Black Box Blues: Investigating Mission Critical Metaphysics In Fiction

Recently Superversive SF posted an article called The Mohs Scale Of SF Hardness.

Now Castalia House has responded with Hard SF Considered Harmful.

I have come to the conclusion that they are arguing the wrong question.

The first level–the very “hardest” one, describes works that are not Sci Fi at all.  Other works such as Philip Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, Michael Moorcock’s The Final Programme and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow would score very high on the scale, but most readers would not consider them Hard SF.

Another take on the issue comes from Kevyn Winkless in his essay Soft Boiled Sci Fi. (An essay published a year ago but very topical right now.  I therefor accuse Kevyn of violating causality and vote him out of the multiverse.) He discusses Integrity and Symbolism. Internal consistency is a vital characteristic of readability, and he makes some interesting observation on the symbolism of superhero characters.

However one question that I feel is neglected in the discussion of contrafactual elements in fiction is, quite simply, “Does it matter?”

A little less simply, it’s two questions.  First, does the existence of fantastic elements significantly change the course of the story?  If the dragons or rocketships or whatever were removed from the setting could the author tell essentially the same story?

Second, is it important for the reader to understand the mechanics of the fantastic elements?  Could the technical explanations be replaced with the words  “magic black box” without significantly changing the events of the story?

Let’s look at some examples.  I searched for “Top Hard SF Novels” and found a number of lists.  I’m going to limit my examples to books that I have read all the way through. These aren’t in any particular order and I’m not claiming that they are the best by any objective standards–these are just the ones that came up when I did the search that I felt I was qualified to comment on.

Rendezvous With Rama, Arthur Clarke: Now, I would judge this one as a 5 on mechanical issues and a 2 on biological ones, but that’s just me.  I’m sure some folks would argue that it’s a 6 or 7. However, that’s not my main point.  On my criteria it’s about as Hard as it gets.  The story is entirely about the attempts of human beings to understand an alien artifact. (In fact this is one of those stories that I think would be improved by removing most of the author’s attempt to make his human characters more “real” and “relatable”.) Furthermore, understanding the physics of the artifact is vital to the story–many of the most exciting sequences are dependant on the reader grasping the science behind the action.

Ringworld, Larry Niven: The Superversive post rates this a 4. Personally, I’d give it a 1, but that’s only because the scale has no zero.  Seriously, this book is full of pure magic gizmos that Flash Gordon would roll his eyes at.  They are really cool gizmos, and most of them, most of the time, operate consistently, but they aren’t scientific by any stretch of the imagination. However it scores on the Significance scale the same as Rendezvous With Rama, largely because it’s the same story, only the artifact is bigger and you can have sex with the aliens. (This is not an invitation to post links to Raman Biot Porn.)

Dragon’s Egg, Charles Forward: It’s been a while since I read this one, so I’m not going to try to rate it on hardness–I don’t recall the physics that well.  However the basic story is entirely dependant on the basic conceit of a species that operates on a hugely different time scale than human beings.  Once that metaphysic is in place, the rest of the story plays out with a delightful inevitability.

The Forever War, Joe Haldeman: This is an interesting story in terms of hardness, since the scale changes as the novel progresses,  starting at about 6 and ending around 2. This ties in directly to a comment in the Superversive essay:

One problem with this level of hardness is that it only makes sense a short distance into the future. If your story is set a thousand years from now it’s ludicrous to think there will be no new rules of physics discovered in that time. If the setting isn’t as different from today’s as our lives are different from the world of 1000 AD that’s a failure of imagination.

The effect of time dilation on the life of William Mandella is the story.  As such it’s fair to say that it’s significant.

Mission Of Gravity, Hal Clement: I love this book.  Honestly, I have no idea how plausible the science is, nor do I care. It’s a swashbuckling adventure about a centipede pirate captain, fergoodnessake!  The travels of Barlennan through the savage seas of his world are consistently exciting because the differing zones of gravity that he voyages through each have their own dangers.  Again, the physics of the world are the story. (And Barlennan is a great character.  I tried to make Mesklinite in GURPS Space once, but you need a lot of points to make a character who can function at 700 Gs. Can Conen function at 700 Gs? I think not.)

