Letters Column for June 2006: How to Intimidate Fire Creatures


You can stack grandmothers to let you jump to higher objects. For example, if you have three grandmothers and a room where the only exit is three times your jumping distance up, you can stack two grandmothers and place the third in front of them. Alternately you can equip the grandmothers with ice guns and make ice grannies. These are useful for intimidating fire creatures and for shooting ice cream.

That’s my thought on June.

It seems to me that when people try to find out things about the world, that comes under the category of discovering truth. When they try to assign meaning to what they’ve found out, that comes under the category of writing fiction. Or maybe this is just a particularly Hitherby-influenced viewpoint.
— rpuchalsky

That’s a fascinating viewpoint. It’s certainly something that I can see coming out of reading too much Hitherby. I don’t know how well it fits with modern critical theory, but that’s only because I’ve never done more than dabble with critical theory.

So, here’s what I think.

I think that “meaning is fiction” is a dangerously alluring concept, one that runs the risk of taking the analysis racing down the slippery slope all the way to the bottom. Certainly meaning is a construct found nowhere in the facts themselves, much like gravity is found nowhere in kinetic energy. Certainly most of the meanings in our world are created, manifest from nothing by the intentions of our consciousnesses. Certainly there is a scale of comparative fictionality that starts with consciously created works of fiction; proceeds towards self-inflicted blindness, hypocrisy, and contradiction; and points in the apparent direction of first religion and philosophy and then abstraction and finally empirical science itself.

That’s the slippery slope, of course.

Is it a fiction when one writes E=mc^2? It is certainly not true in that eventually—no doubt—that equation will be superceded by another with a better fit to quantum mechanics; here a physicist may correct me on the details but should, I think, be aware that all equations are impermanent. Yet the meaning in it in terms of the ability to generate testable results seems somehow intrinsically less fictional than the meaning of E=mc^3 or E=mGc. The degree of, shall we say, credibility differs.

So I’m not sure.

I think that it is probably true to say that all meaning is fiction but that it may be blurring the boundaries more deeply than they need blurring; mind, I’m all for a good polishing of the boundaries now and then, but discretion is a watchword.

So in terms of Martin’s efforts?

I think that what he’s looking for is atypically impactful for a fiction. But I suppose I can see the argument that what he is doing is very little dependent on his physical actions.

There’s this great discussion by Gordon R. Dickson about what his protagonist was doing in Necromancer, which is, going back in time to change what certain events meant. Without actually changing, really, the events themselves.

I liked that a lot, and I think it’s what Max thinks Martin is doing.

Whether he’s right, though—

Who knows?

Probably not, or I wouldn’t be airing it the first time in a letters column instead of a story.

I think we experience time alot like love. Sure, it exists, but not as a physical force. (people should only use the cetrifgual force in love songs, btw).
— GoldenH

Quoted for thematic harmony with what I said above. ^_^

Where/When/How/??? can I get the second monthbook?
— Penultimate Minion

You can’t, alas!

Even if Sauron were immune to photon torpedoes (of which I express some skepticism), Spock could still beam the Ring directly into the fires of Mount Doom.
— ADamiani


I wonder how being “heroically good” at RPS differs from being incapable of losing (which, though astounding, requires no particular heroics).
— dan_percival


I think it boils down to a claim that a wholly honest Navvy Jim would perceive himself as making an effort or sacrifice. Arguably it includes an assertion that he could skimp on that effort at the cost of some of his RPS ability. See Jenna’s discussion of robot fidelity in The Castle and Ink Catherly’s discussion of suffering, atmosphere, and jaws in Ink and Illogic.

I just rated a number of entries that I really liked.
— GoldenH

Thank you! I appreciate it.

Thus far, the only questions we have answers to give me the impression of dismissing the question; It’s not so much answering the question as denying it relevence to your existance which allows you freedom.
— bv728

I think this is exactly half-right.

One of the characteristics of an unsolvable problem is that—almost always—the way you cognize the question is part of the problem.

Probably the best example I can find for this is my friend’s cat Thor, who became trapped in an open box thanks to a lack of cognitive flexibility.

