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Fiction and the social and natural sciences

December 6, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

If there’s one thing 8 years on Wisteria Lane should have taught you, it’s this: if you want to kill someone you have to actually see them dead – shot, set on fire, buried, exhumed and minced. Hit-and-run is more like a kind of challenge – an opening gambit in an ongoing conflict, which probably won’t be resolved for two seasons, by which time it will have killed, exiled or split up a dozen or more unrelated characters.

Roger of Roles, Rules and Rolls is skeptical about ev psych explanations of monsters as bricolaged ancestral fears. Spoiler – me too! It seems to me we’re deep in the unattestable here. And that reminds me that I’m often confused by the eclecticism of academic humanities reading lists, which freely mix possibly-distorted observations (ethnography) with out-and-out speculative fiction (Jung, Foucault, f’rinstance) and quantitative data. Sure, as a good postmodern I should treat all of it with the same level-or-lack of credulity and withhold judgment, but I can’t. Sorry. In particular, I just can’t read over a line like “cognitive fluidity and mythmaking emerged during the Middle Paleolithic” without being thrown right out of the narrative. How could you know that? shouts all over whatever the person is saying next.

But now I’m wondering if there’s some genre-savvy, fiction-based physics I can use both in my (endlessly paused) game design and my academic work. I guess I’m asking if we can make creative use of confirmation bias, rather than seeking futilely to avoid it.

I don’t know what to do with that thought, yet. If it makes anyone else think anything, please pipe up in comments. From my half-baked wanderings, taking the dragon example from Roger’s link, we “know” that dragons are threatening in the West but friendly/kingly in China and Mesoamerica, which was settled from China/Mongolia across the Bering Strait ice bridge back in the time of legends. So are dragons actually Chinese/Mongolian (Hun) in origin, turning an invader face westward and a benevolent dictator face east? Does the Dragon Throne invade our dreams? Was Vlad Dracul ancestrally Han? We “know” that ship captains are cruel and pursers are greedy: can we make those jobs strongly favor those behaviors? Are pursers forced into greed by secret expenses? Are merchants grasping and penny-pinching because they have to pay extortionate strong-arm tolls? Does wasted money have a gravitational pull that threatens to empty the generous merchant’s purse?

The classic for this sort of noodling is why do monsters live underground? and there’s a whole literature already out there about mythic underworlds and hells and so on. But monsters also come down from the sky (or overworld, if you like). What if the surface, where men live, is really an interface zone between two different planes – locally “over” and “under”? Monsters (and treasure) are produced by interaction between the planes, like nylon – and any interplanar boundary is liable to produce its own distinctive phenomena – while the “interiors” of the planes would be largely inert. Until interacted with by, say, an adventuring party. If that’s the case then delves into the underworld should spawn their own threats and treasures, something like fulgurites. And lords and kings – who are all, remember, retired high-level dungeoneers – send lowly apprentice adventurers off into caves not to empty them, but as catalysts – controlled reaction surfaces – to populate and extend and define them, ready for subsequent looting (whether multiple unrelated adventuring parties provoke different, overlaid or malleable underworlds by their separate actions and experiences is left as an exercise for the reader).

So why, then, do bigger monsters-and-treasure cluster at lower levels of the underworlds? More reagent is available, for one – it’s not already being taken up with thousands of micro-events topside. But maybe there are also pockets of super-reagent to be found below the surface – intra-planar whorls of concentrated adventure-potential. Probably the laughing magician would know ways of dowsing for them, and would send his best victims agents to poke them vigorously check them out (I note in passing that his jokes are frequently described as mordant – ie both bitingly painful and capable of fixing fugitive colours to stable fabric).

ETA: reader cdk suggests the best products are predominantly of one plane or the other, and either sink or float. Or maybe it’s more like this and a catalyst from one plane intermingles with a flow from the other plane and sinks down where it reacts with the rich, previously inert [lower depths|upper reaches]. I recommend clicking that link right there. It’s the scariest one in this post. It’s a whole damn D&D dungeon, courtesy of David Attenbrough.

What of gate spells that connect planes normally kept entirely separate? Why do they so often generate mollusciform megaphenomena?

Natalie Zemon Davis has an interesting reversal of this principle of interface-mining for precious metals in 16th century Spain: what do you do if your local economy is suddenly flooded with gold? Leech some of it back out again by locking it up in church decor. Or, to put it another way, make it into a gift to the overworld.

* bonus video: this organic chemistry video is awfully quiet. Maybe some pseudo-medieval minstrelsy? Hey-nonny-nonny! (That’s hexatregomethane-nonny-nonny to you.)

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