Remember when everyone thought ebooks would replace physical books? Me neither

A tweet today reminded me of a topic I’ve wanted to get off my chest for some time now:

To answer Kessler’s question, no, I do not remember any moment in time when authors and publishers (or even readers) thought ebooks would replace paper books.

I’ve seen and heard this claim so often I can only conclude some massive rewiring of collective memory has beset our culture. There never was any serious wave of self-congratulatory back-patting in the publishing world, never a moment when all involved parties joined their voices and spoke in unity about the demise of physical books. It never happened.

A Google search of “ebooks will replace physical books” discovers exactly one (1) entry on the front page advocating for such a change—and that page is a summary of a debate from a Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance conference in 2015. An august association, I suppose, but not a representative body for all “#authors and #publishers.”

The remainder of the Google search is an object lesson in Betteridge’s Law: “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” The Google search results include:

As Betteridge predicted, all of these missives declare paper-based books will never die, even though their authors drop in the usual journalistic escape-hatch clauses admitting, yeah, okay, ebooks are here to stay. From the way these writers discuss the issue, you would think there’s zero latitude for personal reading preferences. The mere existence of ebooks is treated as a mortal threat to the traditional form.

Since I publish ebooks, some people seem to presume I’m a kind of cultish advocate for end-of-lifeing paper-based books. I’ve even lost friends over the topic. Only about 50% of my reading diet is digital, the remainder being physical books which I cherish. You can purchase my latest book in paper-form, and I’d be more than delighted if you did.

Look again at Kessler’s tweet; there’s a subtle discrimination packed inside it. Ebooks aren’t “real” books, a frustrating non-distinction for many struggling writers. It’s 2017, the 21st century. Indie music acts sell their songs only online; Netflix and Hulu produce award-winning shows only available via streaming; and yet authors who distribute digitally aren’t writing authentic books. A hundred years ago paperbacks were sneered down on as not “real.” Today the distinction seems quaint.

A nickel’s worth of unsolicited advice to those who prefer physical books: Keep reading and keep buying, but by all means, quit ginning up outrage over a nefarious trend that never happened.

Sherlock by train

Sherlock Holmes & Dr. Watson by Sidney Paget (1860-1908) (Strand Magazine)Last summer I had the great fortune to spend ten weeks in Japan. I traveled by train up and down the islands, from the agriculturally diverse Hokkaido to the richly historical city of Nagasaki at the southern tip of Kyushu. Japan is a fugue of culture, architecture, and landscape. The country never repeats itself, but is stitched together by interlocking themes.

On one leg of the trip I made the key mistake of failing to pack a second book, thinking B. Traven‘s The Death Ship was a hefty enough read until my return to Tokyo. Well, I ripped through The Death Ship in no time (a great novel, by the way) and found myself facing a long stretch of time on Japan’s shinkansen (bullet train) without a thing to read. Even if I understood Japanese, Japan’s trains are not like other systems where you might chance on a discarded newspaper or a light magazine in the seat-back pocket. The Japanese do not leave their detritus behind when they detrain. They even pick up their trash when they exit a baseball game.

Desperate, I searched my smartphone and discovered on my Kindle app The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892), the first published collection of Holmes’ adventures. Most of the collection’s story titles are as well-known as books of the Bible: “The Adventure of the Red-headed League”, “A Scandal in Bohemia”, “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”, and more. The stories have fallen into the public domain, hence the collection is often the free sample book Amazon supplies when you buy a Kindle or install their app.

Before my trip to Japan, I was never a fan of Sherlock Holmes. I found the Victorian airs and British pleasantries stuffy compared to Holmes’ American counterparts. When I first read “The Adventure of the Dancing Men” at age ten or eleven, I was going through a boyhood codes-and-ciphers phase. By all rights I should have loved the story. Instead I felt a bit let down by its lack of focus on actual cryptanalysis. As I learned on that train ride, Doyle’s stories are often more concerned with a viscount’s ancestry or Tsarist intrigue or preserving the good name of the British Empire than the dead body lying at Holmes’ and Watson’s feet.

All this is to explain that although I’ve read mystery fiction my entire life, from Encyclopedia Brown at the age of seven to the adult pleasures of Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (which I reread every few years), on that bullet train ride I was not terribly conversant with the Sherlock Holmes corpus. I’d read The Hound of Baskersville a few years before at an acquaintance’s suggestion when I mentioned I’d enjoyed the neo-Gothic Rebecca. Other than some Sherlock Holmes movie spoofs and casual viewing of Jeremy Brett’s BBC series, my exposure to the detective was largely through cultural references and the turns of phrase that have entered our common language, much like someone ignorant in Shakespeare will recognize bits of Hamlet.

Something wonderful happened on that train ride from Tokyo to Kyoto. As these stories of detection and deduction spooled out before me, I realized much of Doyle’s contemporary British audience would have been reading these stories on trains as well. Since he was writing for Strand magazine, Doyle’s audience would’ve picked up a copy at a newsstand before boarding, the Victorian version of downloading an app before a long plane ride.

The cadences and rhythms of Doyle’s stories almost appear crafted for train reading. The percussion of the shinkansen tracks below and the low whistle of the passing wind was the perfect white noise to accompany a Holmes mystery. More than once I started a story as our train left the station, and by the time Holmes was announcing his solution, we were slowing for our next stop. Obviously Doyle wasn’t timing his stories for bullet trains, but it felt he crafted them with a sense of being read in a single sitting between destinations, whether traveling by steam or horse or electromagnets.

How often does Holmes send Watson scurrying to locate a train schedule to confirm some paramount clue or destroy an alibi? Or does Holmes engage in mysterious research in London before setting off by train first thing in the morning, only revealing the details of his research to Watson on the ride north?

Holmes and Watson call for cabs, hire carriages and watercraft, borrow steeds, follow bicycle tracks, and so on. Freedom of mobility is vital to a Sherlock Holmes story. It’s the core question in “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist” and “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”. A horse-and-carriage ride is the central puzzle in “The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb”. The climax of A Study in Scarlet involves, of all things, hailing a cab off Baker Street.

All fiction writers are writing to a perceived readership, whether they acknowledge it or not. This is distinct from a “target audience,” which commercial writers are all too familiar with. (A staff writer for Wired magazine will consciously know her target audience, which is distinct from the target audience for a sportswriter in a Midwestern farming community.) My notion of a “perceived readership” is more personal than a target audience, a writer’s internalization of their desired audience rather than a market demographic.

Some writers write with magazine editors and agents and publishers in mind—people they hope will publish the story they’re crafting. Some writers think of authors they admire or authors they desire to emulate. Some writers are thinking of friends and family whom they hope to impress, or at least earn their respect. Some writers are thinking of the public at large (whatever that abstract concept means) hoping to earn a wide audience.

Unlike “target audience,” it doesn’t mean the writer is actually writing for this perceived reader. The writer doesn’t actually believe only their friends will read their book, or that some big-name writer will pick it up, especially since that big-name writer may be dead. But just as painting a house requires a house to apply the emulsion, a perceived readership in the back of a writer’s mind gives the writer a kind of fuzzy target to aim for without committing to it.

By the time I returned from Japan, I’d devoured three Sherlock Holmes collections. For all the faults and stuffiness, Doyle is a generous writer, one who engaged with his readership and even challenged them a bit, but never denying them their desires. I suspect Doyle (like Dickens) read correspondence from his readership and was sensitive to their criticisms and praise. I don’t think it’s an accident Doyle modeled his first-person narrator as a physician, his own intended profession, and that Watson wrote of Holmes’ exploits as though writing a newspaper article. Not only did it give the public the sensation Holmes lived—many believed so at the time—but Watson’s audience also gave Doyle the house for which to apply the paint.