Neuromancer,  William Gibson: As an aside, I consider the Cyberpunk movement to be an revival of the New Wave movement (as did a lot of the authors who founded Cyberpunk.) So there.  As far as hardness is concerned, I know that Gibson did a great deal of research into computers and such, and that it was probably 6-7 when it was published in 1984. But this one falls into the Black Box area as far as I’m concerned.  The main character, Case, neither knows nor cares how his Ono-Sendi rig operates–he just drives the thing. The titular character and its shadow twin Wintermute are described as artifical inteligences, but they might as well be captive demons for purposes of the story.  The metaphysics of the world where Case and Molly Millions live is clearly delininated, and they must play out their drama within those rules, but they accept the rules as the diktats of shadowy forces that they cannot understand or even identify. It is an essentially Chestertonian universe–the sun rises because it is bewitched to rise.

The Shockwave Rider, John Brunner: Look, more New Wave!  This is the only Sci Fi work that I can think of where the hardness increased as time passed from its publication. What was wildly speculative in 1975 has become day to day life in 2017. Seriously, you could almost go through the novel and change the names and pass it off as a modern realistic novel. Now, I did write a post extremely critical of this novel, which I stand by and will defend, but that is beside the point here.  In terms of significance, one need only look at the extent to which the technological changes he predicted did lead to the social changes he predicted.

Dune, Frank Herbert:  This book always seems to come up in Hard vs. Soft discussions. (It’s mentioned in the Superversive article, for example, as a book that scores differently for different sciences.) It is, however, remarkably consistent in terms of the significance of the contrafactual elements to the story. The powers of the Bene Geserit are as important as the water cycle on Arrakis to the overall story. The sociological implications of the technological innovations–both the reasonable and the unreasonable ones–are thought out in great detail.  And it is that depth of world-building that makes the story work and allows rigorous ecological detail to coexist with black box (literally in the case of the Reverend Mother’s “pain box” test for humanity) magic.

I gave these examples to try to open up a dialogue, and to encourage a new way of looking at the speculative metaphysics of SFF fiction.  Obviously the next step is to examine classic works of “Soft SF” and Fantasy in the same light.  And I intend to get around to that as time and tide allow.

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The Tool For The Job

A recent post over on Superversive SF about Men With Screwdrivers And Men With Magnifying Glasses got me thinking about classifying fiction on the basis of those attributes which are required from the protagonist in order to resolve the plot.  Not what attributes any given character may possess, but those without which the plot would not have come to a satisfactory conclusion. 

That’s a non-trivial distinction, and I think an investigation of the issue may shed some light on modern trends in fiction.

A character does not become a hero simply by possessing a collection of virtues–a character becomes a hero by possessing the story specific set of mission critical attributes. Bravery does not a hero make, if bravery is not what is required to resolve the plot.

For example, take the X-Men films. (I know, I dump on the X-Men a lot, and I am sure that Bryan Singer cries himself to sleep every night because of it.  I feel bad about that, honestly.) There are characters who have particular virtues among the protagonists–wisdom, self-control, courage, ingenuity, and so on.  However, none of them mean bupkis because the Mutants solve their problems by being Mutants.  They are born that way. All of Charles Xavier’s wisdom or Logan’s compassion would mean nothing if they hadn’t been born superhuman.  The films are Evolutionary Calvinism–the Elect prevail because they are predestined to prevail.  Either you’re born a Mutant or you’re not, and if you’re not it doesn’t matter how hard you try, you’ll never be able to face off against a guy who can shoot lasers from his eyes.

They are what might be called Tales Of The Elect, a story in which the critical attribute is some supernatural gift bestowed upon the character through an accident of birth. No matter what the characters may do throughout the story, what is important is that they are the Chosen Ones.

Then you would have Tales Of The Skilled.  These are stories in which the characters prevail through training or education or their own independent study. The scientist who figures out that a bomb made of cream cheese will destroy the giant wasps is using Skill to save the day–but then so is a soldier, spy, or detective. So one could break down this category further: Tales Of The Scholar, Tales Of The Warrior, Tales Of The Mechanic (Apollo 13,  anyone?) and so on.

