Taking a few days off for the Thanksgiving holiday. Expect a new post on Tuesday or Wednesday or thereabouts.

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I’ll be the fire escape that’s bolted to the ancient brick

Charles Stross, author of Accelerando and other sci-fi books, wrote a fascinating post two weeks ago (thanks to Ari for linking it). He talked about the challenge of designing society for posterity: how to make a social order that could run a “generation ship” without falling apart.

Generation starships: they’re not fast.

If you can crank yourself up to 1% of light-speed, alpha centauri is more than four and a half centuries away at cruising speed. To put it in perspective, that’s the same span of time that separates us from the Conquistadores and the Reformation; it’s twice the lifespan of the United States of America.

We humans are really bad at designing institutions that outlast the life expectancy of a single human being. The average democratically elected administration lasts 3-8 years; public corporations last 30 years; the Leninist project lasted 70 years (and went off the rails after a decade). The Catholic Church, the Japanese monarchy, and a few other institutions have lasted more than a millennium, but they’re all almost unrecognizably different.

[…]

I’ve been (inconclusively) batting around some ideas with Karl Schroeder — how do you design a society for the really long term? There are a couple of levels to consider: notably, decision-making and economics. And it doesn’t look as if we’ve got any good solutions to either.

You should read the whole post; it’s fascinating stuff. And if you think about it, there’s a hidden question in there. A society that could remain stable aboard a generation ship – an enclosed biosphere hurtling through space – is, of course, a society that could remain stable aboard Spaceship Earth.

Too bad the question itself makes no sense.

Don’t get me wrong: “how do you design a society for the really long term?” makes perfect grammatical sense. You can even start imagining along those lines, as Stross and his friend Schroeder evidently did, for several ‘grafs worth of thought. But if you consider what those actual words mean – specifically, design, society and long term – the question becomes impossible. There is no way to answer it.

Let’s say Stross, or NASA, or even you, come up with a way to answer the question. And let’s say a generation ship – a vessel capable of interstellar travel along a lifespan of hundreds of years – gets built. Here’s what it’ll look like on Day One.

NASA Project Director: Okay, guys, remember what we told you …
Generation Ship Crew: Right, right, we remember.
NASA Project Director: … you’re an oligarchical commune with rotating leadership roles and multiple redundant judiciaries …
Generation Ship Crew: Mm-hmm, got it.
NASA Project Director: … lower the radiation shields every 400 days to prevent genetic drift …
Generation Ship Crew: It’s all in the three-ring binder. We’ve got it.
NASA Project Director: Okay. Just checking. Good luck, people!
(ship door seals; generation ship takes off)
Generation Ship Crew: SPRING BREAK! WHOOOO!

Okay, maybe things won’t fall apart that fast.

But the entire premise of Stross’s question ignores an obvious hurdle: if some social scientist theorizes the Perfect Society for a generation ship, who’s to say anyone inside the generation ship is going to follow it? Especially once they’re light years away from the home world? NASA can tell the crew, “The engineers are in charge; if what they say isn’t law, the ship stops spinning and O2 stops filtering and you all die in six weeks.” But that doesn’t matter, unless every non-engineer aboard the ship also agrees.

To be fair, Stross isn’t suggesting that the Perfect Society be dictated from on high. He closes the post with the question, “What sort of governance and society do you think would be most comfortable, not to mention likely to survive the trip without civil war, famine, and reigns of terror?”

But the question is still irrelevant. Stross can prove, using all the equations social science has to offer, that (say) an anarcho-syndicalist state where the Chief Engineer, the Head Gardener and the Captain of the Dodgeball Team act as a non-legislative judiciary is the only stable state for a closed, high-maintenance biosphere that has to have a population greater than x in 450 years. But that proof is irrelevant to the people inside that biosphere unless they believe it. If I scrub the oxygen filters, I might be convinced after a few years that I’m the most important person aboard the ship. After all, without me, everyone dies.

And even if NASA somehow indoctrinates every member of the first generation of the crew in their Perfect Social Theory, there’s a reason this sci-fi construct is called a generation ship. It will take more than one generation to get where it’s going. Four and a half centuries from here to Alpha Centauri at 0.1c; that’s eighteen generations. Who’s to say your kids will hold to the anarcho-syndicalist ideal with the same fervor you did? Or their kids? It only takes one generation to decide the reactor only needs sixteen control rods instead of twenty for the entire project to fail.

Far more important than the question of what should happen is the question of what will happen.

