Isaac Asimov: How To Generate Ideas


Isaac Asimov published over 500 volumes of books in addition to 90,000 letters, postcards and other scientific books for laymen.

With permission of Asimov Holdings, Technology Review presents his never before published essay “How Do People Get New Ideas?”, which I post here in its entirety, supplemented by images of my choice, appropriate or not.

Arthur Obermayer, friend of the author, recently rediscovered this essay among his files and has this memento to share:

In 1959, I worked as a scientist at Allied Research Associates in Boston. The company was an MIT spinoff that originally focused on the effects of nuclear weapons on aircraft structures. The company received a contract with the acronym GLIPAR (Guide Line Identification Program for Antimissile Research) from the Advanced Research Projects Agency to elicit the most creative approaches possible for a ballistic missile defense system. The government recognized that no matter how much was spent on improving and expanding current technology, it would remain inadequate. They wanted us and a few other contractors to think “out of the box.”

When I first became involved in the project, I suggested that Isaac Asimov, who was a good friend of mine, would be an appropriate person to participate. He expressed his willingness and came to a few meetings. He eventually decided not to continue, because he did not want to have access to any secret classified information; it would limit his freedom of expression. Before he left, however, he wrote this essay on creativity as his single formal input. This essay was never published or used beyond our small group. When I recently rediscovered it while cleaning out some old files, I recognized that its contents are as broadly relevant today as when he wrote it. It describes not only the creative process and the nature of creative people but also the kind of environment that promotes creativity.

“How Do People Get New Ideas?”

Presumably, the process of creativity, whatever it is, is essentially the same in all its branches and varieties, so that the evolution of a new art form, a new gadget, a new scientific principle, all involve common factors. We are most interested in the “creation” of a new scientific principle or a new application of an old one, but we can be general creative

One way of investigating the problem is to consider the great ideas of the past and see just how they were generated. Unfortunately, the method of generation is never clear even to the “generators” themselves.

But what if the same earth-shaking idea occurred to two men, simultaneously and independently? Perhaps, the common factors involved would be illuminating. Consider the theory of evolution by natural selection, independently created by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace.

Wallace Edwards

Wallace Edwards

There is a great deal in common there. Both traveled to far places, observing strange species of plants and animals and the manner in which they varied from place to place. Both were keenly interested in finding an explanation for this, and both failed until each happened to read Malthus’s “Essay on Population.”

Both then saw how the notion of overpopulation and weeding out (which Malthus had applied to human beings) would fit into the doctrine of evolution by natural selection (if applied to species generally).

Obviously, then, what is needed is not only people with a good background in a particular field, but also people capable of making a connection between item 1 and item 2 which might not ordinarily seem connected.

Undoubtedly in the first half of the 19th century, a great many naturalists had studied the manner in which species were differentiated among themselves. A great many people had read Malthus. Perhaps some both studied species and read Malthus. But what you needed was someone who studied species, read Malthus, and had the ability to make a cross-connection.

Nikolay Zaytsev

Nikolay Zaytsev

That is the crucial point that is the rare characteristic that must be found. Once the cross-connection is made, it becomes obvious. Thomas H. Huxley is supposed to have exclaimed after reading On the Origin of Species, “How stupid of me not to have thought of this.”

But why didn’t he think of it? The history of human thought would make it seem that there is difficulty in thinking of an idea even when all the facts are on the table. Making the cross-connection requires a certain daring. It must, for any cross-connection that does not require daring is performed at once by many and develops not as a “new idea,” but as a mere “corollary of an old idea.”

It is only afterward that a new idea seems reasonable. To begin with, it usually seems unreasonable. It seems the height of unreason to suppose the earth was round instead of flat, or that it moved instead of the sun, or that objects required a force to stop them when in motion, instead of a force to keep them moving, and so on.

