People, Politics, Plots, Paradigms -- and Stories

Posted Jul 25, 2007
Last Updated Nov 3, 2008
People, Politics, Plots, Paradigms — and Stories

For me, as a science fiction author, people, politics, plots and paradigms comprise the stage and cast for stories, and that's the viewpoint I'm working from here.
    We're used to the words "people," "politics" and "plots," but some of us may not have a good grip on "paradigms." Ten years ago, if I'd ever heard the term "paradigm," it hadn't stuck. The first time I recall it, the meaning seemed fairly obvious from the context, but it struck me as needlessly academic — a four-bit professorial term intended to impress — and I wondered if it was newly coined. So I looked it up in my Oxford English Dictionary. (A once in a life-time bargain at $99 second hand, from Auntie's Bookstore in Spokane, in the American state of Washington.) Turns out that paradigm is a word the ancient Greeks knew, and its first cited use in English was way back in 1483. By 1659, an explicit OED citation pretty much fits the sense of the word as widely used today: "The universe...was made exactly conformable to its Paradigme, or universal Exemplar." And in 1752: "The archetype, paradigm, exemplar, and idea, according to which all things were made."
    Definitely not newly coined, suggesting how low a profile it had had in recent mainstream English. Professorial, perhaps, but that's appropriate enough. Professors swim in their own pools by their own rules, to their own depths, and if we didn't have them, we'd be far worse off.
    So. For our purpose, consider a paradigm as a pattern or model designed, intended, or conceived of as (theoretically) depicting some system, for the purpose of examination, experimentation, argument or what have you.
    You might want to file that for further reference. Paradigms can be useful to have around.
    Meanwhile this essay will be a piñata of observations, aphorisms, and brief theses, dealing with people, politics, plots and ideas. (Paradigms, as a special class of ideas, will be more implied here than explicit, a concept ever lurking in this discussion.)
    Language is a system of metaphor, existing in variants that differ in grammar, vocabulary, and referents. And mathematics is a language of marvelous reach and exceptional precision, but that precision grows out of rules that limit its appropriate application. Also mathematics can be tricky, because precision is one thing, and accuracy frequently quite another.
    Meanwhile, like all language, the use of mathematics literally programs the brain to accommodate the tools it provides. Enabling the creative aspects of mind to enlarge that language, and to expand the vision of the user.
    Now I'll change direction to the area of application. Quoting:

We dwell in a physical universe not designed for the convenience or indulgence of humans or other incarnate souls. Intelligence, diligence and good intentions do not necessarily produce security, comfort, or pleasure. There are no guarantees.

One can try, and one can hope, but one's expectations are often disappointed. On the other hand, today's victories sometimes lead to tomorrow's woes, while out of today's woes may grow tomorrow's blessings. The roots of joys and griefs can be distant in both time and place, so it is well to be light on your feet, and not too fixed in your desires.

(Borrowed from page 4 of The Lion Returns, by John Dalmas; Baen Books 1999. I sometimes use it as an email signature.)

    Applying that advice in life adds surprise, spice, zest. Which is to say, there's a lot we don't know, and a lot we're unable to know. Even for tomorrow, even that close, the tapestry of cause and effect is incomplete, and what *is* complete may very well hold surprises for us.

