about his personal affairs when I was a teen, and I doubt they would have mattered any more to me then than they do today. 
What I thought I had found in Clarke was someone who saw clear through to the core of life’s meaning (through the prism of the god Science, of course), and had thoughtfully transcribed it for anyone who cared enough to see. It seems naive today, but back then I was a boy searching for answers, and after all this man had foreseen the rise of the telecommunications satellite when no one else could. Why shouldn’t a man like that have some insight into other matters? And since he was to my mind beyond the petty concerns of crass capitalism (he never bothered to patent the satellite idea), why wouldn’t he be standing out on his soapbox, handing out the secrets of the cosmos to passers-by like me?

He blinded me, with Science!

It wasn’t until after I had seen many more turns of the world that I could see Clarke more clearly for what he was. Then I could understand that the rising psychic phenomena that marked his conclusion of Childhood's End was not an insight into man’s evolution and ultimate destiny. It was in fact merely a convenient plot device - and one Clarke himself was ultimately dissatisfied with, at that.
The 2001 trilogy was built on a similarly false premise. Its underlying concept is that an unknown alien race turns Jupiter into a sun and its moons into life-sustaining planets. At the time, I thought Clarke was terribly insightful to observe that Jupiter could be ignited this way, but years later I learned it was impossible. (Besides its other problems the concept contains this deal-breaker: Even if it could be ignited, Jupiter is far too small to become a star.)
Once I understood how badly that premise was flawed, I also saw what a cheap ruse the 2001 series was on another level. That is to say, its three-card-monte trick re the origin of life. What Clarke held forth as a revelation merely begged the question: If a mysterious alien race created us, who created them?

What was reasonable to ask of Clarke, anyway?

On the one hand, it’s arguably unreasonable for me to have expected more of Clarke than a few hours’ entertainment. Many (most?) authors don’t bill their books as anything more than an amusement-park ride. Clarke’s contemporary, Isaac Asimov, ascribed his own ability to churn out salable novels to his having caught ‘a lucky break in the genetic sweepstakes’ rather than being in possession of any profound or transcendental ideas. Asimov knew that in buying his books, people were merely responding to his well-honed (and to Asimov, genetically-based) storytelling skills. He understood that his widespread acceptance did not necessarily equate to his having an important or lasting message to offer. He was, in his own mind, just a type of successful entertainer - and he felt that was more than enough. (Which it probably was.)
On the other hand, a good case can be made for Clarke as con man. Men like Jules Verne and Hugo Gernsback (see the related essay ‘The Alarming Inflation of Science Fiction’) insisted on - and practiced - a rigorous adherence to known scientific facts. Clarke carefully nurtured his reputation as a man who did exactly that, yet he knew his most popular works fell well short in that regard. The basis of his best-selling works was scientific fallacy, not fact, and there is some evidence that Clarke was uncomfortable with this.
In my misplaced childhood faith, I mistook Clarke for someone who saw things clearly and thoroughly, and was capable of revealing some Deeper Truths about who we are, what we’re about, and what the cosmos has in store for us. It’s probably not fair to ask so much of a sci-fi writer. Anyone seeking that sort of enlightenment would generally be better off in the philosophy or theology sections. Still, I can’t help but feel that Clarke led his readers on in that regard, and I suspect I’m not the only one who feels that way. In any event, children have a right, maybe even a need, to believe in heroes. The danger is the likelihood that they’ll choose the wrong ones, as I did. But I could have done far worse, as many have.

Other measures of value

While Verne and Gernsback would have held Clarke’s feet to the fire for taking liberties with science, Wells would have spoken up on his behalf. He’d have argued that it is perfectly acceptable to abandon scientific grounding in order to make a higher point with regards to some aspect of the human condition. 
Wells’ view is certainly the prevailing one today, in a world where the ‘Sci-fi’ genre is no longer held strictly apart from fantasy. Fantasy works such as The Lord of the Rings and Groundhog Day convey worthwhile insights into the human condition. Their ‘scientific plausibility’ is not an issue - although unlike Clarke, they are not pretending to have any, either.
The question for Clarke, then, is: Do works like Childhood’s End and the 2001 series, once shown to be bereft of scientific merit, offer meaningful insights into the human condition? Such questions are best left for readers to ponder for themselves.
Still, make no mistake: Childhood’s End and 2001 do succeed as entertainments. As long as nothing more than that is demanded of them, they do their job. Childhood is by far the more emotionally moving of the two (Clarke and his critics rightly felt it was his best work, despite being overshadowed by the subsequent fame of 2001), as the limits of the Overseers’ (who were at first thought to be omnipotent) power is gradually and poignantly revealed. 2001‘s dramatic value lies largely in the mystery of the monoliths (which is never made fully clear) and of course in the classically Frankensteinian dysfunction of the HAL 9000.