A person willing to fly in the face of reason, authority, and common sense must be a person of considerable self-assurance. Since he occurs only rarely, he must seem eccentric (in at least that respect) to the rest of us. A person eccentric in one respect is often eccentric in others.einstein

Consequently, the person who is most likely to get new ideas is a person of good background in the field of interest and one who is unconventional in his habits. (To be a crackpot is not, however, enough in itself.)

Once you have the people you want, the next question is: Do you want to bring them together so that they may discuss the problem mutually, or should you inform each of the problem and allow them to work in isolation?

My feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it. (The famous example of Kekule working out the structure of benzene in his sleep is well-known.)карандаши

The presence of others can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing. For every new good idea you have, there are a hundred, ten thousand foolish ones, which you naturally do not care to display.

Nevertheless, a meeting of such people may be desirable for reasons other than the act of creation itself.

No two people exactly duplicate each other’s mental stores of items. One person may know A and not B, another may know B and not A, and either knowing A and B, both may get the idea—though not necessarily at once or even soon.

Furthermore, the information may not only be of individual items A and B, but even of combinations such as A-B, which in themselves are not significant. However, if one person mentions the unusual combination of A-B and another unusual combination A-C, it may well be that the combination A-B-C, which neither has thought of separately, may yield an answer.

It seems to me then that the purpose of cerebration sessions is not to think up new ideas but to educate the participants in facts and fact-combinations, in theories and vagrant thoughts.

But how to persuade creative people to do so? First and foremost, there must be ease, relaxation, and a general sense of permissiveness. The world in general disapproves of creativity, and to be creative in public is particularly bad. Even to speculate in public is rather worrisome. The individuals must, therefore, have the feeling that the others won’t object.

If a single individual present is unsympathetic to the foolishness that would be bound to go on at such a session, the others would freeze. The unsympathetic individual may be a gold mine of information, but the harm he does will more than compensate for that. It seems necessary to me, then, that all people at a session be willing to sound foolish and listen to others sound foolish.

If a single individual present has a much greater reputation than the others, or is more articulate, or has a distinctly more commanding personality, he may well take over the conference and reduce the rest to little more than passive obedience. The individual may himself be extremely useful, but he might as well be put to work solo, for he is neutralizing the rest.

The optimum number of the group would probably not be very high. I should guess that no more than five would be wanted.rainbownetworks430

A larger group might have a larger total supply of information, but there would be the tension of waiting to speak, which can be very frustrating. It would probably be better to have a number of sessions at which the people attending would vary, rather than one session including them all. (This would involve a certain repetition, but even repetition is not in itself undesirable. It is not what people say at these conferences, but what they inspire in each other later on.)

For best purposes, there should be a feeling of informality. Joviality, the use of first names, joking, relaxed kidding are, I think, of the essence—not in themselves, but because they encourage a willingness to be involved in the folly of creativeness. For this purpose I think a meeting in someone’s home or over a dinner table at some restaurant is perhaps more useful than one in a conference room.

Probably more inhibiting than anything else is a feeling of responsibility. The great ideas of the ages have come from people who weren’t paid to have great ideas, but were paid to be teachers or patent clerks or petty officials, or were not paid at all. The great ideas came as side issues.

To feel guilty because one has not earned one’s salary because one has not had a great idea is the surest way, it seems to me, of making it certain that no great idea will come in the next time either.

Yet your company is conducting this cerebration program on government money. To think of congressmen or the general public hearing about scientists fooling around, boondoggling, telling dirty jokes, perhaps, at government expense, is to break into a cold sweat. In fact, the average scientist has enough public conscience not to want to feel he is doing this even if no one finds out.

I would suggest that members at a cerebration session be given sinecure tasks to do—short reports to write, or summaries of their conclusions, or brief answers to suggested problems—and be paid for that; the payment being the fee that would ordinarily be paid for the cerebration session. The cerebration session would then be officially unpaid-for and that, too, would allow considerable relaxation.

I do not think that cerebration sessions can be left unguided. There must be someone in charge who plays a role equivalent to that of a psychoanalyst. A psychoanalyst, as I understand it, by asking the right questions (and except for that interfering as little as possible), gets the patient himself to discuss his past life in such a way as to elicit new understanding of it in his own eyes.

