Lucky Detectives

Within detective fiction, luck plays a very strange role. In traditional hero stories, luck should always favor the bad guy so that the good guy can win by the exercise of virtue. For this reason, luck helping an investigation is disappointing—it feels like cheating.

The problem in detective fiction, however, is that all clues which allow the detective to solve the mystery are pieces of luck because they are mistakes on the part of the murderer (or other culprit). A perfect murder simply couldn’t be solved.

Because of this the detective must be lucky, and the writer of the mystery has to figure out how to deal with this luck. I’ve seen it dealt with in a variety of ways, most of which work. Of the methods for dealing with this luck, I think that hanging a lampshade on it is probably the least satisfying. That’s usually of the form

Inspector Lieusew had no idea what made him think to stop and enter the ordinary-looking dry-cleaner’s shop, but later he was glad that he did.

Of course I’ve seen it done far more skillfully, as in Chesterton’s first (and excellent) Father Brown story, The Blue Cross:

He alighted at Liverpool Street, however, quite conscientiously secure that he had not missed the criminal so far. He then went to Scotland Yard to regularise his position and arrange for help in case of need; he then lit another cigarette and went for a long stroll in the streets of London. As he was walking in the streets and squares beyond Victoria, he paused suddenly and stood. It was a quaint, quiet square, very typical of London, full of an accidental stillness. The tall, flat houses round looked at once prosperous and uninhabited; the square of shrubbery in the centre looked as deserted as a green Pacific islet. One of the four sides was much higher than the rest, like a dais; and the line of this side was broken by one of London’s admirable accidents–a restaurant that looked as if it had strayed from Soho. It was an unreasonably attractive object, with dwarf plants in pots and long, striped blinds of lemon yellow and white. It stood specially high above the street, and in the usual patchwork way of London, a flight of steps from the street ran up to meet the front door almost as a fire-escape might run up to a first-floor window. Valentin stood and smoked in front of the yellow-white blinds and considered them long.

The most incredible thing about miracles is that they happen. A few clouds in heaven do come together into the staring shape of one human eye. A tree does stand up in the landscape of a doubtful journey in the exact and elaborate shape of a note of interrogation. I have seen both these things myself within the last few days. Nelson does die in the instant of victory; and a man named Williams does quite accidentally murder a man named Williamson; it sounds like a sort of infanticide. In short, there is in life an element of elfin coincidence which people reckoning on the prosaic may perpetually miss. As it has been well expressed in the paradox of Poe, wisdom should reckon on the unforeseen.

Aristide Valentin was unfathomably French; and the French intelligence is intelligence specially and solely. He was not “a thinking machine”; for that is a brainless phrase of modern fatalism and materialism. A machine only is a machine because it cannot think. But he was a thinking man, and a plain man at the same time. All his wonderful successes, that looked like conjuring, had been gained by plodding logic, by clear and commonplace French thought. The French electrify the world not by starting any paradox, they electrify it by carrying out a truism. They carry a truism so far–as in the French Revolution. But exactly because Valentin understood reason, he understood the limits of reason. Only a man who knows nothing of motors talks of motoring without petrol; only a man who knows nothing of reason talks of reasoning without strong, undisputed first principles. Here he had no strong first principles. Flambeau had been missed at Harwich; and if he was in London at all, he might be anything from a tall tramp on Wimbledon Common to a tall toast-master at the Hotel Metropole. In such a naked state of nescience, Valentin had a view and a method of his own.

In such cases he reckoned on the unforeseen. In such cases, when he could not follow the train of the reasonable, he coldly and carefully followed the train of the unreasonable. Instead of going to the right places–banks, police stations, rendezvous– he systematically went to the wrong places; knocked at every empty house, turned down every cul de sac, went up every lane blocked with rubbish, went round every crescent that led him uselessly out of the way. He defended this crazy course quite logically. He said that if one had a clue this was the worst way; but if one had no clue at all it was the best, because there was just the chance that any oddity that caught the eye of the pursuer might be the same that had caught the eye of the pursued. Somewhere a man must begin, and it had better be just where another man might stop. Something about that flight of steps up to the shop, something about the quietude and quaintness of the restaurant, roused all the detective’s rare romantic fancy and made him resolve to strike at random. He went up the steps, and sitting down at a table by the window, asked for a cup of black coffee.

As a side now, if you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend that you do. (It’s available online. Like all Father Brown stories it’s a short story, so it won’t take long.)

This is probably the best that I’ve seen the lampshade-hanging done and because Chesterton is a master, it works. But it’s not entirely pure lampshade-hanging. It has elements of what I think is the best approach, which is to have the detective earn his luck. Of course, in a strict sense one can’t earn luck because luck comes from God and all that comes from God is grace. But one can, through work, make oneself a fit vessel for grace—that is, a vessel without leaks that will not spill the grace poured into it.  (That too is, of course, grace, but life and language is easier if one just recognizes at the outset that all is grace and what is not distinct need not be pointed out in every sentence.)

The detective can earn his luck by doing the hard work to be in the right place to receive the luck. He can ask many questions that eventually turn up a useful answer. He can look into many places to find something there.

But there is an opposite danger, too, which the writer must avoid. A detective story is not interesting if the detective merely grinds his way through every possible place to look for clues. There is the tedium of that, of course, but tedium is very easy to elide. It takes only a few words to say:

After seven weeks of fourteen hour days spent knocking on every door in a five mile radius, Detective Inspector Drumwalt at last found somebody who had seen Wolfgang Gruenwald on the night he was murdered.

The problem to be avoided is not tedium for the reader. It’s a lack of imagination on the part of the detective. There’s no fun in trying to match wits with someone who evidently doesn’t have any.

There is of course a traditional solution to that, too, which is an army of people to do the grunt work for the detective. One can see this in the way CSI labs and uniformed policemen are used if the detective is himself formally with the police, but you can also see it in Sherlock Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars.

This of course must be used sparingly and only for initial clues; the detective ceases to be the detective if somebody else hands him the solution together with conclusive evidence. In mystery novels—which need twists and turns before the solution becomes obvious to the reader—the solution to the problems raised by this solution is often to make the clues turned up by grunt-work misleading. This can often serve double-duty by putting an innocent person under suspicion and thus raising the stakes.

A popular way to play with that, by the way, is to have the evidence planted by the culprit to intentionally mislead the investigators. A clever murderer will make the evidence require some work to get, playing on human nature’s inability to believe that hard work does not come with rewards.

One of the great things about mystery novels is that at this point—130 years after Sherlock Holmes and 90 years after the golden age—every possible solution to every problem in the genre has been done straight, as a fake-out, and as a faked-out-fake-out. If you’re at all familiar with detective fiction, there’s really no way to guess which way the writer is playing it this time based solely on the form of what’s happened so far.

Suppose a suspect has confessed. Well, perhaps it’s a false confession to shield someone else, but it might also be a true confession with enough lies in it that it will be taken as a false confession and so suspicion will be thrown elsewhere. At this point, the mere fact that someone has confessed doesn’t tell you anything about who did it. This keeps things surprisingly fresh.

