Trumpthink Doubleplusungood

August 4, 2017

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I’ve just re-read George Orwell’s NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR, partly because I recently saw a stage adaptation on Broadway (by way of the U.K.), and partly because I can’t shake the feeling that we may be nuzzling closer to this famous dystopia.

OK, I may be overstating a tad, but the shape of reality sure feels funny right now. And that intense British stage production wouldn’t be in New York today had Donald Trump not won the 2016 election. Shortly after the inauguration and Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts,” the novel became a national bestseller once again, and one of the show’s writer-directors sent a simple text to a producer: “84 NY?” The reply was evidently “!”

Even on my first reading as a kid, I had an unusual reaction to this provocative novel. I was most fascinated not by the “bare, hungry, dilapidated” world inhabited by Winston Smith and his fellow citizens of Oceania, or his savage climactic retro-indoctrination at the hands of senior Party member O’Brien. What really knocked me out was a device that appears about two-thirds in, when Winston opens and begins reading a secret book — with us reading over his shoulder — called THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF OLIGARCHICAL COLLECTIVISM, written by Emmanuel Goldstein. (Spoiler Alert: it wasn’t.)

The passages we are allowed to see lay out, with cold detachment, the purpose and method of creating a topsy-turvy society in which WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. The hardscrabble life of nearly all citizens isn’t some crisis caused by natural or even economic calamity. It has nothing to do with forces that can’t be controlled. Winston’s torpor and misery are visited on him deliberately, planned and sustained by the very few who are actually in charge.

We can’t see “Goldstein”’s entire book, but we get enough to divine that in a venal, bloodless way, the real oligarchs of Winston’s country — and of Eurasia and Eastasia, the two other superstates which share the planet with Oceania — have created a society of stasis, of brutal rationing in service to perpetual war (the exact enemy changes at will), of narcotized subservients who are unable to grasp that life could be better because they are not allowed to have such a thought.

What a weird, science-fictional concept, right? Except you can’t read this stuff these days without thinking of Trump and his pals.

Now I am not seriously suggesting that anyone in the Trump orbit — not Steve Bannon, certainly not the boss himself — is smart enough or even shrewd enough to manage perception the way “Goldstein” and O’Brien do in Orwell. They’re not that calculating, not that sophisticated. Their choices are instinctive. They rule from the gut. Trump can sense unease and capitalize on it — he’s probably the most naturally gifted American politician since Bill Clinton. He has a huge swath of people convinced that he’s looking out for them, even though they have absolutely nothing in common besides mutual loathing for Barack Obama. And what looks like ridiculousness to most people reads as pioneering boldness to an unshakable base whose information is carefully managed — not by Trump personally, but by a right-wing echo chamber which pronounces that his was the largest inaugural crowd ever, Obamacare is destroying America, legitimate journalists can’t be trusted and should be ignored, etc. And that’s way before we get to the Sandy-Hook-was-faked and 9/11-was-an-inside-job rants.

These hamhanded clowns couldn’t possibly create Big Brother. It’s far beyond their skill set. But whether they know it or not, they are quoting from “Goldstein”’s playbook.

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Big Brother (top) and Goldstein (above) in Michael Radford’s film whose title is also its release date, played by, respectively, actors Bob Flag and John Boswall.

The aim of the High is to remain where they are. The aim of the Middle is to change places with the High. The aim of the Low, when they have an aim— for it is an abiding characteristic of the Low that they are too much crushed by drudgery to be more than intermittently conscious of anything outside their daily lives— is to abolish all distinctions and create a society in which all men shall be equal. — Emmanuel Goldstein

This is the standard socialist spiel, far from original to Orwell, but it does heretically acknowledge middle-class aspiration. “Goldstein”’s secret is that the middle class in Oceania has been effectively managed out of existence. It’s vanishing in our real world too, through forces which are largely economic, but Trump says he knows a more nefarious secret: Others — Eastasians, Eurasians? — are sneaking into the homeland and stealing our jobs. In Oceania (its governing system is called Ingsoc, or “English Socialism” expressed in the official language, Newspeak), the notion of a happier life has been quashed. Trump’s America is no less wounded. It doesn’t look upward but backward, to a time when hard-working (ok, white) families could look at the rich and say, one day that’ll be us. What prevents them from living the dream is the enemy: Mexican workers, effete academics, “fake news,” coastal elites, the term “Happy Holidays,” take it from there. Only a drumbeat of constant cultural battle can deflect the base’s attention away from the lack of real progress. In that frail sense, war actually is peace, because…