So let’s say we lock 250,000 engineers, biologists, chemists, physicists and janitors inside an asteroid and slap it toward Alpha Centauri. We tell them, in the strictest language we know, what they have to do in order to stay alive. But once they get airborne, it’s anarchy – not in the “jungle savagery” sense, but in the “no recognized law” sense. What form of social order will evolve?

My guess: the same ones we’ve seen throughout history. The human race evolved in an open biosphere with no set instructions on how best to live. A generation ship changes two of those variables, closing the biosphere off from mutation and leaving a three-ring binder of Best Practices. But otherwise, we’ll probably see what we’ve seen throughout history: warring tribes, dueling factions, a period of disorder that leads to a strong preference for law and a powerful state that arises as a result. A quarter of a million of Earth’s best and brightest go in; forty-five decades later, Augustus Caesar steps out.

# # #

I am going to read a little into Stross’s post now.

I suspect that implicit in the definition of “Perfect Society” is stability. Stross hopes that the Perfect Society will in fact be so utopian that it will not change, because no one will ever have a reason to change it. Not only will it fulfill everyone’s needs, but everyone within it will recognize that it will fulfill everyone’s needs. It’s a perpetual motion machine, requiring only its own input to keep going.

(The first question – if you discover this perfectly stable social order, why do you even have to leave Earth? – might merit another post)

This implicit premise – if I’m right in ascribing it to Stross – highlights a regrettable belief in technocracy. Technocracy is the belief that if we only put the right experts or the right rules in place, the social order will run itself. Our current problems, like poverty, corruption, ignorance and violence, do not well up from human nature. They’re artifacts of an outdated culture. If we pass the right laws, we can get rid of anything we don’t like.

Both conservatives and liberals are guilty of this.

Conservatives follow it in the form of “legislating morality.” Outlawing abortion springs to mind. “If abortions are outlawed, then no one will have any abortions!”, conservatives believe, contra all sense and experience. In reality, outlawing abortions means that women will terminate their pregnancies in dangerous, illegal ways. You cannot change the desire of a woman to own her own body by passing a law.

Liberals follow it in the form of “managerial liberalism.” A recent example: the stimulus package! The federal government passes a $787,000,000,000 “recovery package” to distribute money to local agencies and companies. Shockingly, some of this money has gone to waste. The most recent example: four Congressional districts in Hawaii that don’t exist received over $40,000,000 in stimulus money. Similar bookkeeping problems exist in Arizona, where the fictitious 86th Congressional District has already received $34,000,000. “That’s not what we intended to happen,” say liberal economists like Paul Krugman (who argue that there wasn’t enough stimulus) and Dean Baker. Of course it isn’t. But your intentions are irrelevant. You cannot change the desire of people to scheme for a little extra once the money faucet gets turned on.

Whether on the Left or the Right, technocracy supposes that human nature and cultural trends can be changed by top-down legislation. Draft the right rules, put the right people in charge, and the generation ship that is our world can sail on, untouched and unchanging, until we all turn into Star Children and join the galactic Overmind. In the real world, though, unintended consequences always crop up.

We’re all trapped in this biosphere together, hurtling through the galaxy far below the speed of light. And if we don’t learn a willingness to rule ourselves, throw out the systems that don’t work and take responsibility for our own screw-ups, we’re not going to reach Alpha Centauri alive.

I lay a puzzle as I backtrack to earlier times

Truly great art makes me want to make art myself. Knowing me for the conceited bastard I am, you’d think the opposite: that I’d be inspired by Dan Brown novels or Oliver Stone movies or Nickelback songs to create my own rebuttals, showing them up. But bad art just depresses me. Good art entertains me. And great art compels me to run and catch up.

I thought I’d have a handle on Sleep No More, the interactive theater installation sponsored by the American Repertory Theatre. The CCE, the premier collegiate-level interactive murder mystery theater troupe, did this sort of thing twice a year. Sure, Punchdrunk Theatre, the British troupe that originated Sleep No More, probably had a higher budget and better actors. And taking Macbeth as inspiration would make things creepy. But I knew what to expect.

I had no idea what to expect.

After idling in a packed bar, Misch and I, along with twenty other audience members, were ushered into a long hallway. We were given white plastic masks, instructed not to talk but to touch anything we liked, and then led up a flight of stairs. What had been an abandoned Brookline high school a moment ago became a decaying hotel, covered with odd photographs, stuffed chairs, marked-up books and other knicknacks. Misch and I poked around the hotel lobby and the adjoining sitting room until a Hitchcock blonde with a pillbox hat hurried through the hall outside. We followed her.

