Writer in Residence · 07/14/2011

An Interview with Gabriel Blackwell

I’ve been a fan of Gabriel Blackwell’s work since the first piece of his I read, “The Little Death” in Conjunctions. When his piece LATITUDE 33° 11’ NORTH, LONGITUDE 40° 28’ WEST came out in DIAGRAM 11.1, I was thrilled anew, as I wanted to see how Gabe’s personal aesthetic would intersect with that magazine’s distinctive one. You could say that I was intrigued by the idea of observing Gabe’s mind in this environment, under these conditions, even though, of course, this is an illusion, as the journal imposes only the loosest of conditions and simply liked his work and found it fitting. As a side note, “selection” is one of those few terms that is found in both the literary world and that of evolutionary science…

As it turns out, Gabe’s story does play with grids and schematism as the works in DIAGRAM so often seem to do, while also being very much of a piece with his other work in its combination of invention and allusion, its involuted sentences that coil around one another, its wordplay, its fusion of registers, and so forth. Take a look at it if you haven’t already. The drawings—at first you think, are they crossword puzzles? They could be—Georges Perec, for instance, was obsessed with crossword puzzles and wrote one for a French magazine for a long time. But they’re not—there is no solution, and the words don’t fit into the grids. Are they, then, some primitive video game, some version of Go? Are the shapes representational or are they purely symbolic? The answers are yes, yes, yes, and yes, I think. The Game of Life and the game of Go aren’t all that different. And yes the shapes are symbols, but we can’t help but attribute meaning, letting those shapes tell a story, one that turns out to be dramatic and somewhat epic. In fact, the whole story is a back-and-forth between language and non-language, between rules and the unruliness of language, ocean, life. I was fascinated enough by the whole thing that after several readings I wanted to ask Gabe some questions about the story and about his relationship to science in general, and he was kind enough to indulge me. And if you don’t know about the Game of Life itself, or have always thought of it as that game with the little pink and blue pegs where you are forced to get married and have kids just by virtue of driving around the board, you can read up on and play around with the scientific one here: http://www.bitstorm.org/gameoflife/

TH: How have you and science gotten along with one another?

GB: I had a lot of trouble with the so-called “life sciences” in school, I think because there was a certain presumption of knowledge there that I found ugly and rather arrogant. Also, probably, because my memory for facts and classification is… fluid. But physics, let’s say, or astronomy, or any field of inquiry with some give to it, some acknowledgement of its provisional nature, I get along with just fine. I think that’s probably evident in my fiction, too.

TH: Had you tried bringing science into your fiction before this? What were the results?

GB: Well, the thing that has just gone up at Uncanny Valley Press, Neverland, was an earlier attempt at the scientific (it was written long before “Latitude”); I think that element’s always been there. My first published story, “The Behavior of Pidgeons,” has some scientific references in it, viz. its form is that of the lab report, and its manikin, Walter Pidgeon, was the star of Forbidden Planet, a classic of science fiction cinema.

TH: Does “experiment” in science have anything to do with “experiment” in fiction, or is this a false cognate like the fact that the Aboriginal word for “dog” happens to be “dog” (according to Wikipedia, at least)?

GB: I don’t know the etymology of “experiment” as regards literature, but it does seem that literature has always been something of an experiment, and in a way maybe not so appreciably different from the scientific sense of the word.

When Defoe wrote Journal of the Plague Year and Robinson Crusoe, books which make some claim to bearing and being truth, and which were based on actual events, he couldn’t have known how they would be received, as fiction or non, but I think that he probably was very interested in the outcome. He had, after all, been jailed behind “fiction” he had published before. One of my own fictions made a “top nonfiction” list, and another was rejected by a journal on the grounds that it seemed to be true, so that is naturally something I, too, am very conscious of when it comes time to send them out.

And, on a slightly different level, the making of a fiction — at least, some styles of it — is, too, an experiment. We’ve proposed that something is the case, that Anna/Emma is depressed, bored with her domestic life, and that she is some type of character, but we can’t know what she’ll do when the train arrives/when Lheureux calls in his debts. Or perhaps it’s vice versa? And of course, when we claim to know those outcomes from the first (or those firsts from their outcomes), aren’t those precisely the experiments that readers claim are “predictable,” seem “forced?” Is that really so different from Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle? It’s not that we don’t want to know the exact location of our ending when starting, but that knowing it blurs our certainty in it, very possibly alters our satisfaction in it.

TH: I’m wondering how you initially learned about the Game of Life, and curious as to whether you’ve read Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, where he uses the G.o.L. to great effect as a way of talking about the value of adaptationist thinking, for instance. How important or helpful is it that the reader know the Game to appreciate the story?

GB: Most recently — and sometime prior to writing this story — I was reminded of John Conway and his Game of Life in reading an annotated edition of Edwin Abbott Abbott’s Flatland. I’m very interested in systems of understanding, which is what the Game of Life really is. It is appealing precisely to the degree that it isn’t rooted in or suited to any one problem, but can be applied to just about anything, which is how it got into this story. It’s also appealing because it is so pointedly artificial; it seems to me a weird kind of caricature of science and philosophy more generally. Again, I think that’s important to the story.

I talk about reading Dennett’s Consciousness Explained in “That Which Does Not Require a Queen” [ed. note, stay tuned to Necessary Fiction for this story] and I admire him as a narratist, but I am woefully ignorant when it comes to his work. Adaptationist thinking did make its way into more than one of my lectures last semester, though; maybe I ought to track down Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.