The third broad category would be Tales Of The Virtuous.  What is required of the hero is a particular virtue, Wisdom, Courage, Justice, and the like. Again, though, it is not possessing any given virtue that is significant–it is possessing the one that is needed.

Consider Meg Murry, the heroine of A Wrinkle In Time. She was courageous and intelligent and justly proud of it, but those things did not save her and her brother or rescue her father.  It was her “faults”, as given to her by Whatsit.  Against the Brain of Camazotz her intellect was powerless. Trying to match mind for mind, hate for hate, availed her nothing. Meg triumphs when she learns that embracing her womanhood and her fierce irrational love for her family does not make her weak.

Obviously there is going to be a great deal of latitude in these definitions. This outline is intended to begin a discussion, not end one.  However, I think that if one considers the critical narrative moments in most stories one can describe them in terms of The Elect (and I would consider deus ex machina and random chance in that category), The Skilled, or The Virtuous.

As always, I invite comments and discussion.

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St. Patrick’s Day Promo

This really is a fun book. And the dude quotes my review, which means he is clearly a man of fine sensibilities.

Lurking In The Shadows


Guiding Council of Myths and Urban Legends

This is my book. It has green on the cover and there is at least one leprechaun in the story.  How very St. Patrick’s Day-ish.  It’s about Myths, Urban Legends and a struggle between the powers of good and evil – sort of.  It’s written for the YA audience, but everyone will enjoy it.  Oh, and it’s only .99 cents.

The “Guiding Council of Myths and Urban Legends” is a fast-paced, clever, and lively reading experience, and I happily endorse it to other readers – Scott A. Story

I liked it so much I started the next book as soon as I finished the first one – Amazon Customer

What an enjoyable, clever book! – Jessica

This was funny as well as suspenseful, and a very good read for the YA – S.L Perrine

This is a fast paced and exciting book…

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Enough With This Genre Foolishness Already

Lately I have been seeing some discussion regarding the subject of Genre that has grown acrimonious, with people whom I like and admire on various sides of the question.

I’m not going to link to any of the posts because if you’ve been following the discussions you don’t need me to point you to them, and if you haven’t, you don’t need that kind of negativity in your life.

The way I see it, much of the conflict is the result of the fact that Genre, as a taxonomic schema, is desperately flawed.  It has always been a marketing tool and is essentially reactive rather than proscriptive. It’s a single-valued way of assigning particular works of fiction to particular shelves in a bookstore, designed to be used by minimum wage employees.

Most of the current genres have been invented on the fly when a particular subset of fiction reached a critical threshold and spawned their own section in a shelving schematic. A novel that didn’t quite fit any of the pre-existing classifications sells well and spawns enough imitators that it becomes advantageous to stick a bunch of “just like” books together and *presto* a new genre.

Anne Rice writes a horror novel from the point of view of the monster and it gets big and we get “Paranormal Romance”.  John Grisham writes a mystery told from the point of view of the lawyer trying the case and we get “Courtroom Drama”. And so on.

But no one is setting down and looking at the elements that make up fiction from a global perspective.  I think it’s time that changed.

The problem as I see it is that, being single-valued, Genre can’t function as coherent discriminate function.  “Western” is a genre that is defined by the setting–the Western United States during a particular historical period.  “Romance” is defined by the sort of action that occurs during the course of the novel–a man and a woman fall in love. “Literary” is defined by a particular style of storytelling–poetic descriptive prose and an emphasis on psychological character studies rather than action.

But what if you have a lyrical love story set in Civil War era Utah? That’s where the whole concept of Genre breaks down.  Taxonomically it’s a Literary Western Romance–which is exactly the schema that I am proposing.

I am suggesting a three-dimensional schema for classifying fiction.  I would like to believe that adopting such a schema would end the Genre Wars, but I’m not quite so naive. But getting everyone on the same page would make it easier to keep score.


