Never mind his eyes

There’s a story that I think I first encountered as a Turkish proverb, but that I suspect is nearly universal among cultures.

A hunter walked through the forest with his bow, shooting down birds for their feathers. As he walked, he wept for the beautiful birds whose lives he was taking. A young bird said, “Look, this is really a good man; see the tears in his eyes?”

An older bird said, “Never mind his eyes. Watch his hands!”

Bear with me a little while; I’ll get to the relevance of this story for writers, and especially for science fiction writers.

If you’re interested in the shape of a culture and what happens when you change something, science fiction is a wonderful playground. We can’t run experiments on existing cultures, but fiction gives us a way to run virtual experiments. Is your guess about the result of a change convincing? Is it a good result? Does the reader agree? And don’t forget that time and events may affect the “experiment” in unforeseen ways.

Case in point: many years ago, when the Iron Curtain still cut Europe in half, I read a story – sorry, I can’t remember title or author now – where the big change was that suddenly people could fly. And the big result was that countries on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain were swiftly depopulated now that their citizens were no longer trapped by border controls.

In the context of that time, freedom from border controls seemed like a wonderful thing. Now? Maybe not so much.

People are always proposing this change or that to the rules of our own society, and mostly they claim to have the best of motives: “I just want to save lives,” or “I just want to give everybody a fair shake,” or “I just want us to be considerate of others’ feelings.” We’d be a lot better off if we actually could run experiments on the proposals. Failing that, why not a virtual experiment?

As soon as you try to plot one, though, you have to move from “I want X; this will result in X” to “What do I think will be the actual effect of this change?” and “Who would benefit from this?” Science fiction can be a great place to explore those questions – just like that story positing that people could fly.

Never mind his eyes. Watch his hands.

8 comments

  1. Oh yes. I think Lois McMaster Bujold’s _Falling Free_ was a masterful example of “How will people and corporations use the distance that space travel gets you from Authority, to do scientific experimentation not legal or approved.” And “What can we do to change people so they can work in a new environment?” And “What happens when people are the tech that’s suddenly outmoded.”

    Me? I’ve got dimensional portals to parallel Earths. I can (and have) had both good and bad outcomes from a dimensional split at various times. All sorts of interesting possibilities, just a portal away.

  2. One story about individual flying units was a Christopher Anvil or Murray Leinster story in Analog. What I remember about it was that the scientist on the Soviet side that invented it was eating borscht when he thought of the basic idea. Story line goes thru bureaucracy needing successes to survive and get promoted. First flyer across the curtain to FRG gets much money and asylum. Show off Army unit of flyers has many missing soldiers and flying units on first parade. Story ends with flyers only getting promise they wont be sent home and the scientist criticizing his latest bowl of borscht.
    I have read others on this theme but this one sticks because of the sly humor that underlies the whole story.

  3. “What if we . . .” “What if someone . . .” Those can lead to inspiring—or absolutely terrifying—tales of the future. Some of the scariest non-horror (in the sense that they didn’t use supernatural elements) stories I read came from Milo Y’s sponsored anthology extrapolating the future if certain aspects of anti-child and anti-male trends went to their logical, extreme, conclusion. Extreme and unlikely? Yes. Scary as all get out? Also yes. It was a good exercise to read as an author, and chilling as a reader.

    On a lighter note, I had fun playing with “what if the dinosaurs continued to rule the world? And what if they returned to being preferential quadrupeds, like certain species on Earth seem to have done?” Low doorways, for a start, meaning that bipeds would learn to duck or to wear helmets when indoors! 🙂

  4. Fiddling around with someone else’s universe I unintentionally discovered why it had certain tropes and patterns in it; things didn’t work right without them.

    Ending up shifting how my thing is working to make it orthogonal to the base pattern seems to work, and made the whole thing fit together better.

  5. well, we can’t say we can’t run experiments on existing cultures, just that its seriously frowned upon…
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    unless your name is Fauci.

  6. One rule for analyzing etiquette books and other prescriptive works is notice what they argue for, at length. No matter how firmly they insist there is only one way, the force of the argument shows there was opposition. Hence, when an etiquette book says that it is very, very, very improper to ask after Mr. Smith’s wife or Mrs. Jones’s husband, how one should say, “How is Mrs. Smith?” and “How is Mr. Jones?” and of course, you must always speak your husband by title and surname, because you must show you respect him yourself if you wish him to be respected — one must suspect that the opposite practice is common. (The same book had no problem in knocking off such things as the proper address for a king as “Your Majesty” in a sentence.)

    OTOH, his eyes are useful information about what he wants you to think, and therefore evidence of what he values. When Egyptian epigraphs, in the Old Kingdom, changed from bragging of defeating enemies or building walls, to protecting widows, orphans, and the poor, there is no reason to believe their honesty but plenty to believe that what they thought was a good thing to brag of had changed.

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