In fact, about the only think that you can be sure of, at this point, is that the butler didn’t do it.


If you like my discussion of murder mysteries, you might like my murder mystery, The First Chronicle of Brother Thomas: The Dean Died Over Winter Break.

tddowb

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers

Clouds of Witness is the second novel featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, following Whose Body?. While my general recommendation is to start with Strong Poison, as my favorite Lord Peter novels are the Harriet Vane quadrilogy, Clouds of Witness would also be a good place to start with Lord Peter Wimsey if you’re new to him.

Clouds of Witness is a good, solid armchair cozy. There is a dead body in the first chapter, at an English hunting lodge rented by the Duke of Denver (Lord Peter’s brother) and occupied by several friends. The Duke was the first to discover the body, and is put on trial for having been the one who put it there. The victim was engaged to the Duke’s sister, and he can give only a very unsatisfactory account of his whereabouts at the time of the murder. In fact, most everyone at the hunting lodge contradicts the story of everyone else there. It is from this tangled situation that the title comes: the whole situations is fogged by clouds of witness.

Clouds of Witness has everything you expect in a Lord Peter Wimsey story:  detection, reasoning, speculation, wit, engaging characters, and 1920s England. I highly recommend it.


If you like Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries even half as much as I do, then you might enjoy my murder mystery, The Dean Died Over Winter Break.

tddowb


(If you don’t want spoilers, stop reading here.)

Analysis

(This analysis is an attempt to learn from a master. Anything which may sound critical should be read in the spirit of being a close examination of an excellent novel.)

Clouds of Witness is very interesting both as a second novel about a detective and as a followup to Whose Body?. There’s a lot to talk about, but what stands out to me the most is the character of Inspector Charles Parker. As in Whose Body? he is both Lord Peter’s sidekick and his partner in detection. This is a curious choice as the requirements of sidekick are different and to some degree contradictory to those of a partner.

That’s not to say that such a thing is impossible to pull off. Sayers pulled it off in the character of Harriet Vane, for example. But it feels like she hasn’t quite gotten the balance right in Charles Parker; one can never quite be sure which he’s being in any given scene. And the difference was really in the personality of the characters themselves. Or perhaps it would be better put that the difference was in their skill sets.

Harriet Vane was a mystery writer and her strengths were aligned with this. She understood human behavior well, she was clever, imaginative, and had a great command of language. She was quite intelligent, though not the match of Lord Peter. But the advantage which he really had over her was in experience. Being older and richer, he had a far broader experience of humanity than Harriet did. It made for an extremely good pairing.

Charles Parker’s skills were far more similar to Wimsey’s. Wimsey was established as being more observant than Parker, but Parker was observant. Wimsey had a lot of experience of humanity, but Parker—as a policeman—had a great deal of experience of humanity as well. Wimsey was skilled at research, but Parker was also good at research and had the resources of Scotland Yard behind him. There’s nothing in this which is inherently a problem, but it doesn’t allow the character to be strong at times and weak at times. Watson—the character who needs things explained to him—can’t be played by an equal. It will simply feel wrong that he needs explanations—or it will feel wrong when he doesn’t.

Now, I don’t want to overstate what I mean, because there is a significant personality difference between Parker and Wimsey—Parker is more methodical and cautious, while Wimsey is more inclined to speculate and take up theories provisionally. This has the benefit of making Wimsey need to prove his steps—to Parker, if not to himself—which helps to move the investigation along in a more orderly way which is easier for the reader to follow.

Above and beyond this, though, I suspect that Sayers became a bit surprised by Charles Parker. Especially in Whose Body? but continued in Clouds of Witness, it feels like his original purpose was to be an assistant to Lord Peter. Every writer of an amateur detective has the fundamental problem of why on earth the detective is permitted to go where he goes and do what he does. For much of the detection there can be trade-offs, because the amateur is not restricted by rules of evidence in the way the police are. But there are some places the detective really needs to go which are hard to explain. Viewing the body and scene of the murder being two of them.

There are a variety of solutions to this problem, but the author does need to solve it for the mystery to have any plausibility. And a friend in the police force who is in charge of the case does solve this problem very handily. And while in a certain (very limited) sense this is cheating, I suspect most readers don’t care because what they want to read is detection, not a spy thriller in a deerstalker hat. I know that, as a reader, I’m quite forgiving of improbable though logically possible things which let me get to the good parts.

And this felt like the role that Charles Parker was meant to fulfill. He had many of the requisite attributes—other than being a police inspector, I mean. He looked up to Lord Peter as a genius, thought Lord Peter highly likely to catch clues which he himself missed, and even told Wimsey about his cases.

But then a curious thing happened—Parker also turned out to be a close friend of Wimsey’s. This introduced a tension which built over the course of the novels: brilliant, well educated men don’t have dumb friends. And Parker wasn’t a dumb man. But the more intelligent Parker becomes, the less need he has of Lord Peter.

I want to say that Clouds of Witness was the high-water mark for Charles Parker, but I’m not sure why I want to say that because it’s not true, or at best true from a very narrow perspective. He features very prominently in the next book—Unnatural Death—in fact he’s on the very first page. But then a decent chunk of the book is about a detective in the employ of Lord Peter—Miss Climpson—rather than about Parker or Lord Peter.

After Unnatural Death comes The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, which also features Charles Parker heavily, but only in (roughly) the second half. Then comes Strong Poison, which is the last novel in which he really features heavily. He’s all but not in The Five Red Herrings and Have His Carcass. He is somewhat more present in Murder Must Advertise, then has a small role in The Nine Tailors. He isn’t in Gaudy Night and is only mentioned briefly in Busman’s Honeymoon.

So while Inspector Parker does have a fairly long run, he peters out in the end. I can’t help but wonder if his role as the official access-granter prevented the further development of his role as friend. The problem with being an access-granter is that he can’t be everywhere. A friend might visit a friend anywhere, but a police inspector would not have jurisdiction throughout the entire country and be assigned every interesting case throughout the country. It’s only a speculation, of course, but it’s something to think about in the construction of friends and assistants for a detective.

Setting aside the question of Charles Parker, the construction of Clouds of Witness is very interesting too. It begins with a brief connection to the previous novel, then jumps into a long recital of the facts of the case by way of a transcription of the inquest over the murder victim. This is an interesting approach to handling the exposition necessary in a mystery. Though it should be noted that mysteries have an enormous advantage over most other genres when it comes to exposition since at least some of the characters in a mystery don’t know what happened and want to know. So straight-up information dumps are often in-character.

But the same is true of a British inquest, at least as presented in Lord Peter novels, and that’s the device Sayers used. And I have to say that it was pretty efficient at communicating the setup in detail. Though not very quickly; it did drag on a little. It felt like we could have used a little more investment into the story before that many pages of facts delivered in rapid succession. Still, it is an interesting approach. In America we don’t have inquests, but we do have the grand jury which serves a similar function. Unfortunately, our grand juries our secret (I believe to protect the innocent in case the grand jury returns the verdict that there is not enough evidence to bring a trial). Probably the closest American version of this would be to have a trial end in a hung jury and a new trial scheduled. (Though Sayers had that option, too, in British courts and took advantage of it in Strong Poison.)

