Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Role of “The Hook” in Story Writing

Ayn Rand’s 1968 essay, “Basic Principles of Literature” (reprinted in The Romantic Manifesto) discussed plot, theme, style and characterization in story-writing.  It developed the fundamental principles behind these attributes in a good novel, though at a very abstract level--by analogy, at the level that Newton’s Laws of motion and Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetics are to applied physics.  The information in this essay is essential if you want to be a writer, but not nearly enough for anyone to learn to be a writer.  A foundation for becoming one, no more.

Her essay is perhaps most well-known for its comparison of a scene in her novel The Fountainhead—to the same scene written from a different perspective of characterization in the protagonist, Howard Roark.  To a lesser degree, her essay is also known for comparing the stylization of scenes by Thomas Wolfe and Mickey Spillane, to illustrate their approaches to concretizing detail vs. presenting evaluations to a reader—an excerpt from one of the novels of Spillane (who was a good friend of ARs) illustrates a method that counts on an active mind and which doesn’t attempt to substitute the writer’s evaluations for your own, by means of selective presentation of perceptions and conceptual identifications.  Wolfe, in contrast, is the archetype of the un-focused writer who, unable to dissect his own evaluations, merely repeats what he feels and expects you to feel along.   As Rand wrote,
Let us compare the literary style of two excerpts from two different novels [One Lonely Night, by Spillane, and The Web and the Rock, by Wolfe], reproduced below. Both are descriptions of the same subject: New York City at night. Observe which one of them re-creates the visual reality of a specific scene, and which one deals with vague, emotional assertions and floating abstractions.
First excerpt [Spillane]:
Nobody ever walked across the bridge, not on a night like this. The rain was misty enough to be almost fog-like, a cold gray curtain that separated me from the pale ovals of white that were faces locked behind the steamed-up windows of the cars that hissed by. Even the brilliance that was Manhattan by night was reduced to a few sleepy, yellow lights off in the distance.

Some place over there I had left my car and started walking, burying my head in the collar of my raincoat, with the night pulled in around me like a blanket. I walked and I smoked and I flipped the spent butts ahead of me and watched them arch to the pavement and fizzle out with one last wink.
Second excerpt [Wolfe]:
That hour, that moment, and that place struck with a peerless co-incision upon the very heart of his own youth, the crest and zenith of his own desire. The city had never seemed as beautiful as it looked that night. For the first time he saw that New York was supremely, among the cities of the world, the city of the night. There had been achieved here a loveliness that was astounding and incomparable, a kind of modern beauty, inherent to its place and time, that no other place nor time could match. He realized suddenly that the beauty of other cities of the night—of Paris spread below one from the butte of Sacre-Coeur, in its vast, mysterious blossoms of nocturnal radiance; of London with its smoky nimbus of fogged light, which was so peculiarly thrilling because it was so vast, so lost in the illimitable—had each its special quality, so lovely and mysterious, but had yet produced no beauty that could equal this.
As a footnote, this particular comparison is mildly notable from a historical perspective, because, according to some accounts, Barbara Branden loved the works of Wolfe and was offended by AR’s criticism of him.  

I won’t quote everything AR said about these two paragraphs, but this much she said is relevant to the discussion here:
...Observe the difference in their methods. There is not a single emotional word or adjective in Spillane's description; he presents nothing save visual facts; but he selects only those facts, only those eloquent details, which convey the visual reality of the scene and create a mood of desolate loneliness. Wolfe does not describe the city; he does not give us a single characteristic visual detail. He asserts that the city is "beautiful," but does not tell us what makes it beautiful. Such words as "beautiful," "astounding," "incomparable," "thrilling," "lovely" are estimates; in the absence of any indication of what aroused these estimates, they are arbitrary assertions and meaningless generalities.
Spillane's style is reality-oriented and addressed to an objective psycho-epistemology: he provides the facts and expects the reader to react accordingly. Wolfe's style is emotion-oriented and addressed to a subjective psycho-epistemology: he expects the reader to accept emotions divorced from facts, and to accept them second-hand.
I merely recount this as a prelude to a literary comparison I’d like to make of my own.  As I noted, the principles Ayn Rand discussed are very general—literature 101—and being a successful writer of serious Romantic fiction (that is, in the philosophical sense of Romanticism and serious in the sense of something enduring) requires so much more, that I would say Romantic fiction writing is possibly (in my opinion) the most difficult job there is for human beings to pursue.

I mean that.  It is incredibly hard to do well.  I’ve sketched some observations to support that claim in previous posts, but to summarize, there’s so much one has to know—about not merely the technical attributes of story, but also human psychology, life in general, history, philosophy, the introspective workings of your own inner psychology, and above all, your training, practice and capacity to integrate everything you know into a coherent, logical (ie, fully consistent) progression of events, with characters that are compelling and believable,  in an original plot of deep meaning for your readers (or viewers)—that at any one moment in time there’s only a few people on the planet (if that) who are capable of doing first-rank writing.   But even among the lesser writers (let’s say, best-selling popular authors and screenwriters), there’s still only a few hundred on the planet who can do the job of writing good pot-boilers.  Story writing is hard.  It requires imagination, knowledge, intelligence, a unique psychology and a lot of independence.

I’ve found over the years in my own study and practice as a wanna-be (we’re still working at it) that there’s so many things essential to good writing that I couldn’t begin to address them all here, but one that’s been of interest of late is—how do you hook your audience?

This is not an optional issue for any writer.  If you don’t hook your audience in a few moments of reading, or a few minutes after that, you don’t sell a book or a screenplay.   People simply won’t give you more time than that.  You wouldn’t give any unknown author more time than that, I guarantee it.

Fiction writing is above all about motivating your audience to read what you write. You have to sell yourself, in effect, not merely through the publisher’s own marketing (if you are so fortunate), but through the opening pages of your work.

The initial attention span of a prospective customer for your novel (or short story or screenplay) is about one short paragraph.  Fail to interest them with that much prose and that much prose alone, and they close the cover and move on.  Get them interested enough in the first paragraph and they might read a page or two.  Get them interested in a page or two and they might buy the book.   That’s how a hook works.

Try it.  I’ve done the exercise myself:  Go to a bookstore and start picking up the best-sellers.  When I do this I consciously commit to reading exactly one paragraph on page one and no more.  If that paragraph hooks me, I’ll commit to reading more.  By this method you can quickly sort out the good writers from the not so good, and decide what authors really know their craft.

You will quickly see a huge disparity between the really successful writers and those that are less successful.  Actually, even among the very successful authors there’s a huge disparity in ability to do this well.  Marketing and a large support staff (sadly) cover up a lot of sins.  That many authors can make a living with writing a poor “hook” tells you something about how forgiving the reading public can be... but they aren’t infinitely forgiving. 

If a novel is basically good, word of mouth can overcome a mediocre “hook”, for instance, but you might have a hard time getting that word of mouth working for you without a really good hook—sales won’t build rapidly if readers aren’t excited and intrigued by the opening moments in your story.  If you don’t have a track record as a best-selling author, this applies in spades—you can bet your bottom royalty payment that editors and producers won’t give an amateur more than a one page glance.

