Men With Screwdrivers and Men With Magnifying Glasses

In the spirit of moving the discussion off site and getting readers moving back and forth, I offer you Jeffro’s excellent review of A.E. Van Vogt’s “Black Destroyer”…and a comment on one of the main points of difference between the superversive movement vs. the pulp revolution movement (I said something similar in the comments to the post; this is an expansion).

From Jeffro:

The “hero” of the story isn’t really the Hari Seldon-like Elliot Grosvenor. Granted, the guy has a knack for navigating the tedious and byzantine bureaucracy that encysts almost any sufficiently complex STEM-related activity. But the real “star” here is Nexialism, a sort of meta-science that allows this guy to be way more insightful than the stodgy and blinkered scientists of his space collective.

I’m sure that this seemed like a really good idea at the time. And the resolution here is way more developed than the typical “reverse the polarity” and “re-route a phase inducer” tricks of science fiction television. But really smart guys thinking their ways out of difficult problems is only ever going to be just so compelling. Nevertheless, the heavy and the setting do manage to overcome this inherent weakness of the unrestrained Campbellian ethos.

Okay. Let’s pretend we’re not reading science fiction for a moment. What sort of fiction is made up mostly of “smart guys thinking their ways out of difficult problems?”


Give up yet?

Yeah. It’s detective fiction.

If you want to categorize more specifically here (like Campbellian vs. pulp sci-fi), we can talk about Agatha Christie style detective fiction (Sherlock Holmes stories were as much or more adventure tales as mysteries, though there were certainly “Men with magnifying glass” varieties of Sherlock Holmes as well – see “The Adventure of the Dancing Men”). Christie is famous/notorious for ending her mysteries by gathering all of the subjects in one room as her detective marches around and explains all of the clues you missed that point to the killer. Her most famous story and her masterpiece, “And Then There Were None”, has only the most lightly sketched characters, and the setting might as well be random. There is little to no action in the entire story. It is notable for one and only one thing: Its brilliant, mind-bogglingly ambitious, and incredibly shocking plot. And coming from a fan of that book – yes, it lives up to its promise. It’s a brilliant book. And if you take away the plot, there’s just about nothing to recommend it except maybe atmosphere, which Conan Doyle was better at anyway.

“Well,” sez pre-Christie-ites, “What character is more famous, huh? Sherlock Holmes, or Agatha Christie’s clone of Sherlock Holmes? Answer me that, smart guy!”

Sure, okay, you can make that argument. But you’ll also need to explain why Agatha Christie is the bestselling fiction author of all time* along with Shakespeare, and, by the way, ahead of J.K. Rowling.

So what is the point of all of this? I can hear the complaints now – “Wait, so you’re denying we have a problem? Didn’t you see the sales numbers? Are you denying that the pulp works have been shoved down a hole? Are you saying you don’t want to see a revival of pulp works? Do you just hate fun? Huh?”

(Okay, those last two are a bit over the top, but the others are variations of questions I’ve been asked virtually every time I disagree in some manner with one of the pulp revolutionaries.)

Well, no, I’m not saying any of those things. I’m just saying – be careful not to extrapolate personal taste into objective fact. What you might consider to be an Obviously Worse tic of a certain style of books may well be exactly what somebody else loves about it. Because apparently smart guys thinking their way out of difficult problems is something people do like to watch quite a bit after all.

Go figure.

*In case you were wondering, the highest rated sci-fi writer on the list is Stephen King, followed by R.L. Stine, Roald Dahl (of course he was a sci-fi writer; what else is “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”?), and then, yes, Edgar Rice Burroughs. The highest rated fantasist is Rowling, naturally.

  • Overgrown Hobbit

    “mankind is like a drunk on a donkey, he thinks the solution to leaning so far to one side that he falls off, is to get back on the ass and fall off the other side.”

    That said, pulp roolz and navel-gazing lit fic masquerading as SF 🙂

  • Karl Gallagher

    Yep. And there’s some good stories in the overlap between detective fiction and men-with-screwdrivers SF. Asimov’s Caves of Steel and Niven’s Gil the ARM stories.

