Worldbuilding avant la lettre in Robert A. Heinlein

“The only mainstream writer to whom Heinlein acknowledges a debt is Sinclair Lewis, and it is not for literary style. Lewis laid out extensive backgrounds for his work which did not directly appear in the story. That way he understood how his characters should react in a given situation, since he knew more about them than the reader did. In Heinlein, this ultimately grew beyond the bounds intended by Sinclair Lewis, whose characters performed against a setting with which the reader might be familiar. The Sinclair Lewis method couldn’t work for science fiction unless an entire history of the future was projected: then individual stories and characters in that series could at least be consistent within the framework of that imaginary never-never land.

“In following just this procedure, Robert A. Heinlein inadvertently struck upon the formula that had proved for successful for Edgar Rice Burroughs, L. Frank Baum, and, more recently, J. R. R. Tolkien. He created a reasonably consistent dream world and permitted the reader to enter it. Heinlein’s Future History has, of course, a stronger scientific base than Burroughs’s Mars, Baum’s Oz, or Tolkien’s land of the ‘Rings,’ but is fundamentally the same device.”

— Sam Moskowitz, Seekers of Tomorrow: Masters of Modern Science Fiction (New York: Ballantine, 1967). 194.

Ice cream truck


Executed rapidly by Trevor in what was almost a lightning sketch. Inspired not by the sight but by the sound of the music, that tinkling ice-cream-truck tune that still, after all these years, resonates with a deep internal chord laid down in my childhood, one that my own kids already seem to have internalized at a primordial level. Note the sound waves emanating from a rooftop speaker, along with accompanying musical notes, as well as the characteristic cutaway view displaying driver behind steering wheel and, at truck rear, cold storage apparatus and prep table.



“Great star-clouds glittered all around them, the swarms of suns that in the Sagittarius region of the Milky Way made brilliant the summer nights of faraway Earth. But beyond all of these loomed a vastness of light, glowing like a furnace in which stars were forged, stretching across whole parsecs of space. Groups of double and multiple stars shone from within that far-flung nebulosity, some of them fiercely bright and others dim and muffled. And the whole shining mass of the Trifid was riven by three great cracks that were themselves light-years in width and that formed clear roads into the inconceivable interior.”

— Edmond Hamilton, The Star of Life (1947)


meg 1meg 2Two “Megs,” or giant sharks, by Trevor. The first was started at school and finished at home, with an assist from Zachary, who added the dorsal, ventral, and tailfins following a brief debate over whether Megs have such fins at all. Part of a larger wave of skepticism from the older brother directed at the entire premise–his science hat on, he evaluated the drawing as not resembling an actual Megalodon in the least. (He kept using the longer version of the creature’s name to establish the primacy of his knowledge.) Trev shrugged off the criticism, accepted the fins, and went on to do the second drawing, in which another Meg is sucking in water to create a waterspout. Of note in both pieces of artwork is the impactful rendering of the eyes–wide, hungry, glaring–and the fiercely toothed mouth. Exteriorization of the jaws in picture one, and the shadowy mechanism underlying the hinges of the mouth in picture two, may be referencing the book on sharks we’ve been looking at before bed. A thick book encasing an entire plastic shark, skin and skeleton and organs keyed in layers so that each turn of the page lifts away another slice. We learned from the section on Eating that the great white’s cartilaginous jaw can unhinge and thrust forward for a maximized bite.

Clone Tank Mod

IMG_6939This is the LEGO Republic Fighter Tank 75182, modded by Zach, basically built out with extra guns and cool stuff. The four racked missiles in the front are new, as are the spotlights/sensors (borrowed I think from the Scuttler?) angling from the prongs. But the best additions for me are the pair of Troopers riding sideboard, a binocular viewing station portside rear, and–my favorite bit of bricolage–a weaponized turkey leg.


[UPDATED WITH CORRECTION: Zach informs me that what I called the “binocular viewing station” is in fact a rocket launcher. Also, the turkey leg is not a gun but is there for the Troopers to eat.]


Back in January when I sent out my book manuscript, I had the weird sense of waving goodbye to a cruise ship I built myself, standing at the pier while this giant, white, overstuffed artifact bellied out to sea.