It is also interesting that given us all of the principle evidence, Lord Peter still has detection to do when he arrives. This is arranged in two stages because Inspector Parker has already done some of the investigation, but only after the local police have bungled the initial investigation, leading to the Duke of Denver being charged. This sequence of events sets up the main jeopardy of the story—the Duke’s life—while still putting the Parker and Wimsey in charge.

This also respects an observation of Chesterton’s (in The Mirror of the Magistrate):

“Ours is the only trade,” said Bagshaw [a police detective], “in which the professional is always supposed to be wrong. After all, people don’t write stories in which hairdressers can’t cut hair and have to be helped by a customer; or in which a cabman can’t drive a cab until his fare explains to him the philosophy of cab-driving.

By the arrangement of the local police bungling and Scotland Yard swooping in to help, the professional is given some of his due. It certainly is in keeping with the elements of realism Sayers weaves in to the Lord Peter stories. (Which, it must be said, form a counterpoint to Lord Peter himself, and keep him grounded.)

Parker and Wimsey of course find a number of clues which the local police overlooked, which is simply necessary to the story being a detective story at all. Their hottest clue is the footprints of Mary’s second fiance, Goyles, who wears a number 10 shoe, but I find it hard to be as enthusiastic as Lord Peter and Mr. Parker in their hunt for the fellow. It’s just not very plausible that a stranger came from far away to kill Cathcart whom he expected to find outside using the Duke of Denver’s revolver.

To some degree this must be chalked up to the eagerness of Lord Peter and Inspector Parker to exonerate the Duke of Denver, but I think it would have felt better if they were pursuing the owner of the number 10 shoes as an important witness since that was the overwhelming likelihood of what he was.

These investigations bring Lord Peter to meet Mr. and Mrs. Grimmethorpe of Grider’s Hole. Mr. Grimmethorpe is a curious character. He is a man so consumed by jealousy that he has become almost pure rage. I’ve always found him an intensely unpleasant character, though that is the point of him. And I suspect that he is actually realistic, given how often jealousy has led to murder.

I suspect that my dislike of the character is because he is a little out of place in an armchair cozy mystery. He is certainly not cozy. And he is important to the plot. He’s not quite central, but at the same time he’s not far from the center of the mystery and is at least tangentially related to (perhaps) half the plot. Given his relevance to the mystery, it would have been very difficult for him to be less involved in the plot. But there’s another reason why he had to show up once again towards the end, and it relates to the fundamental structure of murder mysteries.

A murder mystery is the story of a man who distorts the natural order by the wrong use of reason, put right by the detective’s right use of reason. It is the salvation of the world, in the manner of a medieval miniature. At the end of every good murder mystery, then, what is wrong must be put right. And Mr. Grimmethorpe of Grider’s Hole is very wrong. The book cannot end with him continuing to be the monster that he is, and it doesn’t. In the end he is killed trying to kill the Duke of Denver. (Or possibly Mrs. Grimmethorpe; I’ve read the passage several times and still can’t figure out exactly what happened.) There is not really any other possible outcome given the constraints of the situation.

Though it must be said that Mrs. Grimmethorpe is not right either. She has committed adultery. And indeed, so has the Duke. I find it odd how much this is passed over as inconsequential. Its only real significance seems to be that the Duke won’t say where he was when Cathcart was killed. Neither repents in any way of their sin; they basically simply agree to forget about it. Which is a resolution of sorts, but a very cheap resolution that is not really fitting. But leaving that aside, it’s rather strange just how cavalier everyone else is about the Duke having committed adultery. The characters all seem to think it inconsequential that he adulterates he marriage, and completely inconsequential whether news of his infidelity reaches his wife. No one seems to think any less of him for it.

I don’t know what to make of it. Perhaps it was plausible at the time. The 1920s is known as a very immoral time—a reaction against the stricter Victorian era, which was itself a reaction against the more morally lax Georgian period. (Clouds of Witness was published in 1926.) And that itself was a reaction against the era which came before it. And moreover every era is a combination of many threads; people are never uniform. (Also, curiously, the greatest saints tend to show up during the generally worst times.)

The conclusion of the mystery is also interesting, where Lord Peter tracks down Cathcart’s former lover in America then has a harrowing and dangerous trans-Atlantic flight to bring the evidence back to the trial. The audacity of this flight is, I think, lost on modern people who can safely travel the Atlantic in a jet which cruises several miles above the clouds for $100 per seat (one way, on a really good sale). As I mentioned, Clouds of Witness was published in 1926. The first non-stop trans-Atlantic flight was made in 1919 (and of the three teams making the attempt on the same day, two didn’t make it across). Charles Lindbergh had not yet become the first to cross the Atlantic solo—he would do that the next year in 1927. In 1926 going between New York and London by airplane was only just slightly more realistic than science fiction. It’s a curious thing to stick into a detective story. Consulting detectives are already quite unrealistic, though, so perhaps it does go together.

The one part of Clouds of Witness which I think was a mistake in what was otherwise an excellent book is the very end, where Inspector Sugg finds Lord Peter and Inspector Parker slobbering drunk—one comatose, the other talking with a statue. It’s not that I disapprove of drunkenness—I do, but that’s not my issue here—since after all saving the life of one’s brother after nearly dying excuses a lot. It’s that it’s very out of character for Lord Peter to want to lose himself in the manner that one loses himself in drunkenness. And if it’s out of character for Lord Peter, it’s even more out of character for Charles Parker. I suspect that it was meant as a comedic note to end on. Another possibility is that it was meant to humanize Lord Peter and make him more relatable. I don’t think it really does either. It would have felt far more in character if Lord Peter took Parker out to an opera or even if Parker invited Lord Peter to go with him to church and after all of the emotional exhaustion, Lord Peter went with him. (Of the two, the opera would be more likely.) Or even brought Parker to his flat and played music and sang into the wee hours of the night. And even if Lord Peter got drunk, Parker really shouldn’t have. A moment of sober conversation between Parker and Sugg over the drunk Lord Peter would have been more interesting than Sugg calling Peter and Parker a cab.

Over the Hills and Far Away

I recently discovered the singer/hury gurdist Patty Gurdy. Originally part of the band Storm Seeker, she seems to be striking out on her own. I’ve really been enjoying her songs on YouTube, and I’m particularly fond of her cover of a Storm Seeker song called The Longing:

However, the song I want to talk about is Over the Hills and Far Away:

It’s extremely reminiscent in theme of the Johnny Cash song The Long Black Veil, though I don’t know that there’s any influence:

Either way, it’s very interesting to compare the two songs. And despite the similarity of subject matter, the biggest difference is what kind of song they are: Over the Hills and Far Away is a (sort-of) love song, while The Long Black Veil is a tragedy.

This is of course facilitated by the different penalties for the different crimes. In The Long Black Veil, the man is accused of murder and his refusal to provide an alibi results in his execution, while in Over the Hills and Far Away he refuses to provide an alibi for a robbery and consequently is sentenced to 10 years in prison. This enables the latter to have the theme of eventual return, and it’s this theme which turns the song into a love song.