A Party member is expected to have no private emotions and no respites from enthusiasm. He is supposed to live in a continuous frenzy of hatred of foreign enemies and internal traitors, triumph over victories, and self-abasement before the power and wisdom of the Party. [N]o change in doctrine or in political alignment can ever be admitted. For to change one’s mind, or even one’s policy, is a confession of weakness. — Goldstein

Gosh, which political party does that remind you of? This week as I write, there’s a tentative movement toward a bipartisan sitdown in the House to try and thrash out some fixes to the Affordable Care Act — which everybody agrees is flawed. But we’re already hearing whelped, primary-scared Representatives oppose any such powwow on principle: you mean you want to meet with the ENEMY?

Fear and hatred are and always have been the animating forces that stoke the roiling conservative base. Sometimes it’s out in the open, as when Mike Flynn led the crowd in that “LOCK HER UP!” chant at the Republican National Convention. Weeks before I ever conceded the possibility of an actual Trump presidency, that moment reminded me of Orwell’s “Two Minutes Hate”: Hillary Clinton as Goldstein. (Oceanians regularly assemble to boo and curse at a projected image of Goldstein — somehow officially deemed an enemy of the people — until it mercifully dissolves into the likeness of their hero and protector, Big Brother. All Flynn lacked was a Hillary headshot for the Jumbotron.)

Trumpkins are sometimes tagged as rebels against the 21st century GOP, which they view as soft and ineffectual. They keep any “moderate” elected officials dishonest with the constant underlying threat of being “primaried” by somebody even more crazed. But the Pubs have depended on social “wedge issues” to motivate their base since the days of Ronald Reagan, and one strays from official orthodoxy at one’s peril. Republican, Freedom or Tea, the “Party” demands utter fealty no matter what you call it.

Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

The Two Minutes Hate in the 2017 Broadway production.

If leisure and security were enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty would become literate and would learn to think for themselves; and when once they had done this, they would sooner or later realize that the privileged minority had no function, and they would sweep it away. In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance. — Goldstein

Many observers look at Trump and see an crude, ignorant, incurious child-man who has no idea how to do the job to which he’s amazingly been elected. Remember, he’s really nothing more than a frickin game-show host. But to his most devoted fans that’s not a bug, that’s a feature. It’s so satisfying to think, he’s no smarter than I am, no better than I am, and look where he is. Trump’s business history is studded with failure. No US bank will lend him money, which is why he depends on Russian oligarchs who love to park their dough in real estate. But that’s all superseded by the fact that he’s been on our telescreens — oops, I mean TV sets — playing a tycoon for the better part of a decade. How can you blame people for confusing the actor and his role? TV Trump likes to growl, “You’re fired!” Real Trump desperately avoids conflict: he’s afraid of firing people in person, so instead he makes their lives so miserable that they quit in disgust. Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus are just the latest heads to auto-roll; at this writing, Trump is working on Jeff Sessions.

You can’t think too hard about all this, though, or else the show-biz veneer will dissipate. In fact, one of the most serious potential threats to both Big Brother and Trump is — thinking at all. One side of the cultural divide is more educated, the other less so. I’ll bet the larger cities and college towns where you live voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But the rest of your state belonged to Trump. “I love the uneducated!” he crowed during the campaign. Pointy-headed intellectuals who never did a day’s honest work, ridiculous “safe spaces” for coddled crybaby students, angry protests silencing right-wing lecturers — in a Pew Research poll released in July, 58% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said they believed colleges and universities had a negative effect on the country. In other words, most of them. (Almost three fourths of Democrats and like-minded independents thought the effect was positive.)