The sci-fi writer’s heavy burden

The problem with storytelling today (and fantasy/sci-fi in particular) is that it’s a product. Stories are rarely told for their intrinsic value or for the edification of the human tribe. They are told merely because they are products for sale, and because there is money to be made in selling them.
The website Atomic Rockets makes some poignant (and often humorous) observations about the state of affairs this has brought us to. Here’s a deeply-edited paraphrasing from that site:

Nearly all sci-fi contains one or more of these four elements:
• Handwavium: Something that flat-out violates laws of physics. We're waving our hands and saying ‘pay no attention to the man behind the curtain’. FTL is Handwavium. Things like force fields are Handwavium.
• A MacGuffin: This is also common in mystery writing. It’s the thing that everyone is after, the pursuit of which drives much of the plot.
• Unobtanium: Something we can't build a physical example of. Laser weapons are pretty much Unobtainium right now. While Handwavium and Technobabble tell you what you CAN do, Unobtainium usually tells you what is NOT possible.
 • Technobabble: "We've reversed the polarity of the tetryon flow through the main deflector dish, and the Borg's shields have dropped." or, "His midichlorians are more powerful than Yoda's!" are examples of Technobabble. In general, Technobabble is only noticed when it is done poorly.
Examples: The Mote in God's Eye has only two blatant pieces of Handwavium (the Drive and Field), but contains a high Unobtainium quotient, as does much of Heinlein's space fiction. The Exordium series has a lot of well-reasoned Handwavium, but very little Technobabble. Most of the Lensman series is Pure Technobabble with a dash of Handwavium thrown in. The MacGuffin in James Cameron’s Avatar was called, fittingly, Unobtainium. Star Trek (and most TV sci-fi) is a mixture of Pure Technobabble and some Handwavium. On such shows, things work because they make the plot work and things fail because if they don't, the plot fails.
This situation is not easily altered, because unfortunately Robinson's Second Law of space combat says that for every kilogram of Handwavium you remove, you add about 10 cubic meters of impossible-to-maintain plumbing. (In other words the story suffers, eyes glaze over and so on.) And most people instinctively know Burnside's Zeroth Law of space combat: Though it might make more sense for an interplanetary battle to be waged between groups of computer-controlled (unmanned) spacecraft, it would be less engaging than a battle between groups of manned spacecraft. 
There are exceptions to these two laws but they are few and far between, and are the result of exceptionally skilled authors.
Another annoying fact is that real-world spacecraft propulsion systems are incredibly weak. They will take forever to push the ship to anywhere farther than, say, the Moon. So SF authors try to perk things up with more powerful propulsion systems. Alas, there they run into Jon's Law for SF authors, which states: ‘Any interesting space drive is [also] a weapon of mass destruction.’ By ’interesting’ this means 'whatever keeps readers from getting bored'. For instance, a spacecraft with an ion drive capable of a meager 0.0001g of acceleration may be realistic, but it will also put readers to asleep. (‘Nine months to Mars? Borrrring!’) The author, who knows he could lose readers by hewing to scientific facts, gives his spacecraft a fusion drive instead. The good news is that the ship can get to Mars in twelve days flat. The bad news is that the ship's exhaust would destroy the spaceport where it was docked, along with any ships crossing its wake. 
Indeed, most of the sticky issues of Jon's Law are due to the propulsion system's exhaust. Rockets depend on Newton's Third Law (‘any action causes an equal and opposite reaction’), which means that without exhaust your ship goes nowhere - and the faster your ship needs to go, the more devastating your exhaust will be. One consequence of all this is that if drives are too powerful, there won't be any colorful tramp freighters or similar vessels - they’d be too potentially dangerous. Civilian spacecraft would probably be legally required to have a remote control self-destruct device that the space patrol can use to eliminate any ship caught misbehaving.
Canny SF authors postulate some kind of Handwaving ‘reactionless’ drive in an attempt to avoid Jon's Law. Reactionless means no exhaust is required - it’s basically magic, since no known scientific principle applies. (Apologists for hypothetical ‘warp’ engines claim that they are based on advanced modern theories of curved space, but there’s no known way - even theoretically - to make that happen in a way that could enable space travel.) The ‘gravitic impeller’ from David Weber's Honor Harrington series is an example of a reactionless drive. 
