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Post-Con Crankiness

Can-Con, being positioned as it was near a collective of government scientists and statisticians I guess, had a strong SF bias. I used to read a lot of SF. I don't read much anymore. I just can't suspend disbelief for long enough to accept the story. It's not just the obviously improbable "cowboys in space" stuff, like space-fighter-jet-dogfights, FTL drive, clones that have the original's memories, artificial gravity, teleportation, and so on. No, I'm talking about things that are used even in mainstream fiction (generally of the action kind) that people who write SF should know better than using.

It's the MacGuffins, and now with everybody socially networked, there's even more of them involving computers. Here's some MacGuffins that I try to avoid in my own writing when I make a rare foray into SF, mainly because it annoys me so much that I will put down a story unfinished if I run into it, unless it's REALLY GOOD like Ian M. Banks good, and even then, I award demerits.

  1. "Knocking someone out" to advance a plot: First, it's a cheap macguffin shows a lack of imagination as an author—surely you could have come up with something better to get past that guard?; Second, it's dangerous—you can just as easily cause brain damage or death as unconsciousness, and putting a character into a vegetative state is always a bad move in a novel; Third, and most importantly, it's soooo overdone. Even as a Vulcan Nerve Pinch or a pad of chloroform, the quick way past the obstruction should not be through trauma to the brain.
  2. Nanobots transforming objects into other objects or people into other people: If they're too small to be seen, they're too small to have the control and information storage to be programmed. Even then, to make changes on the molecular scale, they'd have to be made out of special even-more-sticky-atoms-than-anything-you-can-throw-at-it. Maybe in your universe, you can construct little atom-shifting robots out of neutronium, but they'd fall through the floor and tear apart anyone they were gnawing on. No. Just call it magic and write fantasy instead.
  3. Little Black Boxen: This runs the gamut from a magical little electronic box that tells you the safe combination to a password-guesser. The password-guesser is the most egregious, because people who write fiction often see computers as something slightly mysterious, but also something that isn't very smart. You should be able to "trick" them, so a smart person should be able to do so. But brute-force password checking? There have been extremely effective safeguards against that since the 80s. If you want to get a password in your book, there's the rubber-hose decryption method, phishing, in some cases packet-sniffing/keystroke monitoring, using passwords from already hacked machines, etc. But those are generally only effective in untargeted attacks over a long period of time. So, please, no more "Oh, look. Here's the villain's computer. Let's hack in!" Doesn't happen.
  4. Ghost in the Machine: Tracking someone's computer use; Getting real-live tracking of packets across the network without somehow copying them in a cumbersome, intrusive way; Somehow, magically being told when a physical person touches an electronic device and accesses the internet; None of the above happens anywhere, and there are no hackers capable of this or computer fast enough to access, download, and process all the logs out there even if you could get past 3 above, which you can't. Likewise, the infrastructure needed for "the NSA" or whatever "gummit agency" to know exactly what you're doing on your computer without taking measures to specifically access your ISPs routers and tie your traffic to your location can only be done when they already know where you are.
  5. Spontaneous computer intelligence: Yes, there may be as many switches as there are neurons in the human brain. But you know, there's as many connections in a canteloupe, and I've never seen one start talking. This goes for all kinds of networks that really aren't anything like a neural net: kelp, the Internet, beehives and ant colonies, you name it. All of them canteloupes, not brains-like-sponges.

Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
asakiyume
Sep. 26th, 2012 12:44 pm (UTC)
But you know, there's as many connections in a canteloupe, and I've never seen one start talking. <--sentences for which "LOL" was invented, and about which LOL can be used completely truthfully.

Part of what you say gets to something csecooney was saying in a recent entry--about how you have to be aware of the things you have to be aware of. You have to have some inkling that brute-force password guessing isn't possible, or else you don't think to investigate. There's an analogous thing even in the plodding world of copyediting: people don't think to check spelling mistakes, say, of words that they're not aware can be problematic (e.g., "discrete/discreet"; "mucus/mucous"). Or with historical facts, too: I once saw a children's reference book that mentioned Japanese foot binding. Well the Japanese never practiced foot binding, but whoever was fact checking the reference book didn't even think to question that mistake!

Basically, every single thing you think of including in a story, but about which you have no firsthand knowledge, is something you ought to at least dip into. It usually turns out that common knowledge is either wrong or misleading. Real life is usually simultaneously duller and more interesting--duller in that things don't work in the spectacular and story-convenient way you'd hoped, but more interesting because the way they *do* work is cool in a different way.
barry_king
Sep. 26th, 2012 02:11 pm (UTC)
That goes way back to the saying "wisdom is knowing what you don't know". It reminds me about the Black Elk Speaks phenomenon, where a fictional autobiography of a Lakota (?) shaman started to be incorporated in dozens of PhD theses in the '70s, even though the author didn't exactly hide that it was a work of fiction. People so wanted there to be such a clear prophecy out of a first nations' visionary.

Real life is usually simultaneously duller and more interesting--duller in that things don't work in the spectacular and story-convenient way you'd hoped, but more interesting because the way they *do* work is cool in a different way.

Love that. It's another effect of spec fic, to work through an idea in your head to see where it will go. Ideas, like characters are slippery eels with a mind of their own, aren't they?
asakiyume
Sep. 26th, 2012 06:44 pm (UTC)
slippery eels with minds of their own
Yes, and if you watch them a bit instead of trying to make them do what you think they ought to, sometimes you discover very interesting things....
barry_king
Sep. 26th, 2012 07:33 pm (UTC)
Re: slippery eels with minds of their own
Good advice, all around.
slave2tehtink
Sep. 27th, 2012 02:27 am (UTC)
But really, how do you know beehives and ant nests aren't sentient? All we can really say is that they're sure not talking to us.

But that knocking people out with a whack on the head thing irritates the crap out of me, too.
barry_king
Sep. 27th, 2012 11:28 am (UTC)
The same way THEY know I'm sentient! No, if you're going to pull the Green Brain gambit, you'd better be Frank Herbert smart or Terry Pratchett funny.

Although, I'll remove demerits for somebody who gets the password by hitting the hive over the head.

....actually, there may be a story in there. Changing personalities by shaking the ant-farm....
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )