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July 5, 1999: i don't know much about science


An outline explicitly lays out the structural guts of a work of writing. An outline is physically just a list of all the elements involved, but its role is to be a plan: a roadmap for that future writing. As such, an author tries to get the outline as "right" as possible before writing. Of course, I almost never use outlines, and as I've noted before, this web journal is intended to be a place for low-planning writing. Today's entry is the first that I've outlined.

The other day I was reading a Usenet newsgroup about screenwriting and saw a post from someone seeking information about the degree to which science fiction authors have made accurate predictions, in the sense of not just predicting some piece of tech, but of getting the date reasonably correct.

Now, I think this totally misses the point. I don't think I had ever verbalized this before I read that post, but trying to explain to myself why that post missed the point forced me to put into words the "notion" of science fiction. I think that notion is essentially "*suppose* that we-had-[TECH] or [SCIENCE-THING]-had-happened; then what interesting things might occur?" Dates are totally irrelevent, and are merely chosen to sound plausible at the time of writing. What is relevent is what "interesting" means in this scenario, and I guess that varies from author to author; but I think it rarely means "what would be the realistic likely consequences"--i.e., a straight prediction. Indeed, just yesterday I read the introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness and found a discussion on this very subject, in which Ursula K. Le Guin suggested that the intention of her writing was to reveal truths about humanity--about us here and now--and in that light, one sees "interesting" as meaning "revealing of us here and now".

I was reading The Left Hand of Darkness because I wasn't certain if I had read it before, so I bought it last week when I went to the bookstore to buy a book to read on the plane this weekend. For, indeed, I was on a plane this weekend. Not to go to any Fourth of July festivities; merely to fly down to a job interview on Friday, and to return on Saturday (July 3). It turned out that an ex-roommate of mine who lived in the same area was having a birthday party on Saturday, for it was, indeed, his birthday, so I extended my trip by a day so I could stick around for it.

Being a bunch of geeks, two hours of the party were spent sitting around the TV watching a movie, Twelve Monkeys, which most of us had seen before. Then on Sunday before my flight home, we went to a theater and saw The Matrix, which my ex-roommate and his wife had seen previously but which I had not. And interspersed throughout this--on the plane ride there, in the evening before I went to bed, in the morning when I woke up far too early, and on the plane ride home--I read Neal Stephenson's newest, The Cryptonomicon. So, as you can see, I had a real science fiction weekend.

These were the first movies I had seen since I started learning about screenwriting, and so, to a certain extent, this was the beginning of me seeing movies through different eyes. Yet, in reality, I wasn't distracted by this sort of thing when watching, say The Matrix. I had my normal small amounts of anticipating where things were going, but I didn't find myself constantly thinking things like "oh, I bet we're moving to Act II?"

And speaking of screenwriting, no, I haven't made any progress. I should mention, though, that I did actually write an outline for the first screenplay that I have in the pipe. So I don't never write outlines; I don't never lay plans for the future.

Indeed, I was flying to interview for a job, and, as you might imagine, this means I'm quite consciously thinking about the future. On my flight home, I felt sort of like there were giant gears of fate turning out there; for, to some extent, my future is right now out of my hands, awaiting a decision by other people.

But even when that happens, I will in the end be left with a decision of my own. Well, that's a little misleading. If they aren't interested, the only job situation I have on the table is Looking Glass, so it's not really a decision. If they are interested, though, then I have to decide which of the two I am more interested in. And I find this sort of decision making process particularly unpleasant.

See, people talk about it like you just list out the plusses and minusses, add them up, and whichever one comes out higher is the one you go with. That may be intended as a metaphor, but it's a ubiquitous one.

The reality is, for me, nothing like that. I can list out the plusses and minusses, but I don't have any way to "add them up", because they're largely independent. In The Cryptonomicon, some of the characters use a geeky scheme to resolve a dispute over how to divy up the personal possessions of a family member who no longer needs any of them; in which they decide that there are two independent aspects to the objects: monetary value and emotional value; the family members assign both values to each object, and a computer program finds a distribution that tries to get an optimal the result for everyone.

The thing that Stephenson misses, or at least doesn't discuss, and given the geeky detail he uses, I stand by 'misses', is that different people may assign 'emotional' and 'monetary' value differing weights; but this isn't exposed to the computer program. One person may care more about getting an equal financial portion of the proceeds; another about satisfying all their emotional demands.

And this is the problem that confronts me in making a decision. I can attempt to evaluate, for a number of interesting aspects, which of my job possibilities is "better". Which one offers me more chance for growth? For satisfaction at a job well done? More money? A better social life? And etc. I can even, maybe, numerically quantify the disparities.

But I can't "add them up"! Each of these aspects is independent, and I can't easily say "I will trade N units of growth potential for M units of social life"! Unlike The Crytonomicon's two axes of value, each of these questions is its own axis.

Most of the time, for these sorts of things, there's just an obvious overwhelming decision. One choice wins out in a lot of the important categories and only loses in categories I know are less important. This particular time it seems harder to determine.

So I'm almost tempted to hope that they'll decide they're not interested, and I won't have to make a hard choice. But even that isn't realistic, because even then I need to seriously decide whether I want to take the remaining job, as opposed to just walking into it as if I had no choice.

I'm suppose to complete weaving this tight journal entry by tightening the web via a number of other connections: planning for the future vs. the time travel in Twelve Monkeys vs. the multi-temporal aspects of The Cryptonomicon vs. the oracle of The Matrix; "Morpheus" in The Matrix vs. "morphium" (morphine) in The Cryptonomicon vs. "Morpheus" as a name for the Sandman, a la the Sandman script written by Ted and Terry of the screenwriting site I visit all the time; "Trinity" in The Matrix vs. "Trinity" the test site of the first atomic bomb and how that lightly connects to The Cryptonomicon vs. "Trinity" the incredibly awesome text adventure (computer game), a fantasy about the atomic bomb, released many years ago by Infocom who were based out of the same office complex that Looking Glass is in now vs. "Trinity" the computer game (or technology code base) which was once going to be written by the guys at id software.

But I'm tired of writing, and it's a web journal, so you'll just have to pretend that I really smoothly and tightly put everything together.

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attribution dammit: Secret Reason Lisa Germano