Besides their underpinnings of fantasy, the main problem with reactionless drives is that they empower their owners to shatter planets with a ship the size of a rowboat. Were a reactionless drive to exist, it would be accompanied by genocidal threats on a planetary scale - leading inevitably to such drives being outlawed. (Leaving us back where we started: Up the space creek with no warp paddle.)
Todd Boyce of Ninja Magic actually works in Hollywood, and explains the facts of life in the sci-fi big leagues:
‘To boil it down, the fallacies of sci-fi are due to one or more of the following: 
• It’s a business venture. You put money in with the expectation that more money will come out. The general audience is historically happier watching space ships whoosh by shooting glowing bolts of energy than they are watching a slowly rotating spaceship drift across the screen. Therefore, if you're putting tens or hundreds of millions of dollars on the line, you go for the shooty-whooshy space ships every time.
• The powers that be don't care. If what’s on the screen looks good, and the storytelling is sufficient, scientific accuracy rarely matters. If they don't care that cars don't really blow up when shot with bullets, why would they care that fast-moving ships don’t make ‘whoosh’ sounds in space?
• There’s no time to find and fix scientific inaccuracies. Once production on a movie starts, it’s an unstoppable steamroller with a tight deadline. If the script says a spaceship whooshes by, the people working on the film don't have time to work out what kind of propulsion it uses - they just make the engine glow, push it across the screen in an interesting way and move on to the next shot.
• The decisions are made in too many places and it isn't even thought about except by people who aren't in positions to make judgment calls. Say a jet fighter shoots missiles at a big space ship hovering above a city. The director tells the visual effects supervisor to make it happen. The visual effects supervisor tells the digital effects supervisor to make a space ship and to make a jet fighter whoosh by and shoot some missiles at the space ship while he goes off and directs the on-set pyro effects. The digital effects supervisor tells the modeling supervisor to have his team make a space ship and jet fighter and tells the FX supervisor to have his team make some missiles shoot, engine effects, vapor trails, smoke trails and whatnot. The modelers build a jet fighter and give it harpoon missiles. The modeling supervisor says it looks good. The digital effects supervisor says it looks good. The modelers are done with their job and get put on another production. The FX supervisor hands the model to the FX team who look at the fighter and say "um...that's not really the right kind of missile to do an air-to-air attack..." But they have been approved and the modeler has gone to his/her next gig. Can't change it now. So the FX team launches harpoon missiles at the space ship. The final shot is shown to the director/visual effects supervisor and it looks cool, but they don’t pick up on the fact that the wrong missile is being used. It's approved and put into the film. (You're probably sensing that this is a true story and know what movie I was working on at the time.)
• The script-reader's gauntlet. Writers use descriptive language to express action in their script. They don't often get into technical details because each page of a script is supposed to represent roughly one minute of screen time. A writer who spends his time describing the intricacies of a space ship’s propulsion system is a writer who finds his scripts in the script-reader's trash can. People who write heavily technical novels are almost always terrible script-writers as they have difficulty working within the confines and limitations of that medium. The scripts that pass through the script-reader's gauntlet will likely be of the less technical variety.
• People in film-making have degrees in film-making, not science. It's not that they aren't smart, it's that their main expertise is in other areas. That's why they sometimes hire consultants to insure a degree of accuracy - but even then, accuracy is only desirable if it doesn't interfere with the storytelling. Often, things are set in motion that can't be changed, and you have to shrug your shoulders and say ‘That's the way it has to be’ if you learn too late of some error or contradiction.
• The power of ego. You know how people fall all over themselves when a famous actor is nearby? It’s worse when dealing with well known directors. Just yesterday we were kicked out of the screening room during our dailies because Michael Bay was parking and MIGHT be needing it. With that sort of hysteria going on, are you going to be the one that walks up to him and protests, knowing that this could mean the end of your employment? What the director says goes, and few people have the will or the power to contradict him. Film-making is rarely done by committee, but by imperial decree, and if the decree is that cars blow up when shot with bullets, then that’s the way it will be.’

