Q: Balcony of Fog begins in a post-nuclear world in which society is starkly stratified between those who have power and those who don’t. Arden is in the latter camp. He’s a “toiler.” Is this you?
RS: When I was a teenager, I worked on an assembly line at a missile factory and as a busboy in a restaurant. I left home when I was seventeen, and I was penniless. I managed to get a college education, but I entered the working world doing toiling jobs—digging ditches, running printing presses and so on. People have always struggled to improve their position in life, and they’ve always been sensitive to who is “above” them. I lived through that.
Q: The story takes us back to a tribal or primordial past.
RS: It does, although you could argue that our tribal past is so recent that it’s no reversion at all. For seven million years, going back to our pre-chimp ancestors, we lived in the wilds or in nomadic shelters. More recently, we graduated to lodges or villages. The city is a new thing.
The human mind has graduated. We can conceive of things that would be incomprehensible to our forebears. But we’re not designed to manage power effectively. Purposeful planning only happens smoothly when we shrink our numbers back to tribal size. A tribe with elders and a chief and a visionary or two can agree on change and affect a tribe’s fate. The leaders of most modern nations cannot. And the best corporations are run as dictatorships, where one person can overrule everyone else. Large numbers of people, each with a bit of power, can’t agree on anything. The expansion of mind beyond the limits of our control is, I think, the preeminent problem for our species.
I love the idea that we can see our inherited limitations mirrored in the natural world—in meteorological phenomena specifically.
Q: Estra initiates Arden into the ways of the cloud realm, and once acclimated, they build an idyll of love together. If only their story could end here! The conflict, as I read it, is between romance and power; but I’m not sure which side you’re on.
RS: There’s a division in my nature. I lived in my imagination as a boy, and I was very romantic as a young man. There was passion for art on my mother’s side. Painting, fashion, theater. I had a cousin who was a playwright, one who was an actress, and an uncle in film. On my father’s side, there was none of that. It was all science, engineering, medicine and business. My father was a chemist and an entrepreneur. He thought starting companies was what real men do. My first love was the arts, but in order to fund my romantic aspirations, I took jobs with electronics and software companies, and ended up as president of two of them. I loved the command and the risk, and the thrill of growth that comes with all that. Which probably explains why my sympathies are hard to pin down.
Q: It isn’t long before Arden and Estra’s idyll is threatened by Ingis and his giant, cranium-shaped thunderhead. He seems like a caricature of the male psyche.
RS: Being a man is an Arden-Ingis experience for many of us. You’re given a machine, and you’re not sure what it’s for or how it works. You get an owner’s manual, but it’s misleading and incomplete. It’s like one of those cars Ralph Nader complained about in the sixties. The manual doesn’t explain how, under certain conditions, the car will explode.
Q: I’m not sure whether you’re critiquing power or caricaturing what people think about it.
RS: Reality and human attitudes are all part of the same system. When it comes to something as crucial as power, human psychology has no respect for the difference between fact and fiction. What does it matter? For the oppressed, envy and rage and indignation have their own trajectories. And the powerful enjoy being at the top and would like to stay there. Those low on the totem pole will always feel cheated by those above them. And the powerful will always feel unjustly maligned by those below—irrespective of whether they wield their power in a moral or monstrous way.
At least half of the things that are thought and said about people in power are factually wrong. When I was eighteen, I read a popular book of the time by C. Wright Mills, titled The Power Elite. Mills was the Alex Jones of his day, and his book expressed an idea which was captivating then, has always been captivating, and will probably always be captivating. At the time I read it, I was a starving student at Berkeley. I thought, “Wow. Is this true?” Thirty years later, when I was rubbing shoulders with powerful people, I realized that Mills’ book was nonsense. Powerful people have big egos, and they don’t conspire with each other very often.
But facts don’t matter. When it comes to the human perspective on power, what matters is desire. No one wants to be at the bottom of the totem pole. We all want to be at the top. And we all share the pleasure or upset that comes from moving up and down the pole. That’s part of our makeup.
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: BOF 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.