Which is unfortunate because the man should not return to the arms of his best friend’s wife. He should stay out of the arms of any man’s wife but even more so those of his best friend’s wife. In the song where the adulterer died, it becomes possible to take it as a simple tragedy where he was not directly punished for his adultery, but none the less was being punished indirectly because his adultery prevented him from proving his innocence. He got what he deserved, if indirectly, sort of like the plot of The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Unfortunately that sort of interpretation isn’t possible for a man who doesn’t understand what he did to be wrong (only socially unacceptable). But I find it interesting that the woman sings a song about adultery as a love song and the man sings it as a tragedy. This touches on a theme I’ve noticed in stories written by women: a man is so captivated by a woman’s beauty that he’s willing to destroy himself (and often her) because of it. This isn’t a universal theme, nor anything like that, but I’ve noticed that this is a common theme in material that I didn’t usually read until recently.

There’s a lot to say about the theme of a man so entranced by a woman’s beauty that he becomes a monster, which alas I don’t have time for now, but it is an interesting question to ponder how much the becoming a monster is intrinsic to the fantasy or whether it’s a way of defending against the accusations of wish-fulfillment which the story would be accused of if the woman’s beauty captivated the man and helped him to overcome his vices and become a saint. That latter one would be a very good story, though.

Acquiring Murder Weapons

Much of what drives the plot of a murder mystery are the problems with a murderer who wishes to avoid capture has to solve. In no particular order, the big ones are:

  • Finding an opportunity to commit the murder
  • Planning how to commit the murder
  • Acquiring the tools necessary for the murder
  • Committing the murder without (living) witnesses
  • If possible, having an alibi for the time of the murder
  • Disposing of the murder weapon
  • Disposing of the corpse (I’m including making it look like accident/suicide here)

(Some of these problems are really alternatives to each other; for example if one has an alibi for the time of the murder, one doesn’t need to bother with disposing of the body. If one can acquire the murder weapon in an untraceable way, one can leave it next to the corpse with a label “murder weapon” helpfully attached to it. Etc.)

In writing a murder mystery, these are the questions the writer needs to answer and—at least the way I work—before writing the actual mystery. Actually, let me back up for a second and explain by way of my theory of murder mysteries:

A murder mysteries is actually two stories: a drama told backwards, and a detective story told forwards.

I think it’s fine to write a murder mystery by the seat of one’s pants as long as it’s only the detective story one is “pantsing”. If you’ve written the drama (the murderer’s story) ahead of time, you can’t get into too much of a mess with the detective story. Where people go wrong is in not having first figured out the drama in its natural order so that they can gradually tell it backwards. (NOTE: there will be people who can successfully write murder mysteries in a completely different way. I’m not trying to lay down laws everyone must follow.)

That’s what I mean by needing to figure out the murderer’s solution to his intrinsic problems first. Once you’ve figured out how the murderer has planned his murder, you can then work out how the murder actually happened, at which point you now have a coherent story for the detective to detect. I find this order of doing things very helpful for two main reasons:

  1. This mirrors reality; it’s the order in which murders actually do happen. This means that there’s precedent for it being a workable system.
  2. One has complete freedom for the first decisions one makes. And it’s in the murder itself where plot holds are the most damaging to a murder mystery. Thus starting here gives one the fewest temptations to try to hide a plot hole in order to preserve what’s already been done.

This also lets you decide ahead of time, in a coherent way, what mistakes the murderer made (i.e. what evidence they left), so that you know where to direct your detective to look.

Types of Murder Weapons

So, the question I want to consider is how the murderer acquires the murder weapon. There are several categories which each have their advantages and their shortcomings:

  1. Ready to hand
  2. Store-bought
  3. Home-made

A ready-to-hand murder weapon, such as a kitchen knife used to murder someone in the kitchen, has the benefit of being untraceable, since there is an obvious explanation for what the kitchen knife was doing there. The downside is that such things are unreliable and so unlikely to be in a planned murder. (Of course, one can always abscond with the knife beforehand then bring it so that it looks like it was snatched up in the heat of the moment.) Ready-to-hand weapons are also very likely to be simple—knives, pokers, hammers, etc. People very rarely leave loaded guns, crossbows and bolts, etc. lying about. This means that ready-to-hand weapons will require one to get very close to the victim and use a great deal of physical force. This eliminates squeamish murderers. And most modern people are pretty squeamish.

A store-bought murder weapon is likely to be in good working order and quite possibly useful for killing at a distance and without much force. The downside is that they are—at least in theory—traceable. Guns, crossbows, etc. have serial numbers. Shop keepers have memories and many big box stores have comprehensive video surveillance. Acquiring these things in an untraceable way can be done, but it takes far more work and premeditation, since the best bet here will be to buy them on the secondary market, in cash, months or better yet years before the murder. This requires a very patient—or lucky—murderer.

Home-made murder weapons offer a good compromise between ready-to-hand and store-bought. Building supplies like plywood, hinges, rubber bands, and so on are basically untraceable. And there are a ton of very deadly weapons one could very realistically make. If you don’t believe me, just watch a few episodes of The Slingshot Channel. The downside here is that one requires a fairly competent murderer with at least a few tools. The problem this introduces is one of personality: people who are patient and good at problem solving just don’t seem like the murdering sort. However much of a problem the victim is, there’s probably also a non-lethal way around the problem they pose.

Accomplices Make Everything Easier

One practical way around most of the problems brought up in the murder weapon section is an accomplice. Even better for the problem of murder weapon acquisition is the anonymous accomplice. As long as the murder weapon isn’t directly traceable to a name (i.e. isn’t a new gun/crossbow recently bought at a gun/bow shop), this will greatly obfuscate the trail of the weapon. If the detective doesn’t know whose footsteps to retrace, he will have a very hard time retracing them.

An anonymous accomplice can also go a long way in solving the problems of personality introduced by the choice of a murder weapon. Two people can be more patient than one, an accomplice who wouldn’t murder anyone himself might still help a lover or friend to buy or make a weapon, and so on.

(In fact, the ability for two people to have two personalities is sometimes revealed in just this way—the detective is talking about the contradictions in the murderer’s behavior and someone says, “It’s like our murderer is two different people… wait a minute!”)

Of course, this introduces its own set of problems since now the relationship must be explained. I think that the most typical motivations for the assistance are:

  1. Romantic interest
  2. Financial interest

Though this makes sense since they are the two big motivations for nearly everything and especially for nearly everything which is really bad. The other big motivation in human life is religious zeal, and while you probably could come up with a story in which a radical Muslim murders a Jew out of religious zeal, it would be hard to come up with a story in which he wanted to conceal it (though you could have friends do that over his objections) and in the current environment I doubt that such a story would be well received.

There is another way in which accomplices make things easier, though: being twice as many people they make twice as many mistakes—that is, they leave twice as many clues. Worse yet from the perspective of the murderer and better yet from the perspective of the detective, they can have the motivation to double-cross each other.

As with all solutions to a problem in a murder mystery, an accomplice solves some problems and causes others. This is why it’s better in real life to always do right, of course, because then all of your problems will at least be good problems to have, but in fiction it’s what has made mystery such an enduring genre.


