Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Fri 15 Feb 08 10:22
I'm honored to introduce our next guest, Pamela McCorduck, who -- with her latest work, "The Edge of Chaos" -- has turned her attention back to novel- writing after many years in the field of nonfiction. Pamela (http://www.pamelamccorduck.com) has published nine books, including best sellers "Machines Who Think," "The Fifth Generation," and "The Futures of Women." Her books have been translated into most of the major European and Asian languages. She has written for magazines ranging from Redbook and Cosmopolitan to Daedalus, and was a contributing editor to Wired. She has appeared on many television shows, including PBS's News Hour and the CBS Evening News. CNN based a two-part series on the book she co-authored with Nancy Ramsey, "The Futures of Women." Longtime WELL member David Kline leads the conversation with Pamela. David is an energy economist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, leading programs with developing countries on sustainable energy and development. He has facilitated clean energy projects around the globe, Egypt to Botswana and Mexico to China. He calls himself a dilettante who's dabbled, for example, in chaos theory, bird identification, quantum mechanics, and the science and policy response to climate change; one year, he went on a tear and read all the novels of Jane Austen. Welcome to Inkwell.vue, Pamela and David!
David Kline (kline) Fri 15 Feb 08 10:40
Thanks, Cynthia. Let me start right in. Pamela, how did you come to write this particular book?
Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Fri 15 Feb 08 12:12
I was a guest at the Santa Fe Institute in the summer and fall of 1991, and that visit introduced me not only to the notions surrounding the sciences of complexity, but also introduced me to some of the major players, including the Institute's founders. I was much taken with complexity, and thought I'd write a book about it (actually, I already had in "Aaron's Code," except I didn't know that then, and struggled horribly trying to invent a vocabulary for that art-making program, only to discover later that the SFI people had such a vocabulary). So I didn't expect to write a novel. Luckily, Mitch Waldrop's wonderful "Complexity" came out instead, and so I didn't have to write that book. Still, I was fascinated. I began thinking of complexity in terms of tale-telling (I even worked out a nice little complex adaptive system scheme of the Old Testament; don't ask). Eventually, I thought that it would be fun to see if I could embody some of the principles of complexity in a novel, and as I worked on it, it began to be self-referential--the characters are explicitly concerned with the sciences of complexity, but the underlying scheme of the novel also embodies some of the ideas of complexity.
Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Fri 15 Feb 08 12:16
So much for the formal answer to your question. As the book moved on, the characters took over. They lived their lives. I watched. I probed. I uncovered from time to time. But they lived their lives in spite of me, not because of me. I would "watch" a character do something and think, "No! You idiot! Don't do that!" But he or she would go ahead and do it, and then I'd have to watch the trainwreck, and see how that character extricated himself or herself. I did not know how it would end until I wrote the last chapter, and as I began that chapter, didn't even know it *was* the last chapter.
David Kline (kline) Fri 15 Feb 08 19:38
We'll have to circle back around to you watching your own characters (as in Escher's 'Drawing Hands?), but first I'd like to know what is was about chaos and your visit to SFI that captivated you so much.
Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Sat 16 Feb 08 07:13
My visits to SFI persuaded me that a new kind of science was underway. Maybe it would succeed, maybe not. It had lots of affinities to artificial intelligence, which I'd already written about, so I had a cognitive structure to hang stuff on--it wasn't all new and ridiculously difficult (though it was mostly new and mostly difficult). I loved that it was cross-disciplinary. The sciences of complexity are devoted to finding out general rules about systems that hold across disciplines and systems, whether they're natural or artificial (e.g., whether ecosystems or economics; biological evolution or the evolution of technology). I'm a fox not a hedgehog; I love to know lots of things. A word about the way SFI was in those days. It had expanded past its first home in a former convent on Canyon Road (picturesque, but much to be desired in the way of human comforts; my husband was teaching in the summer school when it was still in the convent, so I got to see it, even though I wasn't an official visitor). Anyway, by the time of my own official summer and fall visit in 1991, SFI was housed in a nondescript office complex on the Old Pecos Trail. But the important thing is, everyone's door was open. I'd sit in my cubbie and try to read the papers, and when I'd cracked my brain to the utmost, I could get up, walk over to the office of Stuart Kauffman or Chris Langton, and say, "you know, I just don't get..." They'd drop everything and explain. It was part of the SFI culture then (in many ways, it still is, thankfully).
Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Sat 16 Feb 08 07:17
Anyway, you'd stagger away from a day at SFI with its seminars and colloquia, its informal discussions in the hallway; your forays into people's offices for what amounted to private tutorials, and you'd feel like you were doing the best drug in the world. It was a high of the best kind. It was almost unbearable it was so good. Your brain was bursting, but you wanted more!
Susan (skjrs-too) Sun 17 Feb 08 10:55
You paint such a vivid portrait of Santa Fe in your novel. It almost functions as a character too. Can you share a little about your relationship with Santa Fe and how the city figures so importantly in your novel?
Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Sun 17 Feb 08 11:32
Hi, Susan! Santa Fe nearly is a character in its own right in the book. It remains one of the few cities with real character in the U.S. (you know the others) and that distinctiveness is one part real, one part fake. Judith the mathematician talks about it--"Santa Fake," she call it, a favorite little joke of outsiders. But it's an effective fake, she adds. Molloy the financier thinks he feels at home there because it's one of the last outposts of old Europe left in the U.S. (he's spent a lot of time in Europe). I have a second home there, and one thing my two homes have in common (Manhattan and Santa Fe) is they're both walking towns. The scale is such that you can do things on foot. The buildings are mostly one-story, some two- and even three-story structures. But the (simulated) mud hut appearance of the place goes back forever. I was stunned to be in southern Morocco a few years ago and see that their desert dwellings looked just like those in Santa Fe. History hangs heavy in Santa Fe. It was officially founded in 1610, and the Europeans who founded it just squeezed themselves into a much longer set of Native American cultures. For all its problems--and it does have problems--I like that about the town. I wanted to write about it.
Donna Odierna (strega) Sun 17 Feb 08 12:21
Santa Fe sure does come through as a character. I don't know if the story would have had its strong coherence if it had taken place elsewhere. Of course, chaos flows around all over the place in the book, internal and external places. You think things are stable and safe, and then they become transparent and alien. The human characters, even the sparingly drawn ones, were often strongly portrayed and at the same time elusive. They must have driven you crazy. Money plays an important part in the story and in the lives of many of the characters, even when they think they reject its importance. How did you manage so many elements at once? It's not a very long book, after all.
Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Sun 17 Feb 08 12:35
What a hard (though flattering) question to answer. The book just erupted, and then I went back and edited the eruptions. Lots of false starts. You learn, as a writer, to let the eruptions do what they will; the editing process is different, and later. Ah, money. It's certainly the great dramatic engine of 19th century English novels, money and class. It plays a pretty big role in French and Russian novels too. My characters are, in a sense, post-money--that is, they have a sufficiency (except Molloy, who has plenty more than that) so, as Ron puts it to Judith, "this isn't a novel by Trollope...you could get together." I paraphrase. Judith uses Molloy's money as an excuse to dodge him.
Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Sun 17 Feb 08 12:52
May I give credit where credit is due? Donna Odierna, my favorite witch, might have a Ph.D. in public health, but she has a very open mind about alternative healing methods, and she was my authority for all the material about Luz, Benito's mother, who is the folk healer. Hope I got it right, babe!
Donna Odierna (strega) Sun 17 Feb 08 13:42
Well, there isn't a right way to be an herbalist (although imo there are wrong ways). Herbal practice varies a lot. I don't know a lot about the curanderas and yerberas of the Southwest, but many folk herbalists are a lot like Luz. (I didn't know that pamela was litening so intently when I was talking about herbs; I got a kick out of seeing some of it in her book!) I was going to bring up Benito later, but since you mentioned him I'll forego waiting. Benito was my favorite character in the book. I wanted a lot more of him. I especially wanted to hear more about the exciting project he was working on. I am left pondering a mystery.
I am of course married to the Berlin Wall (katecat) Sun 17 Feb 08 15:14
Benito was my favorite character, too; he was almost the artist character, to me, the one most involved in work for work's sake (rather than for money or world-changing or career advancing or what have you). And his work was so interesting! you make your time at SFI sound like heaven, just 100% heaven. I would love to hear more about how you worked to 'embody some of the principles of complexity in a novel'--that's such an interesting idea.
Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Sun 17 Feb 08 17:24
Maybe first a word about Benito. A Santa Fe friend said very quietly--uhm, is he based on somebody real here in Santa Fe? Nah, I said brutally, I made him up. Oh, she said. Rather sadly. When I saw what she was getting at, I reminded her Benito had moved to Tucson. She nodded, again sadly, and said yes, I'll console myself with that. Heavens! True, he's gorgeous, gainfully employed, and a great lover. With an artist's soul, as katecat says. I still have a connection with SFI, and I still love it. The ambience has changed a little--it's bigger now, somewhat more structured--but the intellectual buzz is terrific. Again. It had a little swoon for a while. How did I embody some of the principles of complexity? I laid them out as simply as Judith lays them out for Molloy (and these are by no means the beginning and end of the sciences of complexity, I rush to say). Then I focused the work to highlight those principles.
David Kline (kline) Mon 18 Feb 08 10:05
What's more, you used a lot of the newly-coined words from complexity studies as chapter titles, which I thought was a lot of fun. The first one "domain of attraction" seemed to me a hint about what universe the book is going to operate in--human attractions and their strange dynamics. My favorite chapter title may be "Strange Attractors." How did you decide to use these terms that way, which seems to me part play on words and part a supplement to Judith's lectures on complexity?
Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Mon 18 Feb 08 10:56
I love the jargon ("bird twitter") of certain fields. Complexity is one of those fields. I made a list of my favorite phrases, then saw if I could match them more or less to the content of the chapters. I had a few left over, and will save them for the next book. :-)
Ellen Dubrowin (ellen) Mon 18 Feb 08 18:35
hmmm... a sequel?
Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Tue 19 Feb 08 07:54
About three people have seriously suggested a sequel; one gave me detailed issues to be worked out in such a book.
David Kline (kline) Tue 19 Feb 08 09:55
Oh good, you'll have a chance to use a piece of jargon that I noticed you left out of this one: "tight coupling." :-). Maybe we can avoid drifting too far afield (on to the sequel) if I were to ask if there are things you feel like you didn't explore in this book, or that you would have liked to delve further into--if only those willful characters had made different choices, or something.
Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Tue 19 Feb 08 10:49
More like things I wish I'd had room for. For example, in the original draft, I went into great detail about Benito's first visit to the archaeological dig north of Albuquerque, Black Crow, I call it. It's a real site (named after a different bird) digging newly begun, and I happened to visit when a kiva was unearthed for the first time. I also met some archaeological luminaries who were incredibly helpful to me, especially Linda Cordell, who sat me down and told me what it was like being a woman archaeologist at a certain time in the profession. So the draft went on and on, especially regarding the backhoe operator, "Alley the Trowel of the Southwest," a Native American guy who operates a backhoe with such finesse that they could bring him in to a sensitive site like that and not worry he'd so much as chip a pot. In fact, they'd had to wait for him until he got back from Egypt, where he'd been working on a dig there. I loved it, but artistically, it had to go. There were others like that.
a very simple agent (zippy) Tue 19 Feb 08 15:20
on the subjects of Santa Fe and complexity, I was very taken with the complex interaction of cultures there - current anglos and both historic and present day threads of Spanish and what, Puebloan? Is that the right term? but the magic (also the chaos) of what can happen as cultures intersect and merge is fascinating if you allow and celebrate it. this contrasts so sharply with the frozen oreder that results when those of means appropriate a culture in order to merely accessorize.
Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Tue 19 Feb 08 16:52
Oh, in Santa Fe's real life, there's a certain amount of "accessorization" on the part of the three Santa Fe cultures. Remember how we hear (I write) about the blonde trophy wives of Native American artists; and there are Anglo women who wear Native American jewelry, but who wouldn't dream of actually socializing with a real Native American. And so forth. But the three cultures do intermingle in ways planned and unplanned, and that's one of the things that gives Santa Fe its spice.
Maxine Rockoff (maxine-rockoff) Wed 20 Feb 08 07:32
Before we leave the "what's next" thread, I'm willing to wait for the sequel but I sure want the movie, which I imagine stars Meryl Streep.
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Wed 20 Feb 08 09:23
(Note: Offsite readers with comments or questions may send them to <firstname.lastname@example.org> to have them added to this thread -- be sure to put "Chaos" in the subject line, thanks!)
Ellen Dubrowin (ellen) Wed 20 Feb 08 12:00
I admit to near-total ignorance of the science of complexity, but your book has opened me up to seeing things in intriguing new ways. I recently had the great fortune to spend a week on the big island of Hawaii. the cultural patterns of mingling vs mixing there are strikingly parallel to what you've described in Santa Fe. also, the natural edges of lava flows, between the rock and the untouched forest, or between the rock and the first plants to recolonize the flow, are amazing.
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