Doyle’s perceived readership began to coalesce with his target audience, like blurry double-vision sharpening into a single distinct form. I’m not arguing this is desirable or advantageous, but I do think it happened and that Doyle’s writing was the better for it. I also believe this is part of the reason for Sherlock Holmes’ character persisting as a vivid creative construct well into the 21st century. After all, Holmes’ as an individual is not some empty vessel for each generation of readers to pour their own ideals into. His persistence is that he’s odd, unique, idiosyncratic, and ripe for reinterpretation.

This connection between author and perceived readership is a direct rebuttal to the 20th century myth of the “walled-off” author, the lone genius in a room with a typewriter penning works of art unsullied by mammon or mass culture. While Nabokov, Faulkner, and Woolf may not have be writing for money and fame—although I think people are too quick to assume such things—I certainly believe all three were writing for a perceived readership, some idealized notion of the reader they wished to attract.

With the rise of ride-sharing like Uber and Lyft, and with the inevitable arrival of driverless cars in the future, we may experience a fresh resurgence of people with additional time on their hands to read. Who knows? Much as digital music led to the renewal of singles, there may soon be a burgeoning market for short stories and story collections, mysteries and otherwise, for people who seek a brief sojourn while traveling between Point A and Point B without a steering wheel in hand.

What kind of story matches the cadences and rhythms of a self-driving car? Can America produce writers as sensitive and generous as Doyle to produce such work?

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Greatest rejection letter of all-time

Galaxy Science Fiction, March 1953Recently I picked up Robert Silverberg’s superb Science Fiction 101: Exploring the Craft of Science Fiction, an unfortunate title for a remarkably sturdy book. Part memoir, part writing guide, part anthology, I’d recommend it to every writer whether or not they’re interested in science fiction as a genre or pursuit.

Silverberg mingles his breezy autobiography of struggling to get published as a young man in the 1950s with nuggets of practical writing advice he picked up along the way. All of this package is humbly offered to the reader. Even when penning the book in 1987, Silverberg remains in awe of Asimov, Bradbury, and Heinlein (“our Great Exception in almost everything”), although by that time Silverberg’s name was mentioned in the same breath as those masters, and more.

Galaxy Science Fiction, August 1951Science Fiction 101 also reprints thirteen classic science fiction stories from authors like Damon Knight, Philip K. Dick, Robert Scheckly, Vance, Pohl, Aldiss…the table of contents reads like the short list of first-round inductees to The Science Fiction & Fantasy Hall of Fame. Alongside each story, Silverberg comments on why it impressed him and what he gleaned, offering hard, complete examples to his writing wisdom that so many other guides lack.

It’s fair to compare Science Fiction 101 to Stephen King’s On Writing. Both books are a bit more practical and pragmatic in their advice than loftier musings on the craft, such as John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. I suspect Gardner would peer down his nose at writing advice from Silverberg or King, which is too bad. Anyone who can forge a lifetime career with pen in hand deserves to be listened to and considered.

As a young man, while sweating over a typewriter struggling to earn publication credits in the science fiction magazines of yore, Silverberg also earned a degree in English Literature at Columbia University. He applies some of that study here, coming up with incisive observations about storytelling I’ve not seen made before. Offering advice on how to build a story, Silverberg does something wonderful and avoids the conflict word. I’ve discovered “conflict” is off-putting to some young writers, possibly because it suggests violence or supercharged stakes or overwrought emotions. Instead, looking back to the ancient Greeks, he frames story as propelled by dissonance:

Find a situation of dissonance growing out of a striking idea or some combination of striking ideas, find the characters affected by that dissonance, write clearly and directly using dialog that moves each scene along and avoiding any clumsiness of style and awkward shifts of viewpoint, and bring matters in the end to a point where the harmony of the universe is restored and Zeus is satisfied.

It’s not the final word on how to write a story, but it’s a surprisingly serviceable start.

Galaxy Science Fiction, November 1951Silverberg’s candor and generosity to the reader is so no-nonsense, he even reprints the rejection notes he received while canvassing science fiction magazines with his early work. Big-name writers usually dip into their rejection stack for the wrong reasons: to settle a score, or thumb their nose at those who stood in their way years past. Here, Silverberg reprints rejection slips that served to make him a better writer, admitting how he deserved them, and how he was often too young to take their advice at face-value.

My favorite rejection letter comes from H. L. Gold, editor of Galaxy Science Fiction. Galaxy was a bit before my time (I grew up reading Analog, Asimov’s Science Fiction, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction). but Galaxy was well-known to me merely by its reputation. Galaxy was a “serious” science fiction magazine, known for avoiding the lewd subject matter and titillating covers the other science fiction magazines lured in readers with. (I’ve included a few of Galaxy‘s best covers here. The Internet Archive has a remarkable collection of back issues, covers and inside matter, that’s well worth perusing if you have any interest in science fiction’s past.)

Galaxy editor H.L. Gold sent Silverberg this rejection in 1956, when Silverberg had already broken into the field and was padding the back pages of science fiction magazines:

You’re selling more than you’re learning. The fact that you sell is tricking you into believing that your technique is adequate. It is—for now. But project your career twenty years into the future and see where you’ll stand if you don’t sweat over improving your style, handling of character and conflict, resourcefulness in story development. You’ll simply be more facile at what you’re doing right now, more glib, more skilled at invariably taking the easiest way out.

If I didn’t see a talent there—a potential one, a good way from being fully realized—I wouldn’t take the time to point out the greased skidway you’re standing on. I wouldn’t give a damn. But I’m risking your professional friendship for the sake of a better one.

Robert Silverberg was 21 when he received this remarkable letter, perhaps the greatest rejection letter of all-time.

Rewatching Slacker

SlackerAlthough I can’t imagine any of the characters in the film Slacker being terribly nostalgic about anything, it’s worth noting that this year marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Richard Linklater’s gem. Sanctified in The Onion A.V. Club’s “New Cult Canon” and topping numerous critics’ “best indie film of all-time” rankings, Slacker is an odd addition to any best-of list. After all, this is seemingly a film about not giving a shit.

At least, that’s the most immediate impression on first watching Slacker, that and its nontraditional film narrative. Slacker doesn’t follow a story arc of one or two characters, and it’s not a collection of marginally intertwined stories, like Altman’s Short Cuts or the animated Heavy Metal. In Slacker the camera lens floats from one set of people to another, lingering for a minute here or ten minutes there. The camera eavesdrops on a stream of unrelated interactions—in sum, a day in the life of Austin, Texas, circa 1991. Often these moments have no distinguishable beginning or ending, just slices of time in the company of cafe philosophers, conspiracy theorists, guys trying to get laid, and girls trying to be taken seriously.

Entirely linear, Slacker never flashes back or forward, always remaining in the moment, giving the film a kind of bald, unprotected sensation. The camera drops into discussions midstream, giving us the opportunity to watch and listen but leaving it entirely for us to surmise backstories and histories. Then, as one or two people in the group grow fidgety or distracted—or bored—they move on, as does the camera, floating to the next interaction. There’s no soundtrack to speak of, only the occasional background music from a radio or club band, but nothing more. The camera is the star of Slacker, although it took me years to realize it.

The film opens with a young man (director Linklater himself) arriving in Austin and launching into a chain of free-form ruminations while a disinterested taxi driver takes him into town. The film closes with a raucous group of friends driving a convertible up the mountains outside of town and, in a final pique, throwing the camera—the star of the movie—down a cliff. In between, the camera moves between perhaps fifty different vignettes, eavesdropping on everything from the inane and mundane to the fantastical and bizarre.

Director Richard Linklater. (Photo by K.E.B.)

Director Richard Linklater. (Photo by K.E.B.)