So the next time you encounter a colossally dumb sci-fi premise, bear in mind that the writer may know it’s dumb as well as (or even better than) you do, but there also may not be a thing (s)he can do about it. All things considered, it’s fairly easy to see how such things happen. More to the point, we can see why the lies of sci-fi have been repeated so often over time that many people accept them as facts.

Well, what should the public expect from a writer?

Most any celebrity will tell you that the public mob at large wants an undeclared something from them. It may be a justification for their existence, fame by association, wealth, eternal life, or some other intangible the public feels is rightfully owed them. That’s the unsettling price of living in the spotlight, the fine print of the implied deal every celebrity strikes with the public. Despite this, Humphrey Bogart assured his fellow celebs that “All [they] owe the public is a good performance”.
Stephen King, on the other hand, told the world that - from writers, at least - the public not had only the right, but the duty, to demand more from their unspoken contract:
“If I show up at your house in 10 years from now. . . and find nothing on your bedroom night table but the newest Dan Brown novel . . . I'll chase you to the end of your driveway, screaming, 'Where are your books? Why are you living on the intellectual equivalent of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese?'”
King, as self-aware a writer as ever lived, was cognizant of the irony in his uttering this after having referred to his own work as the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and large fries. So in fact, his attack on Brown was really a junk-food fight where he - Stephen ‘Burger’ King - was attacking his own legacy as much as anyone’s. (To be fair, King also gave the world The Shawshank Redemption - a far more substantial meal.)
What King’s really saying, though, is not that the public should expect more from Dan Brown, but from itself - by making better choices.
King’s right, but is it even fair to demand that the public successfully negotiate the vast and deliberately confusing maze of empty-calorie pop culture in search of better nourishment? In Brown’s breakthrough ‘The Da Vinci Code’, he held out the promise of answers to questions millions of Catholics had lived with their entire lives. Naturally they bought his book, because how could they not? Not only that, but many who put their money down convinced themselves that Brown had, in fact, faithfully answered those questions just as Brown’s marketing had promised. This is something Brown himself admits is not so: 
The Da Vinci Code is "an entertaining story that promotes spiritual discussion and debate" and the book may be used "as a positive catalyst for introspection and exploration of our faith."
And on The Today Show (2009), Brown further stated:
"I do something very intentional and specific in these books. And that is to blend fact and fiction in a very modern and efficient style, to tell a story. There are some people who understand what I do, and they sort of get on the train and go for a ride and have a great time, and there are other people who should probably just read somebody else."
With such caveats on the record, a public that continues to flock to Brown in expectation of actual answers has no one but itself to blame. In this case, it’s just as King says: Shame on them for allowing themselves to be misled - and indeed, for insisting on it.

What should a writer expect from him(her)self?

As stated earlier, many (most?) writers expect little more of themselves than to turn out a salable manuscript in a timely manner. Which is, frankly, a tall enough order, and certainly there’s nothing wrong in providing for one’s family.
And why should they ask more of themselves in a world where an entertaining but empty trifle is sufficient to sate the public appetite? Doesn’t that fulfill the bargain between the entertainment’s producer and consumer? As Bogart said - isn’t a good performance enough?
Certainly Stephen King, who’s delivered more than a few ‘good performances’ in his lifetime, thinks not. And I suspect that some well-regarded writers who’ve suffered burnout toward the end of their careers did so in part because they failed to look diligently for meaning that could inform and structure their efforts.
Kurt Vonnegut said a writer should “use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted,” and “write to please one person”. But Vonnegut could have meant nothing more than the writer should put on a good, entertaining show (Bogart’s ‘good performance’). He didn’t necessarily mean the writer owed his reader something profound or challenging or meaningful. On the other hand, Mark Twain’s most enduring work was born of strong convictions.
I won’t answer the question I’ve posed here, because I’d be wrong to try. It’s really a question every writer must answer for him(her)self. In that same light, every reader should challenge him(her)self to seek out those writers who have taken it upon themselves to do something more than construct salable entertainment products - but neither I nor anyone else can (or should) attempt to force that choice on them.

from The Patriots of Mars [Postscripts & Essays]

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