We followed her down two flights of stairs, where she ducked into an office. A dozen audience members crowded along the walls, watching her rifle through a desk for something – a photograph. She stared at it, lost in shock, until a short man with a small mustache, dressed in dinner jacket with suspenders, stalked in. He snatched the photograph from her hands. He glared at her; she smiled at him, pleadingly; no words were exchanged. He seized her in his arms and kissed her. The air filled with feathers.

The two of them separated. I followed the man; Misch followed the woman.

And that’s the real genius behind Sleep No More. Not (just) the atmospheric minutiae with which they strew every room in the “hotel” they’ve created. Not (just) the wordless performances, acrobatic gyrations and haunted looks that recreate the story of MacBeth. Not (just) the nightmarish surreality created by the artful use of light, sound and space. What makes Sleep No More work is that the story changes drastically depending on whom you follow.

And you have to choose, because the characters don’t wait for you. The man I followed most of the night (Malcolm, I believe) took off at a sprint several times, forcing me to hurry in turn. This led to the image of a man in a dinner jacket fleeing down the halls of a hotel, pursued by white-masked figures: a bit of theater which the audience helped in creating. I followed Malcolm as he and the other courtiers carried off the King’s body, where it lay in state. When Malcolm and the others went to drink in a basement speakeasy covered in sawdust I followed them. Therein they played a card game of unclear meaning, which I endeavored to understand until one of them charged me with a hammer. I backed out of the way, but he wasn’t going for me: he was going for the wall behind me, to which he tacked a Nine of Spades.

And this was all before the banquet.

If these proceedings sound like a nightmare, that was the effect intended. Every element – visuals, sounds, staging, timing – contributed to a reality that looked recognizable but jerked to a different rhythm. At times I found myself standing in a crowd, watching one woman try to feed another poison. At time I found myself alone in a room with a woman and an empty crib. Had I been in another room, I might have seen a murder, or a still birth, or a drunken dance. Without a meticulous attention to detail and a genius grasp of the surreal, it wouldn’t have worked. But it worked perfectly.

See it with someone you trust.

I’m in love; what’s that song; I’m in love with that song

Last week.

Monday

“I’m just not sure if I’m doing the right thing,” she said, shrugging.
I thought for a moment, settling back into the couch. Then: “What’s the one thing you could do right now that would make you feel in control?”
“Driving somewhere.”
“Where?”
“The beach.” A pause. “Salem. That would do it.”
“Okay,” I said. “You want to go?”
“Yes.” Then she did a double-take. “Wait; do you?”
I checked my watch. “It’s only 10:00 now. There’ll still be a bar open when we get there.”

Tuesday

Wednesday

Someone on the Davis Square LiveJournal community asked a few months back for volunteers to practice Rubenfeld Synergy on. I volunteered because I thought it would be interesting.

Rubenfeld Synergy relies on gently shifting or pressing the subject’s body while they lay back. The subject describes how they feel while this goes on: what parts of their body are in contact with the table, how the realignment of weight affects the rest of their body, and so forth. It’s not a massage, or even acupressure. The subject has to remain present and vocal throughout.

It’s like assisted meditation. Constantly narrating how your body feels keeps you grounded in the present moment. You focus on sensations and abandon the stream of background chatter we all have in our heads. I came out of the session feeling the opposite of detached: very present, as if continually being told, “I’m standing, I’m walking, I’m sitting.” A very Zen type of concentration.

I wouldn’t ascribe any more mystical aspects to this than I would to meditation or massage. But it was interesting.

Thursday

we’ll give ourselves new names, identities erased

As promised, my final thoughts on The Prisoner.

Short Version (Spoiler Free): The ending was better than the original ending (which isn’t hard), but the interstitial episodes were worse than the original interstitial episodes (which also is not hard). Final verdict: decent.

Longer Version (Contains Spoilers): Well.

When I wrote about the problem of genius in movies, I referenced Mr. Scott’s “transwarp beaming” in the new Star Trek movie. Transwarp beaming is supposedly a genius breakthrough, but it doesn’t seem any more “genius” than flying faster than light or teleporting to a planet. In a universe where all tech is handwaved, calling another piece of handwaved tech “genius” tells the audience nothing.

