May 15, 2019
‘While You Are Over There’: An Interview With TWOP’s Jacob Clifton By Himself
Last week, NBC announced it would shut down the much-loved TV forum and recap site TelevisionWithoutPity as of tomorrow. We immediately asked TWOP’s Jacob Clifton, whom we’ve long admired, to write for us instead. He said no. We said how about you interview yourself about your new book for us? He said okay.
While You Are Over There: An Interview With Jacob Clifton By Some Person He Is Calling ‘Saltwick,’ We Guess
“While You Are Over There” is found-footage science fiction. Widescreen in scope and intimate in execution, it’s the story of two scientists — imagine Reed Richards and Sue Storm, on the brink of a public divorce — riding the wave of journalism and popular sentiment to the top of the ratings charts… And contemplating an abrupt drop into the abyss.
Kirby Brendan and Jonah Hope, a futurist and an engineer, have spent the last fifteen years spinning a few defense contracts and media contacts into a whirlwind media flurry: Scientists of a new age, the spacefaring dreams of an entire globe hanging on their every adventure and discovery. Their snappy combination of Bravo-style reality TV and the scientific excitement of Neil Tyson or Bill Nye has brought a small Nat Geo channel down from the nosebleeds to become a water-cooler classic for families and intellectuals alike.
But years into their partnership, the cold has set in. An artificial intelligence, known to billions of viewers as their digital daughter, summons them to the orbital station they’ve paid for with fast talk, arms trading and photo opportunities. As the world looks on, Kirby and Jonah — the faces of a new scientific optimism, the embodiment of a dream fulfilled — are forced to reevaluate not only their personal values, but the reality of their marriage as a polemical act.
Through on-site media appearances and satellite-relayed reports, re-aired interviews and scenes never dreamt fit for public consumption, we track Kirby and Jonah’s last journey into space, to a reconciliation that could spell the end of the world, as family myths and history — and computational analysis — recombine into a desperate gambit for survival… Not only for one married couple and their half-human, invented child, but possibly the Earth’s fate itself.
It’s been almost exactly two and half years since the disastrous Variety profile of former writing team Jacob Clifton and Gwyneth Paltrow that effectively ended my print career. I must admit I’ve been having second and third thoughts about the subject of today’s interview, even when I was en route to Austin, Texas, where the aging enfant terrible currently makes his home. He conducts me, for his part, into his home’s back garden with no lack of trepidation. Long moments are spent searching my face, a small plate of precisely cut cucumber sandwiches and crudité between us growing stale.
Clifton: “Do you remember when Natalie Portman said she ate her body weight in hummus every day? I’ve really been leaning on that one lately.”
Saltwick: “And yet I see we have none.”
Clifton: “Ten minutes ago we had a shit-ton, Kenzie. That’s kind of what I’m saying.”
Saltwick: “So before we dig into ‘While You Are Over There’…”
Clifton: “It’s so good, isn’t it?”
Saltwick: “…Sure. Why don’t you start by telling us what it is? Is it a book or a story, or a film…”
Clifton: “All of them, Kenzie. All of those and more. Just kidding, mostly. It’s a novella, about 25,000 words, um, what we’re calling found-footage prose.”
Saltwick: “Is that why it looks like such a mess?”
Clifton: “You know, the first people to read it, a year ago, were mostly all lawyers or copy-editors, and they all said the same thing. Once you get that it’s teaching you how to read it, it moves pretty easily. My favorite description was one editor, who said that he could feel his feet touch bottom early on.”
Saltwick: “Is there any worry about the experimental format?”
Clifton: “It’s dictated by the story. I admit that I took a year before publishing it myself because I thought that a third party would lend it some kind of… That the reader would take comfort in the fact that a publishing professional didn’t think it was too much, or too experimental.”
Saltwick: “And yet, none did.”
He dashes the cucumber sandwiches to the floor in a flailing fit, but never drops that wild grin, or takes his eyes off my face. A panoply of caffeine delivery systems, I note, litters every countertop and surface. Tiny 5-Hour Energy bottles in pyramidal constructions. It’ll be neither the first nor the last interview, he’ll tell me later, that focuses on his chemical intake. There’s a soberness – not to say sobriety, by a long shot – that informs our conversation today. Privately, he’ll later admit it’s very hard to replicate that self-indicting pose when you’re talking about something you’re actually proud of.
Saltwick: “Okay, so give me the log line. Ten words or less.”
Clifton: “A couple of reality TV scientists, whose marriage is on the brink, are summoned to their orbital station by their, um, digital daughter. A Parent Trap, essentially.”
Saltwick: “That sounds very exciting!”