In the same way, a session-arbiter will have to sit there, stirring up the animals, asking the shrewd question, making the necessary comment, bringing them gently back to the point. Since the arbiter will not know which question is shrewd, which comment necessary, and what the point is, his will not be an easy job.

As for “gadgets” designed to elicit creativity, I think these should arise out of the bull sessions themselves. If thoroughly relaxed, free of responsibility, discussing something of interest, and being by nature unconventional, the participants themselves will create devices to stimulate discussion.



Thus spoke Isaac Asimov. Take it or leave it. He was brilliant in every one of his many pursuits. Without a doubt, if he would have set his eye on a career of motivational speaker for middle management, he would have succeeded splendidly and, perhaps, written 500 books on how-to-be-creative-and-generate-ideas. Luckily, he had chosen different career path.

Target Practice

 Over the past six years, German photographer Herlinde Koelbl visited some 30 countries and created series of images for the project Targets, photographing practice targets used for training marksmen-soldiers.  How to create an image of the enemy? The photo above was taken in Mali.



United Arab Emirates

United Arab Emirates





Great Britain

Great Britain



Great Britain

Great Britain




















Teeter-Totter On The Brink


As we all know, and I used to know but since forgot and re-learned only recently, we, humans, live in the Holocene Epoch of the Quaternary Period of the Cenozoic  Era. That means only that at certain point of human development scientists among our species agreed on calling it thus.

The “deciding body” is the International Geological Congress. It defines the planet’s geological timescale  by  dividing it into units, the longest of which are eras, then periods, then epochs and ages.


Since the mid-twentieth century, human footprint and humanity’s impact on our mother-planet has become a subject of both research and concern. Thus far, scientists and laymen alike agree that humans manifested their presence on Earth in a most profound way. Can we distinguish between man-made and natural at this time and age? Yes, we can… not without difficulty, however.

It does look like our species of mammals manged to trample and ravish the planet Earth to a degree that we can rightfully put a claim on the entire epoch.

Juan Gatti artwork

Artwork of  Juan Gatti

Scientists from around the world met this week to decide whether to call time on the Holocene epoch after 11,700 years and begin a new geological age called the Anthropocene. 

A group of geologists, climate scientists, ecologists and an expert in international law that have been conducting research since 2009, all met face-to-face for the first time in Berlin on Thursday and Friday to discuss the issue. (Reuters, Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of Cultures of the World))

“It is clear that, though we have differences about when it starts, it seems as a group that we were quite happy to say we are in the Anthropocene,” said Colin Waters, secretary for the working group and a geologist for the British Geological Society.


Juan Gatti. Anatomical Botanical Studies

Have we, indeed, entered a new human era already — the Anthropocene – to reflect our deep impact on the planet?

We have to wait until August 2016 to know for sure. At that time, the working group must report its conclusions to the International Geological Congress. If the International Geological Congress says YES, the Anthropocene it should bethen we can get lucky and literally rather than metaphorically live in two epochs.

Until then, lets just teeter-totter on the brink of the Anthropocene.



Murder In A Wax Museum. Update

FEMENThe following is an update to my Breaking News: Murder In A Wax Museum post of June 6, 2014.

PARIS, Oct 15 (Reuters) – A Ukranian activist belonging to topless feminist group Femen was convicted for exhibitionism by a Paris court on Wednesday for having attacked a statue of Russian President Vladimir Putin at a wax museum in the capital.

Iana Zhdanova, with “Kill Putin” written on her nude breasts, attacked the likeness of Putin at the Musee Grevin in the capital with a wooden stake in June.



The activist, who has lived in France for two years as a political refugee, laughed in court after the judge ordered her to pay fine of 1,500 euros ($1,897) for vandalism and a crime called “sexual exhibition” in French, as well as other damages payable to Musee Grevin.

“I’m laughing because it’s very strange,” said Zhdanova, 26, outside the courtroom. “I’m very surprised by this decision.”

