Of heaps of stones, facts, or words — a guest post by Nitay Arbel
Of heaps of stones, facts, or words — Nitay Arbel
Thus spake our Beautiful but Evil Space Mistress’s sensei in “The Notebooks of Lazarus Long”:
What are the facts? Again and again and again — what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what “the stars foretell,” avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable “verdict of history” — what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts!
Amen. It is impossible to do science (or engineering) without facts, just as it is impossible to write a book without words. But are facts all that is needed? Or for that matter, are words all that is needed to write a book?
Robert Heinlein always liked Renaissance (wo)men, and had he ever met the French polymath Henri Poincaré (1854-1912) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henri_Poincaré he would have found much to admire. Poincaré’s work in pure and applied math alone would have ensured his place in history. So would that in theoretical physics: aside from his work on the three-body problem in celestial mechanics (which opened a door into what we now call chaos theory), Poincaré and Hendrik Lorentz https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hendrik_Lorentz arguably stood at the cradle of special relativity together with Einstein — in fact, the very word ‘relativity’ was coined by Poincaré. (Einstein himself paid tribute to both men, especially to Lorentz.)
Yet in his day he was also known as a public intellectual and as a popularizer of science. But unlike the type of facile vulgarization one can see from some TV personalities with the same last name as a boxer and a brand of poultry (cough, cough), Poincaré’s book “Science and Hypothesis” is now regarded as a pioneering work in the philosophy of science. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science_and_Hypothesis (A somewhat dated English translation is available for free on Gutenberg. ) In Chapter 9, we find this gem of a quotable quote:
The Scientist must put things in order. Science is built of facts, as a house is built of stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house.
(My translation of: “Le savant doit ordonner ; on fait la science avec des faits comme une maison avec des pierres ; mais une accumulation de faits n’est pas plus une science qu’un tas de pierres n’est une maison.”)
(As an aside, Poincaré clearly did not grow up with US wood-frame housing ;)) And yes, I have had the dubious pleasure of editing scientific manuscripts that amounted to lots of data, accompanied by prose that amounted to stream-of-consciousness at best and to word salad at worst. (For greater “enjoyment”, such a dish is best served in very crummy English — sometimes written by supposed native speakers.) This brings to mind the Talmudic admonition: “Do not state something unintelligible in the hope that people will eventually figure out what it means” (Pirkei Avot 2:5, my translation)
Now Poincaré’s analogy is not limited to science. Music is built out of notes, but a bunch of notes without any structure (melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, compositional framework) is just noodling at best and noise at worst. To be sure, sometimes a composer or improviser may deliberately flaunt structural conventions for effect — but this works precisely because it is a calculated departure from the rule. Take Stravinsky’s repeating a single complex chord with ever-shifting rhythmic accents in “The Rite of Spring”, or the eerie harmonies of Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna” (known to sci-fi fans from the star gate sequence in “2001: A Space Odyssey”), or the “atonal wail” guitar leads sandwiched between the lyrical horror tales in classic Slayer songs like “Angel Of Death” — these have their effect not because “the rules don’t matter”, but precisely because the rules do matter. Darkness has no meaning without light, nor light without darkness.
Similarly, Poincaré’s dictum applies to creative writing. Stringing together 10,000 words doesn’t necessarily create a story, nor 100,000 words a book. Sure, I remember when some “literary” writers in my youth experimented with books that deliberately had no plot, used no punctuation, or were written in one book-long run-on sentence, etc. But for the most part, these were sterile exercises meant to impress soi-disant literati, not to entertain any reader. Without a compelling plot, solid word-building, engaging and realistic characters, solid fact-checking, and all the other elements of a good work of fiction — “nullius in verba” (there’s nothing in [mere] words), as the motto of the Royal Society goes.
And of course, one may deliberately use sloppy prose (or simulated dialect) for a character that would speak in such a fashion; one may purposely write inelegant sentences or use highly unorthodox punctuation to convey a certain mood (what would Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s writing have been without the relentless ellipses?); but like the musical examples above, these are all madnesses with a method behind them.
Allow me to riff a bit more on this real estate analogy. True, it is the big picture structural things that will determine how soundly built the house is — in a book, that would be the story arc/the plot, the major subplots, the world building… At the same time, any good realtor will tell you that the “curb appeal” of a house may be greatly affected by small details that either reveal a high level of craftsmanship, or that appeal specifically to a certain kind of buyer. In a book, the more general equivalents would be the cleanliness and general quality of the prose, the care lavished on fact-checking, the authenticity of the dialogue, and the like. Some people are in general fussier about this than others, who will forgive a lot if they got their main “fix”. The more particular would be those of us spotting that the author, or fact-checker, didn’t do their homework on our particular area of expertise or hobby: professional scientists cringing about bad physics, history buffs thrown out of a historical fiction or period romance by anachronistic situations or settings (not to mention the backporting of 21st-century ideological obsessions to characters who wouldn’t understand the first thing about them),… Sometimes this is highly individual: being an amateur linguist, I can get thrown completely out of a story by linguistically absurd character names — such as a Chechnyan terrorist named Kovacs (the Hungarian equivalent of Smith), which is an actual example from a very popular and acclaimed thriller TV series.
Finally, real estate agents will always talk about “Location, location, location” as the three main factors determining sale price. What is the equivalent in a book? Its genre placement and pitch, perhaps. This subject has been covered repeatedly and at length, both by our BbESP and on Mad Genius Club. Allow me just to add that not all readers are alike: there is a small segment of eclectic readers (such as yours truly) who may deliberately seek out genre crossover works that might not work well in the marketplace because they are difficult to pigeonhole.
Perhaps “the poison is in the dose”. Within the overall context of a marvelous space opera/military science fiction saga, the great Lois McMaster Bujold got away with slipping in romantic and psychological elements to the point that “Komarr” and especially “A Civil Campaign” are sci-fi/romance crossovers in all but name. Still, I wonder if her work would even have seen the light of day with a hidebound ‘gatekeeper’ at the Big Five, rather than somebody like the late lamented Jim Baen…