(One producer was well-known for reading scripts upside down and flipping the pages randomly—if the pattern of dark and light didn’t look right, he tossed it.  Sadly, it’s actually a pretty good system for weeding out most scripts.)

So—it’s absolutely essential  to have a good hook.  And that’s my focus here.  But what makes a good one?
Taking a cue from Ayn Rand’s essay, let me state what I think are the basic principles—of the hook.

Fundamentally, you have to interest the reader in what you write, but of course it has to be in relation to the story.  I only mention this because many bad movies ignore this and use any arbitrary element to get your attention (car chases, explosions, violence, sex, etc), and then the story diverges with no relation whatsoever to the opening.  This is a massive cheat, and the cashing-in is when the reviews come in—or the audience figures it out and stops attending—but especially when the long-term sales bottom-out too quickly.  (The miracle of modern marketing is that some low-level of long-term sales can be achieved for stinkers by appealing to the ignorant, gullible and clueless, of course, but that’s a sewer I don’t wish to dive into.)

Here’s my take on it, keeping in mind that this is only a blog-post of my thoughts, not an exhaustive treatise that can even claim to be correct in every aspect.  My approach follows the simple guideline of “who, what, where, when, why”.  (The “how” is of course, the story.)

1. You must hint the basic conflict of your story.  You have to create some crucial question in the reader’s mind not only that there is a conflict but that it’s an interesting conflict.  “How’s it going to end?” is a cliche in the industry, but so true.  You have to plant this question in your reader’s head, and you’ve got to develop it and sustain it through every page of the story. You can’t just present a didactic summary suitable for a medical conference or an episode of Dragnet.  “There was a murder.  It had to be solved.  I was the man.”  You  might begin with something so prosaic as “Fred didn’t like Mary,” but the next words you say had better say more to give a hint of why Fred didn’t like Mary, and why this will be relevant and interesting to the lives of a general audience.

2. You have to introduce the basic setting of the story—the conflict exists in a context, and you can’t understand and “get” the conflict without some grasp of the world you’re going to be entering.  You don’t have to present every detail, but you must give enough for the reader to orient himself.

3.  You have to introduce a one or more crucial characters, though they don’t have to be the main protagonists, and you must hint at their essential natures and illustrate the conflict between them.  Again, it doesn’t have to be every character, nor even the main characters, but they do have to be crucial. The standard here is to hook your audience, not educate them.

4.  You have to hint at the underlying theme of the story.  If this is a pot-boiler rather than Dostoevsky, the theme may not run deep, but usually there is something.  The message of Die Hard, for instance, was primarily “most government officials are bureaucratic morons, but a few dedicated people make all the difference.”  Think about it.  But for serious stories, the universal meaning is that which will offer the reader/viewer some guidance in their lives.  Not the level of a Tom Clancy novel (World War 3 could break out, we could all die, yadayada) but deeper—life in general and your place in the universe, insights into human nature, etc.  (See AR for a much better exposition on this point.)

5.  What questions have you raised?

Number five applies to all the previous four points and more (that’s what I mean by “hint”)—but it’s so important it simply must be included as a separate point.

Above all, you have to raise questions in the mind of the reader—questions about each of my points.  You do not try to answer these points.  You are trying to raise questions in the mind of a reader (or viewer) to make him want to discover the answers over the next 200 pages or 2 hours of viewing time.  The principle here is to appeal to an active mind that wants to understand and integrate what he’s reading (or seeing) into a coherent whole.

The information has to be highly selective, and presented rat-a-tat-tat to get their attention quickly, while allowing their mind to put the pieces together into something recognizable—but for god’s sake, don’t let them succeed!   That’s called “predictable”.  You have to let the entire story answer those questions—if you want to make a living at it.  (But of course, you’d better deliver by the end—every fact and statement better add up to a logical whole of characters of consistent motivations you understand, in a world that you can grasp, for a thematic purpose that makes sense.)

I’ll give you a very good example from Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury.  Taking account for some writing deficiencies for his very first novel, it has a superb opening hook that any aspiring writer should pay close attention to:
    ------  I, the Jury,  page one -------

      I shook the rain from my hat and walked into the room.  Nobody said a word.  They stepped back politely and I could feel their eyes on me.  Pat Chambers was standing by the door to the bedroom trying to steady Myrna.  The girl’s body was racking with dry sobs.  I walked over and put my arms around her.
Who put her arms around her?  For what reason?  What’s happened?   Where is this room?  Why is Myrna sobbing?   Remember, this is the first paragraph for an entire novel.   Do you want to read more?
      “Take it easy, kid,” I told her.  “Come on over here and lie down.”  I led her to a studio couch that was against the far wall and sat her down.  She was in pretty bad shape. One of the uniformed cops put a pillow down for her and she stretched out.
This doesn’t develop the suspense that much, but it establishes a little more context and we know we’re at a crime scene now.  But who is talking?
      Pat motioned me over to him and pointed to the bedroom.  “In there, Mike,” he said.
After only about 10 lines, we have a pretty good idea now.  We know who Pat is, and now we have one-half a name for our narrator—Mike.
     In there.  The words hit me hard.  In there was my best friend lying on the floor dead.   The body.  Now I could call it that.  Yesterday it was Jack Williams, the guy that shared the same mud bed with me through two years of warfare in the stinking slime of the jungle.  Jack, the guy who said he’d give his right arm for a friend and did when he stopped a bastard of a Jap from slitting me in two.  He caught the bayonet in the biceps and they amputated his arm.
You see how each new detail pulls you forward in machine-gun fashion.   But no detail is enough, and each new one raises new questions.   The hook is all about creating questions in the mind of your reader in relation to a basic conflict.  The conflict here is murder.  Who was it?  And why was it?
      Pat didn’t say a word.  He let me uncover the body and feel the cold face.   For the first time in my life I felt like crying.  “Where did he get it, Pat?”
      “In the stomach.  Better not look at it.  The killer carved the nose off a forty-five and gave it to him low.”
      I threw back the sheet and a curse caught in my throat.  Jack was in shorts, his one hand still clutching his belly in agony.  The bullet went in clean, but where it came out left a hole big enough to cram a fist into.
As a diversion, note the very strong element of characterization present here:  we now know that “Mike” is the kind of man who is willing to face reality head-on:  he can look directly at the gory mess that had been his best friend.  He wants to understand exactly what happened to his best friend.  He is willing to look at a gaping hole in a nearly naked one-armed man who had once saved his life.  He wants to use his mind no matter the terrible emotional impact it will have on him.  This sets the stage for everything that follows in the novel.