Trump has made a fetish out of ignorance. Behind the hollow bluster, he’s actually proud that he doesn’t know how much he doesn’t know. It’s easy to say, “I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me.” (By the way, whenever Donald Trump says “believe me,” don’t.) His ingrained narcissism may even actually convince him; delusion seems to be his copilot. But the tiniest bit of independent thought — “as a moment’s reflection will reveal,” as a friend used to say — can show Cloud Cuckoo-Land for what it truly is. Therefore independent thought is just as much an enemy to Trump as it is to Ingsoc. Most decent undergraduate programs have the same underlying goal: to teach students not what to think, but how to think. I can’t say the same for many schools founded and supported by fundamentalist Christians, or for Fox News, Breitbart and the other reactionary megaphones. Many people have their opinions handed to them because they are unwilling or unable to verify truth independently. In Trumpland, ignorance is strength.

…the essential act of the Party is to use conscious deception while retaining the firmness of purpose that goes with complete honesty. To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies— all this is indispensably necessary. — Goldstein

This is the principle behind “doublethink,” Orwell’s evil-Zen state that allows dutiful citizens to hold and believe in two contradictory arguments simultaneously, or to accept as truth something that can be easily disproven. Like the old joke about the husband whose wife catches him cheating: “Who are you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?”

I know we’ve heard presidential fabrications before, even from men I admire. But has there ever been a more brazen bullshitter than this bird? Donald Trump is a pathological liar. I don’t think he can stop himself. He lost the election by three million votes, and his electoral-college margin turned on about 80,000 votes in three states, yet he calls it a historic landslide. “I got a call from the head of the Boy Scouts saying it was the greatest speech that was ever made to them.” Um, nope, that didn’t happen at all. “Even the president of Mexico called me,” Trump lied to his Cabinet. “They said…very few people are coming because they know they’re not going to get through our border, which is the ultimate compliment.” ¡Mentiroso hijo de puta, señor!

My favorite Trump lie, out of hundreds spewed out over the past six months, concerned his inaugural speech: “It was almost raining — the rain should have scared them away — but God looked down and he said ‘we are not going to let it rain on your speech’… and then it poured right after I left.” As anybody who was there or watching on tv knows, it rained through the first few minutes of Trump’s speech — you could see people behind him wearing ponchos — and it most definitely did not pour afterward. You’re left with a kind of reluctant awe: why would you even bother to lie about something as trivial as the weather?

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John Hurt as Winston Smith in the Radford film.

At least part of the answer may be the heady ability to alter history. While researching that last quote, I stumbled on a Christian website that reported the sun “shone” for Trump’s inauguration as a sign of God’s blessing. There’s a kernel of truth in that: the sun did peek out through overcast skies for an instant during the ceremony. But evidently God didn’t dig Trump’s speech, because moments later she made it rain again. However, to the readers of that website, the rain stopped and the sun shone as Trump took office, and that’s that.

Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past. — Ingsoc party slogan

Winston Smith, you’ll recall, works for the Ministry of Truth, or Minitrue. His job is to repair and replace the historical record. For example, he alters a past promise to maintain rations at the current level. He scrubs all references to a purged Party member, or “unperson,” rendering him nonexistent. But a fissure appears in his capacity for doublethink when he is told Oceania is at war with Eurasia — yet he knows that the enemy has been Eastasia for the last four years. No matter. “Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia.” Doublethink is maddening and terrifying at the same time.

Of course retroactive reality is impossible to concoct in our hip, wired age. Just ask the Secretary of War. Oh, wait, that’s his old title: now he’s Secretary of Defense, or “SecDef,” a term that sounds a hell of a lot like Newspeak. Or read yesterday’s Congressional Record to find speeches that were never uttered: there isn’t one veteran member of Congress who hasn’t inserted something after the fact. Or sit with the Texas State Board of Education as it sifts through history and science texts for orthodoxy that, because of the practicalities of educational publishing, will have to be replicated nationwide.

