To Not Be An Academic

July 28, 2009

As you may have learned from previous posts on this blog, I am a math-English double major going into my junior year of college. The question now becomes, what do I plan to do with that degree? Both my parents are academics, so I’ve always assumed I’d go into academia; I’ve already concluded I’m not really interested in getting a PhD in math, but I’m still considering going for a PhD in English.

But then I read articles like this one and realize that prospect doesn’t really appeal to me either. Why would I want to spend all of my time writing literary criticism no one will ever read of works that have already been critiqued to death?

I would like, of course, to become a professional writer (of fiction, that is). (Wouldn’t everybody?) But that would be quite difficult, and I need some way to feed and clothe myself until when (if) I can support myself through writing alone; since that’s kind of unlikely to ever happen, it’d be great if I actually enjoyed whatever it is I would be getting paid to do.

Ah, the woes of the liberal-arts student.

Realistic World-Building

July 26, 2009

This is a fun website, for a certain definition of fun: Medieval Demographics Made Easy.

Sites like that make me wonder how  much I ought to worry about such things when writing my own speculative fiction. I guess it is important, for believability, to make sure the numbers roughly work out (so that it’s believable that everyone won’t starve, for example) – but the page itself encourages you to fudge the numbers however much you want to get the desired result.

I also wonder how much thought the greats of speculative fiction put into things like this. When he was drawing his maps, Tolkien must have thought about roughly how much land they’d need to support the populations of the different countries of Middle-Earth, but then again he rarely if ever gave exact population accounts, so he didn’t have to worry about it too much.

Or take Gene Wolfe; how did he decide how many cities there were inside The Whorl (c.f. Book of the Long Sun)? The only way I can see would be by calculating the surface area in the hollowed-out part of the asteroid, deciding how much cultivated land there would be, then using something like the page linked to (though presumably requiring more research) to find out how many cities there could be. (Incidentally, I also sometimes wonder how the city of Nessus, in the Book of the New Sun, fed itself, since it didn’t appear to grow its own food and it was so big that shipping the food in seemed impractical.)

Then I consider that most of the short stories I write take place in completely unbelievable worlds – in one of them there is no food, people live on light, and in another there is actually more land in the city itself than in the rural areas – and I stop worrying about it, at least until I write a story that set in a world whose rules are remotely similar to our own.

Review: Battlestar Galactica

July 24, 2009

So, I finished watching Battlestar Galactica earlier this week, and I’ve spent the last few days thinking about what I have to say about it. I don’t think I have anything particularly deep to offer up. I like the show; it has its flaws, but then, so does every television show. The show attempts something more interesting than most, and succeeds, for the most part, which makes it better than most in my books.

The basic premise of the show – the last remnants of the human race are trying to escape the mechanical Cylons who revolted against them and find the mythical planet Earth, home of the 13th colony – and the general flavor of the setting – a space opera with strong mystic undertones and a theme of paganism vs. quasi-Christianity – are great. The basic story arc works as well (find Kobol, find New Caprica, settle there, be forced out, find the Temple of Five, find old Earth, find it is a nuclear wasteland, find new Earth, become our ancestors).

The show does have several weaknesses, though. One of the worst is its tendency to become too much of a soap opera. I never minded that part until the fourth season, I think; the bed-side hospital scene (with Caprica Six miscarrying while Saul tries to convince her he loves her – the only way I can justify this is by saying it’s proving that Cylons are people too, even in the petty soap-opera-y ways) was just a bit much, though. As was a lot of other stuff in season 4 (like Cally’s son turning out to have been Hot Dog’s, not Tyrol’s, which I’m pretty sure they did just to get around the fact that otherwise, the child would be half Cylon, making Hera not nearly as special – that seems like a cop-out to me).

There’s also the fact that, about halfway through season 3 (after they find the Algae Planet, essentially), they give up trying to explain how they stay alive. I think the show would have benefited from being more about the day-to-day survival of the fleet, though it would be hard to work that in with all the other stuff they were doing. And the ending, while overall a good close to the series, is somewhat unbelievable (you mean to tell me everyone willingly gives up their technology, just like that? I don’t think so, not that easily. They would be on Earth for a few months, realize “hey, I like being able to easily hunt and move around and have shelter – let’s re-invent guns and cars and houses!”, and there goes the continuity with the real world).