All this is on page one of my edition—and reading it, I want to go on to page 2: I have too many questions to let this drop.
      Very gently I pulled the sheet back and stood up.  It wasn’t a complicated setup.  A trail of blood led from the table beside the bed to where Jack’s artificial arm lay.  Under him the throw rug was ruffled and twisted.  He had tried to drag himself along with his one arm, but never reached what he was after.
      His police positive, still in the holster, was looped over the back of the chair.  That was what he wanted.  With a slug in his gut he never gave up.
      I pointed to the rocket, overbalanced under the weight of the .38.  “Did you move the chair, Pat?”
      “No, why?”
      “It doesn’t belong there.  Don’t you see?”
      Pat looked puzzled.  “What are you getting at?”
      “That chair was over there by the bed.  I’ve been here often enough to remember that much.  After the killer shot Jack, he pulled himself toward the chair.   But the killer didn’t leave after the shooting.   He stood here and watched him grovel on the floor in agony.  Jack was after that gun but he never reached it.   He could have if the killer didn’t move it.  The trigger-happy bastard must have stood by the door laughing while Jack tried to make his last play.  He kept pulling the chair back, inch by inch, until Jack gave up.  Tormenting a guy who’s been through all sorts of hell.  Laughing.  This was no ordinary murder, Pat.  It’s as cold-blooded and as deliberate as I ever saw one.   I’m going to get the one that did this.”
And now we’re launched into the story...  We still don’t know who “Mike” is, but we’ve some idea he’s not a guy who is likely to fail. We want to know how he’ll solve this and determine the fate of the murderer—which the title of the novel provides another crucial clue for.  (That’s another closely related aspect of the “hook”.)

I don’t want to belabor the analysis.   “Analysis paralysis” is one of the biggest failings for anyone trying to learn to write.  (Or any graduate student trying to learn to think.)   But the other failing is no analysis at all—you do need to know a few things.  Nonetheless, over-analysis divorced from hard practice and contact with reality is the biggest factor undermining writing. (Speaking from personal experience, and doesn’t this essay speak to “pot, kettle, black”?)  So let me now turn to a comparison of  a couple really brilliant examples of the “hook” which I believe will be more helpful than any amount of literary dissection by me.

I want to contrast Ayn Rand’s own style to another superb author that she wrote about elsewhere in The Romantic Manifesto – Ian Fleming: the author of the James Bond novels (which bear little relation at all to any of the movies).

The novels are Atlas Shrugged and From Russia With Love.  Again, the goal here isn’t to analyze either in great detail, but to juxtapose the opening paragraphs of these two novels directly before you—to show how they work to hook the reader for two very different types of stories, that ironically possess a certain similarity in underlying themes—both deal with killers.   Atlas deals with the men of the mind going on strike against killers of the spirit, and From Russia With Love deals James Bond defending himself against an incredibly ruthless and capable Russian assassin sent to kill him.

I originally extracted both extended excerpts without any attempt to make them the same length, but it was coincidental and very interesting to me that both came out almost exactly 2500 words—that may be a useful guideline for the time any author has to hook his reader after the first paragraph on the opening page.

Now read both excerpts straight through, keeping in mind my five points of key information to convey in a hook:  1.  Basic conflict, 2. Setting,  3. Crucial characters, 4. Theme.  5.  Questions Raised. 

Also keep in mind what Ayn Rand said about how Spillane
“...presents nothing save visual facts; but he selects only those facts, only those eloquent details, which convey the visual reality of the scene and create a mood of desolate loneliness.”
You will note as you read that both she and Fleming exert this kind of perceptual selectivity par excellance.   They rely on you to build your picture of their scenes piece-by-piece, but direct you to form your own conclusions and questions based on what they give your mind to work on, and in what order.   Recall composer Richard Halley’s words to Dagny Taggart in Atlas Shrugged:
"That is the payment I demand. Not many can afford it. I don't mean your enjoyment, I don't mean your emotion—emotions be damned!—I mean your understanding and the fact that your enjoyment was of the same nature as mine, that it came from the same source: from your intelligence, from the conscious judgment of a mind able to judge my work by the standard of the same values that went to write it—I mean, not the fact that you felt, but that you felt what I wished you to feel, not the fact that you admire my work, but that you admire it for the things I wished to be admired."
And now the excerpts:

