The Anthropomorphic Problem

Hello dear readers. I have been writing, as I mentioned last time, and I have been writing something I really like. I think I have done Good Work. This doesn’t always happen – sometimes writing may simply be a case of getting the plot from point A to point B (although hopefully it doesn’t ever read like that) – but this most recently-completed chapter of The Wings of the Dawn is something I am really pleased with. I think it works.

And this is despite of an act of wilful self-sabotage. Way back when I started thinking about writing this trilogy – 12 years ago, saints preserve us – I set myself a bunch of rules, most of which I have been surprisingly good about keeping. One of them which has proven more tricky to adhere to, though, was this one: Thou Shalt Not Muck About With The Anthropomorphic Problem.

What, you may be asking, is the Anthropomorphic Problem?

The Anthropomorphic Problem was something I first came across explicitly in the novel Sphere, by Michael Crichton, when I was about 14 (14, incidentally, is a good age to be reading Michael Crichton). You can read the relevent scene here (and I encourage you to do so, because it’s a fun read) but if you haven’t the patience then allow me to lay it out for you.

We are human beings. Our perceptions of the world are fundamentally human. We have no idea what it is like, for instance, to be a bat: the most we can accomplish is to imagine what it would be like if we were bats. Which would be physically bat-like, but mentally nowhere close. This is the anthropomorphic problem: we cannot imagine a different, non-human, mode of thought.

For slightly different (but not fundamentally different) reasons, this is a problem that particularly afflicts theologians and writers of science fiction. I dabble in both but it is the latter category that has exercised me most recently. You see, I managed to oversimplify my own commandment. I had assumed I – or my 16-year-old self – had simply meant ‘leave out E.T.’. So I did. But I managed to trip myself up with a variety of new and exciting rakes-in-the-long-grass, like Artificial Intelligence (I should really have recognised the question behind the one posed by the title of Philip K. Dick’s famous novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and evolved, post-physical humans. Both creations require radically different thought processes.

So in this most recent chapter I decided ‘sod it, I’m going to throw in an alien’. And you know what? It was fun. My solution to the Gordion Knot of the anthropomorphic problem, in this instance, was to pretend it didn’t exist. I didn’t have to explain the alien, you see; I just had to present it as viewed by my characters, who see it as being an incomprehensible entity.

It also enabled me to write a scene that pays homage to my favourite author, China Mieville (yes, him again. I know I keep going on about him, but as I just said: favourite author). And I can throw in a bunch of other cool references too, like H.P. Lovecraft and his ‘Great Old Ones‘, and those scenes in submarine movies where they’re trying to find the enemy submarine, listening carefully for the giveaway sound that will tell them where lies their foe.

I’m aware that this all sounds like it makes very little sense. It does, I promise. Look, here’s the alien’s introduction for you, so that you can see what I mean:

“Captain Dutch this is Captain Ewen on Resilient. We may have someth – ”

Before the foremost corvette space seemed to twist, the glowing bulk of the background galaxy suddenly distorting as though seen in a fairground mirror. From the malformation a pale and sickly bulk emerged, something a little like an angler fish, enormous eyes gleaming with a baleful intelligence. A widening gape showed wicked rows of serrated teeth, a jaw hinged in a parody of a grin somewhere up behind the creature’s eyes. Its body was long and sinuous, and it rippled in occulted undulations, phasing through congruent dimensions.

You see? Big fishy alien thing, moving in very strange ways, undeniably organic, hideously vital, utterly other, and haunting the gaps between galaxies. The creature’s name, incidentally, is ‘Smiler’. Because it’s always fun to take a nice name – in this instance, one popularly used here in Scotland to speak of small happy babies – and give it some other, far more disturbing connection.

Anyway, all this got me thinking about rules, and the rules I set myself, and the rules I keep and the rules I break. (I am referring solely to my books, lest ye worry this is all about to go a bit metaphysical). I have, for instance, set myself what seems like a fairly arbitrary rule that says ‘Thou Shalt Have 10,000 Words Per Chapter, More Or Less’. But actually, this turns out to be a very good and helpful rule. 10,000 words is a lot, granted – it’s as long as my Masters thesis – but I find it gives me enough space to allow the narrative to breathe. If you keep piling momentous action after momentous action you are going to exhaust your reader and keep your characters small. Characters, like sunflowers, need space to grow properly. And when momentous actions do occur they too have room to be properly momentous: you can keep your pace fast without it seeming in any way rushed.

Another rule was ‘Thou Shalt Box A Little Bit Clever With The Structure, Lest Ye Find Yourself Bogged Down’. My books involve a lot of characters, doing a lot of things, at the same time. The only sane way to write such a narrative is via cutaways – in other words, I write about what character A is up to; then, as soon as is seemly (ie character A runs out of steam) we cut away to character B, to see what they’re up to. In this way, the narrative is able to progress through incident and without any of that tedious ‘A did this and then this and then this and then this and then this until eventually something exciting happened’. I am very fortunate in that the universe my books are set in usually seems to have something exciting happening somewhere, and I can simply show up, write about it, and move on.