First level I am going to call Milieu.  Where is the story set, and when does it take place?  Existing Genres such as Science Fiction, Fantasy, Historical Fiction, and Western are descriptors of a particular Milieu. They don’t tell you what kind of story it is, or how the story is told, just in what sort of universe the story takes place.

Second level I am going to call Theme. What is the story about? Mystery, Romance, Horror, Family Drama, all tell you what sort of events you can expect.  Again, Theme isn’t limited to a particular Milieu or a particular Style. You can set a Romance in 30th Century Luna or a Mystery in the Oklahoma Territory in 1866. And you can tell such stories in a variety of ways.

Then we come to the level of Style. It’s the hardest to define, and likely to cause the most arguments. I’d call Literary, Pulp, New Wave, and Noir different Styles, but I am not going to try to define them here.

Now to bring this back to the current controversy.  Above I used Science Fiction as an example of Milieu, and I think that it is most obvious when used such–you’ve got a story set on Space Station Omega, it’s pretty obvious that it’s set on Space Station Omega.

However, there is also a sense in which a story can be called “Thematic Science Fiction”–a story in which the action is primarily determined by the characters reacting to an advance in technology or exposure to an alien culture.  And when one person is talking about Science Fiction as a Milieu while someone else is talking about Science Fiction as a Theme the discussion is going to go off the rails pretty quick.

This applies to other “genres” as well. One person may speak of a Western as being set in a particular time and place while another person will speak of a Western thematically or stylistically. Firefly is often given as an example of a Science Fiction Western (and I would expand it to Science Fiction/Western/Pulp).

Does this make sense? I’m not saying that we shouldn’t argue about the meaning of Science Fiction or Fantasy, but I would like to make sure that we’re arguing on the same level of meaning.

Posted in Artists That I Admire, On Promotion, On Publishing, On Writing, Poetry, pulp revival | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

A Spy In The House Of Pulp

“As an investigator you may be more interested to know that in self defense, I accuse the writers of fairy tales. Not hunger, not cruelty, not my parents, but these tales which promised that sleeping in the snow never caused pneumonia, that bread never turned stale, that trees blossomed out of season, that dragons could be killed with courage, that intense wishing would be followed immediately by fulfillment of the wish. Intrepid wishing, said the fairytales, was more effective than labor. The smoke issuing from Aladdin’s lamp was my first smokescreen, and the lies learned from fairy tales were my first perjuries. Let us say I had perverted tendencies:
I believed everything I read.”
Anais Nin, A Spy In The House Of Love

 I could, I suppose, begin this essay with a defense of New Wave, Slipstream, Magical Realism fiction, but I prefer to leave my exercises in futility to my fiction and restrict my essays to verbage that might actually reach people.  So I won’t waste time trying to explain why books like Gravity’s Rainbow, VALIS, Dhalgren, What Entropy Means To Me, and The Soft Machine are worthy of the time and attention needed to chew open their bones to get at the sweet marrow within.  It’s like Louis Armstrong observed, if ya gotta ask, ya ain’t never gonna know.

The blessed rage for order is either in your soul or it isn’t. You don’t get it, I get that. It’s like trying to explain Maxfield Parrish to the  colorblind or Herb Alpert to the tonedeaf. No point to it. There ain’t no coupe de ville hiding at the bottom of that Cracker Jack box.

What I am going to ask is that you concede that what you see as boring, offensive, or insulting (to quote Daddy Warpig) isn’t written to upset you.  It’s not written for you at all.

Sure, those of us who are passionate about something enjoy being able to share it with others. I remember listening to Tom Wait’s Swordfishtrombones for the first time and being absolutely blown away, but I am also adult enough to watch other people’s reaction when I play it for them.  If their eyes glaze over during the first track I’ll take it off and put the Go-Go’s back on.

So what am I doing on the Pulp Revival side of the aisle? Why have a crossed the corpse decorated trenches and butcher’s wire of No Man’s Land to hoist the banner of Good Clean Fun against what might be considered my own side? Why enlist with those who consider me a pervert, a mountebank, or a pedant?