---------- Opening to From Russia With Love ------------
    The naked man who lay splayed out on his face beside the swimming pool might have been dead.
    He might have been drowned and fished out of the pool and laid out on the grass to dry while the police or the next-of-kin were summoned. Even the little pile of objects in the grass beside his head might have been his personal effects, meticulously assembled in full view so that no one should think that something had been stolen by his rescuers.
    To judge by the glittering pile, this had been, or was, a rich man. It contained the typical membership badges of the rich man's club—a money clip, made of a Mexican fifty-dollar piece and holding a substantial wad of banknotes, a well-used gold Dunhill lighter, an oval gold cigarette case with the wavy ridges and discreet turquoise button that means FabergĂ©, and the sort of novel a rich man pulls out of the bookcase to take into the garden—The Little Nugget—an old P. G. Wodehouse. There was also a bulky gold wristwatch on a well-used brown crocodile strap. It was a Girard-Perregaux model designed for people who like gadgets, and it had a sweep second-hand and two little windows in the face to tell the day of the month, and the month, and the phase of the moon. The story it now told was 2.30 on June 10th with the moon three-quarters full.
    A blue and green dragon-fly flashed out from among the rose bushes at the end of the garden and hovered in mid-air a few inches above the base of the man's spine. It had been attracted by the golden shimmer of the June sunshine on the ridge of fine blond hairs above the coccyx. A puff of breeze came off the sea. The tiny field of hairs bent gently. The dragon-fly darted nervously sideways and hung above the man's left shoulder, looking down. The young grass below the man's open mouth stirred. A large drop of sweat rolled down the side of the fleshy nose and dropped glittering into the grass. That was enough. The dragon-fly flashed away through the roses and over the jagged glass on top of the high garden wall. It might be good food, but it moved.
    The garden in which the man lay was about an acre of well-kept lawn surrounded on three sides by thickly banked rose bushes from which came the steady murmur of bees. Behind the drowsy noise of the bees the sea boomed softly at the bottom of the cliff at the end of the garden. There was no view of the sea from the garden—no view of anything except of the sky and the clouds above the twelve-foot wall. In fact you could only see out of the property from the two upstairs bedrooms of the villa that formed the fourth side of this very private enclosure. From them you could see a great expanse of blue water in front of you and, on either side, the upper windows of neighbouring villas and the tops of the trees in their garden—Mediterranean-type evergreen oaks, stone pines, casuarinas and an occasional palm tree.
    The villa was modern—a squat elongated box without ornament. On the garden side the flat pink-washed facade was pierced by four iron-framed windows and by a central glass door leading on to a small square of pale green glazed tiles. The tiles merged into the lawn. The other side of the villa, standing back a few yards from a dusty road, was almost identical. But on this side the four windows were barred, and the central door was of oak.
    The villa had two medium-sized bedrooms on the upper floor and on the ground floor a sitting-room and a kitchen, part of which was walled off into a lavatory. There was no bathroom.
    The drowsy luxurious silence of early afternoon was broken by the sound of a car coming down the road. It stopped in front of the villa. There was the tinny clang of a car door being slammed and the car drove on. The door bell rang twice. The naked man beside the swimming pool did not move, but, at the noise of the bell and of the departing car, his eyes had for an instant opened very wide. It was as if the eyelids had pricked up like an animal's ears. The man immediately remembered where he was and the day of the week and the time of the day. The noises were identified. The eyelids with their fringe of short, sandy eyelashes drooped drowsily back over the very pale blue, opaque, inward-looking eyes. The small cruel lips opened in a wide jaw-breaking yawn which brought saliva into the mouth. The man spat the saliva into the grass and waited.
    A young woman carrying a small string bag and dressed in a white cotton shirt and a short, unalluring blue skirt came through the glass door and strode mannishly across the glazed tiles and the stretch of lawn towards the naked man. A few yards away from him, she dropped her string bag on the grass and sat down and took off her cheap and rather dusty shoes. Then she stood up and unbuttoned her shirt and took it off and put it, neatly folded, beside the string bag.
    The girl had nothing on under the shirt. Her skin was pleasantly sunburned and her shoulders and fine breasts shone with health. When she bent her arms to undo the side-buttons of her skirt, small tufts of fair hair showed in her armpits. The impression of a healthy animal peasant girl was heightened by the chunky hips in faded blue stockinet bathing trunks and the thick short thighs and legs that were revealed when she had stripped.
    The girl put the skirt neatly beside her shirt, opened the string bag, took out an old soda-water bottle containing some heavy colourless liquid and went over to the man and knelt on the grass beside him. She poured some of the liquid, a light olive oil, scented, as was everything in that part of the world, with roses, between his shoulder blades and, after flexing her fingers like a pianist, began massaging the sterno-mastoid and the trapezius muscles at the back of the man's neck.
    It was hard work. The man was immensely strong and the bulging muscles at the base of the neck hardly yielded to the girl's thumbs even when the downward weight of her shoulders was behind them. By the time she was finished with the man she would be soaked in perspiration and so utterly exhausted that she would fall into the swimming pool and then lie down in the shade and sleep until the car came for her. But that wasn't what she minded as her hands worked automatically on across the man's back. It was her instinctive horror for the finest body she had ever seen.
    None of this horror showed in the flat, impassive face of the masseuse, and the upward-slanting black eyes under the fringe of short coarse black hair were as empty as oil slicks, but inside her the animal whimpered and cringed and her pulse-rate, if it had occurred to her to take it, would have been high.
    Once again, as so often over the past two years, she wondered why she loathed this splendid body, and once again she vaguely tried to analyse her revulsion. Perhaps this time she would get rid of feelings which she felt guiltily certain were much more unprofessional than the sexual desire some of her patients awoke in her.
    To take the small things first: his hair. She looked down at the round, smallish head on the sinewy neck. It was covered with tight red-gold curls that should have reminded her pleasantly of the formalized hair in the pictures she had seen of classical statues. But the curls were somehow too tight, too thickly pressed against each other and against the skull. They set her teeth on edge like finger-nails against pile carpet.
    And the golden curls came down so low into the back of the neck—almost (she thought in professional terms) to the fifth cervical vertebra. And there they stopped abruptly in a straight line of small stiff golden hairs.
    The girl paused to give her hands a rest and sat back on her haunches. The beautiful upper half of her body was already shining with sweat. She wiped the back of her forearm across her forehead and reached for the bottle of oil. She poured about a tablespoonful on to the small furry plateau at the base of the man's spine, flexed her fingers and bent forward again.
    This embryo tail of golden down above the cleft of the buttocks—in a lover it would have been gay, exciting, but on this man it was somehow bestial. No, reptilian. But snakes had no hair. Well, she couldn't help that. It seemed reptilian to her. She shifted her hands on down to the two mounds of the gluteal muscles. Now was the time when many of her patients, particularly the young ones on the football team, would start joking with her. Then, if she was not very careful, the suggestions would come. Sometimes she could silence these by digging sharply down towards the sciatic nerve. At other times, and particularly if she found the man attractive, there would be giggling arguments, a brief wrestling-match and a quick, delicious surrender.
    With this man it was different, almost uncannily different. From the very first he had been like a lump of inanimate meat. In two years he had never said a word to her. When she had done his back and it was time for him to turn over, neither his eyes nor his body had once shown the smallest interest in her. When she tapped his shoulder, he would just roll over and gaze at the sky through half-closed lids and occasionally let out one of the long shuddering yawns that were the only sign that he had human reactions at all.
    The girl shifted her position and slowly worked down the right leg towards the Achilles tendon. When she came to it, she looked back up the fine body. Was her revulsion only physical? Was it the reddish colour of the sunburn on the naturally milk-white skin, the sort of roast meat look? Was it the texture of the skin itself, the deep, widely spaced pores in the satiny surface? The thickly scattered orange freckles on the shoulders? Or was it the asexuality of the man? The indifference of these splendid, insolently bulging muscles? Or was it spiritual—an animal instinct telling her that inside this wonderful body there was an evil person?
    The masseuse got to her feet and stood, twisting her head slowly from side to side and flexing her shoulders. She stretched her arms out sideways and then upwards and held them for a moment to get the blood down out of them. She went to her string bag and took out a hand-towel and wiped the perspiration off her face and body.
    When she turned back to the man, he had already rolled over and now lay, his head resting on one open hand, gazing blankly at the sky. The disengaged arm was flung out on the grass, waiting for her. She walked over and knelt on the grass behind his head. She rubbed some oil into her palms, picked up the limp half-open hand and started kneading the short thick fingers.
    The girl glanced nervously sideways at the red-brown face below the crown of tight golden curls. Superficially it was all right—handsome in a butcher's-boyish way, with its full pink cheeks, upturned nose and rounded chin. But, looked at closer, there was something cruel about the thin-lipped rather pursed mouth, a pigginess about the wide nostrils in the upturned nose, and the blankness that veiled the very pale blue eyes communicated itself over the whole face and made it look drowned and morgue-like. It was, she reflected, as if someone had taken a china doll and painted its face to frighten.
    The masseuse worked up the arm to the huge biceps. Where had the man got these fantastic muscles from? Was he a boxer? What did he do with his formidable body? Rumour said this was a police villa. The two men-servants were obviously guards of some sort, although they did the cooking and the housework. Regularly every month the man went away for a few days and she would be told not to come. And from time to time she would be told to stay away for a week, or two weeks, or a month. Once, after one of these absences, the man's neck and the upper part of his body had been a mass of bruises. On another occasion the red corner of a half-healed wound had shown under a foot of surgical plaster down the ribs over his heart. She had never dared to ask about him at the hospital or in the town. When she had first been sent to the house, one of the men-servants had told her that if she spoke about what she saw she would go to prison. Back at the hospital, the Chief Superintendent, who had never recognized her existence before, had sent for her and had said the same thing. She would go to prison. The girl's strong fingers gouged nervously into the big deltoid muscle on the point of the shoulder. She had always known it was a matter of State Security. Perhaps that was what revolted her about this splendid body. Perhaps it was just fear of the organization that had the body in custody. She squeezed her eyes shut at the thought of who he might be, of what he could order to be done to her. Quickly she opened them again. He might have noticed. But the eyes gazed blankly up at the sky.
    Now—she reached for the oil—to do the face.
    The girl's thumbs had scarcely pressed into the sockets of the man's closed eyes when the telephone in the house started ringing. The sound reached impatiently out into the quiet garden. At once the man was up on one knee like a runner waiting for the gun. But he didn't move forward. The ringing stopped. There was the mutter of a voice. The girl could not hear what it was saying, but it sounded humble, noting instructions. The voice stopped and one of the men-servants showed briefly at the door, made a gesture of summons, and went back into the house. Half way through the gesture, the naked man was already running. She watched the brown back flash through the open glass door. Better not let him find her there when he came out again—doing nothing, perhaps listening. She got to her feet, took two steps to the concrete edge of the pool and dived gracefully in.
    Although it would have explained her instincts about the man whose body she massaged, it was as well for the girl's peace of mind that she did not know who he was.
    His real name was Donovan Grant, or `Red' Grant. But, for the past ten years, it had been Krassno Granitski, with the code-name of  ‘Granit’.
    He was the Chief Executioner of SMERSH, the murder apparat of the M.G.B., and at this moment he was receiving his instructions on the M.G.B. direct line with Moscow.

