Science Fiction vs. Fantasy

On a twitter thread, I proposed the idea that the main distinction between Science Fiction and fantasy is whether people prefer spandex uniforms or robes:

I did mean this in a tongue-in-cheek way. Obviously the only difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy is not the wardrobe. It is curiously harder to define than one would first suspect, though.

Before proceeding, I’d like to make a note that genres are not, or at least are not best considered as, normative things which dictate which books should be. Rather, they are descriptions of books for the sake of potential readers. The purpose of a genre is “if you like books that have X in it, you might like this book”. (The normative aspect comes primarily from the idea of not deceiving readers, but that runs into problems.)

Science Fiction is often described as extrapolating the present. The problem is that this is simply not true in almost all cases. It is very rare for Science Fiction to include only technology which is known to be workable within the laws of nature which we currently know. This is doable, and from what I’ve heard The Martian does an excellent job of this. At least by reputation, the only thing it projects into the future which is not presently known to be possible is funding. This is highly atypical, though.

The most obvious example is faster-than-light travel. This utterly breaks the laws of nature as we know them. Any Science Fiction story with faster-than-light travel is as realistic a projection of the future as is one in which people discover magic and the typical mode of transportation is flying unicorns.

I have seen attempts to characterize science fiction based on quantitative measures of how much of the science is fictional. This fails in general because fantasy typically requires only the addition of one extra energy field (a “mana” field, if you will) to presently known physics. And except for stories in which time travel is possible, the addition of a mana field is far more compatible with what we know of the laws of nature than faster-than-light travel is.

Now, one possibility (which I dislike) is that Science Fiction is inherently atheistic fantasy. This take, which I am not committed to, is that Science Fiction is fantasy without the numinous. Probably an alternative is Science Fiction is fantasy where there is no limit to the power which any random human being can acquire.

What I think might be the better distinction between Science Fiction and Fantasy is that Science Fiction is fantasy in which the author can convince the reader that the story is plausibly a possible future of the present. What matters is not whether, on strict examination, the possible future is actually possible. What matters is whether the reader doesn’t notice. And for a great many readers of Science Fiction, I suspect that they don’t want to notice.

In many ways, the work of a Science Fiction writer might be like that of an illusionist: to fool someone who wants to be fooled.

This puts Star Wars in a very curious place, I should note, since Star Wars is very explicitly not a possible future. But Star Wars has always been very dubiously Science Fiction. Yes, people who like Science Fiction often like Star Wars, but this doesn’t really run the other way. People who like Star Wars are not not highly likely to like other(?) science fiction. I personally know plenty of people who like space wizards with fire swords who do not, as a rule, read Science Fiction.

Anyway, even this is a tentative distinction between the two genres. It’s not an easy thing to get a handle on because it’s impossible to know hundreds of thousands of readers to identify the commonalities between their preferences. Even the classification of books into genres by publishers and books stores are only guesses as to what will get people to buy books, made by fallible people.

Murder For Revenge

In broad strokes, there are only a few reasons to murder someone:

  1. Gaining money or other forms of power
  2. To pave the way for love
  3. Revenge
  4. To gain status that properly belongs to the victim
  5. To protect one’s status

These correspond, roughly, to the deadly sins:

  1. Greed
  2. Lust
  3. Wrath
  4. Envy
  5. Vanity

Today I want to consider murder for revenge. It further subdivides into two possible situations:

  1. The murderer is fine with being destroyed in the process
  2. The murderer wishes to suffer no repercussions

The former can make an interesting story (such as the sub-plot in Chesterton’s The Sins of Prince Saradine), but it’s not easy for it to sustain a mystery. The main problem is that the murderer should, by hypothesis, confess. This can, however, be handled.

The first way to handle this is to have the murderer leave. This is hard to work unless he thinks the crime won’t be discovered and so no explanation is necessary. That can be done, though, especially for historical crimes being discovered and investigated only years later.

The second way to handle this is to have the murderer leave a confession before leaving but to have the confession intercepted by someone who wants to use the occasion to murder someone by framing him for murder. This is a very workable sort of plot, though it will be complicated.

The third major way is to kill the murderer before he can confess. This may be the most interesting option, especially if he is killed by the victim. Of course, if the murderer is murdered by his victim, this will not be mysterious unless at least one of them uses a scheme for which he does not need to be present, which is where the interesting part comes from. It is very hard to suspect a dead man of murder. If there is anyone one will leave off suspecting of a crime, it’s a dead man.

