The Quality of Description Should not be Strained

The Quality of Description Should not be Strained, a Dialogue with Bill and Mike.

“Hey there buddy,” Mike said, as he came into the office, slamming the door behind him and making for the coffee maker like it was on fire and he had the only firehose on the planet.  “Why so glum?”

Bill blinked from where he sat at his desk, looking across him at the red spires dotting the desert landscape outside the office window.  “My writer’s group said I needed more description and sense of place,” he said.  “But then when I put in description, they told me I had stopped the action and given them indigestible infodumps.”

“Ah,” Mike said.  “Did you?”

“Perhaps a tadbit, but dang it all, man, how is one supposed to convey things like new technology without a ten paragraph break explaining the history and how it works?”

“It is difficult,” Mike said, as he scooped up the three precious coffee beans from Earth and shoved them in the little door atop the coffee maker, to allow the replicator to do its thing.  “But do you really need the history?  After all, most of the time, do you pause to think of the history of your shaver, or how Earth people used to scrape their faces with blades every morning before inventing the exfulicator ?”

“No, but… I feel like I’m just spinning bull–”  He paused, as Mike, the proper weight of replicated beans having been achieved, turned on the grinder.  Why the damn thing couldn’t recreate beans already ground, Bill would never know.  Even when the scientists explained.  “Anyway, I feel like I’m just talking mid-air if I don’t give details.”

“People don’t want details,” Mike said.  “I’ve noticed that.  Except very rarely, to give a sense of time and place.”  He squinted out the window at the landscape.  Three hundred years after terraforming, Mars was if anything redder as the oxygen rich atmosphere instantly oxidized any exposed iron.  He grabbed a mug from the wall.  It came from Earth and said “Visit the Sahara Ocean resort.”  He had no clue what it meant, never having been on Earth, but the picture of lush green landscape and a cartoony ocean filled with fish made a contrast to the desert outside.

He wheeled closer to the window and put a digit on the glass, looking out.  Mars sure had changed since terraforming.  He wasn’t sure how he felt about it, yet.

“I see.  But what if the description is part of the point.  What if I need some kind of punchline at the end, and need to give hints along the way?  Can’t I take time and do it properly in order, with history and explanations?”

“Oh, sure you can,” Mike said.  “If you want to bore people blue.  For now, though, I suggest you set the fiction aside and we concentrate on that report for the emperor.”  He wrapped three of his green tentacles around his coffee cup and inhaled the scent of the coffee through his speaking-organ.  He couldn’t actually drink it, but he loved the smell of Earth coffee.

46 thoughts on “The Quality of Description Should not be Strained

  1. Very nice. I felt like I was in a mini-sode of the Twilight Zone. … and then I realized they were all toys in a charity bin! And it was earth all along!

  2. Chuckle Chuckle

    Isaac Asimov had a short story (IIRC titled Youth) where none of the characters were described (or given proper names).

    The story basically involved some kids who captured some visiting aliens without telling the adults.

    The adults knew the aliens were visiting and were trying to find the aliens.

    Only at the end do we learn that the visiting aliens were two humans. 😉

    1. Yes! How can something smell so nice, and taste like burnt dirt??!

      [Says the person who starts the day with a nice cuppa Irish Breakfast.]

      1. Someday, someone will create a drink that tastes like coffee smells.

        I keep telling myself that…

        1. And you will be a millionaire! Because I agree, coffee is vile tasting but heavenly smelling.

      1. I have had coffee that tasted like it smelled. A week or so ago I bought a “French Press” and… well, $HOUSEMATE bought another for the office, and a burr grinder… and we’ve not bought any more soda pop. It’s coffee (or tea, but that’s another thing) taken black as it doesn’t need anything more.

  3. But… but… how does the replicator work? Who invented it? Did it prevent a great famine? How long did the terraforming take? How will I survive with all these unanswered questions?