As for how important a familiarity with it is in regards to the story, I think that the semantics of the thing are at least as important as the thing itself, as in everything; I’m quite sure that is how I decided to include it, at least initially. I hope that the cells I’ve (rather poorly) drawn, along with their elucidation in the story, illustrate the Game fairly adequately. Knowing that those cells were produced through a set of rules, in a vaguely Oulipian manner, isn’t necessary to understanding the story anymore than a familiarity with the tarot is necessary to understanding The Castle of Crossed Destinies.

TH: Can you talk a bit about how the different layers of this story came together? When I read it the first time I was unaware of the historical background behind it, and yet appreciated it without such knowledge. I thought “electron = science reference,” and the squares in the Game of Life are sort of like electrons or atoms or units. But Donald Crowhurst, I take it, was a real-life figure, and the Electron his ship. How did you decide to write about this incident, and at what stage in the process did the Game of Life enter into it?

GB: I found out about Crowhurst via a book about Bas Jan Ader that I got for Christmas a number of years ago, but it wasn’t until I had started to do research for the novel that this piece was intended to be part of, The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men, that I read Donald Hall’s book on Crowhurst (The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, a fantastic book). And then of course I knew I would write about him. The novel is “about” solitude (and failure; and death), and so this story of a single-handed circumnavigation by a man with negligible sailing experience seemed perfect. In the event, though, I couldn’t find a way to synthesize it, and it became just a story that I very much wanted to write.

I think that it didn’t quite work because Crowhurst’s story is less about him than about the family he left behind. I think the calculation, the way the Game of Life enters the story, is calculation about what best benefits that family. Crowhurst’s only hope, in his mind, was to come in last in the race and thus avoid the scrutiny that would accompany a win, but even that eluded him, and he simply couldn’t figure any other way out than to step off the side of the ship, into the ocean.

The Game of Life allowed me to compress major parts of Crowhurst’s story, by giving that story this whole set of associations that otherwise would have to have been implicit, and would thus have required a bit more work on the narrative level to bring out fully. The first two diagrams are one game, “Boat,” a famous game because it is static and cannot, by the rules, ever change, and which thus seemed so perfectly suited to Crowhurst’s story that I couldn’t possibly pass it up; and a second game of my own devising, admittedly phallic in its initial conditions (but also, I hope, reminiscent of the trinity, of a launching), which resolves into a never-ending alternation between two quite different outcomes, which was then also tremendously appealing to me. Crowhurst must have been wavering in those last days. He did, after all, want more than anything to go home. He just couldn’t figure out a way to do so.

TH: There’s a steady undertow, as I read it, of religion in this story as well—the rules of the game are framed as “commandments,” and other words and phrases like “apostate,” “prostrate,” “and covenant broken,” as well as allusions to Moses, Jonas, grace and the Holy Ghost serve to complicate the notion that this story is using science as its primary metaphor. Even Crowhurst’s family is a “poor, restless trinity.” Did you have some idea in mind about how religion and science relate and interact as you wrote this, or did you just want them jostling against one another?

GB: The story was originally written with Matthew Simmons and Bryan Furuness’s On Earth As It Is in mind; they published a different section of the same novel ( OK THE DAMNED). It was thus inevitable that it wound up having those associations, though I don’t think I could have told quite the same story without that element.

TH: Dennett sees in the Game of Life a remarkably fertile way of modeling how life can take unexpected directions based on shifting initial conditions and how finding the right simple set of rules can make the difference between something which fizzles and/or stagnates versus something that flourishes. He is talking in the end about life rather than the Game therein. And your story is also in part about how initial conditions can lead to wildly different outcomes—witness the stagnation of the first couple of diagrams versus the rest, and then the ending, which allows for change but seems to imply an endless repetition. So I guess I’m wondering whether you see narrative as being like that, evolving in different directions based on starting points.

GB: My own “games” do not seem to me to grow, much less flourish, but, when they are most successful, instead regress. My method of composition being then best described not as a process of moving things forward from a set of initial conditions, like the construction of a Lego fortress from a pile of blocks, or even the gathering of a hurricane from the flap of a butterfly’s wings, but one of recording the echoes that those initial conditions have left before their meeting. The butterfly, the Lego block — they don’t come from nowhere, after all. But I suppose that’s a matter of vantage — as I mentioned in the story, Crowhurst had Einstein’s Relativity aboard; it was the only “creative” book he had with him, the rest were nautical charts.

TH: Part of the pleasure for me is in the simplicity of the rules of the game and the complexity of your language. Can you comment on that contrast and juxtaposition a bit?

GB: I’ve already said quite a bit about the simplicity of the game, but, for those wanting proof, here are Conway’s four rules, in Wikipedia’s language:

  1. Any live cell with fewer than two live neighbours dies, as if caused by under-population.
  2. Any live cell with two or three live neighbours lives on to the next generation.
  3. Any live cell with more than three live neighbours dies, as if by overcrowding.
  4. Any dead cell with exactly three live neighbours becomes a live cell, as if by reproduction.

That’s it. It’s a brilliant simplification of a much-more complicated system, but it is also a perfect example of the paucity of our imagination when compared to the complex incomprehensibility of natural processes that accomplish the same goals. As I said, it is a caricature. I’m contrarian by nature: My allusive language is perhaps an attempt to inject some of that complexity (and inscrutability) back into the system.

TH: What, in your opinion, is the greatest lingering scientific mystery?

GB: The “life sciences.”

TH: What is science?

GB: Science is one way of understanding the world. Religion is another. Philosophy another. Fiction yet another. I think, as psychology (and thus much of fiction) and perhaps philosophy, too, are slowly eclipsed by cognitive science, we can see once again that there is no hierarchy of understanding, only fashion. Nothing every really goes out of style — witness religion — but adherents change, and the way they view their chosen system changes, too.

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posted by Tim Horvath