Clifton: “Well, it’s not exactly action packed. There’s not a lot of onscreen sci-fi stuff happening. It’s mostly about their affair, their scientific partnership and marriage and how they got to where they are. My favorite science fiction is softer than you can imagine – I don’t really ascribe to the common view that the science needs to be central to the story, although I like those too. Elizabeth Moon’s book The Speed Of Dark has exactly one sci-fi idea, presented halfway through, but that’s not what makes The Speed Of Dark great. It’s the hinge of it.”
Saltwick: “So it’s a science fiction story about science fiction without any science fiction in it?”
Clifton: “One of them is a futurist and the other one’s an aerospace engineer. Their shared language is science; the language of their love is about these things. So there are references to things they’ve accomplished, just like there are references to the reality show that brought them fame, but no actual scenes from that show or scenes of their big adventures. The story exists in the intersection of these things, it’s not about any of them.”
Saltwick: “Walk us through the process of your decisions, how it came out to be this way.”
Clifton: “It actually started as a literary idea, specifically an A.M. Homes-type of story about a suburban couple on the edge of divorce who have to break into their house. Back in. Like, their paranoia about getting caught by the HOA doing this burglary on themselves, that kind of thing.”
Saltwick: “And somehow that became an artificial intelligence story, with aliens and…”
Clifton: “Well, I thought, the kind of writing I want to do is this soft sci-fi, so how does that work? What if the couple in question were, say, Scott Summers and Jean Grey from the X-Men, or the family at the center of the Fantastic Four? And that was where it came from. I’ve loved the Lensman-style science-hero archetype since probably Warren Ellis’s Authority. Jenny Sparks and her Sixties adventures, Sliding Albion and all that. I loved Fantastic Four from afar, because of their son Franklin. Part of the mission, for these men, is selling large-scale hope about the future, about space, about science, so I thought they would rely on that retro model, the Competent Man. So suddenly you have these two privately funded astronauts climbing around outside a space station, sort of bitching at each other…”
Saltwick: “And only then did they become this gay, interracial couple?”
Clifton: “Yeah. I wanted to talk about some thematic stuff in this context and they presented themselves fully formed, Kirby Brendan and Jonah Hope. So then the focal point of it shifted to the idea that they represented the perfect string of coincidences to start the Cosmos revolution, this humanistic sort of exuberance we’re now experiencing, with Bill Nye and…”
Saltwick: “That’s the reality show you were talking about?”
Clifton: “Yeah, they were this curiosity on some nosebleed Nat Geo channel – a gay quasi-superhero Duck Dynasty – that because of the moment and the cultural forces at play, have become symbolic of a lot of things for a lot of people. Their fame funds their work, which ripples out and circles back around to their fame and to this sort of reengagement with science and exploration of our universe. But that’s very demanding and precarious, so this seemed like the best way to break them up. The pressure of carrying the football, as minorities and a nonstandard couple, and just in terms of television. Being invited into people’s living rooms every week.”
We take a wine break, now. I think I am definitely going to get fired again. Breaking into a medley of songs from Disney’s Frozen – “easily the best movie ever made” – and alternately staring at an e-cigarette kit still in the box, Clifton finally shakes his head. After a long digression about Andy Cohen, James Franco, and the placement of homosexuality in culture that even he admits midstream is tedious, we move on.
Saltwick: “I noticed that we don’t get a lot of personal time with Kirby Brendan, your futurist son of a white Congressman. Most of his appearances in the story are told through a third party, whether it’s my interviews with him or memories of him, or…”
Clifton: “He is the object. Of desire, or inquiry, or… We get viewpoints of him, from the other characters, but there’s no reason to let him dominate the speaking voice.”
I set down my wine and nod; I can tell he knows what’s coming.
Clifton: “You want to talk about Halley. Everybody wants to talk about her. Everybody wants the story to be about that girl.”
Saltwick: “You sound like one of your characters, annoyed by this personality at the center of the narrative.”
Clifton: “Haha, that’s what I was just thinking. Okay, Halley is obviously a huge factor. She’s this capricious, destructive, no-nonsense kid that basically tries to blow up Los Angeles to get her fathers back together. She powers the narrative. But I also wanted to show-by-doing some of the things about science fiction and specifically artificial intelligence that interest me particularly. I wanted her to be interesting and hopefully lovable, but also to show the disruptions and loopholes in that movement forward. AI that is not about fear or the Singularity.”
Saltwick: “The end of the story is something of a Singularity moment, in its trappings.”