I had a similar reaction to the middle (middling?) episodes of The Prisoner. Everyone in the Village acts weird – including the one “normal” man, Number Six. We don’t know who’s acting weird because they’re crazy, and who’s acting weird because they’re hiding something, and who’s acting weird because that’s how they always are. As a result, the moments meant to shock – like 1112 stabbing 909 in the neck – just confuse us. Was that supposed to happen? If so, why? If not, what went wrong? We never know, and the show won’t bother to tell us.

Add to this the fact that the Village follows no consistent physical laws and all tension goes out the window. Are Six, Sixteen and the Winking Lady going to find the ocean over that sand dune? Maybe. Is Six going to finish rifling through this apartment before Two shows up? Could be. Is a fiber-optic camera watching Six right now? Probably. There’s no situation that can not be changed, as if by magic. So our heroes are either in constant danger or no danger at all. The visual and narrative cues we would rely on to tell us if they were aren’t available here.

Oh crap! Everything's normal!

The best episodes of the original series – and as much a fan as I am, I must admit they weren’t all gems – hinged around two compelling questions: why did Six resign? and who is Number One?. Simple questions, but exploring them and their ramifications made compelling drama. Why did Six resign his intelligence agency post? What did he know that was so valuable that he’d be thrust into this Village-prison to uncover it? And why won’t he save himself a lot of heartache and just say why? Similarly: if Number Two isn’t in charge, then who is? And why do the Number Twos keep changing? Bizarre little enigmas, especially for primetime television.

The new Prisoner briefly addresses both of these questions in the third episode, “Anvil,” and then abandons them. Six resigned (we learn in the flashbacks with Lucy) because he learned something he didn’t like about Summakor. And there is no Number One in the Village. Problem solved! Next!

Of course, removing these tensions pulls the teeth from the rest of the series. We have no idea why Two is keeping Six in the Village. And we have no idea why Six would engage Two on his own terms, instead of spending every waking minute walking toward those ghostly twin towers on the horizon. So the exchanges between them have no venom, the battles no suspense, and the odd little satires of suburban life no satirical edge.

The finale, “Checkmate,” revisits the interesting questions about the social order that the original series was known for. Can you fix someone against their will? If you can, should you? How aware are the Village residents of the “super-conscious” life that Mr. Curtis’s wife imagines them in? And what of the people who die in the Village – 1112, Lucy, 147’s daughter? This was fascinating. You could have built a whole series around this. Instead, you get protagonists toeing the sand uncertainly or screaming melodramatically.

If I were showing this to someone who’d never seen it before, I would skip “Harmony” and “Anvil” entirely. The rest, keep as they are.

NOM NOM NOM

someone to hear your prayers, someone to care

Oh, hey, it’s my 500th post. Wave hello.

In addition to watching surreal TV and a variety of war movies, I’ve also been reading. Specifically: a steady diet of thrillers.

Lee Child: a retired British TV producer who turned his hand to the novel, his first book, Killing Floor, introduced the character of Jack Reacher. A discharged Military Policeman from the U.S. Army with a 50″ chest, he wanders the country with no fixed address and no permanent ties. He stumbles into trouble and cons, plans, cheats or brawls his way out of it every time.

I’ve read two books of Child’s: Persuader and One Shot. They’re formulaic but that doesn’t detract from their allure. Reacher may have the unreasonable martial prowess of all action movie stars – in One Shot he takes on five guys at once and kills a man by bear hug – but he doesn’t rely on it. Most of his mysteries he solves by outsmarting someone, or at least knowing a little more about the world. Jason Bourne meets Hercule Poirot.

Overthinking It has weaned me off the phrase “guilty pleasure,” which I would normally use to describe Child’s novels. Instead, I’ll say they speak to only one emotion: the laugh of triumph over a defeated foe. Fun beach and airport material.

Harlan Coben: I started reading thrillers on the advice of an agent and an editor, in order to improve my own writing. In that regard Coben’s writing has been the most instructional. Every novel of his I’ve read opens with a first paragraph that hooks me, strings it out to a first chapter that keeps me going, then turns it into a first half that carries me until the plot twist.

His stuff isn’t perfect, granted. The most interesting character in each novel is never the protagonist. The plot twists are predictable only in that they’re always the one thing that would turn the story most on its head at that moment (she’s not really dead!, etc). But his writing grips you and drags you into the heart of the action. It may be a formula, but so is Coca-Cola.

I’ve read Gone for Good and No Second Chance, and I may yet read more.

# # #

Why is the thriller genre so easy for me to read?

As I speculated earlier, thrillers tap into the lust for revenge we all have: the joy of a brutality sanctioned by polite society.