But one think the show does really well is evoke a kind of mysticism, that everything happens for a reason. I think so, anyway. My dad doesn’t buy it – he thinks all the coincidences are just the writers’ way of getting out of corners they’ve backed themselves into – but I think it does a good job of seeming magical/mystical/destined/whatever without, for the most part, feeling contrived.

Anyway, overall, good show, you ought to watch it; just be aware that it definitely has its flaws and it’ll go smoother.

Magic as Mystery

July 20, 2009

You probably know about Clarke’s Third Law, which states that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. I would like to propose a related theorem, but one with a very different meaning:

Any sufficiently rule-bound magical system is indistinguishable from technology.

I’m going to explain what I mean by this, but be warned, it’s a long and convoluted post, one that makes many broad statements but does a poorer job of backing them up (though I believe every one of them).


Consider any secondary world that has elements that would be described as “magical,” “mystical,” “faerie.” What we mean by these words, I posit, is incompatible with a system of pure cause-and-effect, codified rules, where A=>B is all you need to know about A and B. So any system of magic that is described as a system of cause-and-effect rules will not be truly magical, mystical, wonderful, faerie; it will come across, to the reader, as merely a technology specific to this universe. And while there are interesting things we can do with that, it’s not what magic is.

There are two things I’m trying to do here. The first, is to define a word – magic – that i believe has been misdefined. (From here on out, all mis-uses of magic will be in quotes – “magic” – and all valid uses will not.) To achieve that, I’m going to elaborate on two examples of fantasy universes, and explaining in what senses they are and are not magical. After that, I’m going to explain why true magic is probably best off being left mysterious.

First, for the two examples. Consider the universe of Harry Potter (much of what follows might not make sense if you haven’t read the books, but, you probably have, so I press onward). The so-called “magical” elements of that universe can, I believe, be divided into three categories: the whimsical, the scientific, and the truly magical.

The whimsical aspects are all of the oddities that Rowling throws in to make the universe seem more outlandish: the Every Flavored Beans, the pictures that move, the Monster Book of Monsters, etc. This stuff seems worthless to me, except for comedic value; it adds little to the magic of the setting, and completely destroys its believability. She includes it to make HP a children’s book; I think that was a mistake.

The scientific aspects are the rules for how “magic” works in the HP universe: some people are “magical,” some aren’t, and it is passed on genetically; if one is “magical,” one can say words and cause certain things to happen, each set of words with a specific result tied to it, including effects such as levitation, transformation, making areas larger on the inside than outside, mind-control, torture, death, etc; there are many more natural species than were previously realized, such as dragons, hippogryphs, leprechauns, mermaids, and some of these have powers that are not physically explicable but which follow a set of “magical” rules nonetheless.

These aspects are interesting and not out-of-place in a magical literary universe, but they’re not what’s essential to magic, and I often think they’re overused. It’s possible to have too much of this stuff. And if some of this is going to be used, the author has to be careful to actually follow the rules to their logical conclusions (one of my major complaints with HP is that the Weasleys shouldn’t be poor).

The truly magical aspects are the ones that don’t seem exactly rule-bound, but not illogical either; they follow a set of not-exactly-rules and are integral to the moral fabric of the universe. The best examples of this in the HP universe are: the wands, how each wizard is “meant” for a certain wand; the Sorting Hat, Goblet of Fire, and other such mystical selection processes; the Higher Magic (or whatever Rowling called it) that protected Harry through his mother’s love; whatever the hell it is that happened when Harry and Voldemort’s wands clashed in the graveyard in book 4; how created a Horcrux “tears your soul in two”, whatever that means.

These truly magical elements, I believe, all stand out when reading the books; they seem somehow more magical than the “magic” itself, more magical than “say Expelliarmus => their wand flies out of their hand.” That’s not magic, that’s technology.

That’s it for Harry Potter for now. We move on to considering the Star Wars universe. There are three different “magical” elements of the SW universe I want to talk about, though they don’t really correlate with the above three. These are, the actual technology, the Force used as a tool, and the Force as a moral, uh, force.