  • If you haven’t read the story, then you really need to do so. The “action” surrounding the resolution of the problem is almost identical what I do in my day job. It really captures the tedium and the pettiness. If you want to make the case that Elliot Grosvenor is on par with Sherlock Holmes, go for it. But it won’t be very convincing.

    • Bellomy

      That isn’t even close to the case I made.

  • MishaBurnett
  • Roald Dahl (of course he was a sci-fi writer; what else is “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”?

    Mythological fiction, of course– somewhere between the fairy-land of fairy tales and the first-person experience of the high mythological epic taken into first person “Fantasy” founded by Tolkien.

    The Tree of Imagination has the same issues as the Tree of Life– it’s very hard to put a solid boundary between something as simple as Dogs, Wolves and Coyotes, and it’s entirely possible you’ve got a beaver-duck-cockatrice (poisoned spurs!) hanging around someplace you haven’t found yet.

    • Bellomy

      It’s as SF as SF can be. How not?

      • Explain how you mean, so I can explain how exactly not; if you don’t tell me what you’re looking at and saying “wow, that is pretty dang SF,” I don’t know what part you’re looking at.

        Never know, you might change my mind. 😀

        • Bellomy

          A mad inventor builds a factory of ingenious experimental inventions and genetic experiments that go awry amongst a group of bratty children.

          • Dude, that’s an interpretation summary, not an explanation of the points you find that makes it scifi.

          • Bellomy

            I’m confused by this. What, exactly, do I need to explain about that?

          • Well, what scientific elements– rather than handwavium– is used to justify each point?

          • Bellomy

            We’re supposed to believe that Willy Wonka invented all of this stuff. He essentially has a laboratory and does experiments – we even see some of them. It’s why he hired the oompa-loompas, who aren’t supernatural at all but basically a lost Amazonian tribe (they were even just called pygmies originally). And as Misha pointed out, it’s hinted that his stuff has formulas that can be replicated, which is why other inventors broke in and are trying to steal his stuff.

            Sure, he uses handwavium to justify it all. But the handwavium is clearly meant to be physical and reproducible after testing, and it’s created through technology, not magical power. It’s science fiction.

          • The spot we break at is the “clearly meant to be physical and reproducible after testing,” rather than “it’s really cool as a story justification.”

            it is basically the magical way to look at technology.

            Flip a lightswitch: in Wonkaland, it turns on and then the plot progresses; in SciFi land it turns on because it completes the circuit which causes electrons to flow which…etc.

            Wonka is scifi like Star Wars is scifi; no less FREAKING AWESOME for being what it is.

          • MishaBurnett

            If that’s how you define “Science Fantasy” then I’d have to say that Ringworld (hyperdrive and stasis fields), I, Robot (positronic brains), Starship Troopers (powered armor), are all “Space Fantasy”.

            Heck, I can’t think of any Science Fiction novels in which accepting advanced technology without a detailed explanation for the sake of advancing the plot isn’t required.

          • Not sure how to explain the difference between magic science and scienc-y science….
            in Wonka, the light switch wouldn’t need to have power. And they’d probably show you it had no power….

          • Bellomy

            BUT he would say that he INVENTED a light switch that worked in such a way, and he was hiding his experimental designs from rivals. He didn’t cast a spell. He used technology, did experiments, until he got a result he wanted.

          • Would it change the story if he had cast a spell?

          • Bellomy

            Would it change the story if the Time Machine was a magic box?

            Would it change the story if the psychohistorians from Foundations were performing wizardry?

            Yes, it would change the story. It would change Wonka from a mad scientist into a wizard, which is an entirely different, if related, thing.

          • The Time Machine’s science isn’t the Time Machine, it’s what’s observed because of it– make it a magic box, still checking out the changes, the point of the story isn’t changed. Hm… I’m not sure it can be re-written as a fantasy, not and keep it recognizable… maybe some sort of spell that makes people become their most extreme tendency?

            I didn’t read the Foundations stories, so I can’t figure where it would go. 😀

            The point of Charley wouldn’t be changed if it was done by magic instead of mad science.

            Dang it, now you have me trying to figure out what you WOULD call Charley… Well, besides “Roald Dahl children’s books.” Surreal Children’s Novels? Modern fairy-tale?

          • Bellomy

            I’m not really sure what you mean.