Zhdanova’s lawyer, Marie Dose, said it was the first time a French court had sentenced a Femen member for sexual exhibition, calling it a precedent that would thwart the group’s ability to protest. Dose said she would appeal.

This is an official announcement of the above on the FEMIN web page:FEMEN articleAs well as the header image on that page:FEMEN page

Darwin Award 2014

DarwinAs you might’ve heard, Darwin Award is named in honor of Charles Darwin, the father of evolution. It commemorates those who aspired and succeeded in improving our gene pool by removing themselves from it.

The Darwin Awards salute the improvement of
the human genome by honoring those who
accidentally remove themselves from it…

Warning: Morbid content to follow.

Some of the deserving contenders for the Darwin Award 2014 are:

ray-of-sunA Swiss woman experimented with the “sun diet”, assured that exposing herself to sun rays will provide her with all necessary nutrients to sustain life. She died of starvation. Who gave her such an idea remains a mystery.

snake handling pastorJamie Coots, a Kentucky preacher famous for handling snakes during religious services, has died after being bitten by a poisonous snake at his church. He and his followers believe that God calls upon them to handle venomous serpents and to drink other poisons. Bitten, Coots refused medical treatment because he believed that his fate is in God’s hands.

Oscar AguilarOscar Aguilar liked taking all sorts of selfies, but one of them accidentally turned deadly when he posed with a gun. When the 21-year-old went to take the “killer selfie”, he accidentally pulled the trigger of the wood-handled pistol, firing off a single round into his forehead.

Argentinian Darwin Award contenderAn Argentinian young woman, Sonia Perez Llanzon, died after she reportedly injected herself with Vaseline in an attempt to give herself a breast augmentation. 

articleA Mexican teenager, Cruz Marcelino Velazquez, 16, volunteered to take ‘a big sip’ of the liquid at the San Ysidro port of entry in San Diego, trying to persuade inspectors that it was only apple juice. It was, in fact, methamphetamine.the wellA 17 year old Egyptian youth fell into the well and drowned while trying to save a chicken. His sister and two brothers rushed to help him and also fell into the well. Two other people tried to rescue them but succumbed to the dame fate. Their bodies were fished out of the well. Luckily, the chicken survived.

wild elephantTwo men in Kenya, Leornad Tonui and Michael Shikuku, were capturing selfies with a wild elephant when they were trampled to death by the irate pachyderm who proceeded to bury the corpses with brush. The two men were actually touching the elephant’s face while taking the photos. Charles Darwin cautions, “When taking sensational selfies, remember the Photoshop option.”

The Kenyan men are the 2014 Darwin Award Nominees “confirmed true by Darwin”.

See more nominees at  DarwinAwards.



Schizotypy, Anyone?


Incidentally, today is World Mental Health Day 2014. This year’s World Mental Health Day shines a light on schizophrenia. At least 26 million people are living with schizophrenia worldwide according to the World Health Organization, and many more are indirectly affected by it.

Recent scientific research shows that people in artistic or scientific professions (dancers, researchers, artists, photographers) more often than the general population suffer from mental illness, with a significant connection between writers and schizophrenia.



Patient: “Sometimes I think the wall is moving.” Doctor: “Cut down on drinking.”

For the study, researchers tracked almost 1.2 million patients and their relatives, identified down to second-cousin level.

The findings reveal that bipolar disorder is more prevalent in the entire group. 

Authors, however, more commonly suffer from the other mental disorders — including schizophrenia, depression, anxiety syndrome and substance abuse — and are almost 50 percent more likely to commit suicide than the general population.


Creative professions are more common in the relatives of patients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anorexia nervosa and, to some extent, autism.

The findings suggest that mental disorders should be viewed in a new light.

“If one takes the view that certain phenomena associated with the patient’s illness are beneficial, it opens the way for a new approach to treatment,” said Simon Kyaga, consultant in psychiatry and doctoral student at the Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics.