Impossibly, each of these moments is wonderful in its own right. Some of the episodes reach father than the others. Everyone who’s watched the film remembers its most famous scene, the overly-familiar young woman (Teresa Taylor, drummer for the Butthole Surfers!) fencing a stolen jar containing Madonna’s pap smear, pubic hair and all. My personal favorite remains the inept burglar caught in the act in an elderly anarchist’s house, only to receive a gentle education on the history of anarchism in America. It’s the most complete and well-rounded episode in the film. It comes near the film’s midpoint, giving the audience a kind of narrative breather before the tour of Austin’s alt-underground bestiary continues.

Considering its unconventional narrative style, Slacker is refreshingly not self-conscious (or self-congratulatory) of its rule-breaking. (The opening with Linklater in the cab may be the only “meta” moment in the film.) For all the ground this self-financed film breaks, it’s comfortable and comforting viewing, the absolute opposite of the avant garde. That’s another reason Slacker sustains after twenty-five years. It’s hard to mock a film-school film and its no-name cast when it’s so relaxed in its own skin.

Any review or retrospective of Slacker is bound to name-drop “Generation X” and I won’t disappoint on that count. (After all, I’ve got some skin in the game.) Slacker is often called the definitive film of my generation. But when I think of the “great” movies of a generation—Easy Rider and The Big Chill for the Baby Boomers, The Social Network for the Millennials—I see aging, curling Polaroids losing their currency with each passing minute—movies of like-aged, like-minded, similarly-groomed people bellyaching they’ve not gotten their due. Slacker is not that film.

One observation critics sometimes make is that this is not truly a Generation X film because not every character is of that age. It’s true, but it’s also true the older non-Gen-X characters are treated differently than the rest. In films like Easy Rider and The Social Network, the older generation is treated with disdain and suspicion. In Slacker, those suspicions are reversed. An age-worn hitchhiker and the anarchist mentioned before are voices afforded the opportunity to air their wisdom to a welcome audience, while the specious logics of the younger characters are treated more as clever amusements. In the film’s final moments, an elderly man strolls down a street narrating into a tape recorder the quiet poetic wisdom of a long, full life—only to be interrupted by a young man, 20 or 21, driving a car with mounted loudspeakers, blaring into the microphone empty rage about guns and knives solving all political problems. It’s obvious where this film’s sympathies lie.

For the A.V. Club’s “New Cult Canon” review, Scott Tobias puts his finger on why Slacker is distinguished from other generation-defining movies:

It isn’t enough to think of Gen-Xers as merely jaded and sarcastic; indeed, there’s little of that attitude on display in Linklater’s film. But there is a sense of profound disconnection, a refusal by young people to participate in a system that will bring them no joy and wither their souls. As one character puts it, “Every single commodity you produce is a piece of your own death.”

My personal introduction to Slacker was in 1992, not long after its release, watching the movie on VHS at a Saturday night pasta feed. Eight or nine of us were crowded into a duplex’s living room in San Luis Obispo, me and my college-aged friends, some I knew well, some I didn’t. In particular, the singer and rhythm guitarist of our band was there. (We were going to be big, but no one could understand what our music was doing.) We were feasting on plates of red-sauce spaghetti and hot garlic bread. One of the women had made her easy-bake Apple Brown Betty. Others brought red wine and six-packs of the local beer. Dinner and a movie, on the cheap.

We were young and about to grow old. The singer was engaged to marry one of women there, the Brown Betty baker who was a housemate of mine. I was becoming involved with another woman in the room, a second housemate of mine that I would go on to live with for thirteen years. There were most likely other sub-plots in that room I was unaware of.

We knew, collectively and subconsciously, we were about to be dropped on a high-speed conveyor belt and told to run as fast as we could to keep up. Some of the people in that room thought they could step out of the way and stay clear of the inevitable. The rest of us knew, it’s called “inevitable” for a reason. For us, “getting ahead” sounded an awful lot like “falling behind.” We were all resigned to what was coming, and resigned to it in our own ways.

That’s why Linklater’s cafe au lait Dostoevskys and conspiracy savants sustains twenty-five years later. The game for the viewer is not teasing apart thought-provoking insights or brilliant dissections of American culture. Most of the musings in Slacker are, in fact, well-adorned horseshit. The game is piecing together how reasonably-educated people would arrive at such philosophies—and everyone in this film has their own philosophy, make no mistake. There’s a postmodern dignity that comes with assembling a personal credo from piece-parts and staying true to it, no matter how whacked-out it is. And that’s what’s going on in this film, with zero irony and zero sarcasm.

Pre-Internet and pre-Seinfeld, Slacker might come across as a grungy sun-drenched film of a drearier, less-snarky age. I say Linklater offers blueprints for an examined life—not the examined life, but examples of them. This is an earnest film. With few exceptions, the characters in Slacker withhold judgment about each other. They give each other the benefit of the doubt. Even when it’s obvious one of them is babbling nonsense from out in the weeds—”We’ve been on the moon since the ’50s!”—the other characters give them their space. There’s a moment in the film where a character takes a swipe at Texas Libertarians, but it seems to me that Slacker‘s code of live-and-let-live stands not far off.

Most critics pick up on a line uttered late in the film: “Withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy.” It’s often interpreted as the film announcing its own thesis statement (possibly the only other “meta” moment), but it’s worth taking a second look.

I don’t see a lot of disgust in Slacker. There’s a bit of it sprinkled around: the roustabout hitchhiker (“I may live badly, but at least I don’t have to work to do it”), a mouthy “anti-artist” berating a hipster at two in the morning, an enraged polemicist in an old-fashioned electioneering sound truck. That may be about it in the disgust department, though.

Slacker 2011, a "re-imagining" produced by the Austin Film Society for the 20th anniversary of the original film.

Slacker 2011, a “re-imagining” produced by the Austin Film Society for the 20th anniversary of the original film.

Listening to Linklater’s director’s commentary (recorded for Slacker‘s 20th anniversary), I gather he’s not terribly interested in elevating emotions like disgust, rage, vengeance, or hatred. So many of his anecdotes about Slacker are soft recollections of easier times: a buddy who came through with film equipment, good times working in a T-shirt shop, a girlfriend-actor he’s still friends with, that sort of thing. Slacker is a compendium of this manner of life. Sleeping on couches, trips to dusty used-books stores, the quest for the best burrito in town: It’s not a universal way of life, but it’s a way of life mimeographed and stapled to telephone poles all across America. Any smallish city or town with a college or arts school has this scene. Slacker is its Platonic ideal.

Returning to that immortal line—”Withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy”—I don’t even think there’s much apathy in the film, at least in its purest destructive form. Shrugging off others’ pet theories or forgoing a work ethic is not apathy. Questioning whether ex-convicts should be denied the right to vote or wondering if the media used Smurfs to inculcate America’s youth—both voiced in the film—doesn’t strike me as apathetic either.

Withdrawal is the common filament of Slacker, the third rail powering the camera’s dolly as it journeys through Austin. The closest Slacker gets to engagement is a gung-ho “cultural terrorist” selling T-shirts on the street. Slacker‘s characters don’t merely question, they question the act of questioning.

What did E. M. Forster write in Howard’s End? “Only connect”? Slacker is “only connect” put to film.

Twenty-five years on, I’ve lost touch with all the folks in that room in San Luis Obispo watching Slacker and drinking red wine. Over the years I intersected with a few of them, connecting briefly before moving on.

I’ll be bold and surmise that, back then, laughing and marveling over Linklater’s creation, none of us wanted to leave San Luis Obispo, or even that room. After leaving, we never wanted to return either. Perhaps we never truly left it behind.

I suppose that’s why I rewatch Slacker every few years, just as I reread certain books which have deeply affected me at points in my life. Rewatching Slacker is reconnecting with a past and making it present for a moment. It keeps alive within me a little bit of that necessary withdrawal.