Then there was ‘Thou Shalt Pay Attention To Dialogue, And Whilst Thou Might Clean It Up A Bit And Make It Snappy, Thou Shalt Not Go Overboard’. I like good dialogue. I love good dialogue. It took me a while to learn that although there is the temptation to spend hours on every line, punching it up until each character speaks as though their words are about to explode right off the page in front of you, you can’t do that – for two reasons. Firstly, that dialogue will simply become background noise to the novel, which will weaken it; and secondly – the far more serious concern – nobody talks like that. And nobody talks like that is a horrendous problem for any novel to face. I am currently reading my way through E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith‘s classic Lensman series and I have to tell you, it may well be a classic of the genre but there is some howlingly awful dialogue in there. In the last third of the first book, Triplanetary, Boy meets Girl and wow their conversations are something to behold. We may all point and laugh at JRR Tolkien’s women but I’m here to tell you that he is Jane Austen in comparison. I like to think – by which I mean I hope devoutly – that my female characters are well away from the Tolkien/Smith end of the spectrum, but those authors do serve to illustrate the point that unrealistic dialogue can completely hobble a narrative. If you don’t believe in the characters you don’t believe in the story, and if you don’t believe in the story are you really going to bother to keep reading it?

And yes, I do mean ‘believe in the story’. I have a theory at the moment – it only occurred to me yesterday, so I shall have to polish it up some more – the bare bones of which are these: My favourite genres of fiction are Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy. The reasons they are my favourite are 1) It is perfectly permissable – indeed, encouraged – to yield to flights of pure and soaring imagination; 2) Not unrelatedly, they are the least constrained genres of fiction, certainly as regards content; and 3) they are the most fundamentally honest genres of fiction.

I am still working on the third part, trying to dress up what is mostly a gut instinct with proper reasoning, but I still believe it to be true. I whole-heartedly agree with Terry Pratchett’s assertion that what his Discworld books are for is holding up a mirror to the face of the world to let it see itself. I think there is a fundamental honesty in writing fiction far off the beaten track of quotidian human experience because in order to populate it with people your characters must be recognisably human like you or I. We are scared by horror because we empathise with the plight of those suffering. And we can be honest because there is the figleaf of narrative distance: since wars are even now failing to break out between marauding fleets of starships we can pretend that the author’s points about the very real nature of suffering in wartime are somehow equally removed from reality – even though we know they’re not. The figleaf is the distance: the thing it hides is the reality lying close enough to touch.

As for me, I tend not to worry about this sort of thing when I’m actually, y’know, sitting down with my novelist’s hat on and writing down the next exciting thing that happens. What I mostly worry about is continuity stuff (“Can this happen the way I’ve described it? Have I said something earlier that invalidates what I’m saying now?”) , or figuring out what is the next cool thing I’m going to write about after I finish with the current cool thing I’m in the middle of. And this is a genuine concern, because I am not an inexhaustible supply of cool (rumours to the contrary notwithstanding).

But mostly these concerns are back-of-the-mind stuff, because when I’m sitting writing I am doing something I love a very great deal. I love to sit and write; I love the feeling my friend Jo has described as “that feeling you get when you’re writing something you’re really into, that squirmy, fizzing feeling that puts a bounce in your step, makes you smile to yourself for no apparent reason and sometimes keeps you awake at night“. And what keeps me coming back to the page is the knowledge that I have other, cooler things still to write about. I could tell you…but I won’t, because that would spoil the fun. So believe me when I tell you this much: Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls, you ain’t seen nothing yet 😉

Your moment of Zen for today:

LMS Jubilee ‘Australia’ prepares to depart Perdido Street at the head of a Pullman train.

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About Gavin

I am a 32-year-old PhD student in Aberdeen, Scotland. I work in QC at an e-learning company. I'm originally Northern Irish, though I've lived here in Aberdeen for several years. I am, essentially, somebody who is very normal, yet to whom very strange things keep happening...
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3 Responses to The Anthropomorphic Problem

  1. eruntane says:

    A few thoughts, some more serious than others:

    1. I would never dream of pointing and laughing at anyone as badass as Eowyn. Never mind her dialogue – chain mail is *heavy*. That said, I heartily agree with you about the importance of believable dialogue. I recently read a novel by David Gibbins, who may know his stuff when it comes to marine archaeology but can’t write character or dialogue for toffee. The experience was painful, and not one I intend to repeat.

    2. Funny you should say that about belief in the story; it was only this week that I remarked to Chris that although writers, when asked for one piece of advice they would give to aspiring writers, usually respond with something along the lines of “keep a diary and write regularly”, possibly the best piece of advice I can think of would be “find the story that you really want to tell and then tell it”. I believe I even cited your 12 years of labour on the Fulcrum War as an example.

    3. With regard to what Terry Pratchett said about the Discworld, that may have been true once but I’m not sure it is any more. It seems to me these days that he holds a mirror up to the world and then grades it like a one-man judging panel at a beauty pagent.

    4. I look forward to the coolness yet to come (and I don’t mean the remainder of this excuse for a summer that we’re currently having.)

    • starlingford says:

      In response to your response:

      1. When I said ‘J.R.R. Tolkien’s women’ I didn’t mean ‘J.R.R. Tolkien’s female characters’, I meant ‘women as written by J.R.R. Tolkien’. Eowyn may well be badass, as you say, but that is something that comes across much more clearly in the films than the books. There’s a reason for that…

      2. I am honoured to be a George household citation!

      3. Judgement has always been part of it. Even the *title* of ‘Equal Rites’ puts forth an agenda…

      4. I want a proper summer too…and to talk about a man who can clear the skies with a gesture, and a woman who would challenge a god…

  2. seraphism says:

    Hear, hear! I am genuinely looking forward to the finished article (and genuinely shocked that you relented and admitted an alien into your mythos).

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