So it’s natural to argue that if one is stuck too long on a problem, one should consider rejecting the problem formulation.

However this isn’t the sum total of problem-solving.

For instance, consider the following problem. You are locked in a room with two doors and an evil logician. The logician says, “If a rational person would choose the left door, then both doors lead to certain death. Otherwise, only the right door leads to certain death, and the left door leads to salvation. Which door do you choose?”

Rejecting the problem frame is necessary but not sufficient for survival. Even in the best circumstances, you’re still locked in a room with an evil logician. He’s probably got some kind of boolean death ray. You’ve got to think on your feet here.

One part I don’t get …
— Dryn

I’ll put some annotations in the scene:

(… Martin is explaining what he’d do if he could make it work. …)

“I would sweep away the kingdoms of the world,” Martin says. “I would tear down all the monsters. (Here he uses a term of art, monster, that is also a colloquialism for anyone who does really horrible things.) I’d make a pile of their bones. I’d dispose of the people who couldn’t evolve. I’d rend the world, I’d cull it down to a remnant, and from its ashes I’d build the most glorious of Heavens.”

“Ah,” says Sukaynah.

Martin begins to reel back the line.

“And the gibbelins?” Sukaynah asks. (The gibbelins tied Sukaynah up, bound her under the sea of chaos, and built part of the tower on her face.)

“The gibbelins?”

“Would you tear them down and make their bones a pyre?” (Here Sukaynah is identifying the gibbelins as monsters, and wondering whether Martin will include them in the whole tearing-down and bone-burning thing.)

“You can’t punish the dead,” Martin says. His face is blank. “That’s like putting pebbles in your soup.” (Martin is suggesting that that would be pointless or even counterproductive.)

“Then I do not think,” Sukaynah says, “that you should win.” (Sukaynah is indicating that her approval or disapproval of Martin’s proposed disposition of the world conditions on what he’d do to the gibbelins, and that ‘nothing’ does not suffice.)

Sniffle. It’s like explaining a joke—takes all the punch out!

One thing that’s always puzzled me is why Martin trusts Jane.
— Graeme

I think that the best answer I could possibly give to that would be the rest of this story arc, although that’s certainly not what this story arc is about. ^_^

The second-best answer is, Why does anybody trust anybody?

Really, in some ways, I think Martin trusts Jane more than he trusts Martin.
— Eric

Which is very wise of him. ^_^

Martin is honest, I suspect, but in terms of knowing the right thing to do, uh.

That’d be like electing Batman President!

It would seem that someone stepped on your punchline an entry or two ago….
— David Goldfarb


Well, I could have changed it, which would have been dumb, or been unhappy, which would have been silly, or I could just be amused at that.

So I went with amusement. ^_^

To me, that makes the inevitability of the punchline that much sweeter.
— Vincent Avatar

Yeah! Like that!

did Martin want the newtons to give to Sukaynah, or did he want them for someother purpose
— Graeme

What else is there to do with cookies but feed them to the horror in the basement?

I feel like we are again rising into a chapter end, with a rapidly rising sense of tension, and a sense of many threads being pulled together.
— Hitherby Admin

My biggest comment in response to all that discussion is:

If I’d switched to an every other day schedule in 2005, we wouldn’t be having this discussion, because we’d be in the middle of Chapter 4. ^_^

That’s it for today! I’ll finish the letters column off on Tuesday. ^_^


* The transporter would be unable to disassemble the One Ring unless it, itself, were made of the fires of Mt. Doom. Plus, in making the series unpublishable (J.R.R. Tolkien would have been unable to sell pre-Tolkien audiences on, “And then Spock showed up and said, ‘Don’t fear, Frodo—I’ll beam the ring to Mt. Doom with my spaceship!'” as a narratively satisfying solution) Spock would render his own presence paradoxical, at worst creating a rift in space-time and at best causing Majel Roddenberry to explode.

8 thoughts on “Letters Column for June 2006: How to Intimidate Fire Creatures

  1. I’m glad that you think it’s interesting. As for attempts to describe physical truth, like E=mc2, they can be more or less false, but they aren’t generally fictional in the sense that I mean. It’s possible to write nonfiction, after all.