The most effective and “Orwellian” stroke of the current regime is the concept of “fake news.” Unlike anal-probing space aliens or government gun confiscation, we know “fake news” is really a thing. Eastern Europeans were actually making money by inventing outrageous clickbait all through the last election cycle. One whopper really gained some traction: that Hillary Clinton and John Podesta were operating a child sex ring from the basement of an innocent DC pizza parlor. It went viral, and in December a 28-year-old North Carolina man fired three shots in the restaurant with an AR-15-style rifle, striking walls, a desk, and a door. He told police he was there to “self-investigate” the conspiracy that came to be known as “Pizzagate.” (As you may have expected, the restaurant doesn’t even have a basement.)

Fake news isn’t some kooky fear: it’s definitely out there. In fact Breitbart, the “alt-right” website run until recently by presidential advisor Steve Bannon, absolutely dotes on the stuff. Still it was shocking to hear Trump, at his first news conference as president, pass over CNN’s Jake Tapper and growl, “you’re fake news.” Whaaaat? Within days, Trump was using the term to describe any news organization he didn’t like, and it was an unwitting masterstroke. The eight letters of “fake news” are short-attention-span-friendly, instantly graspable. This is why the “liberal media” are constantly after Trump: all their stories are as bogus as Bigfoot, he’s actually doing a great job but nobody’s giving him a chance. But the most insidious effect is that, for his most ardent fans, Trump is slowly delegitimatizing all genuine sources of objective coverage. The truth is whatever he tells them it is. No lie is too outrageous. Even pollsters are “fake” if he doesn’t like their numbers: remember how they underestimated him last year? He recently attacked as unfair the Congressional Budget Office, which is damn near the last nonpartisan entity left in DC. When you can’t turn anywhere else for validation, you’re as psychologically dependent as Winston Smith. After all, these are people who actually believe crime and unemployment both spiked under President Obama, because that’s what the Party told them.

Crimestop means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc, and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity. — Goldstein

With “fake news” as a cudgel to tamp down any contradiction or stray heretical thought, Trumpism becomes almost inevitable among true believers. The same antics which embarrass some people excite others. To them Trump is a human Molotov cocktail, and the more damage he does to the system the better. Yes, it’s sad-making — the 2016 election was probably moderates’ low point for a good long while, and many of us still feel apprehensive opening our morning papers — but it doesn’t have to be debilitating, for several good reasons.

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O’Brien (Reed Birney) with Winston (Tom Sturridge) and Julia (Olivia Wilde) on Broadway.

They are outnumbered and they know it. Eighty-five percent of Oceanians are lowly “proles” and therefore largely ignored. Well, a minority controls Congress and most statehouses in America too. Not only did the Pubs lose the popular vote for President, they also lost the popular vote for Senate races: more than 45 million Americans voted for a Democratic Senate candidate, while just under 40 million Americans voted for a Republican. In fairness, the Senate was specifically created to bolster the influence of smaller states: Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska was re-elected with 111,000 votes and has the same Senate authority as Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York, who was re-elected with 4.8 million. But even the House, which is supposed to better represent actual voter proportions, is grossly skewed. In 2016, 63.1 million Republican voters claimed 247 House seats. The Democratic vote was nearly equal, 61.7 million, but it was only worth 188 seats. That’s way out of whack and eventually something has to give.

You can blame some of that inequity on gerrymandering: for example, Austin, the most progressive city in Texas, has been electorally neutered by splitting it up into tiny parts of five different Congressional districts, four of which are represented by Republicans. But a deeper cause of inertia is incumbency: in 2016 only twelve House seats changed hands, six for each party. And a third cause is voter apathy, which is something we can actually work on.

Republicans are more successful at winning state and local elections because they understand how to rile up the base and get them out to the polls. Trump’s staggering incompetence may be having that same visceral effect on the left. We’ll find out next year. The best indication that Pubs are nervously looking over their shoulders is their massive voter suppression effort. The crown jewel is Trump’s loony Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity (I love that name, it’s so…Orwellian!). Just remember, it’s in Democrats’ interest that you vote; it’s in Pubs’ interest that you be prevented from voting. We could make elections fairer by adopting ranked voting or jolt turnout by moving Election Day to the weekend, but Pubs are protected by the status quo so it will not happen any time soon. Counting on changing demographics to affect electoral results — for example, wishing Texas purple — is foolish, but it’s also foolish to squander a natural advantage when you get one handed to you. It’s not a gimme; it’ll take work.

