October 5th, 2017

computer fox


Here’s a recursive sf story: A writer known for the widely varying quality of his work does a mediocre book based on one of his more tiresome obsessions. Somehow Hollywood notices it and buys it. They replace its uncommercial title with a punchier one that they already owned, although it doesn’t have anything to do with the book they bought or even the movie they made of it. They turn it over to a director who tries to read the book but gives up before page 30. Somehow it not only becomes a hit but even makes the original author bankable, but because of the creator’s Creator’s sense of humor, the author dies before he can enjoy it.

Sarah Gailey casts a fresh eye on Blade Runner: It’s a film about slavery, from the owners’ point of view, with a hero who tracks down and kills fugitive slaves if they can’t answer impossible questions because otherwise they would pass and mongrelize society.

Paradoxically, the questions measure “empathy,” but specifically empathy for animals. One pretty much has to be a PETAmane to pass the test. (I suspect that a machine that could pass for organic human could also be programmed to give acceptable answers to the Voight-Mein Kampff test, but that’s not important now.) I have heard the theory that PKD feared the incursion of androids into our society for the same reason some homophobes pursue queers: He was afraid he was one.

Or maybe I’m a replicant. I could not honestly pass the Voight-Kampff test. I’m a human exceptionalist and a posthumanist. If there is a path for us from animals to gods, I would assume that it has to go through machines. While of course the link between mind and body is far too complex to reduce us to one or the other, the most useful oversimplification for me is that we are minds and have bodies, and my empathy goes to those who think like us, even if they clank metallically.

It’s a ride

One book that hugely influenced me was C.S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism. Lewis suggested that rather than trying to find greatness or mediocrity in The Work Itself, we look at the ways people read and enjoy books, finding that the best ones satisfy many reading desires but we should not despise those that give pleasure in a more limited range (though he could not quite avoid a certain amount of Oxbridge condescension). That led me to a kind of literary YKIOK, in which all successful books (best sellers, academically respected Hy Lit, cult faves) do at least one thing well, whether it’s the human heart in conflict with itself or the vaulting imagination of great sf or exquisite descriptions of blowjobs. I no longer had to worry that The Great Gatsby was some sort of monstrous fraud perpetrated upon Literature but could let others enjoy the green light at the end of the dock and all that other great imagery while I did not have to care what happened to those rich turds.

At a Worldcon there was a discussion of sf and romance, and Catherine Asaro, who has written both (sometimes at the same time) said that sf is like jazz: The audience wants to see what you’ll do. Romance, on the other hand, is like ballet: The audience knows what you’ll do and wants to see how well you’ll do it.

I would suggest seeing the difference as one of reading approaches, rather than category. Certainly there are sf books one reads with a reasonably strong expectation of the plot but curiosity about how well or poorly they conduct the journey. Brad Torgersen called them Nutty Nuggets books.

In a discussion of a Nutty Nuggets book one might praise a particularly clever trick of plotting while saying that extreme deviation (e.g., the Bad Guys win) is simply a failure to follow the rules, like a 15-line sonnet, and we can argue over which a particular bit is. Brad Torgersen considered a Meredith Lackey book a deal breaker because it attracted our sympathy to the central character and then revealed that he was gay, Some of us would consider that an acceptable variant of the Old Juan Rico Trick.

OK, let’s turn this upside down and look at it from Both Sides Now. Vladimir Nabokov famously said that a good novel should be read twice: once to purge the need to find out how it comes out and once to appreciate its excellences. A Nutty Nuggets book is one for which the first trip is sufficient, but some of us find the first trip an annoyance and like those and only those books that supply a good second trip.

There are similarities between the pop fiction experience and the game experience that I am incompetent to discuss, but I was fascinated by this story from Metafilter:
Ubisoft made a fascinating announcement this week. They revealed that the latest Assassin’s Creed is to add a “Discovery Tour” mode, removing all the combat and challenges from the game, to let players just freely experience their in-depth recreation of Ancient Egypt. It’s fascinating, to me, because it’s a big deal. And goodness me, it shouldn’t be a big deal. Because games should be delighted to include modes that remove all their difficulty and challenge, and players should cheer when they hear about it. Oddly enough, a lot of players don’t cheer. In fact, people can get awfully angry about it. Since the announcement I’ve seen on Twitter a combination of people declaring, “Hooray! I’m interested in playing Assassin’s Creed for the first time in years!”, alongside others pointing toward those utterly furious that it demeans their hobby, cheapens games, and most heinous of all, lets in the riff-raff.”