“In that case, the doctor and patient must come to an agreement on what is to be treated, and at what cost. In psychiatry and medicine generally there has been a tradition to see the disease in black-and-white terms and to endeavor to treat the patient by removing everything regarded as morbid.”

Here is an excerpt from Schizotypy, Flow, and the Artist’s Experience, an article in Psychology Today:

In a recent study reported in Schizophrenia Bulletin, Nelson and Rawlings propose that a mild form of schizophrenia called schizotypy may be positively associated with the experience of creative flow. Schizophrenia is a debilitating mental illness that affects roughly 1% of the population and involves altered states of consciousness and “abnormal” perceptual experiences. Schizotypy, which is a watered-down version of schizophrenia, consists of a constellation of personality traits that are evident in some degree in everyone.

Do you have any of the following “traits”?

  • A cold or inappropriate affect
  • Anhedonia
  • Odd or eccentric behaviour
  • A tendency to social withdrawal
  • Paranoid or bizarre ideas not amounting to true delusions
  • Obsessive ruminations
  • Thought disorder and perceptual disturbances
  • Occasional transient quasi-psychotic episodes with intense illusions, auditory or other hallucinations, and delusion-like ideas, usually occurring without external provocation

Are you going mad? You might check you eves. Might as well, you are a schizotypical creative genius experiencing a flow. Have fun while it lasts!

The Art of Overtone Singing

The “other-worldly” sound of overtone singing is hard to master, say those who know a thing or two about singing. The technique is “native” to Mongolia, called sygyt, meaning throat singing  in Mongolian.

Anna-Maria Hefele, a classical soprano who also plays a dozen or so musical instruments, has been practicing the art of overtone singing for over 10 years.

The skills she displays on the video far outweigh what the thousands of viewers, including musicians, thought possible for a human being. At the 25-second mark she starts off with the basics, but then the real show begins: she starts shifting the fundamental note, while independently controlling the frequency of the overtone.

In case this sounds confusing: every note has a fundamental frequency. For instance, an E in the third octave sits somewhere at the 40-42Hz mark. But every note also has higher, subtle frequencies at which it resonates – those are called harmonics. They are multiples of the fundamental frequencies (an E in the fourth octave would be somewhere around 80Hz, then 160Hz and so on). (Polyphonic German soprano does the impossible – sings 2 notes at once!)

Miroslav Grosser can teach you basics of overtone singing.

YouTube has many videos featuring “the original” Mongolian throat singing as well as several of its “derivatives” — Tuvan and Siberian in particular.

Arithmetics For The Teachers Day

world teachers dayThis year on 5 October, we celebrate the 20th anniversary of World Teachers’ Day. The day commemorates the adoption of the ILO/UNESCO Recommendation concerning the status of teachers in 1966.  This recommendation is morally binding for all countries. (UNESCO. World Teachers’ Day 2014: Invest in the future, invest in teachers!)

Very well then, perhaps most appropriate here would be a slide show about teaches everywhere, from slams of faraway and god-forsaken lands to less faraway places, blessed with airy towers of knowledge, wise-looking teachers and above average children, breathing in their every word. Not that pupils in the slams of faraway lands aren’t bright or don’t breath in their teachers’ every word, it’s just that they might breath in dust and a odors not ordinary found in towers of knowledge.  There is, however, a nice slideshow presentation on today’s UNESCO page with pupils and teaches from all over the world.

Another occasion-appropriate material would be a bunch of quotes about teachers, education and inspirations sparked by great teachers. Such as this one, for instance:  A good teacher can inspire hope, ignite the imagination, and instill a love of learning. (Brad Henry). Plenty more can be found on Brainy Quote, where this came from. Never mind that right next to it Swami Vivekananda insists, quite persuasively, “You have to grow from the inside out. None can teach you, none can make you spiritual. There is no other teacher but your own soul.” I suppose our souls should be celebrated along with the rest of our favorite teachers.