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In Room 101.

One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes a revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. —O’Brien

Trump is beginning to neglect his constituency as he shows his true colors. I don’t think the president is a fascist or an Ingsoc functionary; I don’t believe he has any deeply held principles beyond his own self-interest. Well, there may be one. Trump is petty and childish enough that he may still be smarting over the humiliating roasting President Obama gave him at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. With the exception of Neil Gorsuch’s nomination (and that was mostly Mitch McConnell’s doing), nearly every move Trump has made as president has been a direct erasure of an Obama initiative, often without even thinking about it. He’s trying to rewrite history, to make Obama an unperson. But when he took on Obamacare — that blasted name again! — he didn’t count on his own voters understanding that they were about to lose their coverage. Even when McConnell cynically tacked on a two-year delay period so Pubs could “repeal Obamacare” with impunity, the shouting back home was just too great. And speaking of personal payback, was that why we saw John “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured” McCain kill the repeal effort with the flourish of a Roman emperor? As mining jobs fail to come back to coal country, day laborers for construction and agriculture disappear, and opioids continue to decimate the heartland, some suffering citizens may finally break the spell and relearn how to put two and two together.

Trump’s legislative base is crumbling as his popular support dwindles. “The ratings machine, DJT” actually had coattails in 2016, but they are starting to fray. The near-unanimous votes in both houses on Russian sanctions were a veto-proof slap in the face that said, “we’re not afraid of you.” The disconnect is probably personal. I have no idea whether Trump did anything illegal, but he clearly has money tied up in Russia and that source of capital is key to any future expansion plans, so his instinct is to make nice to Putin. One problem, though. Pubs have been taught to hate Commies for literal generations. By now, asking them to coddle Russkies is like trying to divide by zero. Yes, the hypocrisy is acrid: if Hillary had invited a Russian spy into the Oval Office, much less spilled intel to his face, the Pubs would have her turning on a spit by now. But Trump — who was already in the hole the moment he took office — has been whittling away at his own approval ratings more effectively than any enemy ever could. To be impeached by this Congress, he’d probably have to bite the head off a live chicken at the Lincoln Memorial. (Nor do I fancy a President Pence.) But remember, this entire shitstorm has occurred in just six months. I don’t think Trump can last four whole years — especially with a Congress that is less than sycophantic.

After Winston Smith survives the horrors of Room 101, we can see that he has changed. As the Cap’n says in COOL HAND LUKE, he “got his mind right.” Two plus two equals anything O’Brien wants it to be. Everything is all right, the struggle is finished. Well, that is not going to happen to us. We are still capable of seeing clearly if we only concentrate. The outrage that spits out almost hourly from this administration must not, will not become normalcy. The world has not turned upside down. Our system builds political antibodies to negate such an aberration, and if we are still suffering from shock, that means we have the capacity to resist — in the streets, in the voting booths, in the offices of our representatives. That passion is precisely what saved the Affordable Care Act. And it is what is going to eliminate Big Bother [frickin sic] once and for all.

Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows. — Winston Smith

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Just For Openers

May 12, 2013

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

That’s one of the greatest opening lines in literary history, for my money. It has stuck with me for nearly thirty years. In fact, I just quoted it by heart (double-checking only to make sure I got the comma right: I did). As everybody else who has encountered it also doubtless remembers, William Gibson’s brilliant novel NEUROMANCER begins with this sentence. I haven’t read the book since it was first published in 1984, but I still remember this line perfectly, because it smacked me like an open hand.

