Q: Your three characters, Arden, Estra and Ingis, have “divisions in their natures.” They all live with irreconcilable desires. They want love and harmony—a simple life; but they want power as well.
RS: I was deeply influenced at an early age by a philosopher named Renford Bambrough, who was at Cambridge and was one of Wittgenstein’s disciples. The idea that he introduced me to was that there are borders in reality that challenge conventional approaches to knowing. Renford was focused on philosophical problems like “other minds” and “morality,” but the idea is broadly applicable.
When Wittgenstein said his aim was to “let the fly out of the bottle,” Renford believed he was talking about seeing and accepting divisions in reality that aren’t obvious using an artificially narrow way of knowing. As our knowledge expands, and we discover divisions, they often seem wrong or paradoxical. To use an example that Renford used: is this pen really red, or are you simply seeing waves with a length of 700 nanometers? Renford’s answer was that both are true. The division is real. The problem is in our minds—in our inability to recognize and accept the divided reality.
Q: Balcony of Fog is, in one reading, the story of America. The dream that Arden and Estra share, at the start, is akin to that of America’s founders: a colonial dream of a simple, inward-facing small, idyllic existence, where the chief value is freedom. In your story, that turns into a passion for growth. I see a fairly blunt comment on public policy.
RS: Blunt it is, I suppose. My favorite comment on the subject is Leopold Kohr’s Breakdown of Nations. It covers many of the things I’ve witnessed firsthand as an American citizen and as a toiler in the working world. Most of the good things in life come from small. And most of the bad things come from big. Humans like growth, but we often lose sight of the fact that big means power. As Kohr explains, most of our atrocities come from the abuse of power; and from the big and powerful, we have gotten our worst atrocities.
Q: I found myself wondering what things in our lives are like the Vat?
RS: Many years ago, I read an account of Pavlov’s experience with his dogs during a flood in St. Petersburg, where he had his lab. He was training his dogs to salivate when the bell rang, and things like that. Conditioned responses. The people had to evacuate quickly, and the dogs were left in the basement. The flood rose up to their necks, the story goes, and then subsided. When Pavlov went back to test the dogs, all the conditioned learning was gone. The trauma of the flood had cleared the registers. When I read the account, I thought, “That’s what psychedelics do.” Now that our government is allowing research on those drugs, we’re getting hard evidence that they can be effective treatments for depression, alcoholism and other disorders. Somehow the drugs perform a Vat-like function.
Q: You must have spent a lot of time in the clouds for this project.
RS: A lot. I climbed into the clouds. I paraglided through them. I followed them around in my car. I would wait for storms and book air travel to take off and land through them. Clouds are one of the marvels of our planet.