Clifton: “Well, and here’s where I get weird, because so much of the story is about finding a beauty in determinism, finding love in the hopeless place of a purely logical and cold universe. And so to me, it’s always seemed like technology moves forward – the future is always better than the past – but the ‘Singularity’ itself is something of a tone-deaf understanding of what is coming. I think the real Singularity is when we realize, not that robots have become more human than human or whatever, but that humanity and life itself are determinist. Chemicals and physics. And that there is a beauty in that, but also a usefulness. If you stop worrying about computers taking over your appliances, and start looking at your body as a sophisticated computer, things get a lot simpler. Mental illness stigma, for example. Things that we think of as regrettable or shameful necessities – poverty, unwanted children, hunger, violent crime – become failures of engineering to be solved. Which is blue-sky thinking, obviously, but that’s the point of a Singularity: A thing that is impossible to imagine.”
He sits back, hands clasped on his ample belly, with a self-satisfied grin I’m learning to hate.
Saltwick: “That sounds, forgive me, but you sound very creepy.”
Clifton: “It’s creepy. What’s creepy to me is this scientific elite, the new humanist or atheist or skeptic, shies so easily away from the terminal point of their ideas. I think if you go deeply into anything enough, honestly enough, you will end up in a place that is okay. In this case, the upshot is that self-determination, ‘Free Will,’ is an absolute but necessary illusion. You can’t think about not thinking. You can’t be a robot. And that illusion is what makes it so easy to be charitable, to do good works, to take the subjective fact that you have a soul and do something with it. Because the strict determinism I’m talking about lies in a realm you cannot actually access, not with all the intellect in the world, your brain won’t let you X your brain. But examining these ideas gives you, gives me, all the excuse I need to be kind. If I know you are fucked up and that’s why you did that fucked up thing to me, I don’t need to hurt you back. Just be less fucked up from having and processing that experience. Very Jesus.”
Saltwick: “It seems to me that leads also into one of the major themes of the story, which is the difference between the science fiction that fears and the science fiction that hopes.”
Clifton: “A distinction most of us don’t bother to make, as consumers. From the beginning of speculative fiction there have been these two forces. The fear-based one that turns on nuclear paranoia, obviously, but started back with Wells, then Huxley and Orwell, that’s historically called ‘If This Goes On,’ as in, drawing lines from what’s happening now into the darkness. But then too there is an exuberant thread, about exploration and excitement. Frankenstein’s Monster had a bad time of it, but didn’t really exhibit – beyond the literary criticism level, where we could talk about the fear of Industrialization during Shelley’s time – that kind of inevitable horror that is so paradoxically comforting in our stories. It’s successful for a reason and I don’t begrudge it, but it’s not the kind of thing I feel like I am bringing to the table.”
Saltwick: “And so in that context, Halley is… What? Not a cautionary tale, obviously…”
Clifton: “We personify. Scott McCloud talks in Understanding Comics about how even an electrical outlet or a salt shaker has a face. We give our pets personalities even though they’re less complicated machines than we are. So it seems to me we create in our own image, and there’s this tremendous amount of projection, not to say transference and counter-transference, happening in that relationship. Battlestar Galactica is about what happens when humanity’s children rebel, and it’s because we are abusive parents. But that’s not every family.”
Saltwick: “Have you ever said or written a sentence without a pop-culture reference in it?”
Clifton: “Not off the top of my head, no.”
Saltwick: “There are a lot of them in the story. Do you wonder if they’ll date it?”
Clifton: “It’s about a moment, it’s about right now. So it’s already dated. But also, the pop references in this story are easter eggs for the end of the story. They all add up to what is really happening, in the end, just like the alien’s bizarre dialogues or the dalmatian puppy.”
Saltwick: “There’s a secret history. What is the deal with the alien? Why does it call itself Wintermute? Is that just a sci-fi solidarity thing or a cred thing or a…”
Clifton: “Gibson’s Neuromancer and its sequels center around a, hmm, a heiros gamos between the title AI and another AI, called Wintermute. I would say whoever named the Baby in the story did so … knowingly.”
Saltwick: “Okay, tell us what’s up next for you, to the extent that you can. A sequel?”
Clifton: “It’s called ‘I Crown The Dragon King.’”
Saltwick: “This is about characters we know? Or new ones?”
Clifton: “…Yes. Moving on, though, before that my next self-release thing is another novella, of probably shorter length, ‘I Can See It From Here.’ which would be a companion piece, of sorts, about a superhero sidekick who’s accused of killing his mentor.”
Saltwick: “That sounds dark.”
Clifton: “Really it’s about the human difference between being in an abusive relationship with a person – which is something you need to get yourself out of immediately – and the experience of patriotism. Specifically, loving an America that can’t decide if it hates you or not, from day to day. That to love America is to love what hates you, and hurts you, but also knows and loves you – and that’s how big you have to be. You can’t divide yourself into Red and Blue or Liberal and Conservative, so why would you ask that of your people? Because these are your people.”
Saltwick: “Sounds like more dudes fucking.”
Clifton: “It’s what I got, baby.”
“While You Are Over There,” by Jacob Clifton, is available on a pick-your-price basis through Gumroad.