------- Opening to Atlas Shrugged ---------
    "Who is John Galt?"
    The light was ebbing, and Eddie Willers could not distinguish the bum's face. The bum had said it simply, without expression. But from the sunset far at the end of the street, yellow glints caught his eyes, and the eyes looked straight at Eddie Willers, mocking and still—as if the question had been addressed to the causeless uneasiness within him.
    "Why did you say that?" asked Eddie Willers, his voice tense.
    The bum leaned against the side of the doorway; a wedge of broken glass behind him reflected the metal yellow of the sky.
    "Why does it bother you?" he asked.
    "It doesn't," snapped Eddie Willers.
    He reached hastily into his pocket. The bum had stopped him and asked for a dime, then had gone on talking, as if to kill that moment and postpone the problem of the next. Pleas for dimes were so frequent in the streets these days that it was not necessary to listen to explanations, and he had no desire to hear the details of this bum's particular despair.
    "Go get your cup of coffee," he said, handing the dime to the shadow that had no face.
    "Thank you, sir," said the voice, without interest, and the face leaned forward for a moment. The face was wind-browned, cut by lines of weariness and cynical resignation; the eyes were intelligent. Eddie Willers walked on, wondering why he always felt it at this time of day, this sense of dread without reason. No, he thought, not dread, there's nothing to fear: just an immense, diffused apprehension, with no source or object. He had become accustomed to the feeling, but he could find no explanation for it; yet the bum had spoken as if he knew that Eddie felt it, as if he thought that one should feel it, and more: as if he knew the reason.
    Eddie Willers pulled his shoulders straight, in conscientious self-discipline. He had to stop this, he thought; he was beginning to imagine things. Had he always felt it? He was thirty-two years old. He tried to think back. No, he hadn't; but he could not remember when it had started. The feeling came to him Suddenly, at random intervals, and now it was coming more often than ever. It's the twilight, he thought; I hate the twilight.
    The clouds and the shafts of skyscrapers against them were turning brown, like an old painting in oil, the color of a fading masterpiece. Long streaks of grime ran from under the pinnacles down the slender, soot-eaten walls. High on the side of a tower there was a crack in the shape of a motionless lightning, the length of ten stories. A jagged object cut the sky above the roofs; it was half a spire, still holding the glow of the sunset; the gold leaf had long since peeled off the other half. The glow was red and still, like the reflection of a fire: not an active fire, but a dying one which it is too late to stop.
    No, thought Eddie Willers, there was nothing disturbing in the sight of the city. It looked as it had always looked.
    He walked on, reminding himself that he was late in returning to the office. He did not like the task which he had to perform on his return, but it had to be done. So he did not attempt to delay it, but made himself walk faster.
    He turned a corner. In the narrow space between the dark silhouettes of two buildings, as in the crack of a door, he saw the page of a gigantic calendar suspended in the sky.
    It was the calendar that the mayor of New York had erected last year on the top of a building, so that citizens might tell the day of the month as they told the hours of the day, by glancing up at a public tower. A white rectangle hung over the city, imparting the date to the men in the streets below. In the rusty light of this evening's sunset, the rectangle said: September 2.
    Eddie Willers looked away. He had never liked the sight of that calendar. It disturbed him, in a manner he could not explain or define. The feeling seemed to blend with his sense of uneasiness; it had the same quality.
    He thought suddenly that there was some phrase, a kind of quotation, that expressed what the calendar seemed to suggest. But he could not recall it. He walked, groping for a sentence that hung in his mind as an empty shape. He could neither fill it nor dismiss it. He glanced back. The white rectangle stood above the roofs, saying in immovable finality: September 2.
    Eddie Willers shifted his glance down to the street, to a vegetable pushcart at the stoop of a brownstone house. He saw a pile of bright gold carrots and the fresh green of onions. He saw a clean white curtain blowing at an open window. He saw a bus turning a corner, expertly steered. He wondered why he felt reassured—and then, why he felt the sudden, inexplicable wish that these things were not left in the open, unprotected against the empty space above.
    When he came to Fifth Avenue, he kept his eyes on the windows of the stores he passed. There was nothing he needed or wished to buy; but he liked to see the display of goods, any goods, objects made by men, to be used by men. He enjoyed the sight of a prosperous street; not more than every fourth one of the stores was out of business, its windows dark and empty.
    He did not know why he suddenly thought of the oak tree. Nothing had recalled it. But he thought of it and of his childhood summers on the Taggart estate. He had spent most of his childhood with the Taggart children, and now he worked for them, as his father and grandfather had worked for their father and grandfather.
    The great oak tree had stood on a hill over the Hudson, in a lonely spot of the Taggart estate. Eddie Willers, aged seven, liked to come and look at that tree. It had stood there for hundreds of years, and he thought it would always stand there. Its roots clutched the hill like a fist with fingers sunk into the soil, and he thought that if a giant were to seize it by the top, he would not be able to uproot it, but would swing the hill and the whole of the earth with it, like a ball at the end of a string. He felt safe in the oak tree's presence; it was a thing that nothing could change or threaten; it was his greatest symbol of strength.
    One night, lightning struck the oak tree. Eddie saw it the next morning. It lay broken in half, and he looked into its trunk as into the mouth of a black tunnel. The trunk was only an empty shell; its heart had rotted away long ago; there was nothing inside—just a thin gray dust that was being dispersed by the whim of the faintest wind. The living power had gone, and the shape it left had not been able to stand without it.
    Years later, he heard it said that children should be protected from shock, from their first knowledge of death, pain or fear. But these had never scarred him; his shock came when he stood very quietly, looking into the black hole of the trunk. It was an immense betrayal—the more terrible because he could not grasp what it was that had been betrayed. It was not himself, he knew, nor his trust; it was something else. He stood there for a while, making no sound, then he walked back to the house. He never spoke about it to anyone, then or since.
    Eddie Willers shook his head, as the screech of a rusty mechanism changing a traffic light stopped him on the edge of a curb. He felt anger at himself. There was no reason that he had to remember the oak tree tonight. It meant nothing to him any longer, only a faint tinge of sadness—and somewhere within him, a drop of pain moving briefly and vanishing, like a raindrop on the glass of a window, its course in the shape of a question mark.
    He wanted no sadness attached to his childhood; he loved its memories: any day of it he remembered now seemed flooded by a still, brilliant sunlight. It seemed to him as if a few rays from it reached into his present: not rays, more like pinpoint spotlights that gave an occasional moment's glitter to his job, to his lonely apartment, to the quiet, scrupulous progression of his existence.
    He thought of a summer day when he was ten years old. That day, in a clearing of the woods, the one precious companion of his childhood told him what they would do when they grew up. The words were harsh and glowing, like the sunlight. He listened in admiration and in wonder. When he was asked what he would want to do, he answered at once, "Whatever is right," and added, "You ought to do something great... I mean, the two of us together."
    "What?" she asked. He said, "I don't know. That's what we ought to find out. Not just what you said. Not just business and earning a living. Things like winning battles, or saving people out of fires, or climbing mountains." "What for?" she asked. He said, "The minister said last Sunday that we must always reach for the best within us. What do you suppose is the best within us?" "I don't know." "We'll have to find out." She did not answer; she was looking away, up the railroad track.
    Eddie Willers smiled. He had said, "Whatever is right," twenty-two years ago. He had kept that statement unchallenged ever since; the other questions had faded in his mind; he had been too busy to ask them. But he still thought it self-evident that one had to do what was right; he had never learned how people could want to do otherwise; he had learned only that they did. It still seemed simple and incomprehensible to him: simple that things should be right, and incomprehensible that they weren't. He knew that they weren't. He thought of that, as he turned a corner and came to the great building of Taggart Transcontinental.
    The building stood over the street as its tallest and proudest structure. Eddie Willers always smiled at his first sight of it. Its long bands of windows were unbroken, in contrast to those of its neighbors. Its rising lines cut the sky, with no crumbling corners or worn edges. It seemed to stand above the years, untouched. It would always stand there, thought Eddie Willers.
    Whenever he entered the Taggart Building, he felt relief and a sense of security. This was a place of competence and power. The floors of its hallways were mirrors made of marble. The frosted rectangles of its electric fixtures were chips of solid light. Behind sheets of glass, rows of girls sat at typewriters, the clicking of their keys like the sound of speeding train wheels. And like an answering echo, a faint shudder went through the walls at times, rising from under the building, from the tunnels of the great terminal where trains started out to cross a continent and stopped after crossing it again, as they had started and stopped for generation after generation. Taggart Transcontinental, thought Eddie Willers, From Ocean to Ocean—the proud slogan of his childhood, so much more shining and holy than any commandment of the Bible. From Ocean to Ocean, forever—thought Eddie Willers, in the manner of a rededication, as he walked through the spotless halls into the heart of the building, into the office of James Taggart, President of Taggart Transcontinental.
    James Taggart sat at his desk. He looked like a man approaching fifty, who had crossed into age from adolescence, without the intermediate stage of youth. He had a small, petulant mouth, and thin hair clinging to a bald forehead. His posture had a limp, decentralized sloppiness, as if in defiance of his tall, slender body, a body with an elegance of line intended for the confident poise of an aristocrat, but transformed into the gawkiness of a lout. The flesh of his face was pale and soft. His eyes were pale and veiled, with a glance that moved slowly, never quite stopping, gliding off and past things in eternal resentment of their existence. He looked obstinate and drained. He was thirty-nine years old.
    He lifted his head with irritation, at the sound of the opening door.
    "Don't bother me, don't bother me, don't bother me," said James Taggart.
    Eddie Willers walked toward the desk.
    "It's important, Jim," he said, not raising his voice.
    "All right, all right, what is it?"
    Eddie Willers looked at a map on the wall of the office. The map's colors had faded under the glass—he wondered dimly how many Taggart presidents had sat before it and for how many years. The Taggart Transcontinental Railroad, the network of red lines slashing the faded body of the country from New York to San Francisco, looked like a system of blood vessels. It looked as if once, long ago, the blood had shot down the main artery and, under the pressure of its own overabundance, had branched out at random points, running all over the country. One red streak twisted its way from Cheyenne, Wyoming, down to El Paso, Texas—the Rio Norte Line of Taggart Transcontinental. New tracing had been added recently and the red streak had been extended south beyond El Paso—but Eddie Willers turned away hastily when his eyes reached that point.
    He looked at James Taggart and said, "It's the Rio Norte Line." He noticed Taggart's glance moving down to a corner of the desk. "We've had another wreck."
    "Railroad accidents happen every day. Did you have to bother me about that?"
    "You know what I'm saying, Jim. The Rio Norte is done for. That track is shot. Down the whole line."
    "We are getting a new track."
    Eddie Willers continued as if there had been no answer: "That track is shot. It's no use trying to run trains down there. People are giving up trying to use them."
    "There is not a railroad in the country, it seems to me, that doesn't have a few branches running at a deficit. We're not the only ones. It's a national condition—a temporary national condition."
    Eddie stood looking at him silently. What Taggart disliked about Eddie Willers was this habit of looking straight into people's eyes. Eddie's eyes were blue, wide and questioning; he had blond hair and a square face, unremarkable except for that look of scrupulous attentiveness and open, puzzled wonder.
    "What do you want?" snapped Taggart.
    "I just came to tell you something you had to know, because somebody had to tell you."
    "That we've had another accident?"
    "That we can't give up the Rio Norte Line."