    Now for another tack. If language — and thought! — is a system of metaphor, so is cosmology. So, how about the universe as a holistic, n-dimensional matrix in constant motion in all dimensions simultaneously? Some of the constituent movements are like a bowl of water at a slow boil — organized chaos. Others gallop like a mountain river with boulders, eddies, deep holes — and quiet beaver flowages, boggy shores, cutbanks... pausing here and there to form lakes. Then let those dimensions manifest as "colors," the whole thing infinitely nuanced.
    A whole dynamic system only loosely constrained, its elements continually feeding back on one another, a dance eternally evolving.
    Obviously, this intellectual sketch is metaphor. Taking a different approach, imagine a moving continuum of fractals, a metaphor providing a different sense of the universe, tapping more deeply its emotional and esthetic aspects.
    And speaking of esthetics, listen to Stravinsky's rich and glorious "Firebird" Suite, or the deep and moving beauty of Borodin's "On the Steppes of Central Asia." And finally, from polar or subpolar regions, watch a display of the aurora. Mesmerizingly — almost heart-stoppingly — beautiful! Yet natural or technically enhanced, these arrive as electro-chemical signals interpreted/integrated by our physical brains, to be reinterpreted culturally by our souls.
    A musical composition can be many things to many people. Let me tell you a story about a very old lady who hadn't spoken for months, a "vegetable," seriously deaf, and far gone in Alzheimers. My mother. Hopeful, I placed a headset on her, and began to play one of her longtime favorites, Swan Lake. Her response shook me deeply. I had no clue of what the experience was like for her. But clearly it was powerful: she shook violently; I'd never seen anything like it. Could it be too loud?              Alarmed, I removed the headset and tried it on myself. It was loud but not too loud for me, and my ears were still pretty good. So I put it back on her. Same shaking, head to legs. Again I took it off, then shouted in her ear: "Mama, do you want more music?"
    "Uh huh! Uh-huh!" Speaking desperately after many mute months.
    When again I put it on her, there was no more shaking. Just intense listening. Intense! It squeezed my heart.

The General's President (Baen, 1988)
Especially in science fiction, writers often explore ideas in a novel. The ideas may be the core of the story, or stage settings, or courses in the dinner. But in science fiction, exploring ideas is popular, and perhaps the most popular — the most interesting and captivating "story particles" are people, human or otherwise.
    I say "particles" because we're talking metaphor here. And theoretical physicists sometimes create a thought experiment, visualizing a set of circumstances, factors, and particles, and examining what might happen if: a, in the presence of b, is acted upon by c. What could/ might/must result, based on available "understandings," objective or subjective?
    Some science-fiction novels resemble such thought experiments. That's the game I played when, in 1987, I wrote The General's President. The geogravitic power converter was not the central idea. It was a stage prop. Specifically, my purpose was to explore what it might be like if, in the 1990s, we had another Great Depression, and a new Roosevelt-like president took on the job of salvaging our society and democracy. I intended it to feel real, and be thought-provoking and enjoyable. (It certainly provoked some folks.)
    But writing it was time consuming, because (1) it was long, and (2) I had to make it seem plausible. Science fiction readers tend to be relatively well informed and demanding. Thus I did (for me) a large amount of reading (I do not read rapidly), for example of publicly available military and geopolitical analyses of world trouble spots, and books by Soviet defectors — colonels and journalists — on the Soviet army, the GRU, the KGB, the Kremlin....
    I also made a lot of phone calls. For example to the Secret Service, regarding the White House nuclear shelter (ha ha! Good luck, John), and the White House switchboard regarding fireplaces — gas-burning? Wood? (Why wood, of course!) Guided by a Park Service employee over the telephone, I sketched a diagram of the observation floor of the Washington Monument, where I had never been"¦
    As the deadline approached, I realized I was in trouble. I quit working out, quit running, cut back on sleep, switched to real coffee, in quantities, and delivered the final draft in time for the book to reach the stores by the 1988 New Hampshire presidential primary.
An inveterate (not invertebrate!) information junky, I immensely enjoyed writing it.
    In that era before, or really even before the web, I got a lot of mail (and some phone calls) regarding Prez. Meanwhile the thought completed my change from card-carrying Libertarian to vanilla independent, with a general preference for Tom Foley democrats (small d, small d), along with c for compromise.
    So, stories can be thought experiments, metaphor in a universe known only metaphorically. Not to be confused with reality, they should nonetheless resemble it. (The science in the story should be plausible but not necessarily convincing.) Stories are useful for exploring ideas, exercising the minds and imaginations of the author and readers. I recommend them, mine especially.