I think it speaks to that fundamental animal rage which all of us – who share more than 95% of our DNA with animals – carry. The “laugh in triumph over a defeated foe” that Orwell talks about: the brutal, pre-rational appeal of nationalism. We want to kill, and we want our killing to be sanctioned by a moral code. He hurt my family, therefore it’s okay if I cut off his fingers. He killed my wife, so it’s all right if I slaughter everyone he knows and burn his house to the ground. No impartial jury or outside observer would think that’s a proportional or fair response – but come on! I’m the Good Guy, so my savagery makes me driven. They’re the Bad Guys; their savagery makes them subhuman.

But ultimately, in stories like that, the tissue-thin distinction between Good Guys and Bad Guys suggests more than it divides. We don’t cheer the Good Guy because he did the right thing by stabbing the Bad Guy in the top of the skull. We cheer the Good Guy because he totally fucking killed that dude! Did you see that? We identify with him because he has his reasons – they took my job, they hurt my family, whatever – but that’s secondary. The chaotic, reptilian roar of victory after bashing someone’s neck seals the deal.

start by admitting from cradle to tomb isn’t that long a stay

Black Book (Zwartboek): One of those movies that the DVD case doesn’t do justice to. The plot feels like a cliche: Jewish girl in the Netherlands, separated from her family during World War 2, dyes her hair blonde and seduces a German officer to aid the Resistance. She finds herself torn between her affection for the officer and her desire to avenge her parents. The “seduction-and-betrayal” story has been told before.

What makes Black Book different is Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Starship Troopers) behind the camera. Verhoeven moves the film along at a breathless pace, catapulting our heroine from placidity to tension to danger to a temporary respite with little pause between. He doesn’t skimp on the gore, either, shredding civilians, partisans and Nazis with blizzards of automatic fire. Sex is frequent and graphic. These are bleeding, sweating, fucking human beings.

Verhoeven also assembled a hell of a cast. When telling a seduction-and-betrayal story, directors have to take special care to keep their heroines from looking like prostitutes or victims. Carice van Houten, as Rachel, has no such problem. Rachel is confident, opportunistic and, while capable of deep tenderness, also frank in her sexuality. When Mr. Kuipers, a resistance leader in Amsterdam, asks her how close she’d be willing to get to an S.S. officer, she asks, “You mean, am I willing to screw him?” After a pause: “I’ll go as far as he’s willing to go. Okay?”

carice van houten

The S.S. officer in question, Captain Ludwig Muntze, is played by Sebastian Koch (who was equally excellent in The Lives of Others a few years earlier). He’s not a reluctant Nazi: when he brings Rachel back to his apartment, he brags about having seized it from “the capitalists” (for which read “the Jews”). But it’s clear he believes in fighting a more civilized war than his comrades in the Gestapo do and has a touch of poetry in his soul. And the mercy and tenderness he shows Rachel leads the audience to, if not cheer for him, at least hold their breath when things get tense.

War makes monsters of us all, Black Book tells us; even the Resistance is full of betrayals and cruelty. The movie doesn’t end with the surrender of Germany. In fact, it’s the genius of Verhoeven’s tight, suspense-thriller plotting that the liberation of Amsterdam makes things worse for our heroine: once a Jew hiding among Nazis, she’s now an S.S. sympathizer hiding from vengeful Dutchmen. Verhoeven goes to deliberate excess here, as he is wont to do, subjecting our heroine to pornographic levels of melodrama. A world of shit rains on her head.

Spiritual and physical brutality aside, Verhoeven turns what could have been a cliched tale of victimhood and prostitution into a tense, compelling and innately real story of heroism. The heroes and villains keep surprising you and the plot twists unload like a Sten gun. The movie keeps you on edge until the very end, when the titular black book that one character has used to document all the others is finally revealed.

black book

(Postscript: I wonder if the subtitlers were having a bit of fun with the English-speaking audience. The German officers refer to the Dutch resistance as “terrorists” instead of a more contemporary term like partisans or guerillas. This leads to a few ironic scenes, like one German officer accusing Muntze of “negotiating with terrorists” when Muntze secures a cease-fire with the resistance. Muntze defends his actions as sparing German soldiers from danger behind the lines; his comrade accuses him of “defeatism.”

I don’t believe Verhoeven intended to compare the 21st century West to the Nazis; that’s a blunt, extreme analogy and the rest of the film doesn’t bear it out. And it may just be the choice of the subtitle editors. But if Verhoeven were making the point that monsters exist on both sides of a war, the film succeeds there)