-------- End Examples --------

Now, having read these both, do you want to read more?  That is the role of a hook.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Atlas Shrugged, the Movie, Redux

Someone commented to me that they thought I was being too harsh and insulting in my condemnation of Atlas Shrugged, Part 1, by comparing it to the Cortlandt Homes project in Ayn Rand's novel The Fountainhead--from the climax, when second-hand architect Peter Keating allows a masterpiece housing project designed by protagonist architect Howard Roark to be bastardized and destroyed by pretentious intellectual looters.  (See also my blog post on this subject.)  It was suggested to me that AS, Part 1 was actually superior to The Fountainhead movie, screenplay by Ayn Rand herself.

I felt compelled to reply that on almost any measure of artistic merit, AS, Part 1 is inferior to TF.  I won't say "vastly". The direction of TF by King Vidor was not good.  Gary Cooper's portrayal of Howard Roark was wooden, at best.  But it at least felt like a serious movie, not a hacked together weekend production of Second City Television.  Patricia Neal was perhaps the best in TF, and way above actress Taylor Schilling's portrayal of Dagny Taggart in AS, Part 1, in ability and presence.  Raymond Massey ("Gail Wynand") and other actors in The Fountainhead movie were vastly superior to the polyglot band of weekend dinner-theater pirates in the rest of the AS, Part 1 roles.  Rand's screenplay, whatever the shortcomings because of length and post-production studio fiddling, was infinitely better than the pathetic mess written by Aglialoro and his traveling troop of literary clowns.

It was suggested that remarks by me that people are "rationalizing" their liking of AS, Part 1 constituted argument by ad hominem.  I don't engage in personal attacks.  I do try to be accurate and state facts.  I say I'm correct that many people are rationalizing the merits of the AS movie because
A) they desperately wanted to see a movie; 
B) they want to "win one for the Gipper", ie, stick up for our side to promote the movie, and 
C) they want to defend any liking they may have (based on A) or have expressed (based on B) because their self-esteem is tied up in their own (or others)  perception of artistic appraisals, and so they seek to forestall any loss in self-esteem they may suffer because of liking a stinker.
That's not an attack on anyone, merely an observation over decades of what might loosely be called "human nature" in response to movies.

