Sci-Fi and Slow Stillness

 Photograph by Sigrid Estrada 
I had such a great time chatting with Mark Alpert, author of The Orion Plan and The Six (read my reviews here and here), in New York last week that I forgot to get a pic {Marge Simpson sound}. Mark suggested meeting on the Upper West Side at a classic New York diner, and it was a good place to sit down and discuss what motivates and informs his content, themes and style.

Remember when you had to discuss “the author’s intent” in high school English? And then you heard an author say about their book, “Oh, well that’s great if that’s what you got out of it, but that wasn’t intentional”? There’s a caveat in that. Those exam questions make us assume that we can ascribe things to writers that are not necessarily there, and we should learn to drop that presumptive approach to literature the minute we’re out of school. Case in point: I learned things about this author that surprised me because I had reflected on his books with my own ideas about what he was trying to say in them. Here’s what I learned. [The following is a summary of what Mark Alpert said to me, and any errors or omissions are mine; as I was writing down points by hand, I don't have exact quotations for all of his responses~mea culpa.]

I knew that Alpert majored in astrophysics and neuroscience at Princeton and is an editor for Scientific American, yet as I said in my reviews I found the science in his books accessible. I was a little intimidated about interviewing this “lifelong science geek” but he was gracious, friendly and approachable. So I plucked up my courage and asked my science question: how did he make me able to visualize and understand the science of AI (artificial intelligence) in his novels?

Simple (says she!): he’d had to edit other people’s dense writing and make it understandable to general readership. Because of his science background and his MFA in writing, he could translate all those scientific submissions to magazines and enable Luddites like me learn something about science and technology. His feeling was that the articles he edited should be understandable (with a few visuals thrown in) for anyone who had taken one post-secondary science course. (I did an anthropology course—that’s as science-y as I could go.) When I asked for examples, he told me about sexual maturation behaviour patterns in male orangutans, the brown dwarfs, and—well, I can’t recall everything about Einstein, but I remember getting it at the time! So if you can make dry or technical abstracts and articles about this stuff appealing to Joe Blow, you’re a pretty clear communicator. He’s most effective because he’s enthusiastic and that certainly comes out in his fiction.

The premise of The Orion Plan is that intergalactic communication will happen most likely if we/they send something very small and light because that is more feasible than a big ol’ Close Encounters type of thing. So the recent Breakthrough Starshot announcement about interstellar travel highlights the demonstrated need for AI, not humans, to be sent into space. And if AI goes where no man has gone before, it needs to be the guardian of knowledge. 

Alpert’s knowledge about the actual science around such things creates things that are more accessible to readers than made-up sci-fi stuff. Why? He says it’s because novel writing requires special knowledge and then the desire to share that special knowledge. There’s the motivation for writing the way he does. I think Alpert should have been a science teacher.

I wanted to know where his inspiration for writing about mental health issues, terminal illness, addiction, handicaps and myriad social ills came from—and why he wasn’t afraid to meet those topics head on. Lots of authors won’t touch those issues, but Alpert tends to cover a lot of ground in each novel. How do you do that without bringing the tone down to some depressing chronicle about, for example, gangs, the homeless, and police and correctional system problems?

His interest is piqued by various sources: a celebrity talking about their child’s drug addiction; news items about Rikers Island; socio-political regionalisms he sees on his travels. He is attracted to the secret and inaccessible aspects of life (subterranean urban infrastructure, prisons). And he doesn’t like misinformation, so his science is not only accurate, it does some myth busting and educating along the way. He does all this with an underlying optimism—not fairy tale endings—but he observes social issues and scientific problems and we still feel okay about the future rather than unnerved.

Our conversation morphed towards what is an obvious theme in his novels: stewardship of technology. I wonder if tech (or more specifically STEM) will become the new currency of this millennium, not just as money but as the means and goal of the exchange economy itself; we pseudo-socialists already support an expanding sharing economy. In The Orion Plan, Alpert writes about how AI has a goal for itself—resurrection of its own species—and therefore an incentive to conquer. So maybe we would do well to be more discerning about how and how much we use our pocket technologies. We already are seeing skyrocketing rates of depression and anxiety, often linked to the uber-connectedness of our lives; do we want to allow technology (and, by extension, AI) to keep encroaching on our psyches and to essentially hand over the wheel to the little green men inside the microchips? We need to look at technology more critically and philosophically. Luddite I may be, but I love my smartphone and all the advantages we have in modern society, so I’m not going all Amish on you. But there is other life out there, as Alpert illustrates; it just might not be in the water-based life forms we are looking for closer to home.

Finally, I asked him what he, as an author, would like to tell us editors (since it might seem like we are the ones doing the telling all the time). He said the thing he thinks is paramount is that we flag the speed bumps and reader turn-offs we see in a manuscript, which an author might leave in due to their own assumptions and blinders. We don’t have to necessarily suggest the fix for each one, but we do need to make sure the author is handling the potential jolt to the reader. Agreed—a good editor should do that. But he also said it is important for authors to participate in writers’ groups; again, not to get fixes handed to them, but to get fine-grained encouragement from other readers.

Good news: The Six’s sequel (called it!), The Siege, will be out July 2016. Bad news: I also want to read The Omega Theory so now I don’t know which one to read first. First world problems, I know.

