Monday, July 1, 2019

Small, Smaller, Smallest

     Good morning, Gentle Reader. I was going to launch a diatribe about the world-shaking obscenity currently most prominent in the news, but as I set my fingers to the keys I halted myself for a moment’s contemplation. It struck me that you’ve probably seen, heard, and read all you can stand about the Red Sox / Yankees games in London these past two days. So let’s have something completely different.

     Every item of information usable by the human mind is a difference: a contrast between two things, usually portrayed against a background deliberately omitted from immediate consideration. We can only pursue useful knowledge by manipulating abstractions that refer to categories of things that differ from one another. Otherwise, there would be no utility to categories...or to reasoning.

     It is a striking feature of this difference-equals-information phenomenon that we work most easily with differences that are singular and dramatic: that is, when the distinction between two categories pertains to a single characteristic that differs greatly between the two, perhaps by being totally absent from one and dominant in the other.

     Yet human perceptions are remarkably acute. We can perceive tiny differences as well as giant ones. And it appears that we often find the tiny differences more disturbing than the huge ones. This is thought to be the key to the “Uncanny Valley” effect.

     That’s part of what’s motivated my most recent fiction.

     I’ve written about larger-than-life heroes and villains. I’ve situated their tales on distant worlds, in the distant future. I’ve given them histories few persons alive today would find possible, much less plausible. Many science fiction writers do that sort of thing.

     Moreover, most SF writers prefer the big difference: the dramatic contrast between contemporary reality and the stage on which they set their tales. Galaxy-spanning space travel. Huge technological developments. Wholly alien races with pentagonal bodies and incomprehensible minds.

     And yet it’s the small difference that most disturbs the human mind. The humanoid alien who isn’t...quite...human. The technology with the delicate side effect that might just compound over time. The aboriginal culture that doesn’t respect monogamy or recognize property rights in land. Such small differences are the ones we have the most trouble accommodating.

     So in my most recent stories I’ve explored the impact of small differences, especially small differences among people. I’ve explored the ways in which such divisions can give rise to social and political clefts. And I’m becoming steadily more convinced of a notion that’s likely to elicit a great many chuckles: Should Mankind ever destroy itself, it will be over a contretemps on the order of which fork it’s proper to use for the salad course.

     When a difference is confined to matters that never see the light of day, it will have no sociopolitical effect. But let that difference taste the sun even once, and the temblors will begin.

     My Futanari Saga concerns differences of that sort. Anatomical differences of a private kind, that afflict a tiny minority. Differences in sexual preferences that, unfortunately, have become grist for the political mills. And a technology that can’t make you stronger, or keener, or smarter, but that can help you to change what you want or how much you want it. Small things, really, but massively consequential to the characters in those stories.

     I managed to keep the effects of those differences confined to my cast of characters. That’s not often the case in reality. People routinely elevate minutiae to grand Causes capable of animating riots and pogroms. It suggests that we have an innate need to sort ourselves into Us and Them – and to find reasons to regard Them as an enemy to be feared. That’s not a pleasant thought, though it helps the writer of speculative fiction to create conditions for crisis and strife.

     There is a flip side. Sometimes small changes can bring about massive improvements in people’s lives. Example: For the average American, the single most consequential technological change of the past three decades has been the emergence of long-range digital communications. I maintain that this is a small difference from the previous state of affairs. After all, we already had long-range communications via the telephone, the telegraph, and radio. Digital comm didn’t seem (at first) to augur in a new sociopolitical orientation or a whole new range of possibilities for American society. Yet that’s exactly what occurred, and despite some undesirable effects – can’t get the kids to go out and play in the sunshine any more – on net balance we’re a richer and better society for it.

     Perhaps we should have expected it. After all, Daniel Black turned a whole coven of beautiful witches into his eternally adoring love-slaves by giving them a hot tub. But then, the world of physics is at war with itself over tiny differences between Standard Model quantum theory and certain recently observed properties of the photon. There’s also the lowering of the pitcher’s mound and the shortening of the power alleys to consider. So perhaps I should stick to fiction for the immediate future. And continue to go armed, but that’s an “of course” matter, isn’t it?


Unknown said...

No, I have no idea about the Red Sox/Yankees games in London. I don't care about anything major sports related, baseball included. Why should I care about that? Can somebody tell me why I should care about that? I now find myself curious as to why this is important, or should be even temporarily more important, than other issues that actually can or do have an effect on my life and my ability to live the way I chose to.

Apologies for what may appear to be more irritation than is actually felt. And yes, I see the evidence of too-serious an approach and of over-thinking about this subject. Regrettably, this is probably spill-over from hearing everybody in the office talk about sports as if it's more important than the people that want to deny us life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.


It's not too late to peacefully Balkanize the US. I think that's coming whether we want it or not. I think the only real choice is whether we do it like Czechoslovakia or Yugoslavia. I know which one I prefer.

I should stop now. Maybe order a teddy bear from Amazon. Teddy bears are cool. Heavily-armed teddy bears are cooler.

Francis W. Porretto said...

Unk: Sports, like many other things, are best used as a chance to relax, a diversion from more serious cares. In mentioning them I was laughing at the exact same thing as you: the folks who elevate them to a fetish that eclipses real life. Though I do think both pitching staffs should be executed without trial, but that's a tirade for another day. (:-)

Bear Claw Chris Lapp said...

Your mention not to mention achieved its goal I think.