Two reasons, one of which is quite simple and the other of which is rather conduplicate. I’ll begin with the difficult one.

It comes down to a suspicion that has grown into a certainty that the most vocal promoters of New Wave luminaries like Delany, Dick, and Disch don’t really “get them” either.

As an example I’ll choose Dhalgren, a novel that I consider one of the greatest feats of literature ever penned. Those who speak ill of the work tend to dwell on the pointless violence, casual and perverse sex, and racial themes as negatives. Those who praise it tend to speak of the pointless violence, casual and perverse sex, and racial themes as positives.

Both the vocal detractors and the vocal defenders in my opinion miss the point, which is that the pointless violence, casual and perverse sex, and racial themes are completely irrelevant to the main plot. The story isn’t about the races and sexes of the people that the Kid fights and fucks throughout the book.

The novel is an epistemological horror story told from the point of view of a man who slowly realizes that he can not trust his own mind. The rest of it–the “shocking” bits–are just sleight of hand.  It’s not the sex scenes or the fight scenes (and to be honest, there aren’t that many of either, considering the ox-stunning length of the book) where the main story takes place, it’s the lyrical descriptions of the Kid, bit by agonizing bit, losing the guideposts and benchmarks of reality.

Hearing people talking about Dhalgren is like listening to people arguing about the spangled outfit worn by a magician’s assistant, and if it was too low cut or high hemmed, and wanting to scream, “Did nobody else notice that a magician made a freakin’ elephant disappear on stage?  Or were you all too distracted by the girl in the fishnets and stilettos?”

The fact is that the modern Social Justice style of Science Fiction is not, as is intermittently claimed, the spiritual heir of the New Wave. It’s more of an opportunistic infection,moving onto the hills that the New Wave writers fought for and setting up their own brand of fast food stands.  Saying that both Ursula K Leguin and Margaret Atwood both “deal with gender issues” in their fiction is like saying that both Robert Howard and George Martin both “have swords” in their fiction. Philosophically the works are worlds apart.

That’s the hard reason, and I’m not sure that I can do it justice here. Suffice to say that I am not concerned with the superficial resemblance of one story to another.  I have a passion for deep structure, the multi-leveled web of meanings that induce the reader to tear apart language in order to see how it works.

The other reason is that I prefer the open marketplace to the company store. Self-publishing is a grand bazaar of ideas, with a place for all manner of obscure delicacies, and even some goods that are utterly rotten.  It’s a wretched hive of scum and villainy, sure, but, damnit, it’s alive. 

I am anti-authoritative.  I have, like Sabina in the opening quote, perverted tendencies. I’m always looking out the wrong window of the tour bus, wanting to see what the Reiseführer is directing my attention away from. I don’t read the manual, I do try this at home, and I don’t eat my goddamned spinach.  I have a selective blindness to warning labels and guideposts and an uncontrollable urge to see what is behind locked doors.

I don’t expect to be popular.  None of my heroes were ever particularly popular, even in the brief flowering of the New Wave movement, and a lot of them died broke. That sucks, but, you know, that’s life.

What I do expect is an honest chance to reach my audience. And that, stripped of the superficial invective, is the message of the Sad Puppies movement and the splinter sects that have followed in its wake. Let the people read what they want.

Not everyone is going to like everything. Some things are going to be liked by more people than others.  That’s just reality. You can’t make people like things against their will.  You can–sometimes–get them to buy it, and you can make them afraid to publically say that they don’t like it, but that’s not the same thing.

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I am interviewed by Scott Cole

I ramble about Old Buildings, New Wave, Borrowed Concepts, and Blue Movies on the Castalia House blog.

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Welcome To My Nightmare

Okay, so I am closing on 40,000 words of Bad Dreams & Broken Hearts and I’d really like to get some feedback on the story so far–what works, what doesn’t, how the pacing feels, is the worldbuilding consistent, are the characters likable, that sort of thing.  If you’d be interested in looking over what I have, which I’m estimating is about half of the final novel, drop me a line via my contact page with your prefered format and I’ll send you a file once I finish the current chapter (probably the middle of next week.)

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