Wednesday, 30 March 2011

delta World

It's Wednesday again, and this is the first post with actual content...

Now that I've gotten most of the boring formalities out of the way, it's time to begin using the blog for what - I imagine - blogs are for: Thinking out loud.

This post is going to be about a "measurement" that I call delta world or delta-W, tagged as deltaw with no hyphen (because I don't know - and won't trust - how this blog interface thingie copes with hyphens; more than 25 years of experience using various computers has made me justifiably paranoid about such things).

In my first year of high school, a Mexican physics teacher named Gerardo taught me a new thing, delta, the concept of measuring or calculating (or talking about) a difference. For instance, delta-v, which is the difference in velocity or the change in velocity (everyone who has even a layman's interest in space propulsion ought to know about delta-vee; we need metric assloads of the stuff to transport people to Mars and back again, and it is very precious).

The delta concept, the measuring or estimating of a difference, is highly relevant in the fields of fantasy and science fiction. How much does the world in which the story (or game) takes place differ from the world in which the reader (or the players) live?

This question gets less attention than it deserves.

A fantasy novel, or a science fiction novel, that takes place in a world that is very different from early 21st century Europe/North America, will be almost impossible to read for someone who is not already quite familiar with the storytelling techniques used by fantasy and science fiction writers. Some might accuse such a novel of being "inaccessible". Why does everything have to be so strange and unusual? Why can't things be more like... normal? Some of the uninitiated may be able to cope with stories in which the characters have odd names and such other trivialities, but with more than a few differences (i.e. a high value for delta-W, "delta world") in the choices and possibilities that are available to the main characters, due to differences in technology (which may be advanced or primitive, or just strangely different), or differences due to magic and other metaphysics, or differences in social norms, customs, laws and expectations, a lot of people are lost.

A lot of people are unable to be the target audience for that novel.

But there is still a target audience. There are people who have a strong fondness for newness and strangeness. They like reading stories that take place in unusual worlds. They like the value for delta-W to be high. Some even like it to be very high. And they have learned how acquired the ability to read such stories (more on genre protocols in a later blog entry).

Who are these people? Well, I'm one of them. And I mingle socially with other such people, occasionally, and communicate with some more via email, Facebook, web fora, IRC or mailing lists (and, when I can, also via Usenet). We exist. And we like this strange shit that frightens and confuses most other people the mundanes.

Think about one of your favourite fantasy novels, or favourite science fiction novels, for a minute. What is its delta-W? How different is it from the world you live in now?

How strange is it? Is it a novel with a small delta-W value or does it have a high delta-W?

(For worlds with very small delta-W, it makes a difference where exactly you measure from, whether it is from the world you live in currently, or from the past world in which you lived when you first read the novel (e.g. in the 1980s), or from the past world in which the author lived when he wrote it, but for the kinds of fantasy and science fiction worlds that I like, the delta-W is so high that it doesn't matter where you measure it from.)

Compared to your technological possibilities, the choices available to you, how different are the options available to the main characters in your favourite novel, e.g. options pertaining to problem-solving? Maybe they live in a low-tech setting? Bronze age, medieval, age-of-steam? Perhaps they are in a do-it-yourself Robinson(ade)-style situation? Maybe instead of crafted machines they use genetically engineered animals, to carry and store messages, to transport people and goods, to preserve and prepare food? The main characters could have the same sorts of comforts we have, radio, telephone, television, refrigerator, microwave ovens, but all provided by bio-engineered animals and/or plants, instead of by machines. Or perhaps the main characters live in a place where they have access to extremely advanced technology, such as powerful energy sources, very clever artificial intelligences, sophisticated weapons, or flexible and comfortable space travel vehicles.

Or is there strangeness because of the magics available to the main characters? In the world you and I live in there is no magic, and if you disagree with that, then you need to shut up and go talk to James Randi about the one million dollars he is going to give to you. But in most fantasy novels, there is magic, and in some of those novels, the magic is available to the characters to use. They may have magic rings or other magic items that they can use, or they may know magic spells that they can cast. They may be, or become, magical creatures, or there can be quasi-scientific strangeness due to the existence of psionics (as in Julian May's Pliocene Exile science fantasy saga - links provided at the bottom). As with technology above, there is a spectrum here, from minimal strangeness and to extreme strangeness. (There's also the question of how free the main characters are to use their magic autonomously, and the somewhat related question about what the distance is between the point-of-view that the story is told from and the character who uses the magic, but I'll talk about those two issues in a later entry at length in later blog entries.)

