11.25.2004

Variables (I, II, III)

NOTE: Because I've been putting this off since the blog began due to length, I'm going to periodically update this essay. You can tell how far I am by whether I add a numeral to the title. When I finish, I'll take down the numerals. Oh, and have a happy turkey day.

I. Too Many Variables

I recently went to a convention and tried to spread the idea of this new genre meme: Mundane (which we are blogging about here). Telling the authors that Geoff Ryman was involved bought me a few extra seconds, but not much more.

It was just too difficult to put into sound bites, and the sound bites I came up with were misleading without further explanations. One author patiently listened as I explained, and Greg Bear actually offered cogent advice (his knowing me may in part account for his helpfulness but he is also a genuinely swell fellow). To the other authors, I need to be fair. It's a paradigm shift. Scientists and the rest of us all struggle with having the way we view the world changed (more on this later). But in this case, the shift is absolutely essential to the livelihood of our planet.

Niall Harrison correctly notes that Geoff Ryman's Air (the first chapter is "Have Not Have" originally published in F&SF and now online at Infinity Plus) is quintessentially Mundane in theme.

Because of the number of variables involved, I won't explain Mundane here, but allow you to explore for yourself the tip of the iceberg of a new paradigm in SF that's unravelling on the site and on the blog (I'll try to notify changes at the site on the blog. I have much more content to add).

As you will see by examining Frank's reviews against mine, even readers aware of the paradigm shift will weigh shared variables differently. It's complex, true, but I trust the majority of the world can handle a little complexity.

II. Formula 409 (Title inspired by Daniel Green's statement "doesn't the very notion of 'genre' require a degree of repetition of established formulae?")

Perhaps because I'm trained in science as well as literature, I can see that everything breaks down into its parts, its variables--to be rebuilt by observers into a glorious whole, an edifice that may scrape the sky or sprawlingly hug the earth.

Scientists recently reported in Science magazine that Nicaraguan children, who were creating their own language (deaf children have been working out a new sign language over the last few generations), first began signing something they saw as a whole, creating signs for both object and action, i.e. the ball rolled down. As the language evolved and progressed, the signs were broken into more basic units to help clarify meaning.

Mechanics also learn by breaking engines down and putting them together. What human being doesn't?

And so, too, can fiction be broken down and understood. In essence all fiction is formula. I can probably wager my book collection safely that it wasn't a math major who coined the meaning behind the term "formulaic" but someone who not only had little understanding of formulas but loathed them, spreading the new coinage to those also ignorant of the ways of formula. Formula have great flexibility. Formulas are sleek, saying much in little space: There are many implications in the little and simple formula, E=mc2. Formulas allow for hundreds of uses. It always amazes me that we can calculate where a ball will fall if we know the angle and speed at which it was thrown (minus wind resistance and direction).

Formulas are beautiful things, designed with enough flexibility to demonstrate how the world works in various circumstances. Why not use them?

III. Caveats to Interpretation

I like average bloke readers--they love the text for itself--although sometimes I get discouraged when they malign folk for finding meanings deeper than the surface. I suspect Frost acted innocent of literary doings because he didn't want to scare off readers as University of Kansas professor Jonathan Mayhew (thanks to Green for pointing this out) writes, "just knowing it's a poem makes people think 'I won't understand it,' even if it is the most accessible text possible." The first order of business for any writer is to make the text enjoyable at the average bloke level, but literature can be wonderfully so much more.

I like English professors. They find so many clever manipulations of text. They do the language proud. An English graduate student (I was one temporarily and may join the rat race again) once told me how he'd been taught to read. I hadn't been brainwashed at the time and may have rolled my eyes. But that doesn't mean my mind is/was closed. I recently purchased Thomas C. Foster's How to Read Literature Like a Professor and have found some useful items among some common professorial disinformations.

How can a professor be wrong or spread disinformation? Mostly, they look for larger patterns first. "Everything is a symbol of something, it seems, until proven otherwise." Guilty until proven innocent, in other words. We don't build a case based on evidence but make the assumptions first. Foster's book is even built upon this idea in the way it presents its units as recognizing large clusters, instead of building from its constituent atoms. Although I do like his caveat at the end--"until proven otherwise"--the statement has lead to numerous false positives--interpretations where there ought to be none. Since I taught myself to read without sanctioned indoctrination (which means there's hope for those average blokes who don't yet know how to read more deeply), it would seem I'd be the one more likely to be wrong. Foster may find deeper meanings before I might, but if you look at the parts first and allow them to tell you what it's about, you'll have greater accuracy. Let's look at a for-example, again from Mayhew:

Of course there are difficult texts, and even "hidden meanings." The problem is when even a simple text has to be read in an allegorical mode. You know, those plums in the ice-box have to be about sex, or death.... There is a time to be more literal-minded, or to have the sensitivity to know when an object in the poem is not a "symbol" of something else.

(Well, those plums really are about sex, at some level, but that is not their meaning. It's more like an overtone that's "there" without being there.)


He started out okay, but erased his credibility with the parenthetical. Take a look at the poem he's referring to: "This Is Just to Say" by William Carlos Williams.

Presumably, the fruit--the plums--are the delicious "fruits" of the female anatomy, right? Look at the language:

which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast


So the narrator has taken the fruits that the woman cannot now enjoy for breakfast? A highly dubious maybe (not being a woman, I may not be aware of the lengths that women go to for breakfast). The only deeper meaning here is the emotional context, which such a Freudian interpretation overlooks: he's teasing her but in a manner that is loving, that speaks of a long relationship that bears such teasing, and that loves the addressee for putting up with such teasing. It's not just the poetic language that makes the poem genius but the underlying emotional content in its tone.

Because a professor of mine had once suggested that the texts we were reading had more than one purpose without telling us how to get at such different purposes, I looked at the units of language. Where else could a bumpkin guess to look? So I pulled out a multi-colored pen circled the different parts in different colors: one for character, one for setting, one for plot. Separated, the parts conveyed more clearly what the author was up to. Once you learn the parts, you can employ Foster's larger units. Otherwise, you're liable to have works that attempt to parrot the larger units, faking deeper meaning. (Writers have faked deeper meaning with language, to be sure--as I've heard writers brag about--but if you can read the smaller units carefully, you won't be fooled.)

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