If you enjoy murder mysteries, please consider checking out my murder mystery, The Dean Died Over Winter Break.

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The Dean Died Over Winter Break

Today I’m pleased to announce that my first mystery novel, The Dean Died Over Winter Breakis now available from Silver Empire publishing.

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If you like Lord Peter Wimsey, Father Brown, or Brother Cadfael—and especially if you like all three—then you’ll probably enjoy the first Chronicle of Brother Thomas: The Dean Died Over Winter Break.

Back cover blurb:

Winter Break is normally a peaceful time at a university so it was quite a shock when Dean Floden was discovered Monday morning murdered at his desk, the window wide open behind him. A blizzard sent everyone home on Friday afternoon so there’s no time of death and no witnesses to see who came or went anyway. The police have little to go on and are making slow progress. Worried about an ongoing investigation when the students return for the spring semester, the president of the university calls in the Franciscan Brothers of Investigation.

Brother Thomas, still with the intensity of youth despite long experience uncovering the sins of the world, is sent along with his apprentice, Brother Francis, whose jovial smile and mild manner belie his ever-growing knowledge of fallen humanity. Awaiting them on their first day are a jealous mistress, a clever drug dealer, a disappointed researcher, and a mortally insulted professor. Did one of them do the other three a big favor? Or was it someone else entirely? With everyone at the university looking out for their own interests, can Brother Thomas’s sharp eyes and Brother Francis’ insight find the truth behind the academic façade?

Some of the most favorable reviews so far:

“It was very difficult to put down the book and not read, read it until the last page!” -Keti

“If you’re a fan of Brother Cadfael, you’ll like this novel.” -Borderbumble

“It’s well worth a read for any mystery fan just for the unique detectives. I’d love to see a sequel.” -Nigel

“It is a quick and enjoyable read with interesting characters with whom I’d like to spend more time in the sequels.” -Alfred

If you’re interested, it’s available for $2.99 on Kindle.

Reader Expectations: A Conversation With Russell Newquist

I spoke with publisher, author, 4th Degree blackbelt (Shin Nagare Karate), Dojo owner, programmer, husband, and father of four Russell Newquist about reader expectations and how they influence how the reader perceives a work of fiction. (This is related to my post Predictability vs. Recognizability.) As with previous conversations we’ve had, we also talked about a lot of other things too. You can also watch the video on YouTube, if you prefer:

Get Smart: The Next Generation

In the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2008 a movie was released which was based on the TV show Get Smart. It was called—unsurprisingly but in a sense daringly—Get Smart. It starred Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway. It had some callbacks to the original, but other than that it had basically none of the spirit, tone, or style of the original. And I enjoyed the movie immensely. Before I proceed, let me note that I’m a big fan of the original. Here are my DVDs of seasons 1 and 2:

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The TV show with Don Adams and Barbra Feldon was immensely fun. I watched it as a kid and still love it (as, I hope, my owning of two seasons of it demonstrates). So how could I enjoy a Get Smart movie which basically had nothing to do with the original?

Actually, that’s how I could enjoy it. Having nothing to do with the original, I could simply enjoy it on its own terms. It wasn’t pretending to trash something I loved, so I had nothing against it. And on its own terms, it was quite fun.

I should note that the movie did have a slight connection to the original, in that the Control which this Maxwell Smart worked for was hinted at as being the same that the original Maxwell Smart worked for; there’s a moment where Max passes a tour which include the original’s suit and shoe-phone and sunbeam tiger, and the tour guide is telling the people that Control was disbanded at the end of the cold war. That’s really the only connection; everyone in the original has retired, having done their duty and succeeded in protecting their country. And that’s entirely respectful of the original. It’s also approximately the amount the movie has to do with the original, so it fits.

Further, the writers of the new Get Smart actually developed their own ideas, rather than trying to milk the original ideas. And they broke with modern movie trends by not winking at the audience. I’m not sure why writers are so enamored of winking at the audience—my guess is it used to be cheap laughs and they’re desperate—but it is a profoundly annoying habit. Its complete absence in the new Get Smart allows one to enjoy the film as a film rather than as a nostalgic celebration of how you’re too cool to indulge in nostalgia.

Ultimately, I think that if next-generations/sequels/continuations must be made this is one of the better ways to do it. Pay some tribute to what you’re following and do something good that isn’t trying to be the original. The odds of recreating the original are approximately zero, anyway.

The Problem With Outrage Quoting

I’m fairly careful to limit my intake of social media to people who say reasonable things. This is in part a survival strategy for Staying Sane on Social Media. However, this still leaves a fairly large vector for things which unbalance my mood and make me less effective at the main stuff I’m supposed to be doing: outrage quoting.

This is where a person who is themselves reasonable sees a very unreasonable thing, then quotes it to express their outrage at it. There’s also a variation on this where the person quotes it to make fun of it. The latter isn’t quite as bad as the former, but both do have the following problem: one is still being exposed to the crazy stuff one was trying to avoid.

Actually, it’s a bit worse than that—the people one follows are specifically filtering through the stuff from the unreasonable people to find the craziest stuff that they say. This can be extremely unbalancing to one’s state of mind. As I talked about in Social Media is Doomed, human beings aren’t designed to deal with a large number of strangers. We deal with people by acclimating to them, but it takes time and is harder the more different sorts of people we need to acclimate to. Even when we are careful to keep our reading to a set group of people to whom we’ve acclimated—there’s no requirement that these people agree with each other or with us, only that we’ve acclimated to them—outrage quoting constantly introduces new people to our notice who are saying crazy things that we haven’t acclimated to. This is extremely stressful to human beings.

Also, please note that I’m not talking about being exposed to new ideas as being stressful. There are some circumstances in which that can be stressful, but usually it’s quite manageable. I’m talking about running into expressions of ideas we’re not used to. Perhaps we know somebody who will say #KillAllMen and we’ve gotten used to this eccentricity. There is no new argument to be found in a person saying, instead, #CastrateAllMen (I made that up; who knows, perhaps I will have actually come up with an absurd example that the universe didn’t beat me to for once). But if we’re used to the former and not the latter, the latter will be far more stressful to run into. There’s a new person here, and people are complex. They’re also dangerous. A stress reaction to having to deal with a new person is actually entirely appropriate. Best case scenario is a big drain on your emotional energy is incoming.

Except that this being a one-off quote means that actually, a big drain on one’s emotional energy isn’t incoming because you don’t actually need to get used to this new person. You’re almost certainly never going to see them again. And therein lies one strategy to help mitigate the stress from encountering outrage quoting: focus on how this is a person you’ll never see again and how they don’t really matter.

I don’t have any other good suggestions, other than be careful about people who do a lot of outrage quoting. But certainly I think the golden rule applies, here: be very careful when quoting to make sure that one isn’t outrage quoting. For example, when I wrote a humorous blog post about that CNN article on cuckolding (CNN’s Love of Cuckolding), I started it off with explaining why it doesn’t matter and isn’t worth stressing over. And I’ve stopped myself from quoting outrageous things often enough that it’s now becoming a habit to not quote outrageous things. Still, it’s something I always keep in mind—if I’m quoting something, what effect will seeing that have on the people who read what I write?