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Philip K. Dick on realism, consistency, and fiction

Philip K. Dick: The Last Interview and Other ConversationsI recently dove into the so-far-superb Philip K. Dick: The Last Interview and Other Conversations (from Melville House, publisher of the increasingly-intriguing Last Interviews collection) and am enjoying every page. I’ve written before about my semi-tortuous negotiations with PKD’s novels, and am finding (some) justification for my issues in these interviews with him.

With PKD I remain hamstrung: he’s more of a speculative fiction (and philosophical) writer than the run-of-the-mill hard sci-fi writer, which is right up my alley; I absolutely love his questions of existence, identity, and freewill that lay the foundations of his novels; and he’s a Bay Area writer to boot. And yet I find him to be a flawed writer, one who was so-very-close to writing perfect novels but had trouble overcoming basic hurdles, such as the cardboard characters and sci-fi’s obsession with “ideas” over story.

(For the record, my list of great PKD novels, in no order, remain A Scanner Darkly and The Man in the High Castle. I’m sure PKD’s fans find that list ridiculously short and astoundingly obvious. I still pick up his work now and then, so who knows, maybe I’ll find another one to add. PKD was more than prolific.)

In The Last Interview, PKD mentions to interviewer Arthur Byron Cover his early affinity for A. E. van Vogt. (I recall being fascinated with van Vogt’s Slan in junior high school, a book built from much the same brick as Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.) PKD observes:

Dick: There was in van Vogt’s writing a mysterious quality, and this was especially true in The World of Null-A. All the parts of that book do not add up; all the ingredients did not make a coherency. Now some people are put off by that. They think it’s sloppy and wrong, but the thing that fascinated me so much was that this resembled reality more than anybody else’s writing inside or outside science fiction.

Cover: What about Damon Knight’s famous article criticizing van Vogt?

Dick: Damon feels that it’s bad artistry when you build those funky universes where people fall through the floor.

It’s like he’s viewing a story the way a building inspector would when he’s building your house. But reality is a mess, and yet it’s exciting. The basic thing is, how frightened are you of chaos? And how happy are you with order? Van Vogt influenced me so much because he made me appreciate a mysterious chaotic quality in the universe that is not to be feared. [Emphasis mine.]

It’s the questions after my emphasis that make the book’s back cover (“How frightened are you of chaos? How happy are you with order?”), and for good reason: they seem to strike near to the questions asked in all of PKD’s work.

But I’m interested in the line about the building inspector. Damon’s review of Null-A is dismissively brief (but I suspect what’s being referred to here is Knight’s essay “Cosmic Jerrybuilder”), and I’ve not read Null-A, but in principle I line up behind PKD on this one. Reality is not as sane and orderly as many writers would have us believe. If I’m critical of contemporary literature’s fascination with “hard realism”—obsession, really—it’s because I think PKD has put his finger on a kind of shared truth: reality is fragile, but what a thorough facade it provides. It’s one thing for the average person to think they have total understanding of things they have no access to—the heart of a politician, the mind of a celebrity, the duplicity of a boss or coworker—but it’s truly tragic when a writer writes as though they have this reality thing all sewn up.

In contemporary literature, there are many moments where the narrator (either first-person or third-) will have some moment of clarity into another person’s life. Often this moment is the epiphany, although it’s barely epiphanic. (See Charles Baxter’s “Against Epiphanies” for a better argument on this point than I’m capable of producing.) These moments are the obverse of contemporary lit’s obsession with quiet realism, its cult of poignancy. But there’s chaos in our world, and it produces strangeness and unexpectedness that is neither poignant nor tied to fussy notions of realism. These fictional moments of clarity usually reveal what the writer fantasizes the world to be—a charge usually leveled at genre fiction.

My only quibble with PKD’s observation is that I don’t see chaos as an external dark force in the universe tumbling individuals and civilizations about in its hands. We are the chaos. We produce it. I’m less concerned about the wobble in Mercury’s orbit than the ability for just about anybody to murder given the right circumstances. (See the 2015 film Circle for an exploration of just that.)

The human psyche is like a computer performing billions of calculations a second. Most of the results are wrong, some off by orders of magnitude. But the computer smooths out the errors (in its own calculations and others’) to walk a thin line of existence and consistency. And the computer tells itself that its footing is steady and sure, when in fact it’s walking on the foam of statistical noise. The number of calculations it gets right are the rounding error.

Update: Shortly after posting this I discovered Damon Knight partially backtracked on his criticism of A. E. van Vogt:

Van Vogt has just revealed, for the first time as far as I know, that during this period [while writing Null-A] he made a practice of dreaming about his stories and waking himself up every ninety minutes to take notes. This explains a good deal about the stories, and suggests that it is really useless to attack them by conventional standards. If the stories have a dream consistency which affects readers powerfully, it is probably irrelevant that they lack ordinary consistency.

Reading closely, Damon isn’t exactly agreeing with PKD’s comments (or mine, for that matter), but he does concede some flexibility on the supposed rigid strictures of fiction writing.

The Man in the High Castle: Amazon takes on Philip K. Dick’s first masterpiece

Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick

Let me preface this with an admission: I am not a diehard fan of Philip K. Dick. I am not a “dickhead”, in the parlance of his devotees. It’s evident to me that the quality of his output is more varied than his admirers are willing to admit. Their reliance on that timeworn science fiction apologia—PKD was a man of “ideas”—is proof to me that his legacy is not as secure as the other sci-fi greats. Yet I return to PKD’s books once every couple of years like a miner hiking up a mountain once again, optimistic his next claim will hit the mother lode…only to so-often return home with mere nuggets or flakes for the effort.

One chestnut you’ll often hear regarding PKD is that some of the highest regarded science-fiction movies of all time are based on his work: Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report, Paycheck. But walk that list again and you’ll discover a real mixed bag of film-making. Total Recall is fun hyper-violent nonsense. Minority Report is a toothless speculation on the future of civil rights. The hot mess that is Paycheck may be John Woo’s worst film ever.

Blade Runner is obviously a Hollywood classic, but to polish PKD’s legacy on the lapels of Ridley Scott’s masterpiece gets it backwards. As a great fan of the movie, I eagerly picked up the source material expecting something even deeper, more atmospheric, and more profound than the film—and was puzzlingly disappointed. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is neither future noir nor an edgy humanistic soul-searcher. Like so many adaptations of PKD’s work, Blade Runner is best described as based on the book’s premise. The film’s central profundity (could Deckard be a Replicant?) is crumpled-up and tossed aside by the master: in the novel, Deckard administers the Voight-Kampff test on himself and obtains a negative result. Question answered, conundrum resolved, tension dissolved. It’s not a horrible book, just preoccupied with other matters.

A Scanner DarklyUnlike Blade Runner (and every other adaptation of PKD’s work), A Scanner Darkly is striking in its fidelity to the original material. Richard Linklater’s rotoscoped gem holds up thanks to a cast who takes the material seriously but not reverently, as well as Linklater’s own confidence in the script. But is it science fiction? PKD’s semi-autobiographical take on hard drugs, drug abuse, and the surveillance state was intended to be set in then-contemporary Anaheim (circa 1971) until he was persuaded by his publisher to introduce light science-fiction touches to satisfy his readership. The decision shows, as the advanced technology (“scramble suits” that hide the identity of the main character) comes across more like a metaphor of addiction, paranoia, and altered states than the speculative scrying of a future that never arrived.

A Scanner Darkly remains my favorite PKD novel. It’s human and humorous and touching and sorrowful. (Charles Freck’s pathetic botched suicide may be the best three pages PKD ever wrote, and is portrayed almost word-for-word in the movie.) Unlike the Bay Area’s 1960s and 1970s drug novels that preceded Darkly, PKD’s wild-and-wooly scenes of narcotics-fueled escapades are not left to stand on their own, defiant and proud of their craziness. PKD follows through to their grim consequences without blinking, flinching, or apologizing.