We know instinctively that a musical melody can get under our skins. Even a tune we had had quite enough of remains inside us, in some primal part of our brains that can whisk us back to the moment when it was contemporary and conjure long-forgotten emotions, both fond and regretful, whether we like it or not. Those of you who are old enough: start thinking of the melody of Kenny Loggins’s “Danny’s Song” – you know the one, “Even though we ain’t got money / I’m so in love with you honey…” Got it? Okay, now try to STOP thinking of it. Both my mother and grandmother suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease late in their lives, and even at the point where they could only speak in gibberish syllables (except very rarely, when a perfectly formed sentence would come out, chilling me to the bone and forcing me to wonder if they’d been making sense to themselves all along. Alzheimer’s is one king-hell bitch, friends), they could still remember musical notes and put them together into a recognizable melody. This strongly suggests that we experience and file musical tones in some other sector from wherever we store and retrieve language. I would guess visual cues are handled differently as well. I don’t have the medical background to be sure, but that’s what I’ve observed, and it makes common sense to me.

But what is it about a string of letters that creates a profundity or emotional tug? I can only explain my own reactions, and I’m not suggesting that I have the last word as an academician might. In the case of NEUROMANCER, part of the key is that date: 1984. It was the beginning of the personal computer revolution, still largely confined to hobbyists. The Apple Macintosh, which billed itself as “the computer for the rest of us,” had only just appeared. But with that bold sentence, Bill Gibson announced that he was speaking to a new generation of science fiction readers – heck, a new generation of readers, period. The original thundercrack of 20th century science fiction – Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke and colleagues – had given way to a more socially conscious, taboo-smashing New Wave – Spinrad, Ellison, Disch, LeGuin, and so on – who were audacious enough to question the very existence of this or that genre. But that had happened twenty or so years before. Unlike the slow but miraculous race to the moon, when science-based writers could still kind of keep up, the pace of technological and societal change was increasing. It became folly to predict the future, because the future now arrived before your ink was even dry.

Bill Gibson was 35 when he wrote NEUROMANCER; he was born in the same year George Orwell published NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR. He was on the leading edge of the first generation that grew up with television as a casual aspect of daily life. So when he described a sickly gray color that resembled a ”dead channel,” everybody his age and younger understood instantly, and they knew they were being addressed by a peer. These people had never gathered around a radio drama when they were kids, like elder writers had. They couldn’t really remember pulp magazines or movie serials, at least not in their heydays. But they were old enough to recall what it was like before tv channels blared around the clock, the days when your local station actually signed off the air at midnight or so…and became a dead channel until the following morning. In this instant, Gibson had announced the arrival of an emerging digital point of view. This attitude, combined with often breathless views of an over-teched future dystopia, came to be called “cyberpunk,” and lots of people, including me, got their very first taste in NEUROMANCER. Simply rotate the “C” ninety degrees to form a “U,” and you’ve changed everything. Maybe creativity is that simple. (Spoiler Alert: it is, but only for those who can manage to make that unnatural turn, which eliminates nearly all the rest of us.) One caveat: Bill himself may well have been inspired by the Doors’ “My Eyes Have Seen You,” which contains the line “gazing on the city under television skies,” but I always felt Jim Morrison was just casting out images. That one, from both Bill and Jim, is a dandy.

I wasn’t alone in my adoration. NEUROMANCER won every award the field was able to bestow, and William Gibson became something grander than a science fiction writer, the same thing that had happened to Kurt Vonnegut a generation earlier. Anybody who really likes spaceships and lasers can remember the frisson produced by the first shot of STAR WARS, the 1977 original, as the massive Imperial ship chases the smaller one, death-rays blazing. You thought, oh, wow, I think I’m gonna enjoy this. Well, that’s also what I thought upon reading that now-famous sentence – and in both cases, the creators delivered on the promise of their superlative curtain-raisers.

Call me Ishmael.

This opening sentence resonates because of the tremendous sense of foreshadowed drama it portends. Perhaps the NEUROMANCER opening will do the same, once we give it the requisite, say, fifty more years, as the world it describes falls inexorably into ancient history.

Every snot-nosed kid who dutifully tried Herman Melville’s titanic work MOBY-DICK back in grade school discovered that to get this far, you first have to wade through an abysmal, seemingly unending section of definition, etymology, etc. We get it, sir: whales are badasses. But, as with the satirical Onion item about the Titanic being struck by the world’s largest metaphor, so we understand from the first words that this is more than a story about a fishing expedition.