Science Fiction as Limited Fantasy

Readers of my blog will remember that I have been wrestling with the question of what is science fiction, and whether science fiction is just bad fantasy (see What If The Future Has Past?). Not, mind you, because I dislike science fiction, but because I like it. I’m working on a sci-fi story and have hit something of a block because I have yet to come to grips with what Science Fiction is, at its core.

If it’s going to be fantasy, well, I’m very fond of high fantasy. I love swords and sorcery. Why why stuff that could reasonably have swords and sorcery without the swords or the sorcery?

A possible solution recently occurred to me. High Fantasy exists on a continuum of how common magic is. It ranges from very common to quite uncommon. The solution is this: what if Science Fiction is fantasy with uncommon magic and modern technology? The burying of magic inside of devices (“warp/wormhole/etc drive”, “shield generator”, etc) is a way of forcing it to be uncommon. If you need a big expensive device to house your magic amulet, this serves as a limiting function to keep the magic rare.

I’m not committed to this idea at all. It’s basically just thinking out loud. It at least gives a framework to think about science fiction which makes more sense than as various degrees of cheating at an unattainable goal (interstellar speculative fiction).

And as a disclaimer, please don’t take this as criticism of science fiction or of fans of science fiction. This is me trying to work through a way to understand science fiction stories so as to be able to write them. Because there’s an obvious reason Why Science Fiction Will Never Die.

Advance Review Copies of The Dean Died Over Winter Break

The first bit of news is that Silver Empire Publishing will be publishing my novel The Dean Died Over Winter Break. It’s due out on early February. And as you might be able to guess from the title, it’s a murder mystery.

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And on that note, if you are interested in an advance review copy of The Dean Died Over Winter Break, please contact Russell at Silver Empire (russell at silverempire dot org). As I understand it the only requirement is that you agree to read it and leave an Amazon.com review on the publication date. Which, I should point out, is a very kind service to perform. Amazon reviews are extremely helpful in connecting books with people who might enjoy reading them.

That Story That Modern Screenwriters Can Tell

Recently, I wrote about The Story Modern (Western) Screenwriters can Tell. I realized that the modern story can be put even more succinctly: the main character decides whether he’s going to be completely worthless or only mostly worthless.

Usually the thing which precipitates this crises is that the main character wants to be completely worthless, but the plot makes it such that if he is as completely worthless as he wants to be, many people will die (or at least suffer). In the end, we find out if he’s willing to go beyond himself to alleviate their suffering in the way that only he can do.

This has nothing to do with heroism, but it is mistakable for heroism by people who primarily think in terms of story beats (i.e. of plot points broken down by scene, the way that screenwriters do when writing or editing stories). Real heroism is not about whether someone will do the minimum necessary, but whether he will go beyond what is necessary. At its core, heroism is about generosity. That’s why it moves us so much—it’s about being a true image of God.

I suspect that it’s not a coincidence that modern writing is primarily concerned with how imperfectly the main character will be an image of hell.

Star Trek TNG: Sub Rosa

I forget why, but I was recently reading about the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, Sub Rosa. It was an unusual episode, being described by Memory Alpha as a foray into gothic horror. It was a (sort of) ghost story, centering about an “anaphasic entity” which had been haunting the women of Beverly Crusher’s family. Haunting isn’t quite the right word, as it seemed to live symbiotically with them. Though like all TNG episodes, it had its share of plot holes.

For one thing, it was said to have lived symbiotically with the “Howard Women” for centuries, except that family names are patrilineal, not matrilineal, so they would have been Howard women for a single generation. (You could get around this by skipping a generation, going from grand-mother to grand-daughter, which happened in the case of Beverly Crusher but didn’t at any other time.) I bring this up not to nit-pick, but because it’s a good symbol of how much the TNG writers cared about plot holes: not very much.

A bigger plot hole was that the anaphasic entity was supposed to be sinister, but it seemed to be symbiotic, not parasitic. Beverly came into contact with it because she was burying her grandmother at a very old age, and the Howard women were, if I recall correctly, generally described as hardy. This suggests that the anaphasic entity kept them healthy. It also, according to Beverly’s grandmother’s diary, kept them happy. Why, then, it was supposed to be bad was completely unclear. It did eventually murder someone, though there was no obvious reason that things got to that point.

As I said, it’s not that I particularly care about the plot holes in TNG episodes, at least not any more. When I was watching them as a teenager I would immediately call up a close friend and the two of us would nitpick the night’s episode for the better part of two hours, but I’ve gotten over that. What I do find interesting is what this suggests about resource allocation: most of these plot holes would not have been at all hard to fix. The producers of Star Trek: The Next Generation just didn’t care. And what I found most interesting about the Memory Alpha article were some quotes from the writers at the end. First, from Jeri Taylor, the showrunner at the time:

Rick and Michael were very distrustful of this story. They considered it a romance novel in space and felt the possibility for embarrassment was monumental, but I just knew it would work. It’s a different kind of story for Star Trek to tell. It is a romance but we do have women in our audience and women do traditionally respond to romantic stories.

This from Bannon Braga:

It was the best performance I’ve ever seen. I just thought she did a wonderful job. Picard catches Beverly masturbating for crying out loud! What a tough role to play. When I was writing the words, ‘She writhes around in the bed having invisible sex,’ I just thought, ‘Oh man, we’re asking for trouble. Are they gonna be able to pull this off?’ Thanks to [director] Jonathan Frakes and Gates, it was not hokey. It was very good. Look, I scripted the first orgasm in “The Game“. This was mild by comparison. Sure it was racy. Even Rick Berman had said, ‘I can’t believe we’re doing this.’ I think they trimmed quite a bit out of the writhing sequences.

And finally, this from René Echevarria:

“I can still reduce Brannon to shudders when I go into his office and say, ‘I can travel on the power transfer beam’. But the cast loved it. Every woman on the lot who read it was coming up to Brannon and patting him. Ultimately I think it was worth doing because it was campy fun and the production values were wonderful. The sets look great and everybody threw themselves into it. Gates did a wonderful job. It just got bigger and broader and to the point of grandmother leaping out of the grave. Just having Beverly basically writhing around having an orgasm at 6 o’clock on family TV was great. For that alone it was worth doing. We got away with murder.”

That last line really summed up a sneaking suspicion I have about the writing on The Next Generation. “We got away with murder.” They weren’t trying to tell good stories. They were trying to be clever.

(I should note that I mean good in the sense of, well, good. Not in the sense of “addictive”.)