I leave it at that and choose yet another “right thing to do” — a heartwarming story about a great teacher.  Not my own, however, although I had a few teachers who taught me a thing or two, and whom I remember warmly and wish them Happy Teachers Day.

Russian painter Nikolay Bogdanov-Belsky (1868–1945)  was lucky to get into the school of the famous Russian pedagogue Professor S. A Rachinskiy, who noticed the boy’s talent and helped him get his education in arts.

The artist dedicated this painting to his teacher.  Sergei Alexandrovich Rachinsky is depicted in his classroom with his pupils in a village school. Although he was an aristocrat and already famous botanist and mathematician and a professor at Moscow University, he dedicated lots of his time and effort to “educating unwashed masses.”

 Nikolay Bogdanov-Belsky (1868–1945) Mental arithmetic

Nikolay Bogdanov-Belsky (1868–1945) Mental arithmetic. In the Folk School of S. A. Rachinskiy. (1895, Tretyakov Gallery)

On the blackboard, written in white chalk, there is an arithmetic problem. 11 pupils are trying hard to solve it. It seems that only one boy found the solution, and he quietly whispers into the teacher’s ear. 1266234111_ustnaja-zadacha-2-foto_2If you were taught square numbers up to 20, it is likely that the solution will come easy. This expression is equal to (100 + 121 + 144 + 169 + 196) divided by 365, with the result that equals 730 divided by 365, that is 2 .

Or else, one can use the knowledge of what in Russian is called Rachinskiy sequence (and must be known elsewhere under some other name):

  • 32+42 = 52 (both sides equal 25)
  • 102+112+122 = 132+14(both sides equal 365) –- the one in the painting
  • 212+222+232+242 = 252+262+272 (both sides equal 2030)
  • 362+372+382+392+402 = 412+422+432+442 (both sides equal 7230)

Happy World Teachers’ Day!


Physiognomy Of Money

Interchangeably, bankers, financial industry in general and Wall Street in particular never fail to take one of the first 5 places on the podium of most hated “entities” in the opinion of a wide cross-section of the U.S. population. bankersNearly 3 years since Occupy Wall Street first encamped just feet away from Wall Street, for many people the OWS slogan “Shit’s Fucked Up And Bullshit” still rings true.

But this post is not about banks too big to fail or the unimplemented Dodd-Frank regulations. It’s about sentiment toward moneylenders, bankers, tax collectors that seem to be as constant as love and death, as expressed and masterfully depicted in art of days bygone.


Quentin MASSYS. The Moneylender and his Wife (1514) Oil on panel, 71 x 68 cm Musée du Louvre, Paris

 Quentin Massys. Suppliant Peasants In The Office Of Two Tax Collectors.

Quentin Massys. Suppliant Peasants In The Office Of Two Tax Collectors.


Marinus van REYMERSWAELE, Flemish painter (b. ca. 1490, Reymerswale, d. ca. 1567). The Tax Collectors

Marinus van REYMERSWAELE. The Tax Collectors 1540s Oil on panel, 94 x 77 cm Louvre, Paris

Marinus van REYMERSWAELE. The Tax Collectors. 1540s, Oil on panel, 94 x 77 cm, Louvre, Paris

The counters of money (around 1575-1600); This table shows an anonymous composition after Marinus Claez. van Reymerswaele representing Antwerp loan sharks. Musée des Beaux-Arts.

Anonymous composition after Marinus Claez van Reymerswaele (around 1575-1600) Antwerp loan sharks. Musée des Beaux-Arts.