The actual technology is, according the Clarke’s third law, “magic”; they have laser guns, FTL travel, protective energy shields, etc. These are functionally little different from Avada Kedavra, apparating, and protective charms. Clarke says this is because the technology is so fanciful as to be essentially “magic”; perhaps so, I say, but another way of looking at it is that the “magic” in HP is just an attempt to cloak technology in fantastical trappings. The flavor of a universe with laser guns is different from that of a universe with Avada Kedavra, but that’s the same thing as saying a universe with swords has a different flavor than a universe with light sabers. There’s nothing metaphysically different about them. Technology is “magic”; “magic” is technology; rules of cause-and-effect are rules of cause-and-effect, however you disguise them.

The Force used as a tool, then, is functionally the same as HP universe “magic,” or SW universe technology; it’s just another way of getting stuff done. Does the fact that it’s restricted to some people mean it’s magical? Does the fact that only some people in HP universe have “magic” mean it’s magical? I don’t see why. This isn’t to say you couldn’t write interesting things about a universe where some people had telekenesis and some didn’t, but there’s nothing particularly magical about the setting.

But then we consider the Force as a moral, uh, force. The Light Side and the Dark Side, the Force as somehow in all living beings (ignoring that mitichlorian nonsense), the business about one coming who will balance the Force which is currently unbalanced, etc. There does seem to me something magical about that.

I’m going to try to cast in terms of Aristotelian metaphysics. Things have four kinds of causes: the material cause, the formal cause, the efficient cause, the final cause. (If you don’t know what these are already, read the Metaphysics, it would take way too long to explain them here.) The rule-bound “magic” systems I was talking about are cast entirely in terms of the material and efficient causes; the actual magic, as I’ve described it, seems related to the formal and, even more so, to the final cause.

So now, for why magic ought to be a mystery. This question, I believe, comes down to ‘why can’t actual magic be integrated into a “magical”/technological system that humans manipulate?’ Phrased like that, it answers itself. If humans control it or understand it, becomes a tool, a system of cause-and-effect; it is no longer magical. The wands destined for their owners, the Hat and the Goblet, the Love magic, the Force as moral arbiter, are all things we can’t really wrap our heads around.

And they would (except for the wands destined for their owners) work just as well if the technological/”magical” trappings of their universes – the spells, the light-sabers, etc – were removed entirely. I find that rather interesting.

True magicians, I think, are in the end never characters we can relate to or understand, not just by how they are presented to us, but by their very nature. Gandalf is the classic example of a fantasy literature wizard; what most people forget is that he’s not even human, or elvish; he’s one of the Istari, essentially an angel. It is that distance that makes us accept his ability to seemingly understand magic when we ourselves cannot.

There’s a reason that witches, warlocks, sprites, and pixies are never the main characters of fairy-tales. The magical, mystical, wonderful, Faerie is that which is beyond, that which we cannot understand, that which is mysterious; by trying to make it immediate, we destroy it.

Promethean Fire, Promethean Clay

July 17, 2009

So Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is subtitled, “The Modern Prometheus”.

Every essay I’ve ever read about Frankenstein that talks about that subtitle says it is a reference to the myth of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and giving it to mankind. The implication of the subtitle becomes, Prometheus transgressed against the gods by stealing fire (=science), and Frankenstein did the same thing. The question becomes, did Prometheus really deserve to be punished, or was he a tragic hero punished unjustly by Zeus?

But there’s another aspect to the mytical Prometheus that I haven’t ever seen connected to Frankenstein, but that seems almost more apt for a Frankenstein subtitle: Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus created mankind out of clay, on the orders of the other gods. If we consider the subtitle in light of this myth, the comparison is not between a transgressive Prometheus and a transgressive Frankenstein; the comparison is between a Prometheus who created life under the orders of the gods, and a Frankenstein who created life illicitly.

I don’t know why this second interpretation is never used. It has slightly different implications, and seems more appropriate, since it draws a parallel between Prometheus’s actions and Frankenstein’s actions, rather than just a parallel between their attitudes towards authority. It also makes the subtitle a judgment of Frankenstein’s character, rather than a judgement of Prometheus’s character, which seems more reasonable, since the book is about Frankenstein not Prometheus.

Problems of Scale

July 15, 2009

So, I’m currently watching Battlestar Galactica from start to finish. I just finished season 2. I’ll probably make a more comprehensive post when I’m done with the series – in fact, I’m considering writing a series of posts similar to my one about epic metal back in November 2007, this time about my favorite TV shows (of which BG is definitely one). But right now, I’m just going to talk about something that bugs me about BG – and almost all sci-fi, really.