The laws, customs and social norms of the setting can also be a source of strangeness. In fact, some (perhaps many?) think that if the delta-W is high for tech or for magic (or both), then it is intellectually illegitimate if the delta-W for the social aspects of the setting is zero, i.e. if people think just like we do, and have the same norms and values. I'm one of the people who think this. Technology does affect society. It's inevitable. And likewise the presence of any but the tiniest amount of usable magic would also alter a society, so that it cannot resemble ours perfectly. It has to be - at least - somewhat different.

There can be other sources of delta-W. A net acquaintance of mine, David Friedman, wrote a medieval tech fiction in a no-magic world, and got it published (I haven't read or bought it yet). This setting had a zero value for delta-W magic, and presumably a very low value delta-W tech relative to the European medieval age. Its delta-W was only (or nearly so) nonzero in terms of world geography. Different land forms, leading to different cultures (migrations, barriers, some lands being more desirable due to trade routes or fertile soil), and presumably therefore to some delta-W social, although the source of the delta-W social would be the geography and ethnography, rather than magic or technology.

That's just not my cup of tea. I like a fairly large amount of strangeness, but I like the source of the strangeness to be magic or technology, or both. That's my fix. That's what floats my boat.

(There's a rumour floating around that science fiction readers are more tolerant of high delta-W than fantasy readers. I'm inclined to assume there's some truth in that rumour, due to all the highly-accessible "extruded fantasy" floating around, taking place in familiar and comfortable and very well known places such as D&D-land (a certain Ms. Le Guin has something to say about that, which will perhaps be the subject of  another blog entry). Then again, there's lot of "media" science fiction too. You're not going to make me say anything bad about Timothy Zahn's "Thrawn"-trilogy, because it is good - very good, in fact (links at the bottom),  but a lot of the rest, thousands of Star Wars novels and Star Trek novels, Warhammer 40k novels, and so forth, are crap. Low in brow, and low in delta-W. So while it may be truer of fantasy readers than of science fiction readers, both camps have their low brow denizens, and their higher-browed ones.)

The delta-W - or delta-Ws - have to make logical sense. Stories in which things happen randomly or arbitrarily make for bad fantasy and bad science fiction. Fantasy in particular has this reputation, that magic is used as a plot device whenever is suits the writer, rather than being an integral element in the setting that the characters can use whenever psychological realism dictates that they should choose to do so. In particular, restrictions on when and how magic can be used can serve this purpose, which ultimately is to make the writer's task easier (and as you get to know me better, dear reader, you will find that as far as I'm concerned, it is those who take on the non-easy tasks that deserve respect and attention).

There are stories with lots of randomness, but they're not really fantasy, and not really science fiction. Perhaps they are magical realism? I don't know what magic realism is, except that it isn't a sub-genre of fantasy, nor is fantasy a sub-genre of magic realism. It's two different types of stories, two completley different genres, and little exchange, often very little, takes place between those writers who write one and those writers who write the other (I'll talk more about all of this in later blog entries).

Anyway, the purpose of this post is to introduce the concept of delta-W, which I will almost certainly talk a lot about in later posts, since it interests me greatly. Oh, and if you see some links that look interesting, click on them. If the link is from me, it will point to something I consider interesting (whereas the Google links are outside of my responsibility). I don't link to things randomly. If I link to something that I consider interesting in a bad and negative way, I'll warn clearly about it, in my usual utterly-devoid-of-diplomacy fashion. Every time you click on a Google link or an Amazon link, there's a chance I might earn a cent or two (or more like a fraction of a cent - but I like to think that perhaps they add up). I still don't know how these AdSense and Amazon thingies works, so not sure, but I figure it does no harm to have a few such links and stuff. (Other links are to web articles, e.g. the James Randi ones above, or the many links to the TvTropes website, and links to English Wikipedia. Those won't earn me anything, but as stated earlier, the purpose of this blog isn't to earn an income. Income is secondary.)

As promised above, here are links to seven very good or extremely good novels:
Heir to the Empire (Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy, Vol. 1)Dark Force Rising (Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy, Book 2)The Last Command (Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy, Vol. 3)
The entire trilogy is highly recommended, it's intelligent adventure fiction of high quality, and it has one of the best villains ever (Darth Vader, go home!).

The Many-Colored Land (The Saga of Pliocene Exile)
This is the first volume in the series. This link is to a version available for 1 cent, so in the unlikely event I get a referral bonus, it'll probably round to zero, but at least Amazon has its cover illustration.

The Golden Torc is volume 2, and Amazon has no version with a cover illustration, so there is only the link.

Nonborn King (Saga of Pliocene Exile)This is the third volume, and is a different edition with another type of cover art (I always link to paperbacks, whenever possible, and mass market size ones if I know it, because that's my preferred format).

The Adversary is the fourth - last - volume in the series, and likewise there is no version available that has a cover illustration.

Peter Knutsen typed these letters

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