For all the emphasis science fiction puts on its authors’ treasured abilities to foresee our future, a survey of pre-1980s science fiction will reveal that those predictions almost entirely involve robotics, automation, and space travel. Very few predicted the scope, magnitude, and intrusiveness of the information technology revolution we are currently enjoying. Do not read science fiction for its predictive powers; you will be burned every time.

The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. DickLike that ever-optimistic miner in search of another vein of gold, late last year I picked up The Man in the High Castle thinking that this might be the Philip K. Dick novel that finally convinces me of his preeminence. It’s a big-premise book, to be sure, but rather than a book of “ideas” PKD offers an alternate history where the Nazis and the Japanese have won World War II, smashed down Europe and Asia, and decimated Africa. The two fascist empires spread from the opposite coasts of North America inland, and there the dust of WWII settles. The Japanese and the Germans halt their campaigns hundreds of miles apart, leaving a swath through the midwestern United States free of either’s direct control.

It’s not quite the US of A—this strip of land is not run by the Constitution nor, it seems, any cohesive nation-state at all. It’s more like a No Man’s Land of diners and cineplexes that carved out its existence thanks to the two new superpowers’ reluctance to drive further inland. (I have to wonder if PKD was making some kind of statement about the Second Amendment here.) An action-oriented author would’ve launched a thriller from this starting point, something akin to the jingoistic Reagan-era Red Dawn. Fortunately, PKD’s more cerebral approach takes this supercharged premise and offers a calmer, thoughtful story of individuals caught in the middle of a brewing new war.

Those individuals are what give The Man in the High Castle a richer and more varied texture than the other PKD books I’ve read. The novel is shot through with parallel and crisscrossing story-lines: An antique broker in San Francisco caught selling forgeries; a trade bureaucrat assigned to the Japanese-controlled Pacific States of America; a Jewish jeweler hiding in broad daylight from the Germans; a Colorado waitress and an Italian truck driver who take to the road. A big-premise book with geopolitics on its mind, PKD makes the most of it. He broadens its scope in each chapter without jumping the narration to the upper echelons of power the way a more populist novel might. (How many Civil War alternate histories feature stiff scenes of Lincoln consulting his cabinet, or Jefferson Davis arguing down General Lee? Too many, I’m certain.)

High Castle even features a taste of Kremlinology. With the death of Führer Martin Boorman, the German power structure goes wobbly, leaving the characters (and the reader) to read the tea leaves and guess who will assume the levers of power. (Hitler, having gone insane due to venereal disease, was pushed out of control years before the time of the novel’s events.)

The Grasshopper Lies Heavy

The most fascinating device in the novel is The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a book-within-Man in the High Castle that is itself an alternate history. In Grasshopper‘s telling, the Axis loses the war and the victorious United States and Great Britain (maintaining its colonial holdings) enter into a kind of global stalemate, an Anglo-American Cold War. The Soviet Union, decimated by the Nazis, never recovers in The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, or for that matter, in The Man in the High Castle.

The Grasshopper Lies Heavy by Hawthorne Abendsen

When I first encountered the device of this alternate history inside an alternate history, it looked as though it was going to be abused. The characters discuss the book at length in some chapters. Unfortunately, they often discuss it less than artfully. But as a device for detailing the historical differences between our world and theirs, it works, albeit in a clunky manner. Other alternative histories will often use boilerplate exposition in prefaces and introductions to explain how the world of the book is different than our own. PKD moved that exposition into the mouths of his characters.

Although Grasshopper is banned in the German Reich, it seems widely available to party members and apparatchiks. It’s fashionable to discuss the book over drinks or while riding a zeppelin. The common dissemination of Grasshopper in High Castle‘s world is a nice touch; PKD understood that there’s a wide gulf between de jure and de facto censorship in totalitarian countries. Eight years before Tom Wolfe and Black Panther cocktail parties, PKD made Grasshopper “alt-history chic” in The Man in the High Castle.

Grasshopper is not the only literature discussed in High Castle. Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” also are referenced, but always in the kind of past tense that suggests the termination of America’s literary tradition. PKD never overlooks a chance to view America through the prism of bygone nostalgia. (Mickey Mouse watches and Civil War firearms are in particular highly prized as vintage artifacts.) It all lends to an atmosphere of a once-ascendent culture cut short by defeat and now cherished by its conquerors. The Japanese are eager to possess American culture, eager to transport it back to the main islands, but not terribly interested in emulating or absorbing it in any way—much like the West pillaged the Orient for its antiquities but not its wisdom.

Likewise, the Americans in High Castle have grown accustomed to their situation. There is little energy to fight the past wars, instead preferring to kowtow to the new regime and make do with the new reality.

Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle

the-man-in-the-high-castleNot long after I finished reading the novel I learned that Amazon had released the pilot of a new TV series adapting The Man in the High Castle to the small screen. (You can watch the first episode here for free.) I don’t know much about Amazon’s foray into producing television content. My business association with the company is little more than filling out a couple of Web forms to sell my books. In return, they send me automated emails and the occasional bank deposit.

That said, I was naturally curious to see how well High Castle could be adapted to the screen, especially once I learned that Blade Runner director Ridley Scott was producing the series. Mostly I asked myself if Hollywood would once again adapt the premise of a Philip K. Dick book rather than adapt the book itself.

Watching only the first episode, I can say Frank Spotnitz’s script has plumbed the novel deeper than its back cover blurb. This is not a TV series “reimagined” from the source material. Characters and situations have been converted one-for-one, albeit with different emphases, but with a fair amount of respect for PKD’s original vision.

The show is handsome, not going overboard with period costumes or locations (although the poorly-rendered CGI backdrops of fascist New York and San Francisco give an unfortunate cartoonish effect to certain scenes). The production elected to go with gray, washed-out film coloration and drab earth tones; it looks as though World War II never really ended. In fact, the palette reminds me of the scheme used in Captain America: The First Avenger. This pilot episode could easily be a sequel to an alternate cut of that movie, one where The Red Skull crushes Captain America, leads the the Nazis across the Atlantic, and steamrolls over the Eastern seaboard with wave after wave of Panzers and A-bombs. Now, today, in this alternate 1962, disenchanted Americans in clapboard shacks watch groomed Aryans on television game shows answer insipid questions while their military service medals glint under studio lights. There’s nothing wrong with this approach per se, but when a standard-issue gunfight broke out in the first ten minutes, complete with the good-guy shooting a bad-guy preparing to shoot the good-guy’s buddy, I wondered if I was going to regret devoting myself to the 1 hour and 1 minute playing time.

Where PKD’s narration jumps about in time and space, Amazon’s production linearizes the story, simplifying motivations and situations. These Americans are not sapped of their will and making small-talk with their Fascist overlords. They’re plotting rebellion, reminiscing about fighting the good fight on the beaches of Normandy and Virginia, and, in general, dreaming of headier days of fireworks and apple pie. PKD never mocks this sort of flag-waving nostalgia, but it’s easy to see he’s not enamored with it either.

PKD’s High Castle recognizes good and evil in the world; the book is not so postmodern that it morally relativizes the Nazis, for Christ’s sake. The good done in PKD’s world springs not from baseball and the Bill of Rights, but from more basic, philosophical sources: Goodman Brown’s epiphany, the suffering in Miss Lonelyhearts, the authenticity of pure thought, the good in acting beyond one’s immediate self-interests. For the television version, goodness comes from not being a Nazi.

