Category Archives: Fiction

Near Far In Science Fiction

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In their recent Science article reviewing near-far findings (which I discussed here), Liberman and Trope illustrated their concepts with Elder’s painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus:

[An] intriguing mixture of high-level, abstract features, and low-level, concrete features. … In this painting, the ploughman witnesses the fall of Icarus. However, as he is immersed in the details of his immediate chore, he is oblivious to the significance of the event.

AudenPainting

Like many others I enjoyed the new Star Trek movie, even if I don’t especially respect myself for that, and recently just rewatched Star Wars episodes II,III.  And the most compelling visuals and scenes in those movies were similar, in that they combined familiar and emotionally-true foregrounds with dramatic symbolically-meaningful backgrounds which often made little sense if you thought much about them.  For example, in Star Trek isolated crowded shipyards are shown scattered in simple farmland, wildly violating economies of agglomeration:

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Tropes Are Treasures

I've blogged before on theories of the functions of fiction in our lives, and celebrated this seminal analysis of the personality and motives of Victorian novel characters.  After browsing the TV Tropes website, it occurs to me that these tropes might be a great data source for studying fiction's functions. 

A possible research plan:

  1. Identify tropes that describe common patterns of fiction which seem to deviate from patterns of reality.  Code these tropes by their degree of deviation, and by how confident we feel that this deviation is real.
  2. Code these tropes according to a wide range of other possibly relevant parameters. 
  3. Look for patterns among the tropes as so coded, and when possible check those patterns via formal statistical tests.
  4. Compare theories of fiction's functions to these trope patterns, seeing which theories best account for the set of observed patterns.

Any student in search of a research project, take note! :)  HT to Doug.

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BSG is Detached Detail

Battlestar Galactica is the most celebrated science fiction of film or TV over the last few years.  And it does indeed have unprecedented quality in acting, characters, and character interactions.  The setting and plot mostly do a good job of setting off these characters and their interactions. However: this setting and plot make very little sense.  Nowhere was this clearer than in tonight’s series finale. – it doesn’t even make sense in a “God works in mysterious ways” sort of way.  It might be true to the emotional core of many characters and their interactions, but that hardly makes it a plausible overall outcome for a civilization.

Even though science fiction as a genre pays an unusual degree of attention to the larger settings of its stories, I in fact expect most BSG fans hardly noticed this key fact, and if they noticed hardly cared.  You could hardly ask for clearer evidence that the near “detached detail” fiction uses to fill in its far setting does not much discipline that setting.  You can tell pretty much any crazy far story and still fill it in with emotionally compelling near detail.

Added: I was recently flown to LA to personally advise a director of several famous (and good) SF movies, and his scriptwriter, on a new movie based on a famous SF book.  Even I was surprised by how little they understood the story’s basic technical premises, and how little they cared about its basic emotional core.

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Epilogue: Atonement (8/8)

(Part 8 of 8 in "Three Worlds Collide")

Fire came to Huygens.

The star erupted.

Stranded ships, filled with children doomed by a second's last delay, still milled around the former Earth transit point.  Too many doomed ships, far too many doomed ships.  They should have left a minute early, just to be sure; but the temptation to load in that one last child must have been irresistable.  To do the warm and fuzzy thing just this one time, instead of being cold and calculating.  You couldn't blame them, could you…?

Yes, actually, you could.

The Lady Sensory switched off the display.  It was too painful.

On the Huygens market, the price of a certain contract spiked to 100%.  They were all rich in completely worthless assets for the next nine minutes, until the supernova blast front arrived.

"So," the Lord Pilot finally said.  "What kind of asset retains its value in a market with nine minutes to live?"

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True Ending: Sacrificial Fire (7/8)

(Part 7 of 8 in "Three Worlds Collide")

Standing behind his target, unnoticed, the Ship's Confessor had produced from his sleeve the tiny stunner – the weapon which he alone on the ship was authorized to use, if he made a determination of outright mental breakdown.  With a sudden motion, his arm swept outward –

– and anesthetized the Lord Akon.

Akon crumpled almost instantly, as though most of his strings had already been cut, and only a few last strands had been holding his limbs in place.

Fear, shock, dismay, sheer outright surprise: that was the Command Conference staring aghast at the Confessor.

From the hood came words absolutely forbidden to originate from that shadow: the voice of command.  "Lord Pilot, take us through the starline back to the Huygens system.  Get us moving now, you are on the critical path.  Lady Sensory, I need you to enforce an absolute lockdown on all of this ship's communication systems except for a single channel under your direct control.  Master of Fandom, get me proxies on the assets of every being on this ship.  We are going to need capital."

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Normal Ending: Last Tears (6/8)

(Part 6 of 8 in "Three Worlds Collide")

Today was the day.

The streets of ancient Earth were crowded to overbursting with people looking up at the sky, faces crowded up against windows.

Waiting for their sorrows to end.

Akon was looking down at their faces, from the balcony of a room in a well-guarded hotel.  There were many who wished to initiate violence against him, which was understandable.  Fear showed on most of the faces in the crowd, rage in some; a very few were smiling, and Akon suspected they might have simply given up on holding themselves together.  Akon wondered what his own face looked like, right now.

The streets were less crowded than they might have been, only a few weeks earlier.