    To be a bit less Hitherbyesque in terminology, I believe in the existence of an external reality, but I also think that God either doesn’t exist or has carefully concealed herself so that he isn’t an obvious source of meaning for human events within this reality. So, as a humanist, I believe that people create their own meaning. That necessary meaning-creation might as well be called “fiction” as anything else, since attempts to say that it’s universally true in the same way as physical truth generally turn out badly. Or so it seems to me.

    In terms of what Martin’s trying to do, he has the power to make more or less imaginary entities real. Well, there are “social facts” like money or race as well as “brute facts” like gravity. The basis of one’s society may be more or less fictional, but that doesn’t matter if that fiction is enforced on one by other people. Imagine Jane and Martin as — Marx and Lenin, say. Marx came up with a new social scheme called Communism, Lenin turned a version of it from imagination into reality.

    I think that what he’s looking for is atypically impactful for a fiction.

    Well, my analogy breaks down, in one sense, because Martin really does have the ability to change the physical reality of the Hitherby world — to make E=mc3, effectively. But the Hitherby world is rather unusually fictional in the first place. I don’t mean that in the sense that it’s a fiction that’s being written, I mean that it’s a universe that cares about what you believe to a greater extent than ours does. For instance, in the Hitherbyverse, if you make a certain type of promise, you can physically change your “brute fact” reality instead of merely having a possible effect on your social reality. So Martin’s ability to change it is more authorial (or editorial?) than godlike, in a certain sense.

  2. For instance, consider the following problem. You are locked in a room with two doors and an evil logician. The logician says, “If a rational person would choose the left door, then both doors lead to certain death. Otherwise, only the right door leads to certain death, and the left door leads to salvation. Which door do you choose?”

    Easy; I push the evil logician through the left door. Poetic justice if he chose certain death, and salvation (perhaps even redemption) if there was a chance for it. Should he die, I’d never hear from him again and know that all passages lead to certain death. Should he find salvation, no doubt he would soon return to rescue me.

    To paraphrase; Summon Monster I is the ultimate in trap detection.

  3. but a rational person would not choose either door (as RSB said: you’d just be stuck in the room with an evil logician). Therefore you should go through a left door.

  4. Ah, but that sounds like a rational reason for choosing the left door. So left door should be fatal.

    Hm, interesting problem. Maybe if you flip a coin? After all, choosing the right hand door is clearly irrational, so risking choosing it might be irrational enough…

    But that also seems far to rational an answer, so I’ll go with the old standby of beating on the logician until he tells me, and making him go first… (hey, if violence is irrational as some claim, this might be the answer!)

  5. it’s irrational to risk your death just because an evil logician says so, though. just because you have a reason to do something doesn’t mean it’s a rational decision to do it :)

  6. Several options…
    Point out that death is certain in any event, and don’t worry.
    “Choose” the right door, possibly as the subject of a cell-phone photo, and walk through the left.
    Grab the Boolean death ray and blow a hole in the wall.
    Grab the Boolean death ray. Barr the left door. Assay the logician to discover whether he is rational. If he is, make remaining in the room with you a choice worse than death. In this manner, you cause him to choose the right door. All that is necessary for the left door to lead to salvation is that *a* rational person choose the right door, not that *all* rational people do so, so now you can leave. Before sending him through, ask the evil logician if he was planning exactly this for you and if that was his reason for bringing you here.

  7. After thinking about it a bit, perhaps I should have used “Vertigo-esque” instead of “Hitherbyesque” above. Here’s a quote from the preface to the short story collection “the Sandman book of dreams”, preface written by Frank McConnell:

    “We need gods — Thor or Zeus or Krishna or Jesus or, well, God — not so much to worship or sacrifice to, but because they satisfy our need — distinctive from that of all the other animals — to imagine a meaning, a sense to our lives, to satisfy our hunger to believe that the muck and chaos of daily existence does, after all, tend somewhere. It’s the origin of religion, and also of storytelling — or aren’t they both the same thing?”

    I don’t wholly agree with this, but thought that I’d quote it to show that these ideas are sort of floating around at the moment.

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