In the show, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy’s book form is replaced with a banned newsreel depicting stock footage (our stock footage, not the alternate universe’s) of VE- and VJ-Day sailors in dress whites kissing women in Times Square, US marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima, Madison Avenue ticker tape parades, and so on. So explosive is this 8mm film, Americans are shot in the streets for possessing it; so moving, it drives a grown woman to tears upon her first viewing. This is the MacGuffin (of sorts) driving the episode and presumably the entire series: get that canister of film to Canon City, Colorado, and into the hands of the presumptive American rebel force. The producers of that failed Red Dawn remake are probably slapping their foreheads right now.

Having seen only one episode, it’s too early to damn the enterprise as a whole. I do wish that Hollywood could, for once, give us our due. There’s plenty in PKD’s High Castle for modern viewers to sink their teeth into. The alternate history PKD offers is surprisingly tasty. I could easily imagine the show recounting it (starting with FDR’s assassination) in the vein of Oliver Stone’s JFK, repeating events from different perspectives to emphasize the malleability of history. I haven’t even touched on the importance of the I Ching to PKD’s book, which is mentioned only briefly in the first episode. Knowing how the novel ends, I have to wonder how the show will weave the I Ching into the series. Or will they simply treat it as Oriental mysticism—a shame, considering how much respect PKD gives it as a source of meditation and reflection. (As well as it’s centrality to the book’s genesis and execution; PKD used the I Ching to generate early drafts.)

PKD’s novel wraps up not with explosions or theatrics—scrappy American rebels rappelling into Nazi High Command—but a lively discussion at a cocktail party. The Man in the High Castle is not a book of tidy endings. In the concluding pages, story lines open up rather than shut down. Philosophical questions lead to more questions. I’m not terribly optimistic that the TV series will see the wisdom in this. Fourteen years after 9/11—a decade and a half of US invasion and occupation, civil rights forfeitures, and the tightening omniscience of our surveillance state—I would hope that the producers of The Man in the High Castle would see the wisdom of not romanticizing the resistance against an occupation of the American homeland. Still, Spielberg and Tarantino both proved that the Nazis are the neatest, tidiest, most easily expedited film villains you can toss onto the screen. No reason to waste all that easy loathing in a story where they don’t get their violent, satisfying comeuppance.

Into the Wild and the continued fascination with Christopher McCandless’ death

Into the WildOriginal published November 10, 2014. Revised July 15, 2015.

When I learned that Christopher McCandless’ sister Carine had published The Wild Truth, a memoir of growing up with Christopher as well as revelations of abuse within their family, I was surprised at my personal reaction. Many of my feelings I recognized from the time I first read about Christopher over a decade ago. Some of the feelings were new, however—defensive emotions for Christopher, unusual for me regarding a person I’ve never met.

Of course, I did meet Christopher “Alexander Supertramp” McCandless via Jon Krakauer’s bestseller Into the Wild. If Krakauer had published Into the Wild as fiction, he’d be lauded to this day for constructing a sturdy and memorable character, a modern ecotopian Prince Hal whose untimely tragedy stood as a sharp warning to America’s tabloid-driven, go-go 1990s. That Krakauer’s book was based on true events only cemented its standing.

Since its publication over twenty years ago, well-worn copies of Into the Wild have been passed from eager hands to eager hands with the assurance that this is the Baedeker to living an authentic, truthful life. It’s a brilliant read, brilliantly constructed and brilliantly executed. For all the complaints Krakauer has received over the years (he’s often accused of mythologizing McCandless’ exploits), the criticisms would hold no water if the book was a stiff recounting of facts, timetables, and inventories. Christopher bursts off Krakauer’s pages full of vim and vigor, a complicated young man of effusive talents, predictable weaknesses, and eccentric foibles.

I’ve not seen Sean Penn’s film adaptation, but it sounds like he chose to portray McCandless like Christ in the Gospel of John, enlightened and inspired and inspirational—not of this earth. Krakauer, a more evenhanded journalist, knew better. He humanizes McCandless even though he’s obviously intrigued, even infatuated, with the young man. For example, in Into the Wild Krakauer details his own foolish and head-strong solo attempt to climb Alaska’s Devils Thumb. He surely knew doing so he risked criticism of self-indulgence, but the tale perfectly explains by example his affinity for Christopher McCandless.

Into the Wild challenges the reader from beginning to end in all manner of ways. Time and again you must answer a personal question about McCandless: What exactly do I think of this guy? The proof of Into the Wild‘s sturdiness is that you might answer that question a dozen different ways throughout the book.

So, why my own mixed feelings on hearing of a Carine’s new book on her brother? Jon Krakauer introduced me to a vivid and lucid life, one that will stay with me for years. What could trouble me hearing Christopher’s story once again?

Born under a bad sign

Christopher McCandless was born in 1968, making him three years older than me. I have little in common with him otherwise. He was the golden son of a well-to-do family, a star athlete, popular and gifted, a graduate of Emory University with degrees conferred for history and anthropology. I flopped out of high school, technically graduating with a B+ average. Only by the grace of God did I stumble into a good university, then dropped out a year later while enveloped in a smog of marijuana smoke thickened by beer carbonation, much like Pig-Pen in Peanuts walks about in a cloud of grime.

Shortly after dropping out of college, I got in my car and drove. I drove down the California coast all the way to the Mexican border, made the hard decision not to jump across, and then aimed the hood ornament at Las Vegas and hit the gas. Halfway to Vegas, some time around midnight, I pulled off the highway onto a dirt road and cruised a hundred yards into the pitch black Nevada desert. I sat in the dark, the packed dirt of the road freezing my butt, my back against the front tire, and stared out into the darkness trying to figure out…something. Whatever pushed me into the Nevada desert was ineluctable but formless. When I woke up, shivering, I climbed into the backseat and slept a few more hours. The next morning I entered Las Vegas grimy as hell. I had a meal, drove around the city’s downtown, and asked myself what exactly I was doing there. Then I drove back to my rented room in San Luis Obispo.

A few months later, jumpy again and frantic about my life’s direction, I loaded into that same car a cheap tent, a grocery bag of food, some paperbacks, and a Hibachi I borrowed from a friend. I drove north on the winding Highway 1 this time, the endless Pacific yawning out to my left. I ended up at a beach outside of Monterey. I pitched the tent between two sand dunes. The Hibachi proved useless. I had in my haste forgotten to pack charcoal and matches, or for that matter, raw food to cook. I’d also forgotten a sleeping bag, a pillow, or blankets of any kind. A six-pack of beer and a bag of mixed nuts made for a hearty dinner that night.

I have a few more stories like this, but I’ll leave them be. There was a pattern of escape in that stage of my life, one that I recognized immediately while reading Into the Wild. I can’t compare these rather empty and brave-less jaunts to Christopher McCandless’ ruminative journey across the American West and into Alaska’s interior. I was never in any real danger. I was never gone for more than three days. I always had a bank card in my wallet for extra money. I could have called any number of people from a pay phone for help in a moment’s notice.

What I cannot fully explain, even to myself today, is why I undertook any of these manic unannounced departures. They continued until I was about 23, my last one when I was living with a woman and had to explain my way out of it to her when I returned.

What struck me about Krakauer’s book is that he can’t explain why McCandless flew from the good life either. Krakauer tries and tries, even bringing in his own tale about Devils Thumb as way of example, but a lucid explanation is nowhere to be found. It’s not his fault. Without a subject to interview, Krakauer must deduce an awful lot from interviews with McCandless’ acquaintances and the paucity of clues he left behind. But every reader’s first and central question—Why did Christopher flee from his past?—remains unanswered to the last page.

In the forward to Carine McCandless’ The Wild Truth, Krakauer explains he chose not to include details of the familial abuse Christopher suffered to honor the family’s wishes. I respect that. What I don’t respect is Krakauer’s either-or of how readers interpreted this exclusion from Into the Wild:

Many readers did understand this, as it turned out. But many did not. A lot of people came away from reading Into the Wild without grasping why Chris did what he did. Lacking explicit facts, they concluded that he was merely self-absorbed, unforgivably cruel to his parents, mentally ill, suicidal, and/or witless.