No one had told the Superhappies about that part.  They'd sent an ambassadorial ship "in case you have any urgent requests we can help with", arriving hard on the heels of the Impossible.  That ship had not been given any of the encryption keys to the human Net, nor allowed to land.  It had made the Superhappies extremely suspicious, and the ambassadorial ship had disgorged a horde of tiny daughters to observe the rest of the human starline network –

But if the Superhappies knew, they would have tried to stop it.  Somehow.

That was a price that no one was willing to include into the bargain, no matter what.  There had to be that – alternative.

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Three Worlds Decide (5/8)

(Part 5 of 8 in "Three Worlds Collide")

Akon strode into the main Conference Room; and though he walked like a physically exhausted man, at least his face was determined.  Behind him, the shadowy Confessor followed.

The Command Conference looked up at him, and exchanged glances.

"You look better," the Ship's Master of Fandom ventured.

Akon put a hand on the back of his seat, and paused.  Someone was absent.  "The Ship's Engineer?"

The Lord Programmer frowned.  "He said he had an experiment to run, my lord.  He refused to clarify further, but I suppose it must have something to do with the Babyeaters' data -"

"You're joking," Akon said.  "Our Ship's Engineer is off Nobel-hunting?  Now?  With the fate of the human species at stake?"

The Lord Programmer shrugged.  "He seemed to think it was important, my lord."

Akon sighed.  He pulled his chair back and half-slid, half-fell into it.  "I don't suppose that the ship's markets have settled down?"

The Lord Pilot grinned sardonically.  "Read for yourself."

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Interlude with the Confessor (4/8)

(Part 4 of 8 in "Three Worlds Collide")

The two of them were alone now, in the Conference Chair's Privilege, the huge private room of luxury more suited to a planet than to space.  The Privilege was tiled wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling with a most excellent holo of the space surrounding them: the distant stars, the system's sun, the fleeing nova ashes, and the glowing ember of the dwarf star that had siphoned off hydrogen from the main sun until its surface had briefly ignited in a nova flash.  It was like falling through the void.

Akon sat on the edge of the four-poster bed in the center of the room, resting his head in his hands.  Weariness dulled him at the moment when he most needed his wits; it was always like that in crisis, but this was unusually bad.  Under the circumstances, he didn't dare snort a hit of caffeine – it might reorder his priorities.  Humanity had yet to discover the drug that was pure energy, that would improve your thinking without the slightest touch on your emotions and values.

"I don't know what to think," Akon said.

The Ship's Confessor was standing stately nearby, in full robes and hood of silver.  From beneath the hood came the formal response:  "What seems to be confusing you, my friend?"

"Did we go wrong?" Akon said.  No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't keep the despair out of his voice.  "Did humanity go down the wrong path?"

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The Super Happy People (3/8)

(Part 3 of 8 in "Three Worlds Collide")

…The Lady Sensory said, in an unsteady voice, "My lords, a third ship has jumped into this system.  Not Babyeater, not human."

The holo showed a triangle marked with three glowing dots, the human ship and the Babyeater ship and the newcomers.  Then the holo zoomed in, to show –

– the most grotesque spaceship that Akon had ever seen, like a blob festooned with tentacles festooned with acne festooned with small hairs.  Slowly, the tentacles of the ship waved, as if in a gentle breeze; and the acne on the tentacles pulsated, as if preparing to burst.  It was a fractal of ugliness, disgusting at every level of self-similarity.

"Do the aliens have deflectors up?" said Akon.

"My lord," said Lady Sensory, "they don't have any shields raised.  The nova ashes' radiation doesn't seem to bother them.  Whatever material their ship is made from, it's just taking the beating."

A silence fell around the table.

"All right," said the Lord Programmer, "that's impressive."

The Lady Sensory jerked, like someone had just slapped her.  "We – we just got a signal from them in human-standard format, content encoding marked as Modern English text, followed by a holo -"

"What?" said Akon.  "We haven't transmitted anything to them, how could they possibly -"

"Um," said the Ship's Engineer.  "What if these aliens really do have, um, 'big angelic powers'?"

"No," said the Ship's Confessor.  His hood tilted slightly, as if in wry humor.  "It is only history repeating itself."

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War and/or Peace (2/8)

(Part 2 of 8 in "Three Worlds Collide")

…"So the question then is – now what?"

The Lord Pilot jumped up, then, his face flushed.  "Put up shields.  Now.  We don't gain anything by leaving them down.  This is madness!"

"No," said the Ship's Confessor in professional tones, "not madness."

The Pilot slammed his fists on the table.  "We're all going to die!"

"They're not as technologically advanced as us," Akon said.  "Suppose the Babyeaters do decide that we need to be exterminated.  Suppose they open fire.  Suppose they kill us.  Suppose they follow the starline we opened and find the Huygens system.  Then what?"

The Master nodded.  "Even with surprise on their side… no.  They can't actually wipe out the human species.  Not unless they're a lot smarter than they seem to be, and it looks to me like, on average, they're actually a bit dumber than us."  The Master glanced at the Xenopsychologist, who waved her hand in a maybe-gesture.

"But if we leave the ship's shields down," Akon said, "we preserve whatever chance we have of a peaceful resolution to this."

"Peace," said the Lady Sensory, in a peculiar flat tone.

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