In a Cadfael story (Saint Peter’s Fair) Hugh Beringar remarks that babes and drunks are the world’s only innocents. But this is not an exhaustive list. Who is so incapable of harm as a man already dead?

What’s specially interesting about two people who have murdered each other is that with any conniving at all, the author can contrive to have everyone suspect them of being murdered by the same person, and this will be a very strange person indeed to have two enemies with so little in common. It also means that the murder will seem to have been done very craftily when it was in fact done very simply. Or at least one of them will be like that. There are absolutely wonderful possibilities for misdirection, here.

(I really want to write a story like this some day. I probably should first write a story with at least two victims at the start who were killed by the same person, so it’s not obvious, though.)

The other major option, and which is more common because it can far more easily sustain a mystery, is for the one seeking revenge to wish to avoid repercussions for his crime. This provides a simple reason for why he does not confess. It can sustain a mystery with little difficulty at all.

It can, of course, be made far more complex than the simple case. The variation that I suspect is most interesting, or at least that I personally find most interesting, is of introducing the complication of the passage of time. This can either be put between the original offense and the present, or between both the original offense and the revenge, and the present.

Of the two, my favorite is probably the ones where the revenge is recent but the offense in the past. This is probably most classically done with the child who grows up to avenge a parent, but this possibly should be avoided because it is common enough that, these days, the average reader might count the years since the crime in the past and guess the killer simply based on his age.

It comes to mind that an interesting way around that problem might be to give the murderer some scruple in his revenge, such as waiting for the 18th birthday of the vicitm’s youngest child, on the theory that his children should not be punished for the crime of their father. Something like that would throw a wrench into figuring out the culprit by simple calculations, at least.

There are more variations on murder for revenge, but this post is getting long enough that I think I’ll leave them for later. Enjoy writing your murder mysteries about revenge, and God bless you.

Pretty Good Advice

In this view, JP Sears gives some pretty good advice on how become depressed:

It should be noted that he concentrates on the things within one’s control. The death of loved ones, loss of a job, etc. would all work too, but they’re outside of one’s control.

Oddly, fixating on the possibility of them would probably help to get further depressed, then, but he forgets to give the advice of focusing only on what one cannot control.

No one’s perfect, I suppose.

(NOTE, SINCE INTERNET: this is all humor.)

Dragnet

Something I find interesting on occasion is to look up the history of television shows. Television is a very young medium. Though the device itself was invented in the 1930s, the Great Depression and the second World War and its attendant economic privations meant that televisions were not widely owned until the late 1940s. Without an audience, not much was made to broadcast to it. It was, therefore, really the early 1950s in which television got its start.

This makes it easy to research, but also makes the chain of influences fairly short.

Dragnet actually started as a radio drama, starring Jack Webb as Detective Joe Friday. In 1951, it became a television show, with much the same cast as the radio drama, though his partner had to be changed out part way through. This show lasted until 1959. It was later revived in 1967, this time in color. This is the version which I think most people are familiar with, that stars Harry Morgon as Detective Bill Gannon alongside Jack Webb reprising his role as Joe Friday. Certainly it’s the version I’m most familiar with. It lasted until 1970.

There were other versions made, but none with Jack Webb since he died in 1982 (at the age of 62). In 1987 there was a comedic movie starring Dan Ackroyd and Tom Hanks. It’s almost a parody of the original, though it is not a mean-spirited parody and I can testify that it is a lot of fun. In 1989 there was a short-lived series called The New Dragnet, and in 2003 there was an even shorter-lived revival series called LA Dragnet.

Though Dragnet was not able to survive in the modern world of police procedurals, or possibly just it was not able to outlive its star, Jack Webb, it did have an enormous impact on television. Counterfactuals are impossible to state with certainty, but it seems likely that police procedurals would not have the form they have today if Dragnet had never happened.

Episodes of Dragnet, which are (surprisingly) easily found on YouTube, are interesting to watch. The detectives are in the homicide division, so in a very technical sense the cases are murder mysteries. However, they are not detective stories in the sense of Poirot or Agatha Christie. The detectives do a lot of work, of course, but they don’t really do anything particularly clever. They just keep talking to people until they get enough facts to convict the murderer.

What I find curious—given that I’m a huge fan of detective fiction with genius detectives and write some of it myself—is that, bare-bones as Dragnet is, it still satisfies the impulse to see a mystery solved. This is true of modern police procedurals as well. In both cases, they feel somewhat like empty calories—enjoyable while watching but they don’t really have any substance which sticks with one.