I will forego any psychological analysis of whether that's really "human nature", but let me clarify the other implication of that statement.  An appraisal of a movie involves two aspects of our cognition: the objective artistic merits (including technical details of production) and our own personal value hierarchy and psycho-epistemological sense of life.  Sadly, most people (especially Objectivists) don't realize that there is nothing whatever wrong with liking a stinker for your own reasons. Virtually everyone I know (O-ist or not) attempts to defend their own subjective tastes on artistic grounds, because that is the route to self-esteem (they think).  But in doing so, they undermine the entire aspect of objective appraisal.  That is, objectivity as such.  It's much more honest to delineate what is objectively good about a movie, including a comparative assessment based on the best possible to Man, and simply say, "I like this stinker for my own, personal reasons, but artistically it has serious shortcomings" (or is even a complete bomb).

I can point to many movies for which I like this or that aspect on this basis, but still say it's a piece of crap.  I won't bore you with examples here, but I could provide a long list.  But I won't fake reality either for myself or for others and pretend that my subjective likes and dislikes are artistically good ones and objectively valid.

Of course, people differ in their ability or training or experience to objectively appraise a work of art--they can make mistakes in delineating and correctly assessing the objective vs. the subjective aspects of a work of art.  Errors of knowledge, as Ayn Rand said.  But that doesn't mean they're right.  And when someone either unschooled in the arts, and especially, knowingly unschooled and inexperienced in creating art--especially good art--attempts to flaunt their subjective opinion as worthy of objective consideration by others, they had better have a really good argument with strong facts on their side.  But then, to do that they need more grasp of (in this case) moviemaking, screenwriting, directing, acting, cinematography, editing, ad nauseum, than merely the experience of sitting in the movie theater with a lot of popcorn and soda.  Otherwise, it's all an attempt to defend the Primacy of Emotions and the thesis "It's good because I  like it!"

But I must add this last comment:  those who wish to defend AS, Part 1 purely on the grounds of item B ("win one for the Gipper") are doing Ayn Rand and Objectivism no service at all.  They are damaging us.  Yes, book sales are up.  They would be up if AS, Part 1 was filmed on toilet paper and done with hand puppets--purely because of the publicity.  That is a short-term effect, and it could be accomplished by other means. 

The long-term effect is much more problematic.  You don't inspire people with the intellectuality of Objectivism by telling them we stand for shlock art.  Michelango didn't inspire the people of the Renaissance by doing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with paint-by-numbers.  Peter Keating did not inspire people to go into the practice of designing beautiful architecture by destroying Cortlandt Homes.  A is not non-A.

Do you argue that at least the movie inspires the unwashed masses to be made more aware of the more concrete aspects of Objectivism?--individual rights, capitalism, etc--and hope that's enough?  That's the approach of the Libertarians, who treat such things as primary and have no grasp of how metaphysics and epistemology determine them. On that basis, we lose in the long run.  The only possible long-term benefit I see from promoting AS, Part 1 as a wonderful production, is if someone buys the book as a result and then leaves it lying around until some day his future kid picks it up.

But it's still a lie.  The book contests are a much more effective way to expose kids to AS.

How many of you recall what Ayn Rand said to the HUAC committee about lies in regard to Soviet propaganda inserted in American film-making?
Rand:  "... Now, here is what I cannot understand at all: if the excuse that has been given here [to this committee] is that we had to produce the picture in wartime, just how can it help the war effort? If it is to deceive the American people, if it were to present to the American people a better picture of Russia than it really is, then that sort of an attitude is nothing but the theory of the Nazi elite – that a choice group of intellectual or other leaders will tell the people lies for their own good. That, I don't think, is the American way of giving people information. We do not have to deceive the people at any time, in war or peace. ... I don’t believe the American people should ever be told any lies, publicly or privately [that is, by the government or by the movies]. I don’t believe that lies are practical. I think the international situation now rather supports me. I don’t think it was necessary to deceive the American people about the nature of Russia..."
A far better approach in my view is for serious Objectivists to stand up and publicly condemn the movie, and acknowledge and proclaim to the world that the production was hijacked by unintellectual cretins who neither understood nor genuinely respected Ayn Rand nor her ideas, and let the public at large see that her genuine defenders had no participation in and have no respect for the travesty that was filmed.  The controversy that would surround this would surely attract a lot more positive public attention to the book than defending the quality of that movie.  At least Objectivism wouldn't be stigmatized as being populated by "groupies" and unintellectual, artistically unsophisticated and unrefined boobs.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A River Runs Through the Aliens

And the flood shall set you free... Reading this editorial over at Pajamas Media (which I'm not a fan of, by the way -- I moniter PJ only as a barometer) I was struck by how poorly and with such lack of insight the author (someone named Barry Rubin) attempted to illuminate us with a metaphor based on a story by Philip K. Dick:
Now, tell me if you think Dick predicted his future, our present. Here’s the plot: The aliens on Ganymede want to invade and conquer the Earth. They have a clever plan for softening up the target. The main character, an Earth Customs Service investigator, is called in for an important assignment.Ganymede... wants to export three toys to earth. of them — they don’t know which — is a deadly weapon. But Earth people are crazy for Ganymede novelties...
Yes, indeed. Those novelties. I have to condense -- in his enthusiasm for space aliens, the author breaks loose his tether and drifts out of orbit.  But his point is
One toy is a virtual reality set — pretty clever of Dick to imagine that in 1959 — so that a child can wear goggles and equipment to believe, for example, that he’s a cowboy. The second toy is a set of toy soldiers and a castle... The final toy is a board game, like Monopoly.  ...the game has become a best-seller. The problem is that the way to win the game is by going bankrupt. The worse the trades you make, the better you do in the game. ...Ganymede is planning to bankrupt the Earth through indoctrination and easily take it over.
You get it.  The river here is neither wide nor deep, and runs somewhere through the asteroid belt.  But  Rubin drinks deeply while taking a meteor shower and draws this conclusion:
So the moral is that the ultimate threat is not military — the toy soldiers — but ideological.
This is what is known as the fallacy of post hoc, ergo, propter hiccup.  Or perhaps an example of sitting a monkey at a typewriter to pound out Les Miserable -- the statement is true, even if the reasoning is founded on one crucial step in our evolutionary development -- Piltdown Man.
How does this story parallel the contemporary West’s situation? Do you have to ask? Because Americans and Europeans are being indoctrinated to think that the weaker, less religious and patriotic, more deeply in debt, and wallowing in guilt their societies are, the better. The first one to go bankrupt — in every sense of the word — wins.
Inquiring minds do have to ask--if you can deduce the missing link between his major premise and his conclusion, you're better than me.

There are certainly much more prescient books if one wants to ruminate on the ideological causes of our decline.  AKA, Atlas Shrugged. And if you want the post-apocalyptic version, Anthem.

But the more important point that Rubin almost touched on was Ayn Rand's view that philosophy -- the ideas men embrace about reality, intellectuality and morality -- is the prime mover of history. This is what made her books such accurate predictors of our future. Surprisingly, I've found far too many of her own admirers who don't grasp this.

