For all his criticisms, Frank Lloyd Wright was not intrinsically opposed to cities. Instead, he urged us to examine what cities had become and recognize that none of this was inevitable. Other cities were possible and it was the role of architects, invested with an artistic eye, to humanize the city. One of the ways to do so was to break out of restrictive influences and look to the wider world for inspiration. Wright was enthralled by the materiality, harmonies, and silver ratio of Japanese architecture, a debt he repaid with his Maya-infused Imperial Hotel, which survived the devastating Great Kantō earthquake of 1923 but not the demolition crew of 1968. He was inspired not just by the ornamentation of “Toltec, Aztec, Mayan, Inca” architecture he’d adored since childhood (as evidenced in his Ennis House, which inspired Deckard’s apartment in Blade Runner) but also by the urban planning of Mesoamerican settlements with their plazas, passages, and palaces.
But then Yang read The Joy Luck Club, an intricate and poignant story about the cultural divide between four Chinese-American daughters and their immigrant mothers. Moved by Tan’s portrayal of women who shared her struggle, the then-budding producer met with the author soon afterward, in March 1988, determined to bring the book to the big screen. “I didn’t know what the hell was going to happen in my life, per se. I didn’t really know how to navigate the industry very well … I just knew that I really wanted to do The Joy Luck Club.”
But she knew it would be a hard sell. In the late ’80s and decades prior, the very identity “Asian-American” was largely unheard of in mainstream America. In the rare moments when Hollywood showed Asian faces onscreen, the characters were more often written as demeaning stereotypes and relegated to bit or supporting characters, secondary to their white counterparts — roles like Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles or the characters that pioneering Chinese-American actor Anna May Wong was afforded throughout her career. So to pitch Hollywood a film that centers not just on women but on Asian-American women? And one that portrays them as complex human beings with turbulent interior lives, at that? It was a bold ask.
Russo’s new collection of stories, “Trajectory,” is a departure from that book in two ways. First and most obviously, “Trajectory” focuses not on characters who are chronically down at the heel but on upper-middle-class professionals, people whose financial woes are mostly of manageable proportions. Second, and more interestingly, Russo has forgone the plottiness of “Empire Falls,” a book somewhat marred by the surfeit of action — everything from a school shooting to a flood — crowded into its final pages.
Yet by the end of the book, he has arrived at a more enlightened view of machine intelligence than most people in the tech industry, who are obsessed with machines that will replace people. Kasparov was an early enthusiast for chess-playing computers and indeed did much to foster the technology that enables every child nowadays to learn to play against a grandmaster-level virtual opponent. In the end, the technology he inspired defeated him. But the message he bears is that the really intelligent approach is not to rail against the machine for being better than we are at some things, but to celebrate its capacity to augment our human capabilities. And therein lies the beginning of wisdom in these matters.