It was not the first time this particular ship had been launched. In August 2006 I printed out the whole thing, some 350 pages. This was after my dissertation defense but before I dropped off the text at the print shop in Bloomington where Indiana University dissertations are bound. Lots of other stuff was going on at the time—I was in the midst of packing for the move to Pennsylvania, my thoughts mostly focused on coming up with syllabi for the two courses I was contracted to teach at Swarthmore starting in the fall. But I took a moment, amid the mess of cardboard boxes and sorting stacks for the yard sale, to balance the fat block of pages in my hands, marveling that I had managed to produce such a thing.

About a year later I sent it out again, this time as a book proposal. I got polite notes back from two academic presses—saying, essentially, thanks but no thanks—and shelved the project until 2011 or so. It went out again at that point, and this time was met with a yes, just in time for my tenure case.

Then came the reader reports. Mostly positive, with a handful of suggestions for changes, they stopped me in my tracks; it would be almost four more years before I got around to patching holes, updating case studies, and clarifying ambiguities needed to clear the final hurdle.

I should explain, if it isn’t clear from the outline, that I am not a good writer. Process-wise, I mean. Faced with a task, I put it off; encouraged, I dig in my feet and work even more grudgingly. This goes deep with me, all the way back to childhood. Though I have, for the most part, achieved the level of wisdom that involves accepting myself as I am, procrastination is one of the traits I most want to change in myself. As soon as I get around to it.

Anyway, it turns out that publishing a book, at least a scholarly one, involves more than one goodbye; it’s less like Ilsa and Rick lingering heartlost in the fog than like dropping off a child at school, morning after morning. That’s probably the wrong metaphor here, because I adore my children, but have come to detest the book. Still, the other images that spring to mind—repeated skin biopsies, for instance—might express in a Cronenbergian way the connection between writing and excrescence, a putrefaction of words shed like skin dust, but they don’t capture the idea of an object consciously built. A model kit, seams puttied and sanded, paint sprayed and retouched, decals and weathering conscientiously applied. Doomed to show only flaws and mistakes in the eyes of its maker; to everyone else it’s probably, y’know, okay.

My book is looking more okay these days thanks to the copyeditors at NYU Press. I got the manuscript back for review, have been going through the chapters, reviewing changes. There are a few on every page, and I see the wisdom of every single one. That’s generally my response to being edited—gratitude. Harlan Ellison and a mob of similarly perpetually disgruntled writers would kick me out of the Tough Kids Club for saying so. You can find me over by the janitor’s closet, eating lunch with Strunk and White.


There’s nothing like a suddenly lost object to demonstrate the precarity of our systems for keeping order—the flimsiness of the illusion that the spaces we inhabit are at our mercy, rather than the other way around.

There are many sorts of object, of course, and many sorts of loss. I daily shed millions of dead skin cells without thinking about it, and it doesn’t trouble my world if a Lego block goes missing from the Tupperware footlocker where all our Lego pieces entropically end up. The absence I’m talking about is the shadow cast by a specific kind of item: it must be something so critical to daily function that I need it—at least need easy access to it—almost all the time; by the same token, its ubiquity as both physical item and psychic token must make it easy to take for granted. Glasses, keyring, wallet, phone, various iPods and iPads. Made almost invisible by ritualized use, these small but vital technologies don’t often vanish from the map. But when they do, they threaten to take the map with them.

This week I spent a disturbing and disorienting couple of days searching for my laptop, a silvery sylph of a MacBook Air, which did not disappear so much as slowly slip off my radar—not a jump cut but a slow dissolve. Like Pasteur’s germs, the loss became an official fact only retrospectively. First I had to shamble from spot to spot around the house to check all the places the MacBook tends to get left: the high shelf kids can’t get at, the table beside the wall outlet, under the couch, under the bed. Meanwhile my thoughts probed an alternative theory, treating the missing computer as a theft. Hadn’t I left my car unlocked, work case in the front seat plain for all to see, when I dropped my kids at school? It was only a few minutes. But how long would it have taken, really?

I did not like the feeling of these suspicions germinating and spreading vinelike through my view of the world. Too much of the U.S. is ensnared and immobilized in such thorny psychic tendrils. And just as the presidency is in a way the mass projection of a schizoid populace—a country whose constituent blocs have lost the ability to comprehend each other, an imagined community angry-drunk on its dark and fearful imaginings—my worries about some faceless thief are just a way of externalizing anxiety and disavowing my own responsibility for losing track of something valuable.

The computer finally turned up (isn’t it I who turned up? the laptop didn’t move) in my campus office. It was on a shelf at about shoulder height, a place where books belong. I had no memory of setting it there, but set it there I must have. So now my theoretical thief has become an inferred Bob.