Gerrit DOU,  The Moneylender (1664) Oil on wood, 29 x 23 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris

Gerrit DOU, The Moneylender (1664) Oil on wood, 29 x 23 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris

And, of course, the redemptive calling of St. Matthew.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). The Calling of St. Matthew, c.1598-1601 (oil on panel)

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). The Calling of St. Matthew, c.1598-1601 (oil on panel)

The painting depicts the story from the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 9:9): “Jesus saw a man named Matthew at his seat in the custom house, and said to him, “Follow me”, and Matthew rose and followed Him.” Caravaggio depicts Matthew the tax collector sitting at a table with four other men. Jesus Christ and Saint Peter have entered the room, and Jesus is pointing at Matthew. A beam of light illuminates the faces of the men at the table who are looking at Christ. (Wikipedia)

Where are the great masters of the past to breath life onto the canvas and preserve for posterity these distinguished faces:

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To Kill The Iron Lady


A brilliant – and rather transgressive – collection of short stories from the double Man Booker Prize-winning author of ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring Up the Bodies’. (The Guardian)

The only new, unpublished story in Hilary Mantel’s new book is its  titular short story, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: August 6th 1983. It was published online by the Guardian, immediately noticed and stirred up some passions. Disdain and outrage, mostly. UK politicians were especially verbal. In that very spirit, The Daily Telegraph, having bought exclusive rights for a hefty penny, wisely or otherwise, decided against publishing it. 

Tory MP Conor Burns told the Sunday Times that the story represented a grave offence to the victims of the IRA. “I also never cease to be amazed by the disordered psyche of some on the left,” he said, and more:

“Mantel’s contribution is peculiarly damaging because, while she appears so mild-mannered, her message is interpretable as a deadly one. If you don’t like your democratically elected leaders, who operate within the rule of law, you can always think about assassinating them.”

Lord Timothy Bell, a friend and former PR adviser to Thatcher, told the Sunday Times, “This is in unquestionably bad taste.” He has condemned The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and called for the police to investigate.

What was so “damaging” in Mantel’s story that appalled the MP? Was the distinguished and indisputably clever writer so obvious and straightforward in creating her tidbit of alternative history to call for such reaction?

hilary mantelWas she?  Mantel’s story transports us back in time — although not quite as far back as her Thomas Cromwell novels — to the year 1983, August 6. In her Windsor apartment, a woman is expecting a plumber. Disguised as one, an Irish assassin shows up. He is cool and presentable. Calmly, he sets up his implements of assassination at the apartment’s window — a perfect spot to carry out his mission: to kill the Iron Lady. The view from the window overlooks the hospital entrance. Margaret Thatcher is expected to appear shortly for a minor eye surgery. Rifle on his lap, the IRA assassin waits. A woman-narrator, now a hostage, engages her intruder in conversation about politics.

Eventually, Thatcher emerges: “The bag on the arm, slung like a shield. The tailored suit… the glittering helmet of hair… like a gold coin in a gutter.”

Mantel’s protagonists become unlikely allies conspiring to kill the prime minister. The writer succeeds where terrorists failed.

Iron Lady

Hilary Mantel admitted that her story was inspired by a fantasy, a wicked reverie: At noon on Saturday, August 6, 1983, she caught a glimpse of Margaret Thatcher near her Windsor apartment, similar to the one in the story. The former Prime Minister  wandered into her view, unguarded. Mantel described how she used her finger and thumb to form a gun.  ‘Immediately your eye measures the distance, I thought, “if I wasn’t me, if I was someone else, she’d be dead”.

Hilary Mantel never had any warm feelings toward the Iron Lady, and it shows in her writing.

I thought, there’s not a tear in her… Not for the mother in the rain at the bus stop, or the sailor burning in the sea. She sleeps four hours a night. She lives on the fumes of whisky and the iron in the blood of her prey.

In an interview with The Guardian, she said Baroness Thatcher was an anti-feminist and ‘psychological transvestite’, who did ‘long-standing damage’ to the country.

Critics and readers alike agree that the remove between the story’s protagonist and the author in this narrative is all but disappears.

When asked about the backlash on BBC Radio Mantel said:

I think it would be unconscionable to say this is too dark we can’t examine it. We can’t be running away from history. We have to face it head on, because the repercussions of Mrs Thatcher’s reign have fed the nation. It is still resonating.

The writer admits that the former Prime Minister was a ‘fantastic’ character to write about about and that ‘as a citizen, I suffered from her but as a writer, I benefited.’