Photo by Joan Marcus 

When I was in NYC, I saw Jesse Tyler Ferguson in Fully Committed at the Lyceum. [Somehow we got tickets for the same night in the second last row of the balcony and the matinee audience’s gales of laughter sealed our decision at the box office. But other theatre-goers were happy to see that Christian Bale was only sitting one row ahead of us and that therefore there is justice in the world.] Everybody knows and loves him as same-sex dad Mitchell from Modern Family. In this 1999 Becky Mode play, he portrays the harassed and verbally abused reservation agent for New York’s snootiest (fictional?) restaurant and all the characters who phone him. The last time I saw such one-man energy was Alan Cumming’s Macbeth in 2013. Although popular drama rather than Shakespeare, this one-act romp through F-bombs and Society’s complete jerks was very creatively handled (including Derek McLane’s set) and demonstrated Tyler Ferguson’s elasticity and his ability to pull off comedy outside of pre-taped TV. Really, really fun. I suspect the run will be extended.

I’m always on the hunt for music like that of my classical hero, Arvo Pärt: I’m fairly sure I have almost all of his music, but I like minimalist composition and have found some new gems this year. So, while in the Big Apple, I wanted to interview composer Ola Gjeilo about his new eponymous CD, but he couldn’t meet with anyone “not set up by the record company” (Decca). I’ve never heard of an artist not wanting free publicity—i.e. it’s not a paid gig for me—and a click on my signature-linked website would have indicated I have a background in theology, choral singing and working at a classical-music magazine, which I would say is apt for review of sacred choral music. 

The album Ola Gjeilo, recorded with Voces8, Tenebrae and the Chamber Orchestra of London, is pretty (although it’s not minimalist). He has an audio/video sampler out, of which “Uri Caritas” is clearly the featured (and best) piece. Unfortunately, I don’t think he got the best promotional advice, starting the trailer by saying his name and morphing into nature footage. Maybe nature informs his music, but it sure doesn’t inspire this shopper. The album cover, however, is outstandingly cool. And cool is where classical music has to keep heading towards, if artists are to make a better living at it.

On the crossover section of his web page, I much preferred the electronica/ambient/jazz instrumental Departures single (reminded me a bit of my Garbarek/Hilliard Ensemble CD, Officium) to the piano/guitar track, Shades of VioletAnyway, I won’t go into the previous choral or piano recordings (although I did like “The City/Credo” on Sunrise), but I did listen to the new CD which he was kind enough to iTunes-send me. “Ubi Caritas” was my favourite piece on the album and I liked the “Sanctus.” “The Spheres” reminded me of the kind of soundtrack you’d find on a movie like Lord of the Rings; that’s not a bad thing, but I found it hard to reconcile it with the idea of sacred or at least contemplative music. By the time I listen to “The Ground,” I’m thinking of modern inspirational anthems such as Paul Winter’s “The Blue Green Hills of Earth,” which have their place but I don’t find them spiritually inspiring. And the “Serenity (O Magnum Mysterium)” did not stop me in my tracks, which, by its title, I had expected it to. Perhaps I’m being unfair in having preconceived notions about the work (see paragraph 2). But I do feel a little hoodwinked: I heard an ad for it on our local classical music station (Classical 96.3FM, not CBC sadly) and it definitely promoted it as a more sophisticated work. I’d classify this album as “classical light"; think The Piano Guys. Nice, just not entirely my cup of tea.

Photo from

I watched two DVDs about said-hero: The Lost Paradise: Arvo Pärt/Robert Wilson, a documentary by Gunter Atteln; and Adam’s Passion, the production itself of the world premiere in Tallinn, Estonia, in May 2015. Maybe I am comparing apples to oranges with Gjeilo vs. Pärt, but I didn’t have access to conversation with the former and these documentaries made me feel like I did with the latter. The documentary is a sympathetic look at the composer whose music is said to be the most often performed in the world. He is portrayed as humble, simple and very human. Likewise, his personal theology (likely influenced through his Orthodoxy) seems to me pared down and scripturally faithful. As various interviewees say about his music, no note is random or unintentional; there is a focus on the spaces between the notes (rests); and an emotional calm and stillness is accomplished in his compositions. There are some loose ends in this portrait of the composer—if the goal was only to document the making of the premiered work (see below), they should have edited out some undeveloped references to his personal life. But it is a fascinating look at this very private individual and the collaboration with Wilson on this concert/show.

Adam’s Passion is a work amalgamating “Adam’s Lament” and others of his pieces into a presentation stage directed by Robert Wilson. This was performed at  the Noblessner Foundry, a former Russian submarine factory, now an appropriately poignant shell of a building for this work. It is an accompanied work largely of slow-moving “actors” (dancers?) and of light. Despite the large scale of the space, the work is exquisitely intimate. It is mostly sparse but becomes more operatic and by the end it made me think of van Gogh, with perhaps allusions to Jacob’s Ladder, a Trojan horse and an apocalyptic cloud in the last scene. The intimacy of it also made me wonder what it would look like if choreographer Michèle Anne De Mey and filmmaker Jaco Van Dormael, the folks who did Kiss and Cry at CanStage, did a production of it. If, as Ruby Mercer said, “opera is love, sex and violence set to good music,” Adam’s Passion is like a Bill Viola video set to beautiful sacred music. In other words, minimalistically sublime. Highly recommend both DVDs. Watch the trailer here and get sucked in.

A note on coincidence. Take a look again at the cover of The Orion Plan. Now look at the photo below. A thumbnail? Nope. A photograph I took in 2005 to accompany an excerpt of “Before the Marvel of This Night” (1981, by Jaroslav J. Ajda, American Lutheran pastor and poet):

"Then tear the sky apart with light…"

Photo by V. Wells, 2005.


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