I suggest there are other critical interpretations that don’t require dismissing Christopher McCandless in this manner. From Krakauer’s follow-up writings—in Outside and elsewhere—he appears unwilling to entertain those interpretations.

But without this information, readers of Into the Wild form ideas of their own, positive and negative, and most of them clichéd. Impetuous youth—young man seeking Truth—the life of the tramp—even Hemingway-esque man versus nature—all reflect light on McCandless’ bravado but lack true explanatory power. Abuse or McCandless’ disillusionment upon learning of his father’s infidelities, while intriguing, hardly seem like enough jet fuel to carry him from a tony Washington D.C. address to the depths of Denali National Park.

This is why I don’t look upon Carine McCandless’ book with hope. No, I’ve not read it, so don’t view this as a condemnation or even a recommendation against picking it up. It’s just that I suspect her book will be one more attempt to decode Christopher’s psyche as A leading to B leading to C, neatly arranging his motives and back-story the way an English teacher enumerates the salient facts of Hamlet’s situation prior to Act One.

My defensiveness is in earnest. To date, all attempts to explain McCandless’ impulses only reduce him from a human being to a symbol or a metaphor, a grab bag of terminology and ideology.

No, worse: It’s reduced him to two grab bags of ideology.

On one hand, there’s the Authoritative framing. Terms like reckless, irresponsible, and schizophrenic have a comforting effect when applied to someone who steps beyond the norm and suffers for it. Framing Christopher through the authoritative lens leads to summing him up as a head case who stumbled naively into certain doom. That’s why he died in Alaska.

(Haruki Murakami notes a similar framing in Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche when he admits to “looking away” from the Aum Shinrikyo cultists because they represented a “distorted image of [the Japanese].” Like Kraukauer, he too has trouble locating their motivations, and it hurts his book. He later admitted the Aum cult was the “black box” of Underground.)

On the other hand, thinking of Sean Penn and the “cult” of Christopher McCandless, there’s the Romantic framing. Web sites memorializing Christopher have sprung up on the Internet, including one (christophermccandless.info) which solicits and publishes essays on how Christopher has changed lives by example. The abandoned bus in Alaska has become a Mecca for young people—in particular, young white men—who brave the bush and snow to visit his death scene. For the followers of Christopher McCandless, terms like enlightenment, questing, and burning desire define and give meaning to his life. Chris was an inquisitive soul seeking truth, beauty, and purity. That’s why he died in Alaska.

If this framing—reckless versus romantic—sounds wearily familiar, it’s because the debate over McCandless’s death has become nothing more than a flash-point in a broader argument we’ve had in America since he and I were born: “The Fifties” versus “The Sixties.” In America those numbers have grown into symbols, binary oppositions of light versus darkness, forward versus backward, good versus evil. I find them frustrating and reductive, but it’s the language we’ve inherited, and so I invoke them.

Seeds, alkaloids, mold, amino acids

While the core question of Christopher’s fate may be Why would he flee? (or, for some, What was he running to?), the factual question that eludes a clean answer is the medical cause of his death. (Nearly half of the Wikipedia article on Into the Wild is devoted to this mystery.) Disappointingly, the contention over McCandless’ legacy—this inane, ceaseless debate of the constrictive Fifties versus the liberated Sixties—has boiled down to chemical analyses of some seeds.

Christopher McCandless in Denali National Park & Preserve, Alaska. His corpse was discovered in the bus he’s resting against here. The bus remains a kind of mecca for Into the Wild devotees.

While living out of a bus in the Alaskan interior, miles from civilization, McCandless subsisted on a diet of squirrel and bird meat, rice he’d packed in, one moose he bagged (but whose meat he failed to preserve), and wild seeds he’d foraged. In his later diary entries he indicated that he believed the potato seeds were killing him, and Krakauer agrees. But how? These seeds had been gathered for thousands of years by indigenous peoples for food, why would they kill him now?

Over twenty years’ time, Krakauer has advanced four—count them, four—theories:

  1. In his original article for Outside magazine, Krakauer suggested Christopher had misidentified the toxic seed of a wild sweet pea with potato seed. (This is presented as his cause of death in the movie.)
  2. While writing Into the Wild and with more time to investigate, Krakauer came to believe the potato seed contained swainsonine, an alkaloid that stifles ingestion of nutrients. In other words, Christopher was receiving sufficient calories and nutrition to live, but his bodily processes to absorb those calories had shut down.
  3. After that had been scientifically ruled out, in 2007, with the movie adaptation about to hit theaters, Krakauer suggested that the seeds McCandless had collected were wet and developed a poisonous mold.
  4. In a 2013 New Yorker article, Krakauer announced the mystery had been solved: Rather than an alkaloid, the potato seeds contained an amino acid called ODAP which, like the alkaloid of his second theory, caused death by inhibiting ingestion of nutrients.

I don’t blame Krakauer for continuing to puzzle over this mystery. The medical cause of Christopher’s death is the only question of factual importance remaining unanswered. But with Krakauer’s Theory #3 came a whiff of desperation, of someone determined to sustain a favored pet theory no matter what the facts demonstrate. With Theory #4 that whiff became the odor of denial. Theory #4 has been disputed by chemists who’ve tested the seeds for the presence of the amino acid, leaving the question of McCandless’ death once again up for grabs.

There’s quite a bit at stake here. The irresponsible/reckless side of the debate often argue that McCandless’ own ignorance led to his death—not ignorance of toxins, but ignorance of the gauntlet he was undertaking when he struck out across the Alaskan interior. Krakauer’s continued announcements of new answers gives buoyancy to the conviction that McCandless could have continued living his authentic life in Alaska under a more favorable set of circumstances. Who would fault McCandless for failing to recognize an undocumented biotoxin in the wild seeds he was gathering? Ignoring, of course, that no laboratory can detect this poison.

Those on the romantic side of the debate have welcomed each of Krakauer’s new theories as further buttressing to prop up the Legend of Christopher McCandless. For example, Salon’s story on Krakauer’s fourth theory was first headlined “Chris McCandless’ death wasn’t his fault”. Later, Salon revised the headline to “’Into the Wild’s’ twist ending”. The original headline is preserved in the article’s URL. (Headlines are often included in the URL to improve search engine results. Changing the URL later can cause problems, so it remains fixed even if the headline is edited.)

It’s worth pointing out that Outside magazine’s web site no longer hosts Krakauer’s original 1993 article “Death of an Innocent”. Selecting that link redirects to “The Chris McCandless Obsession Problem” by Diana Saverin, dated December 18, 2013. Saverin’s article discusses the legions of McCandless fans who expose themselves to physical harm, and even death, in order to touch and walk within the bus McCandless perished in. It appears Krakauer’s story has been purged from Outside magazine’s web site. Links to it in Saverin’s article return 404 “not found” errors and searching the site locates no usable copy. Saverin’s article is not critical of Krakauer, and it’s difficult to know what to make of Outside‘s missing pages and URL redirection.

(Fortunately, Krakauer’s original 1993 article was reprinted elsewhere, including at The Independent. It was later removed from their site, leading me to now link to a copy stored at the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.)

“He understood the risks he was taking”

From Carine McCandless’ 2014 interview with Outside magazine:

Because of Chris’s childhood situation, he felt this need to push himself to extremes and prove something. Things came pretty easily to Chris—and by that I mean he was smart and he was good at everything he tried to do—so he had to up the ante a bit and make things harder. Chris believed firmly that if you knew exactly how the adventure was going to turn out, it wasn’t really an adventure. He understood the risks he was taking, and they were calculated, and there was a reason for it.