            H.G. Wells was exploring the history of the human race in the future.

            “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” was a morality tale, and also a tour of a mad scientist’s laboratory and call the cool inventions he created.

          • You’re a LOT better at summarizing the points than I am. 😀

            I mean that if you stuck pointy ears on Wonka and called the cool inventions in the factory wonders of elfland, you wouldn’t have to change it– it would still make sense.

          • Bellomy

            Well, you could say that about literally every sci-fi story; what if U.S. Robotics was made up of wizards, and the positronic brain was powered by magic? The stories work.

            The tale DOES change, because the fact that the lab is made up of repeatable experiments intended to be codified means that rival candymakers can steal his formulas, leading him to close the lab. It’s all portrayed from a distinctly scientific, technological standpoint.

            A good example of where it makes a difference: When Mike Teavee is shrunk by a gigantic ray gun, the other guests all need to wear protective suits so they’re not harmed by the radiation – a distinctly scientific problem. A magician would simply cast a spell on whatever he needed shrunk. And the idea of sending things to TV is essentially to turn them into TV pixels that can reconstitute themselves – it is specifically said not that they are magically transported, but that a physical, even explainable process is occurring to make this possible – like H.G. Wells’ time machine, which is specifically said not to be powered by magic but advanced technology. That’s why the story is science fiction.

          • Part of the problem with Charley is that it *is* a very distinctively kid’s style story– it describes technology the way a kid experiences it– even though the words it uses are techology, you could switch “formulas” to “spells” without even having to describe the place differently. (And now I’m wondering if that’s how Howl’s MOving Castle came about….) You could categorize it as a techno-thriller, especially since the big macguffin is corporate espionage. Wouldn’t make anybody who got it happy, but….
            That’s part of why it shouldn’t be stuck in “Scifi;” if you hand J Random Kid* who says “I want scifi” a copy of it, you’ll not just piss him off but you might make him hate a perfectly fine book. Kind of like if you handed my cousin who adores “Urban Fantasy” (the paranormal romance, Buffy played totally serious, sort) Mr. Finn’s vampire novel.

            Sorting it there is clever, and gets folks to *think* about books in a different way, but answering ‘what else is it’ with other terms will be giving someone what they’re asking for.

            * Kid chosen because older readers are more likely to have been bitten by the “what the heck? This is totally not what it said it was” effect, especially if they like a style of story that suddenly gets popular.

          • Bellomy

            This is odd. This would disqualify “The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells, yes?

            But besides that, yeah, it’s observably meant to be reproducible after testing. That’s the whole point of the factory, really.

          • “Disqualify” it? This is a classification thing– like I said from the start, it’s like trying to draw hard and fast lines between different types of dog.

            The Time Machine would probably fit into scifi because of the theorizing about what is going to happen, not the plot device that gets them there.

          • Bellomy

            I’m not using “disqualify” in a negative sense except to say that not to count “The Time Machine” as science fiction would fly in the face of the entire history of the genre.

            And I’m not really sure you can take that book and reject “Charlie”.

          • Oh, good, I wanted to be sure. This is chatter about classifying books so you can find what you want, for heaven’s sake; I already had to deal with a guy who decided to accuse me of mental illness because I pointed out reality didn’t hang well with his theory, and it’s not even breakfast yet….


            The Time Machine explores evolution on an extremely long timescale; what scientific idea does “Charley” explore?

            *gets the giggles* Hey, “this is so freaking COOL!” kind of classifies as a scientific principle, doesn’t it? It’s why science happens, after all….

          • MishaBurnett

            Yeah, I think I have to go with SF on Charlie And The Chocolate Factory. Willie Wonka is referred to in the text as an inventor and the contrafactual elements are described in terms of machinery and chemistry. Not “Hard SF”, perhaps–it’s difficult to make a strong case for the plausibility of “square candies that look ’round” or “vitamin Wonka”, but the presentation is that these are inventions of super-science rather than magic.

            In fact, the subplot involving industrial espionage argue strongly that Wonka’s technology is replicable by other manufacturers, once they have the necessary formulas.

          • Sounds like science-fantasy– like “the gnomes make the lights turn on when you flip the switch.”