In the John Huston film, written by Ray Bradbury – who definitely loved him some metaphor – the Richard Basehart voiceover includes a pregnant pause. The actor says, “Call me…Ishmael,” as if he were trying to come up with some pseudonym on the spot. That pause isn’t written in Melville, but this subtext definitely is: call me whatever you want. I don’t care. I’m going to tell you something that’s almost beyond belief, but it happened, pal, I saw it with my own eyes, and I only am escaped alone to tell thee. That last bit is from the book of Job – which Melville’s readership had studied much closer in 1851 than we do today – so, to coin a phrase, we know dude be serious. Biblical scholars tell us the name “Ishmael” connotes an outcast, a wanderer. As we say in the enlightened new millennium, whatev.

By the way, kids, don’t give up on this great tale just because of all the lousy pre-show variety acts. Skip the front parts and go directly to “Chapter 1: LOOMINGS.” Trust me. Don’t wait for your teacher to “interpret”: this looming business is spelled out for you on page one, but I am not responsible for any blowback if you happen to point this out in class. (Yes, that is indeed experience speaking.)

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

Did you recognize that sentence? Bet you did. It opens George Orwell’s NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR. It’s so sly that it ruins our internal balance without even seeming to. After all, the military, and any European transportation hub, operate on a 24-hour clock, for understandable precision: “The cap’n said drop the nuke at 12: did he mean noon or midnight?” There does actually exist a concept known as thirteen o’clock. No, wait: the military and Eurail know 1:00 pm as “1300 hours.” So why are the clocks striking thirteen? Is it because we’re under martial law? (Spoiler Alert: in a way, yes.) Is it because all civilians have been forced to observe these same rules of precision for the good of the body politic? (You‘re getting warmer, unlike the bright April day – it really should be warm by now!)

Fourteen words, a comma and a period. That’s all it took to thrust us into a disturbing new paradigm, to shift reality. Orwell’s immortal story works not only because of its invention or prescience, but also because he was able to knock us off kilter within seconds. Now consider a longer lead-in.

It was a perfect 72 degrees the December morning the Marshalls’ home computer arrived, and the sky was set to a soaring azure, but it was flickering, which was the whole problem.

Recognize that? No? I’m not surprised. It’s the opening sentence – and paragraph – from the 2006 short story “Installation Day.” It appeared in an anthology called GOLDEN AGE SF, for which contemporary authors were invited to pretend they were working in science fiction’s “Golden Age” – that is, the 30s through the 50s – with no knowledge of what actually came later. Sort of retro-futurism. I’ve postponed it for a couple minutes, but I guess the time has come to reveal that the author is none other than me. (Judging only from this opening sentence, sharp eyes might suss that I’d long since consumed the Gibson and the Orwell.)

I did hobble myself by setting this sentence against three of the greatest openings ever, but I do have a kind of explanation. Still, you can see what happens when a child attempts to do a grown person’s job. (Not just me, either: most writers would probably try to get the setting out of the way: “At 1 pm on April 4th…”) My opening is by far the longest, clunkiest, most info-packed but nevertheless least interesting of the four you see. How one could/would “set” the sky and why it was “flickering” get explained in the story, as you assume they will, and a 72-degree December morning isn’t uncommon to those who live in the Sunbelt. But look at all I failed to do in twice, thrice, the words, compared to the greatest. In fairness, I must add that I deliberately wrote this story to read like an old pulp magazine piece, and bombastic opening sentences like mine were almost obligatory. I’m not beating myself up for your amusement; I’m actually quite pleased with how the story turned out anent the commission. (I think I might also be speaking for my editor, Eric T. Reynolds, who first improved my story and then bought it, as do many editors of short fiction, in that order.)

But these magical moments don’t happen by accident. Or maybe they do. The sliver of our minds that great literature manages to touch can fire in a split-second. But as William Gibson showed me, that blinding spark can last a lifetime.


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