That word: absentminded. Quick flash of Fred MacMurray and an infinitely receding four-dimensional array of old academics wearing one sock and polishing their glasses. A little past that tesseract of cliché is one very real person, my mother, whose memory loss has in recent years become profound. Because of her I suppose I watch my own slips and failings with a diagnostic eye, sifting random problems for systematic ones, signals in the noise that point to a larger noise in the signal.

The computer vanished the instant I put it somewhere it doesn’t usually go. What does that say about where the coordinates and position of any object reside? Is it all and only relational? Are there, in fact, only negative differences, dark matter? I think it’s less important to answer those unanswerables than to note how close they are to the surface, a magma of existential worry coursing under the brightness and rationality of waking life. Note it, remember it, honor it.

Great Wolf Lodge

Great Wolf Lodge, in the Poconos, has no real wolves and isn’t really a lodge. But it certainly is Great, at least for my wife and me and our two children. We were there for the third time last week, a getaway timed to coincide with family visiting from New Zealand and our elder son’s sixth birthday.

Kids and parents alike immediately grasp the genius of Great Wolf Lodge’s arrangement: a waterpark blended with a hotel, GWL makes it possible to walk between your room and a giant warehouse of gushing water, slides, and towers, wearing only sandals, swimsuit, and t-shirt. Leave your money and phone behind in the room, and don’t worry about a key: fastened around your wrist is a paper band, Tyvek-tough, with an RFID or something inside that allows you to swipe your way past closed doors. The place is laid out like a labyrinth, a rec-room designed by Escher, and navigating its plushly carpeted, dimly lit hallways, dodging packs of running children and nodding at fellow exhausted parents, I can’t help but think of The Shining and the prowling eye with which Kubrick mapped the Overlook.

Although we concur on the felicity of GWL’s operating premise, parents harbor an additional measure of respect and appreciation for the practicality of its closed system, a loop—not unlike the nautilus tunnels down which we bounce in inflated rafts, shrieking like we’re riding roller coasters—whose limits promise to keep everyone safe. The safety of Ouroborous. Safety from what? From the external world and its dangerous unpredictability, its menacing strangers, its natural threats. Our comfort is premised on apocalypse just beyond the border: like a bomb shelter, or Charlton Heston’s pad in The Omega Man, or the domed cities in Logan’s Run (a space whose sybaritic pleasures resonate with the waterpark’s ethos).

I realize there’s something (paradoxically) infantile about the paranoia inherent to parenting. Since my kids were born I have been unable to extricate my warm love of them from the cold fear of their destruction, illness, sadness. G. K. Chesterton wrote, “To love anything is to see it at once under lowering clouds of danger,” and indeed I have found that the psychic burden imposed by having dependents is so encompassing and unrelenting that to have it lifted, even for the span of a twenty-four-hour stay in a room that smells of chlorine, is like an out-of-body experience.

Our six-year-old appreciates the various wonders of the water park, but it is our three-year-old who is primally transfixed by pools, fountains, bubbles, buckets, splashes, and jets. He points out every vent and drain he sees. Having learned the word and general meaning of “hydraulic,” he asks if everything is hydraulic. But his engineer’s eye is married to a daredevil’s soul, and his favorite activity is fording the waves of the wave pool. Wearing his life vest, he pushes himself into the cresting foam, lets himself fall backwards, rolls so his face is underwater for seconds at a time. I hover, inches away, ready to grab and pull him upright, but he shouts “Let me go, Daddy!” So I stand back, watching with the floating patience of a steadicam, flexing my hands and twisting my body in sympathetic mirror of my boy’s actions, as though this is a videogame, I the player, he the avatar.

Starting the Last of Us


The remarkable opening sequence of The Last of Us was ruined for me — at my request, I hasten to add — and as much as it might be in keeping with the game’s ethos of cowing and disempowering its players, I don’t want to visit the same epistemological violence upon readers without warning. So proceed no further if you wish to remain unspoiled!

After a long sojourn in retro tidepools of emulation (via MAME and Nestopia) and the immediate, delimited pleasures of casual gaming (where usual suspects like Bejeweled and Temple Run share playtime with private-feeling discoveries like Alien Zone and Nimble Quest) I’m returning to modern videogaming with a PlayStation 3 — itself on the verge of obsolescence, I suppose, thanks to the imminent PS4. My motivations for acquiring both The Last of Us and hardware to run it on can be traced to an hour or so of gaming at a friend’s place, where, as my two companions watched and kibbitzed, I walked, crouched, and ran TLOU’s protagonist-avatar Joel through a couple of early “encounters” whose purpose seemed to be to teach me the futility of fighting, shooting, or doing anything really besides sneaking around or flat-out running away from danger.