But let's keep this lighter for a moment. If you want a science fiction story that more presciently predicts our decline, don't go to P.K. Dick -- go to E.M. Forster, and read The Machine Stops, about a civilization that has buried itself underground, where no one ever leaves their rooms, and they all spend every waking minute watching viewing screens that they use for all communication and information.

Remarkably, The Machine Stops was written in 1909. It could have been written in 2011.

I've commented on it in a distant post, not because it's a great story, but because it's relevant, so let's re-visit.  It is a story about a civilization completely out of touch with reality -- until the machine stops. The machine that keeps them alive. Everyone. The machine that powers their viewing screens, provides all light and heat and comfort and entertainment. (If you live in Chicago you may get this point very well, but then, we're all Chicagoans now.)

In this story, people do occasionally come up for air to travel on high-speed "air-ships", but mostly they fear the light on the surface, and largely they are a people out of touch with reality, counting on the machine to just keep chugging along and providing them the necessities of life. And when it doesn't -- civilization collapses.
...They wept for humanity, those two, not for themselves. They could not bear that this should be the end. Ere silence was completed their hearts were opened, and they knew what had been important on the Earth. Man, the flower of all flesh, the noblest of all creatures visible, man who had once made god in his image, and had mirrored his strength on the constellations, beautiful naked man was dying, strangled in the garments that he had woven...

"Is there any hope, Kuno?"

"None for us."

"Where are you?"

She crawled over the bodies of the dead. His blood spurted over her hands.

"Quicker," he gasped, "I am dying - but we touch, we talk, not through the Machine."

"...But Kuno, is it true? Are there still men on the surface of the Earth?  Is this - tunnel, this poisoned darkness - really not the end?"

"Never," said Kuno, "never.  Humanity has learnt its lesson."

As he spoke, the whole city was broken like a honeycomb. An air-ship had sailed in through the vomitory into a ruined wharf. It crashed downwards, exploding as it went, rending gallery after gallery with its wings of steel. For a moment they saw the nations of the dead, and, before they joined them, scraps of the untainted sky.
I won't trouble you too much with the metaphors here, but if you can't figure it out, you'd better, because the solution isn't to hide underground and escape reality with more unreality. The "garments we've woven" are the ideas we've come to worship as a culture which are destroying us -- post-modernism, socialism, communism, statism, fascism, unbridled democracy, un-principled pragmatism, subjectivism, dogmatic skepticism, fanatical religious mysticism, obscurantist anti-technological environmentalism, unlimited "tolerance" of any openly irrational notion -- you fill in the blanks, there's plenty of examples in all our universities and churches and government offices, and even in our boardrooms.

But above all we have become a culture that worships the idea of sacrifice--of everything good to everything evil, especially reason and the individual in the name of faith and the Collective--on the altars of tradition, compromise, novelty, nihilism and unbridled emotionalism.

The solution isn't more sacrifice. The solution is to value (the antithesis of sacrifice) the ideas that built our civilization--reason, individual rights, facts, principles, absolute truths, and intellectual honesty in all things.

Forster's story is far from perfect, and you can always twist metaphors to fit your purpose--but you'd better not. Ideas are the prime movers of history, if you only take the time to look a little deeper than the last war, the latest election results, or the river bottoms of the New York Times and the Drudge Report.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Broiling deBroglie ... Phun Physics for Phreaks & Geeks

Merely to shake up our audience, because that is, after all, why we are here,  I offer something for the physicists, engineers and other geek savants to ruminate about.  I thought I would just copy some personal notes out of a Word doc I typed up a while ago, and voila, here it would appear to enlighten and enchant you --  but no, it was vastly more painful than that. Let me tell you,  you haven't lived (or died) till you've tried to put equations into Blogger... this was a learning experience, and there is nothing intuitive about the formatting you are seeing here. So appreciate it.  Or else.

Let’s say you have two electrons in free space, and one of them is in motion towards the other electron. At rest, each has a relativistic mass-energy,

Now assume each electron has a corresponding electromagnetic frequency fe associated with a single photon,


Where h is Planck’s constant. For an electron, this frequency is quite high – about 1020 Hz. 100 million terahertz.

Assume a photon of energy Ee can be bound in a circular loop in some way to comprise the electron. (Think of annihilating an electron and positron into two gamma rays—what were the gammas before the annihilation?) By analogy, think of the binding as something like total internal reflection within a dielectric sphere, though my idea is more like a spatial distortion caused by the intense localized concentration of electromagnetic energy.

Further, assume the electrostatic Coulomb field of the electron is modulated at the frequency fe, and think of the static field as radiating outward as a spherical evanescent wave (a near-field effect) —that is, without releasing any electromagnetic energy. This is by analogy to the external evanescent field around an optical glass fiber. This isn’t entirely unreasonable (it can even explain electron spin and magnetic moment), but a more detailed explanation requires adapting a field solution for a fiber optic waveguide to spherical coordinates of a dielectric sphere, taking the limit for a sphere radius of zero. (Only in this limit does the evanescent field of a sphere exhibit the 1/r2 static field dependences of a Coulomb force.)

If you’re really interested in evanescent fields, you can look at, though the treatment is poor. A better reference is a good graduate textbook on electromagnetic fields (eg, Ramo or Jackson). For now, simply assume the Coulomb field can be derived as the evanescent field of a bound photon in a dielectric sphere of zero radius.

Coulomb’s Law for the force of interaction between the static fields of two electrons is


If the static fields of the electrons are modulated at frequency fe, it seems reasonable to say that the Coulomb force is modulated as well. We can set aside for the moment exactly how it is modulated (it might be discrete, for instance, rather than sinusoidal). The main goal is to see if there is a wavelength for the force coupling, on the premises given.

If you grant the premises, at slow speed the electron moving at speed v “sees” the radiating wavefronts of the Coulomb field from the static electron as dopplered up to the frequency


The premise is the Coulomb force experienced by the moving electron is envelope modulated at the frequency difference Df   (greek delta evaded my formatting skills) between the oncoming wavefronts at frequency f'e, and its own internal frequency fe. This is our "matter wave”.


By analogy to an electronic mixer used to subtract frequencies in a radio frequency (RF) heterodyning stage, this is the beat frequency between the two electrons. If you could observe the interacting wavefronts of the (hypothetical) modulated static fields of the two electrons, you would see an envelope modulation corresponding to this beat frequency, and the envelope would be traveling at the speed of light c with a wavelength



Which is, voila, the deBroglie formula (click that link whether you think you know how to pronounce "deBroglie" or not), where p is the non-relativistic momentum of the moving electron. It is worth noting that the same result would be obtained for however many photons we assume to comprise the electron rest energy. It is only important that electrons are the same. The same result would apply for protons to protons. Or any other particle to another particle like itself.

There are a number of problems with my assumptions, but it is intriguing that they give deBroglie’s matter wavelength from such a simple derivation, and worth speculating whether the idea has more substance.

In my next post for this exciting thrill-ride of a thread, I'll show you how to derive all the basic relations of special relativity in 2 pages.   From first principles.  Really.   But before that I shall probably meet the same fate as Hypatia in Agora.