That is the problem of scale. Particularly, that science fiction universes almost always completely fail at actually depicting what the stated facts imply their universe would be like. Consider:

Up through season 2 on BG, there’s been action on four planetary bodies so far by my count, these being Caprica, the unnamed moon Starbuck crashes on, Kobol, and New Caprica. All of these are presumably about as large as Earth – certainly no smaller than the moon, since they all appear to have roughly Earth-like gravity. And yet:

  • There seems to be only one city on Caprica, in which two groups of characters, separated at the beginning of the series, meet by chance even though neither of them is searching for the other, and only one forest, where a group of characters trying to rescue those left behind on Caprica are able to find them in a matter of hours.
  • When Starbuck crashes onto the moon, the Cylon raider she shoots down happens to land within walking distance of her own wreck. And it is considered plausible (though not likely) that a few dozen Vipers can fly over the surface of the moon and (not even using sensors, but rather relying on visual contact!) find Starbuck and rescue her before she runs out of air.
  • When the Raptor crashes on the surface of Kobol, it just happens to land in the middle of the ancient City of the Gods. And that’s exactly where the rescue party goes to find them, even though they had no way of knowing that’s where they’d be.
  • When they settle on New Caprica, an effort at least is made to explain why everything is so small – only a small portion of the planet is inhabitable. And that’s where they settle, and who cares about the rest? So New Caprica is the most believable of the planets.

There’s more problems, on a deeper level. There are the 12 Colonies, each with their own distinct culture (though I can only remember a few distinct characterizations – Gemenon is religious, Caprica is the capital, Saggitaron was oppressed, uh…). But these are entire planets! Does anyone think that if there were eleven other planets as densely populated as Earth, that that would mean Earth’s culture would become homogenous? Hell no. There would just be many, many more cultures out there.

Part of the problem, of course, is the very nature of the show; it wants to depict a civilization of only a few thousand people travelling across a distance of hundreds of light-years (and this is what it would take, nevermind the Cylon’s claim that they were “an entire light-year away” when they found out where New Caprica was. Gimme a break. Alpha Centauri – the nearest planet to Earth – is 4.6 light-years away). Each different planet and star system is really more on the level of a city-state in Greece in the ancient Mediterranean. Or, in what is a more apt analogy, on the level of the 12 tribes of Israel when they made the exodus from Egypt. BG never really wanted to portray what a civilization that spread across 12 planets and multiple star systems would be like.

But of course this isn’t just a problem with Battlestar Galactica. Consider Star Trek – every episode I’ve seen involving a planet treats it like there is one city on the planet, just one civilization to deal with. Star Wars is the same way; Tattoine is “small village in the desert”, Coruscant is “large city”, Naboo is “seaside city”, etc.

In other words, we achieve diversity at the interplanetary level – which is what we want, since this is space opera – at the expense of actual planets. Instead we get a bunch of city-states floating in space with blank space between in which to fight and arbitrary rules for how long it takes to get from one planet to another.

The best attempt to avoid this problem that I’ve seen is Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle (the three Books of the New Sun, Long Sun, and Short Sun). BotNS takes place on Urth, which is Earth, but not just “on Earth” – it’s in South America, in the city of Nessus, ruled by the Autarch, whose lands are bounded on the north by the Ascians. The BotLS takes place entirely within a generation starship made from a hollowed out asteroid, but it involves a number of different city-states all living inside it – Viron, Trivigaunte, Mainframe, etc. The BotSS actually involves the main character going on an Odyssey-like journey to a bunch of different cities on the planet Blue. Etc.

The question, I suppose, is whether this is a problem that needs fixing. It is an irritant, to a certain extent – I know I laughed at that line about “an entire light-year away” in Battlestar Galactica. But for the most part we manage to ignore it. Would we really be better off forcing BG to take place on a single planet, or perhaps a single star system with a few planets in it, and modifying the entire plot to deal with the rule-change?

Discovering Gene Wolfe

July 11, 2009

One of my favorite authors is Gene Wolfe, but most people have never heard of him. The only people I know personally who have read anything by him are people whom I told to do so.

So how did I come to read Wolfe in the first place? The article that brought his work to my attention appeared on the website of First Things, a monthly journal focusing on religion, culture, and the arts. It was called The Distant Suns of Gene Wolfe. It’ll do a better job of convincing you to read Wolfe than I ever could.

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