I find TLOU’s strategy of undermining any sense of potency or agency to be one of its most intriguing traits, but I will wait to talk more about that in a future post. For now I simply want to note the clever, evil way in which the game gets its hooks in you. You begin the game playing as Sarah, Joel’s twelve-year-old daughter, and the initial sequence involves piloting her around a darkened house in search of her father. It’s suitably creepy, with Sarah calling out “Dad?” in increasingly panicked tones as, outside the game, you adapt yourself to the basics of movement, camera placement, and manipulating objects in the environment.

The latter is a now-standard method of starting a game in crypto-tutorial mode — apparently sometime within the last ten years instruction manuals ceased to exist. Controllers have become standardized according to their brands, but each videogame deploys its button-and-joystick layout slightly differently, and acclimatizing the player to this scheme in a way that feels natural is every game’s first design challenge, a kind of ludic bootstrapping.

When Joel arrives home in the middle of the night and spirits Sarah off in a pickup truck, TLOU enters another mode, the expository tour, in this case a bone-rattling run through a world in the process of collapsing: police cars screeching by with sirens blaring (and lenses flaring), houses burning, townspeople rioting. Rushed from one apocalyptic setpiece to another, it’s a bit like Disney’s “Small World” ride filtered through Dante’s Inferno. By this point, avatarial focus has been handed off to Joel, but you barely notice it; he’s carrying Sarah in his arms as he runs, so it feels like he, she, and you have merged into a single unit of desperate, hounded motion.

And when it appears that the three of you have finally reached safety, a soldier appears, opens fire, and kills Sarah. Cut to black and the title card: THE LAST OF US.

It’s a great opening, harrowing and emasculating, and by breaking a couple of the basic expectations of storytelling (killing a child) and of gaming (killing an avatar we have grown used to inhabiting), it decenters and disorients the player, readying him or her for what is to come by demonstrating precisely how unready we really are.

It put me in mind of Psycho, which similarly kills off its ostensible protagonist at the end of its first act — though in the 1960 film Marion Crane has had a moral defect established that makes her, in retrospect at least, deserving of punishment in Hitchcock’s sadistic scopic regime. Sarah, by contrast, is an innocent, and as much a cipher as emblems of purity always are. Starting the game with her death is a manipulative but effective gut-punch that can be read both positively and negatively. It was enough to make me take the leap and reengage with contemporary gaming — well, it and a few other things. But more on that later.


Fun with your new head

The title of this post is borrowed from a book of short stories by Thomas M. Disch, and it’s doubly appropriate in that an act of borrowing arguably lies at the heart of the latest 3D-printing novelty to catch my eye: a British company called Firebox will take pictures of your own head, turn them into a 3D-printed noggin, and stick it on a superhero body. As readers of this blog probably know, I’m intrigued by desktop-fabrication technologies less for their ability to coin unique inventions (the “rapid prototyping” side of their operations) and more for the interesting wrinkles they introduce to the production and circulation of licensed and branded objects — especially fantasy objects, which are referentially unreal but tightly circumscribed by designs associated with particular franchises. Superhero bodies are among the purest examples of such artifacts, offering immediately recognizable physiologies and costumes such as Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman; all of which are among the bodies onto which you can slap your replacement head.

Aside from literalizing the dual-identity structure that has always offered us mild-mannered Clark Kents a means of climbing into Kryptonian god-suits, what I love about this is its neat encapsulation of the deeper ideological function of the 3D-printed fantasy object, giving people the opportunity not just to locate themselves amid an array of mass produced yet personally significant forms (as in, for example, a collection of action figures) but to materialize themselves within and as part of that array, through plastic avatars that also serve as a kind of cyborg expression of commercialized subjectivity. That Firebox (and, presumably, license-holder DC Comics) currently offer a controlled version of that hybridity is only, I think, a symptom of our prerevolutionary moment, poised at the brink of an explosion of such transmutations and transubstantiations, legal and illegal alike, though which the virtual and material objects of fantastic media will not just swap places but find freshly bizarre combinatorial forms.