Star Wars Movie Titles

While in general it is a good idea not to judge a book by its cover—and that cuts both ways; just because a book has an awesome cover doesn’t mean that the book is any good—it is instructive to look at movie titles . They can be deceptive, but unless they’re outright lies, they do give you a sense of what a movie is about. So, in story order, here are the titles so far:

  1. The Phantom Menace
  2. I don’t Remember and don’t care enough to look it up.
  3. This one wasn’t good enough to justify looking up its title either.
  4. A New Hope
  5. The Empire Strikes Back
  6. Return of the Jedi
  7. The Force Awakens
  8. The Last Jedi

Now, I’d like to point out items 6 and 8, in particular. Two movies after Return of the Jedi comes The Last Jedi. So apparently the Jedi didn’t return for long. So, it apparently turns out that the Jedi’s return consisted of one guy. This is bad story telling. This is very bad story telling. This is story telling so bad that improv actors with no time to think about their lines usually don’t make this sort of mistake. Let me explain.

One of the golden rules of improv is: always agree. That is, you never contradict what another actor said, because that’s not funny. I saw it explained like this: Consider the line, “I have the finest sword in all the land.” A bad response is, “No you don’t.” It’s not funny for a variety of reasons, but the most relevant one is that it shatters the immersion which is where the enjoyment in watching the thing at all comes from. A good response is, “Then it’s a good thing that I import my swords!” This works because it builds on the previous line, even though it does so in order to go in a different direction. In other words, don’t be Agent Michael Scarn (first four seconds of the clip):

And you can see, right in the titles, that they were pulling an Agent Michael Scarn. “Talk! Shut Up!”

And in fact there’s another bit of The Office wisdom which the Disney writers would have benefited from learning. Don’t start with the gun:

It’s likely that episode 8 got its title from someone saying, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we killed the Jedi off? No one would see that coming!” Of course, the first problem is that it wouldn’t be awesome. It would be daring. Mostly in the sense that seeing your six year old brother building a complicated scene out of legos and smashing it to bits would be daring. He sure will cry for a long time. And Dad will yell at you for a long time. It will be an enormous reaction! But it wouldn’t be awesome, because destruction, though emotionally significant, is easy. And you have to be a fool to believe that modern writers could possibly build something even better in its place, given that they can only tell one story, and it isn’t a very good one.

And I feel like at this point someone (possibly not someone who reads my blog, though) will say, “but for all you know the movie was awesome anyway!” And here’s the thing: no it isn’t. Because, stupid and dishonest as the average hollywood critter is, they’re not going to name a movie in which the Jedi get more numerous, The Last Jedi. And there is no movie which can plausibly be titled The Last Jedi which is a good sequel, involving some of the same characters, to Return of the Jedi. They might as well have titled it, Never Mind. These days no one makes any references to the prequel trilogy, except to Jar Jar Binks. I’ll be shocked if in ten years anyone makes reference to sequel trilogy either.

Except perhaps to Luke drinking milk fresh from the testicle-teats of the uglybeast:

If Disney Didn’t Hate Star Wars

I’ve read and heard enough about Star Wars: The Last Jedi (henceforth TLJ), both from people who liked it and people who hated it, to know that I’m never going to willingly see it. This review makes a fairly good case that TLJ is Star Wars for those who hate Star Wars. Before I get to my main point, I should put in a defense of some people who liked TLJ. I don’t think that you have to hate Star Wars to like TLJ. I think it’s sufficient to simply not care about Star Wars. The original movies, I mean, not the franchise.

A close friend of mine enjoyed TLJ, and one of the curious things about him (in the sense of being very different from me) is that he almost never re-watches or re-reads anything. Fiction is, for him, an experience which is then over. Characters don’t live in his memory, as far as I can tell. As a result, once he’s watched a movie, when he watches a sequel to it the original movie is simply backstory they don’t need to cover with exposition to him. As such he simply doesn’t care whether a sequel urinates all over an original movie; he was never going to go back and re-watch the original movie anyway. All that matters to him (as far as I can tell) is how much he enjoys the story he’s in right now. In other words, complete indifference to the original Star Wars movies will suffice.

Anyway, as I was explaining to this friend why some people loathe TLJ so much, he objected that you can’t have Star Wars without an Empire. He was at least correct that Star Wars is not Beaurocraaaaaaaats Iiiiiiiiiin Spaaaaaaaaace (henceforth BIS). But you don’t need the Empire to be reset as if it was a syndicated TV show to avoid making the sequels to the original movies BIS. Granted, though, this is a place where having a few scraps of historical knowledge would really come in handy, so writers “educated” within the last 50 years are pretty screwed. Here’s the thing about empires collapsing: they don’t just get replaced by another empire as if a democratic election just took place. They fracture into smaller empires and kingdoms. The Empire in Star Wars was patterned on the Roman empire even down to having regional governors. When the roman empire collapsed, at first the big difference was that taxes stopped flowing from the governor to Rome, and stayed with the governor. In some places the governor was too weak to stop local kings from rebelling, while in other places they were. The exact same thing would happen in the Star Wars universe after the events in Return of the Jedi. Regional Governors who were several weeks journey away would not suddenly swear fealty to Leia and the rebellion; they would simply give themselves all of their orders instead of most of their orders, with a few orders coming from the emperor.

Likewise, the Rebellion would not suddenly become supremely powerful. As they work to reconstitute the Republic, a few planets most directly under the emperor and far away from regional governors would probably join them, augmenting their strength considerably. And the regional governors would probably not just unite, since most likely they were men of ambition, so their fights with each other over territory would probably keep them from just outright crushing the rebels in retribution for killing the emperor. But thirty or forty years after the death of the Emperor the Rebellion-turned-New-Republic would probably still be one of the smaller forces in the galaxy.

And this is a perfect setting for what you want to do with the next trilogy: shift the old actors to advisory roles for rising young stars. You want to do this for many obvious commercial reasons (as the death of Carrie Fisher demonstrated), but also because this is actually how life works. Heroics are a young man’s job; mentoring is an old man’s job. Transitioning the older actors’ characters into age-appropriate activities—political leadership, mentoring, etc.—would not only be good commercial sense, it would be good story telling. And equally importantly, it would pay tribute to the characters which fans of the original movies loved. I mean, I know that these days the concept of not hating the fans of your work is quite alien to the writers of popular fiction, but couldn’t the suits who are supposed to oversee the creative types have enforced a little bit of discipline? That is, in theory, why the investors entrust their money to the suits and not directly to the creative types.

Incidentally, I think that this hatred of fans stems from the fact that fame is hollow. Fame makes huge promises; fame claims that it is the face of God smiling on the famous. But it isn’t. And I think that people who do popular art in order to become famous so often end up hating their fans precisely because they find out that their fans are not God. That realization makes the pain of their separation from God all the worse. There are two and only two viable ways of dealing with fame and not hating one’s fans:

  1. Purely as a business transactions. This isn’t ideal, but it will at least admit of gratitude. It will probably predispose the artist to too much fan service, but many well-executed stories have been done this way that ended well.
  2. As service to God, since much of the work he gives us to do is service to our fellow man. This is much harder, but it is obviously the better route, and one is more likely to keep a level head whether one is loved or hated (or as is common for public figures, both). If one is service God, praise by one’s fellow men is nice, but beside the point, while hatred is inevitable and also beside the point. And you’re very unlikely to hate your fans since the only reason you’re doing what you’re doing is to love them even if they hate you for it.

Anyway, that (or a direction similar to it) is how the third Star Wars trilogy should have gone had Disney not hated Star Wars.