This is not true of the great detective stories. Murder on the Orient Express, Have His Carcase, Saint Peter’s Fair—these stories really stick with one. There are interesting ideas in them to chew on long after one’s read them.

But it’s a testament to the human craving for the solving of mysteries that even Dragnet, which was told in an almost deliberately un-entertaining style, still makes you want to watch to the end to find out what happens, if you watch the beginning. This may partially be a testament to the power of charisma, though. I can watch Harry Morgan in just about anything.

Calories In vs. Calories Out

When it comes to the subject of losing weight—more specifically, reducing excess fat stores in the body—it’s fairly common to come across somebody who puts it like this:

It’s just calories in versus calories out. Thermodynamics says that if you take in more calories than you burn, you’ll store them as fat. If you take in fewer, you’ll burn fat. So weight loss is very simple: just burn more calories than you take in. That’s it. Anything else is just people trying to kid themselves that here’s a magic bullet.

This represents a confusion one sees in many fields: making no distinction between the cause of something and the mechanism of how the cause makes it happen. It is quite true that when somebody stores fat in their body they require energy to make the fat and they can’t also burn that energy and therefore the amount of energy they took in was higher than the amount of energy which they burned. No one, anywhere, disputes this. It’s also entirely uninteresting to the subject of fat gain or loss in people with excess fat.

(NOTE: when talking about healthy people—typically lean athletes—regulating what little fat they have, this simplification is probably accurate. This post is not talking about how a body builder can force his body to levels of fat which are dangerously low, or how an athlete can cut to a lower weight class. Those will almost certainly have to be achieved by simple calorie restriction because they are manipulating a healthy body into going outside of the homeostasis it wants to maintain for optimal health).

The question which is actually interesting to the subject of fat gain or loss is why the body stores energy as fat. And this is where the people who love to talk about calories-in-calories-out show their reductionist colors. Tthey will tell you that since fat cells are energy storage, if you take in more calories than you burn, you will necessarily store them as fat. But they give no reason for this, while there are excellent reasons to doubt it.

The reason to doubt that extra calories eaten can only go to fat is that the human metabolism is a highly variable thing. Though I should clarify what I mean here because by “metabolism” some people mean “resting metabolism”, while I mean “total metabolism”. Our bodies spend calories on a lot of things—walking, talking, maintaining our temperature, repairing our bodies, and other things. Very few of these things are fixed costs. One possible reaction to being in a cold environment is moving more or just burning energy for heat. Another is feeling cold and putting on a sweater. Those do not use the same number of calories over the course of an hour.

Let’s consider a very analogous system: finances.

If a person makes an additional $1000 per month, it is possible that his bank account will grow by $1000/month. It is also possible that he will start eating at expensive restaurants, and his bank account won’t change at all. On the flip side, a person whose income doesn’t change can decide to stop eating out and can grow his bank account with no additional income, merely by cutting expenses. And could do both: he could decide his bank account isn’t nearly large enough, work a second job to bring in an extra $1000, move to a tiny, unheated apartment, and eat nothing but porridge for his meals so that his bank account swells rapidly.

It’s that last part that’s most interesting to the moment, because it’s what seems to be the case in people who are, shall we say, famine resistant. Because there’s a really fascinating question about people carrying excess fat which is rarely asked: why do they get hungry?

Seriously, why is it that a person with excess fat feels hungry when he has plenty of energy at his ready disposal? That’s not how the body normally works. The human body, when working correctly, tries to maintain a homeostasis. Granted, it’s a homeostasis with more fat than a bodybuilder would like, but the body tends to regulate hunger on the basis of energy availability. Or in other words, normal people usually stop being hungry when their calories in is roughly equal to their calories out.

At this point, a word is necessary about what we might call the balloon theory of hunger. Basically, it is the model of hunger where the stomach is a balloon with pressure sensors and hunger is merely the pressure sensors detecting whether there’s still room in the stomach to fit something without literally bursting it.

There is some minor truth to this, in that the stomach does in fact have sensors in it which detect the degree to which it is stretched, but a few years of living as a human being should be sufficient to show this model as the rubbish that it is. Consider a few counter-examples:

  1. Desert. A person can eat until “they’re so stuffed they can’t eat another bite” then the moment desert comes out they can somehow fit enough additional food to fill a grapefruit.
  2. Exercise makes people hungry. Starting a new exercise routine can make one feel ravenously hungry for days. Exercise does not drastically increase the size of someone’s stomach in the first few days.
  3. Teenage boys can out-eat their parents combined. I did it often as a teenage boy. (I was on the rowing team in high school and relatively lean, too.) Teenage boys do not have stomachs which are larger than their mother’s and father’s stomach’s combined.
  4. Tests show that a stomach can stretch to around the size of an entire human torso before bursting from pressure. They’re incredibly expandable.
  5. People who win hot-dog eating contests do not ordinarily eat that much food to feel full.

In short, the theory that being hungry is entirely, or even primarily, about whether your stomach is full is nonsense.

There is also the always-hungry model, which tends to involve some pretend evolutionary biology about humans having evolved in circumstances of constant famine and so we are always hungry in order to pack on as much fat as possible for the next famine which we know is right around the corner.

The main problem with this is that it directly contradicts experience. Americans live in an environment with truly enormous food surpluses always available, and there are plenty of not-fat people who eat until they are not hungry and who nevertheless do not eat the 10,000+ calories that they easily could and this model predicts.

In short, a little bit of experience shows that human beings are not normally ravenous eating machines consuming every calorie that they can get their mouths on.

With these models of human hunger out of the way, the question then comes up and is very pressing: why do fat people get hungry?

It is not the purpose of this post to give the answer to this question. Chief among the reasons why is that there are almost certainly many answers to this question; people’s energy regulation can get screwed up for a variety of unrelated reasons. It is only the purpose to highlight how important finding an answer to this question is for a person who wants to lose excess fat.

(So as to not completely shirk the question, I think that one of the most common is excessive fructose consumption causing insulin insensitivity in the liver, which cascades into general insulin insensitivity, which then disrupts energy regulation, though even that is probably an over-simplification since in general nothing in biology involves just a single hormone. This model, however, at least corresponds well to my own experience of when I gain and lose weight.)

There’s a really good metaphor for the issue in Tom Naughton’s post Toilet Humor: The How vs. Why of Getting Fat. I’m going to give a variant of this metaphor to keep things more pleasant: the kitchen sink.

Suppose that your sink is clogged and filling up with water and about to overflow. It is entirely true that the problem, in an acute sense, is that there is more water going into the sink than coming out of it. If one applied the standard dietary advice to a clogged sink, you would just drastically reduce the flow of water into the sink until the sink was empty.

And it will work if you do that. Cut off the water, and the sink will eventually not be full of water. Evaporation, if nothing else, will see to that.

There’s just one problem: you have the sink for a reason, and that reason is not merely to keep it empty. You want the sink to do work. And the water-in-water-out approach of just cutting off the water in means that your sink can’t do its job. The correct solution to a clogged sink is not to stop washing your dishes. It’s to find out why it’s clogged and clear the clog. Maybe the drain strainer is full. Maybe the pipe is clogged later on. Fixing the problem depends on what the problem is, and there isn’t one problem. But whatever the obstruction in the drain, that’s what you need to fix so that the sink can do its job.

Similarly, a human being almost certainly has things to do besides sitting around not being fat. Many of us are parents. Some of us have jobs. A few of us have friends. Whatever it is, we have more to do than just sitting around not being fat. Just cutting off our food without fixing why we’re hungry when we’ve got excess fat is like just cutting off the water to the sink. Whatever you’ve got to get done in life, you’re going to do a bad job.

Further, people who are constantly hungry tend to be irritable, short-tempered, and lethargic. Even if they manage to fulfill their primary responsibilities well (and they’re probably only doing it passably), they’re going to make life less pleasant for everyone around them. I once had a housemate who was doing a calorie-restricted cut, and I was nearly at the point of begging him to stop because he was just so unpleasant to be around during it.

Interestingly, you can see the same sort of indifference-to-function in sports-medicine vs. regular medicine. If an athlete has a problem where something really hurts when he uses it, the conventional medicine approach is to just stop playing the sport and (I’m exaggerating) get months of bed rest. People into sports medicine know that this is hyper-focusing on a mechanism—in this case, rest—while ignoring that the person is a human being with a life. Sports medicine tries very hard to figure out how to restore athletes to normal function in the context of still living life as an athlete and not considering being wheelchair-bound-but-alive to be an equivalent outcome.

So, in conclusion, the real question when it comes to someone who wants to lose excess fat is not how to get rid of excess fat. It’s how to fix the fact that they’re hungry when they shouldn’t be. If you fix that, then the person will certainly lose excess fat—people who aren’t hungry don’t eat as many calories. But they’ll do it while still being a functional human being.

In short: one should treat the problem, not the symptom. To do that, one must first identify the problem.