(Emphasis mine.) This is the crux of my issue with Krakauer’s continued defense of Christopher McCandless. He’s attempting to have it both ways—to claim Christopher was not suicidal, not reckless, and completely in control of the situation, and then claim his death was understandably unavoidable, all in the service of assuring McCandless’ fans that, under slightly different circumstances, Christopher would have fared well in Denali National Park.

But if Krakauer’s perpetually evolving hypothesis is correct, Christopher did not understand the risks he was taking. In engineer-speak, his survival had a single point of failure: He relied too heavily on a single food source, a poisoned source, according to Krakauer. Note that I’m not suggesting McCandless was reckless. Krakauer’s morphing defense of McCandless serves to perpetuate him as a paragon of living a full life. I’m saying the tragedy should be treated as a warning rather than a model.

There’s a fifth theory pursued by filmmaker Ron Lamothe in his documentary Call of the Wild: Chris McCandless starved in Alaska. Not ingested an agent which caused him to stop receiving nutrition, but simply starved due to a lack of available calories. Over the course of 119 days, “despite some success hunting and gathering,” Lamothe theorizes, “McCandless was not able to secure enough food on a daily basis.” It’s so simple it sounds too obvious, but Lamothe makes a strong case with numbers and research from the World Health Organization for support.

Why Krakauer’s and others’ determination to avoid this conclusion? Admission of caloric starvation is admission of defeat in the larger ideological battle. McCandless’ life has been converted into a proxy for this country’s culture wars, a string of battles where no one—no one—raises the white flag. Instead, the soldiers and field marshals and aide-de-camps simply pretend the last loss never occurred and move their attention to another stretch of the battle front. I’m unable to see how this situation honors or respects Christopher McCandless’ life.

“I often felt like a wild animal”

In Christopher’s diaries, he referred to his quests in warlike terms. (“The Climactic Battle To Kill The False Being Within And Victoriously Conclude the Spiritual Revolution!”) Sometimes his plans sound like he’s describing an experiment. Many years ago I learned about another young man who also decided to forgo modernity, to escape civilization, if even for only a few weeks. In the case of this other young man, it was, in fact, an experiment.

In 2002, Alastair Bland, a student at the University of California Santa Barbara, launched what he called “My Project”. For ten weeks he only ate food he gathered in and around Isla Vista, UCSB’s student community. Like McCandless, he opened this experiment full of high hopes. Also like McCandless, Bland was an anthropology student. At UCSB Bland learned hunter-gatherer societies

live freer lives, with more leisure time, than agriculturalists. Twelve to eighteen hours per person per week is all time needed by the famous !Kung people of the Kalahari Desert, for example, to collect all the food they need. This leaves more time for reflection and relaxation than most people in our affluent society ever have—the !Kung don’t need to work to pay rent.

Both Bland’s and McCandless’ rose-tinted exuberance was fueled by a disdain of our modern consumerist society. That disdain was shared by those around Bland:

They marveled at how great [the experiment] was and exclaimed that they would some day try to do something similar. They thought it was a good thing to boycott the American market and a shame more people didn’t appreciate nature’s bounty the way I did.

But Bland’s enthusiasm waned as his experiment progressed:

The people closest to me, more often than not, criticized what I was doing. They said I was becoming weird and that my obsession was taking over my life. They said that I was alienating myself and that all I ever did was gather, cook, and eat…

Even now I don’t believe what I did was very constructive. It was a memorable time in my life, to be sure, and it was a good thing to have tried. But to carry on like that forever would have been, for me, social suicide.

Krakauer stresses throughout Into the Wild and in later writings that McCandless was not in Alaska to commit suicide. I agree. Christopher comes across as too vibrant a personality for that. For him to be suicidal is to believe he was living in a pure manic state for years, hiding or suppressing his depression until his last days in Alaska. But Bland’s term “social suicide” hangs in the air as a remarkable description of what his experiment was truly proving.

I would try to tell myself as consolation that I was somehow perfecting my body and soul, but everywhere and everyday I encountered other people, people smarter and healthier and stronger than I.

The first half of the above sentence could have come straight from Christopher McCandless’ mouth. The second half is nowhere to be found in Into the Wild. And Bland discovers the above while foraging not in Alaska but Southern California, possibly the mildest climate in the Western hemisphere. He foraged along a coastline rife with an incredible variety of edibles, yet Bland’s staple was tree figs because they were the easiest to secure. When he gorged himself on them, they left him nauseous and bleeding from the mouth. Even though Bland didn’t suffer a caloric deficiency (he gained weight during his experiment), he was deteriorating from the inside out.

In Bland’s writings, both in 2003 and later, he comes across as an imperfect Xerox of Christopher McCandless, the toner ink a little less strong, the lines a bit fuzzier, a photostat who survived the journey rather than succumbed to its ordeals. In 2011, Bland’s blog rings of grandiose announcements:

“I was drenched in sweat and rather uncomfortable in the ripping gale that stormed about the mountaintop.”

“A hero’s journey through the Baja badlands in search of a hidden kilo.”

“A Daring Bicycle Ride Through Greece”

While these declarations hold superficial similarity to “Alexander Supertramp” McCandless’ bravado, they are only a surface veneer applied to more quotidian goals. Here Bland enjoys fine wine and craft beer, and he seems unconcerned about surviving off the land. He appears to view nature as a kind of experience to return to in-between necessary bouts of city life. Bland may be described as a bon vivant in the roundest sense of the phrase, one who relishes fresh air as much as he does the bottle of 2007 Pinot Noir he uncorked at the summit of California’s Mount Diablo.

Bland’s 2003 experiment is a vital data point when weighing Christopher McCandless’ fate. Krakauer’s never-ending pursuit to discover new Alaskan biotoxins is an atrophying defense of a way of life Alastair Bland discovered unworkable, an “alienating” “social suicide” that consumed his life. Krakauer and McCandless’ fans hang on to the belief he would have survived Alaska if not for an understandably unavoidable mix-up. They assert that, given a better roll of the dice, McCandless’ battle to “Kill the False Being Within” would have been a clear and decisive victory against modernity, consumerism, and whatever other 1950s ills you wish to conjure up. Bland’s experiment acts as a control to these notions.

Bland concluded his “My Project” experiment eating at a “horrible Mexican restaurant” with his father:

I really felt that I had become a shameless thief and a coward; that I had given up all my self-respect; and that I was going a little crazy, all for the sake of My Project.

Like those who encouraged Bland to keep fighting the good fight (even as he knew what a falsehood his life had become), Krakauer, Sean Penn and too many others are still rooting for Christopher McCandless to win the day—and leading many young people to make harmful, even fatal, decisions. Maybe it’s time to step back and admit that McCandless’ survival was a matter of him conceding defeat and returning to civilization. That concession doesn’t means McCandless was reckless or foolhardy. It would’ve indicated growth and maturity. And I suspect he was experiencing just that.

As Krakauer documented from McCandless’ own diary, he attempted to return to society but was blocked by a river swollen with snow-melt. I have to wonder if McCandless was not merely starving but also realizing his vision of a pure and authentic life was a one-way ticket.

“Even when full and satiated and liberated from the physical desire for food,” Bland wrote, “I couldn’t relax, I was held captive by thoughts of food. I sometimes dreamed of figs and climbing around in trees.” Is this the authentic life McCandless strove to achieve? His corpse weighed 66 pounds when discovered.

When I drove home from Las Vegas drained and feeling a bit defeated—when Bland took that first bite of his carne asada burrito—that’s the moment in the Hero’s Journey where the hero turns around and walks back on the path he cut with his own feet. That’s the hero’s journey, dammit, heading home graced with a wisdom one did not originally possess, the journey Chris McCandless didn’t take.