    1. And I can’t help but wonder: if the replicator needs originals to make copies from, why does the machine produce the copied beans in the same compartment as the originals? Why not keep the originals separated out from the new beans, so they can be re-used in a new batch? Because eventually that bag of precious coffee from Earth will run out, and then you’ll have to order a new one from Nile™ at great expense. Unless you just keep those three original beans in the replicator and make multiple copied coffee cups from them — then you can stretch that bag out indefinitely*.

      * Except for when Bob from accounting takes the beans away to count them, because he’s run out of the beans that he usually counts. Everybody hates Bob from accounting.

          1. “Terra-forming” = “World-Forming” (if we translate Terra to World).

            It’s is not unbelievable that an Alien species name for its hold-world would be translated as meaning “Earth” or “World”.

            So the Aliens would see changing Mars to a world that they could live on as “Terra-Forming”. 😉

              1. Jack Chalker had a comment in one of his books concerning alien names for their species and their home world.

                The comment was that all of the species names translated as “human/people” and most of the home world names translated as “Earth/World”. 😉

                  1. I don’t remember Chalker using shmeerps.

                    But in one of my unwritten stories, I have this alien critter that looks like a Raptor (the Dino type) and has a dog-like relationship to the intelligent aliens of the story.

                    I called it a shmeerp. 👿

          2. Well Mike might be a shortened version of his full name such as his full name is “Mikenatarmnormata”.

            The fact that the shortened version is the same as a Homo Sapien is pure happenstance. 👿

      1. Orson Scott Card had this to say all the way back in 1993 —

        “Science fiction writers and critics are quite aware of a long tradition of what James Blish called “shmeerps.” Blish pointed out how silly it was that most science fiction writers, when trying to show an alien fauna, would produce a creature that looked like a rabbit and acted like a rabbit and was treated like a rabbit, and yet it was called a “shmeerp.” This is ludicrous, of course. People migrating to a new land with strange plants and animals will use familiar names for the new creatures. Thus the English immigrants to America called the bison “buffaloes” and referred to maize as “Indian corn” and finally just “corn,” even though in England that word had been a generic term for grain. The English felt no need to come up with new names for items that were “close enough.”

  4. I try to keep in mind John Campbell’s supposed statement that “I want the kind of story that could be printed in a magazine of the year two thousand A.D. as a contemporary adventure story. No gee-whiz, just take the technology for granted.”

    Mind you, I replace “2000 AD” with “the year it’s taking place”.

    It does make it more important for the surrounding text to be clear about what’s actually happening.

  5. You can sneak in so much information in dialog – without making it “As you know, Mike …”
    As Capvideo said, just have the characters take the tech for granted …

  6. I wish I could remember my “Ode to Caffeine” which I wrote several years ago in an MMORPG while waiting for a raid to start.

  7. “I still think it’s silly that the boss calls himself that,” Bob replied. “Yeah, he owns the biggest import/export concern here on Mars. Sure, he has a lock on all the agricultural cross shipments back to Garweeze. But why does he have to call himself the emperor of chocolate, the god-king of caffeine?”

    “You must be scent deaf to not understand that,” Mike chortled, laying one tentacle on Bob’s shoulder carapace. “You’ve never learned to appreciate the rich, deep scent of coffee, the rural aroma of tea. And I know that your religion bans it, even though it’s legal and non-habit forming, but if you ever experienced the high you get from dark chocolate, you’d understand.”

    “Whatever, you filthy heathen druggy earthophile.” Bob playfully slapped the tentacle off his shoulder. “At least we don’t have to call him that in official correspondence. And I need the latest tax estimates for next quarter. It looks like volume is increasing near projections, around four percent.”

    “Sure thing, Bob, have those numbers in a few ticks. Oh, have you gotten the latest music download yet?” Mike glanced slyly at Bob as he reclined into his seat and booted the terminal. “I heard there’s some new stuff by Yoghurt Dog. Your nose may be broken, but your ears work just fine. And how do you always manage to get the latest tunes a week ahead of anybody else? Should I be talking to the customs agents?”

    Bob flushed blue at the insinuation. “Don’t even joke about that, man! Those intellectual property rights enforcement goons don’t have a sense if humor.”

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