Writer’s Block

I’m finding myself in a very strange place with regard to my NaNoWriMo novel: I’ve got writer’s block. This isn’t something I’ve experienced before, as ideas come very readily to me. This problem isn’t universal, it only comes down to novels. I’m not sure whether it’s just science fiction or all fiction. Since what I really want to do is work on my video game idea (the order of the wilds), I’m inclined to say it’s not all fiction.

My NaNoWriMo novel this year is a continuation of one I abandoned due to lack of time when my third child was born, and it’s a science fiction story about space exploration. And to give background, while I don’t read much science fiction, I grew up on Star Trek and loved it, and also loved Star Trek: The Next Generation. I liked Deep Space 9 and grew cold on Voyager, but space exploration SciFi is something deeply engrained in me. And yet, I can’t help but think that it’s time is past. All modern Science Fiction is either magical fantasy or something that could as easily be set on the present day earth. But if one is writing magical fantasy, why wrap it in a veil of science-sounding language and pretend that it’s not magical fantasy?

That question has been occupying my mind for a while now, and I can’t think of an answer to it. The only answer I can think of is Sturgeon’s Law (this version being published in 1958):

I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud. Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.

I had heard this in my youth, mostly (as I recall) as a defense against the fact that Science Fiction had elements of adventure, which was considered immature by people who had grown old and tired and disliked fun. I’ve no doubt that that defense needed to be made, just as I’ve no doubt that Sturgeon defended science fiction in the time period of 1938-1958 against some unworthy attacks. But at the same time, I’m not sure that this defense really holds against the problem that I have with modern Science Fiction. I think a great deal of modern science fiction is very well written but ultimately serves no real purpose.

And to be clear I don’t mean that SciFi is escapism. I’m all in favor of escapism. I don’t mean that SciFi is childish. In fact I think that the real problem is that SciFi isn’t nearly childish enough. I’m coming to think that SciFi still exists for only two reasons:

  1. People like me remember it with fondness from their childhood.
  2. People unlike me aren’t hardy enough to hear wizards called wizards.

There is probably something of a case to be made for SciFi in the vein of #2, along the lines of why we give crutches to people with broken legs and feed mushed up food to people with broken jaws. It is right to be gentle with the weak.

But it seems to me that outside of truly hard SciFi like Andy Weir’s The Martian, which is just the story of a castaway surviving until he’s rescued which could as easily be told in a jungle or a desert island, Science Fiction is riddled with inescapable plot holes because it refuses to take its magic seriously.

And this brings me back to where I started—as an author, I have a huge, almost pathological dislike of plot holes. I don’t claim that all my plots have been perfect, but I certainly put a lot of work into making them consistent and coherent and as close to free of plot holes as I can make them. And I can’t explain to myself why I’m bothering with a genre where that is impossible, especially when I could have a lot more fun with magic if I just admit that the world is filled with magic.

Please bear in mind that this is basically me thinking out loud. These aren’t conclusions, and I’d be very happy to hear a strong argument that I’ve got it wrong.

What If The Future Has Past?

(This is continuing thoughts from Fun Exploratory Sci-Fi Without Magic is Hard and Why Science Fiction Will Never Die, both of which are related to a science fiction story I’m working on writing.) As I’m working on a Science Fiction story about the first ship from the Milky Way to explore the Andromeda galaxy, the various sorts of magic required to make any sort of space exploration story weigh on my mind because I tend to prefer hard SciFi to soft SciFi. I think that this is in part because if one is going for magic, why bother with the SciFi at all—why not just go whole hog and actually have fun with the fun parts?

But the problem is that you can’t do space exploration as hard SciFi. This was captured fairly well in a post by Jasyn Jones titled, Hard SF Does Not Exist. And he’s right. There are of course exceptions like Andy Weir’s recent book The Martian, but the sorts of stories one can tell in hard SF are not very different from the sorts of stories one can tell on earth. People get trapped for many months at a time on Antarctica, and there is nothing preventing someone from setting a story on a desert island. (For example, two women were recently stranded at sea for months.) But if you want to actually do space exploration, you need magic to accomplish it. To put things in perspective, it took 9 years for New Horizons to get to Pluto. Proxima Centauri, the closest star we know about, is approximately 5,400 times further away than Pluto is. Even if we could travel to Proxima Centauri ten times faster than New Horizons (which seems doubtful), it would still take more than twice as much time to get there as has elapsed since Julius Caesar became the emperor of Rome. Just the amount of fuel necessary to power a ship for 5400 years would be staggering (ball park, assuming a gigawatt nuclear power plant, it would need about 5.4M Kg of fissile material, according to this), to say nothing of the near-perfect oxygen and water reclamation necessary, the meters of shielding necessary to protect the people from cosmic rays, etc. It would take tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of rocket launches just to assemble such a generation-ship in orbit around the earth. And heaven help the people on it if they need any spare parts for their ship during those five millenia.

I should probably note that there are proposals, like Project Daedalus which can span that distance much faster—on the order of 50 years. But they involve fusion engines firing for years and consequently truly massive amounts of deuterium and tritium, both of which are extremely rare. Project Daedalus depends on a bunch of stuff which there’s no good reason to believe can reliably be made to work, and that in order to get a 500kg mechanical payload to do a flyby. To move people in a way that they can land on a foreign planet requires exponentially more mass and consequently initial fuel, etc. In short, the human race is not going anywhere outside of our solar system in real life.

And yet, as I said in my last blog post on the subject, I do think that exploratory Science Fiction is great because it is the heir to Greek epics like the Odyssey. (Of course, the Odyssey did have magic in it, but the magic wasn’t Odysseus’s, it belonged to the people he met.) But all exploratory sci-fi relies on what amounts to teleportation. Does this mean that Science Fiction is just bad fantasy? Is it just fantasy for people whose imaginations are too weak to entertain the explicitly fantastical?

There is another possibility, though: what if Science Fiction was possible in an earlier time, but isn’t now? The Science Fiction written from about 1850-1950, was often set in our solar system. There are a million counter-examples, I have no doubt, but what if it was the Science Fiction (scientifiction, as C.S. Lewis called it in the days when he was writing it) that was set in our solar system which was the source of vitality in science fiction?

Space exploration set in our solar system actually did have the right scale to it. One can get to the moon in days; one get can to Mars in months. The moons of Jupiter are more like a year’s travel time; and all these are the right time scales for the Greek epics. Stories set here were—when we didn’t know what was on the moons and the planets—actually were quite plausible for the future. The science involved in getting to these places was actual science, not merely magic with a veneer of science lightly glued on top.

Alas, time moved on and we found out that there are no civilizations to explore on the moon or on the other planets; any civilization which happens there will be human settlers living in very highly technologized dwellings. They will live there, if they live at all, in little bubbles of planet earth which they’ve brought with them.

I grew up on Star Trek; there is something utterly magical about Science Fiction. But it seems very possibly that true, hard science fiction is as much a thing of the past as the wild west is. We may be in the unfortunate position that to recapture the magic, we must capture it in a genie’s bottle. And that will always leave us with the question of where we got the genie’s bottle, and why we take it for granted.