Sunday, August 9, 2020

A Better Toolkit

 In an old (Dec 2002) Locus interview a writer, Orson Scott Card, who isn't a huge favorite of mine discusses the versatility of SF

Science fiction gives writers a tool set unmatched by any other genre. We can take our tools and step into any genre and do really well, but they can't take their tools and step into ours and do anything but flounder around. Our tools include most (but not all) of theirs. We have the ability to lead readers into a world that is not their own, step by step, without pain. We don't all do it -- there's plenty of bad science fiction where you have no idea where you are and what's going on. But from Robert A. Heinlein on, we've had the tools to do it without expository lumps, with the little details bled in. We train our readers to be able to absorb the changes, the differences between the world of the story and the world they live in, bit by bit and build up the picture slowly, frame by frame. Figuratively, we've learned how to start in a small room and only open the doors as we need to open them. The world expands as we move through it and as we need to reveal it -- which is way better than the horrible prologue that tries to give you the whole big world picture before dropping you into the story. We've learned techniques that actually work.

Artistic Progress

There is a natural progression in art forms: simple, then lovely, then distant, then abstract, then death of the form. Simple can be clumsy and unsophistocated or plain and clear . Lovely is self-evident. Distant begins to pay too much attention to the way it's executed, too self-referential, a third person perspective. Abstract takes the navel gazing to new extremes, typically skill is still important but it's more about propping up something artless with bogus theory and claims of "this is important" where obviously if it was important it wouldn't be necessary to proclaim it so. Death is when the artifact is completely devoid of any pleasure-giving, it must have a placard beside it specifically telling the fickle public why it is art for without that placard it would be misunderstood as just a piece of crap. Death can also be recursive reproductions of any of the earlier stages over and over again.

Painting did this: flat gothic, Botticelli, impressionism, Picasso, Pollack

Art music: Gregorian chant, Mozart, Bruckner/Debussy, Berg/Schoenberg, Billy Joel piano sonatas.

The art forms that were mature by the 1800's are especially prone to this cycle as technique became highly respected. Newer forms were slightly more resistant. Jazz fell to it because the skill level was so high: Armstrong, Miles, Monk, Miles [second quintet], Ayler followed by reproductions of each era over and over again. 

Because the artists in those last two stages were considered "important" everyone had to take account of them. New artists were required to reconcile their expression with these ideas. Rock was able to totally sidestep it because skill was never as important. Acts like Zappa, King Crimson & The Residents may come around but nobody follows: technique-wise they can't and record labels won't let them. The furthest along popular rock ever got was Distant with bands like Talking Heads. Country never made it past Simple & Lovely except maybe play-with-the-form work by guys like David Allan Coe (see, it already gets less enjoyable)

Abstract is the trap of the insecure


I just re-read this Heinlein essay and I'm not convinced anything is going on with the creation of this new field of science. Certainly not in any institutional way

The greatest crisis facing us is not Russia, not the Atom bomb, not corruption in government, not encroaching hunger, not the morals of young. It is a crisis in the organization and accessibility of human knowledge. We own an enormous "encyclopedia" -- which isn't even arranged alphabetically. Our "file cards" are spilled on the floor, nor were they ever in order. The answers we want may be buried somewhere in the heap, but it might take a lifetime to locate two already known facts, place them side by side and derive a third fact, the one we urgently need. Call it the Crisis of the Librarian. We need a new "specialist" who is not a specialist, but a synthesist. We need a new science to be the perfect secretary to all other sciences. But we are not likely to get either one in a hurry and we have a powerful log of grief before us in the meantime. Today the forerunners of synthesists are already at work in many places. Their titles may be anything; their degrees may be in anything -- or they may have no degrees. Today they are called "operations researchers", or sometimes "systems development engineers", or other interim tags. But they are all interdisciplinary people, generalists, not specialists -- the new Renaissance Man. The very explosion of data which forced most scholars to specialize very narrowly created the necessity which evoked this new non-specialist. So far, this "unspecialty" is in its infancy; its methodology is inchoate, the results are sometimes trivial, and no one knows how to train to become such a man. But the results are often spectacularly brilliant, too -- this new man may yet save all of us.-- R.A.Heinlein in "Where To?" 1950/1965
Not really sure if there's been any movement on this except for the many "Meta-studies" that have been published recently combining lots of experimenters' results. I suppose it could be in the realm of the creative amateur: feature magazine writers, Usenet, websites, etc. [this was from 2004]

Heidegger and Mayans

Nice description of Heidegger's idea of an individual (Dasein) in his culture's "thrown-ness" from Schele & Freidel's A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya

As we grow to adulthood, every human being acquires a special way of seeing and understanding the world and the human community. This is a shared conception of reality, created by the members of a society living together over generations, through their language, their institutions and arts, their experiences, and their common work and play. We call this human phenomenon "culture", and it enables people to understand how and why the world around them works.
This leads the chapter attempting to explain how they experienced their world. As the authors explain the sacrament of blood-letting, they come to an interesting analogy
In our world, for example, we could not imagine letting blood from our bodies, as the Maya did, in order to communicate with our ancestors. Such violence seems crazy and "uncivilized" to us. On the other hand, the ancient Maya would find our war-time custom of drafting young men to go and fight in the place of the leaders of our nation both barbaric and cowardly. Maya lords fought their own battles and a king often paid for defeat in the coin of his own capture and sacrifice.
This is a fascinating book which also serves as a primer for basic hieroglyphic translation.

New aphorisms

You can't ascribe causality to superficial changes. Look deeper or at more systemic differences and you may find causality

Accurate Timeline of Pre-Socratic Philosophers

There's a great new resource available to help keep the chronology of early Greek philosophers straight. Which thinkers were contemporaries, which ones were earlier and later. Previous references were all over the place so it's nice to have this all in one well-researched book.

Check out the publisher Cosmographia ( and the main page for the book by Philip Thibodeau here:

I found out about it from the BMCR write-up here:

Enjoy! I sure am

A Better Toolkit

 In an old (Dec 2002) Locus interview a writer,  Orson Scott Card , who isn't a huge favorite of mine discusses the versatility of SF Sc...