Let Your Mind Wander When You're Handing It Over (SLEEPY)

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I’ll Explain Later

Kate Orman’s SLEEPY is the book that actually kicks off the Psi-Powers series in any meaningful sense. Which is still not all that meaningful, as the Psi-Powers arc is infamous for its loose connections and lack of general coherence. SLEEPY tells the story of an Earth colony plagued by a mysterious outbreak of psychic powers and the various conspiracies that led to this state of affairs. These latter conspiracies dovetail out beyond the book and take us through almost to the end of the line. Being a Kate Orman book, everyone loves it. Dave Owen called it “one of the most memorable New Adventures to date.” Lars Pearson says it “has Orman at her prime, carving characters and sub-plots with the finesse of a sculptor.” And yet it’s the weak point in Orman’s oeuvre from the Shannon Sullivan poll, coming in at “only” 26th with a 71.8% rating. Of course, another way to put that is that Orman is one of four writers (Cornell, Lane, and Parkin are the others) to have put out multiple New Adventures and had them all in the top half of the charts. DWRG summary. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide entry.

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It’s March of 1996. Oasis are at number one with “Don’t Look Back in Anger.” That lasts a week before Take That enter with “How Deep is Your Love.” That lasts until the end of the month when Prodigy take the number one spot with “Firestarter.” Celine Dion, Boyzone, Bon Jovi, Garbage, and, actually, The Beatles, or, rather, their creepy zombie “record over John Lennon’s old demos” version all also chart. As does the X-Files theme.

In news, John Howard wins election as Prime Minister in Australia. The Dunblane massacre takes place where you’d expect it to as Thomas Hamilton kills sixteen people, fifteen schoolchildren aged five to six. The mad cow disease furor properly breaks out as the British government admits that BSE has likely been transmitted to people, resulting in a ban on the export of British beef. And three British soldiers are sent to prison for life in Cyprus over the death of Louise Jensen.

While in books we get SLEEPY, which, as mentioned, properly kicks off the extremely loosely connected Psi-Powers arc. Perhaps the first question to ask is why there’s such a thing as a Psi-Powers arc in the New Adventures. They’d gone since 1994 without an arc, after all, and it was hardly like people were clamoring. On top of that, there seems like a bit of a letdown in the concept. I remember this being tangible at the time, although it’s difficult to disentangle that from the general sense of limbo that the New Adventures were, by early 1996, firmly in. They were pre-emptively superceded by the TV Movie, which, by the time SLEEPY came out, was only two months away. But there’s something more fundamental than just the fact that this was a plot arc that made its debut under a certain measure of erasure. Simply put, psychic powers feel like a dumb topic for an arc.

It is not clear to me that anybody actually likes psychic powers as a trope. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with them as a concept - it’s merely that there’s also not a lot inherently right about them. They just sort of are. Unlike a lot of sci-fi concepts there’s no real link from them to an interesting insight about human culture or relations. Psychic powers don’t really connect to any larger cultural concept - they don’t instinctively lend themselves as a metaphor for anything as such. And yet they’re remarkably popular. The last big explosion of them that we tracked was in the mid-1970s, when the revived popularity of The Uncanny X-Men and The Tomorrow People coincided across continents. There the image of psychics was linked, in the conscious and deliberate sense, to the fading embers of glam rock’s starchildren (The Tomorrow People, recall, explicitly quotes Bowie’s “Oh You Pretty Things” in its central premise), and unconsciously to homosexuality (The Tomorrow People, recall, explicitly quotes Bowie’s “Oh You Pretty Things in its central premise). But this is an incidental characteristic - the “future evolution of mankind” image, a few decades earlier, was most readily linked to the Nazis.

The connection between psychic powers and a vision of evolutionary teleology is perhaps oblique, but it is nevertheless there. We’ve talked about Doctor Who’s increasingly fraught relationship with the idea of teleology, both in the evolutionary sense and in the broader historical sense, but in this case this should be put in the broader context of the 1990s and the steady deflation of any sense of the future in the first place. We’re at least getting to the point where a new eschatology cropped up, but like the current wave of 2012 doom-mongering that suggests that Oh No It Isn’t will be the last thing I’ll be posting about, it’s really just a placeholder - an apocalypse penciled in like that doctor’s appointment you know you’ll cancel when the actual week of it rolls around. The odometer is ticking over, so we’d best wrap it all up and hastily make some excuse about Fortran.

So on the one hand, there was a flare-up of psychic powers in 1990s media: The X-Files did quite a bit with them, Millennium, and Chris Carter’s next show, played with them too. Babylon 5 had a huge plot about them, which we’ll get to in a few entries. There’s also things like Contact or Phenomenon, a sudden surge in the popularity of the X-Men, and the like. Psychics, in this milieu, were another source of paranoia and conspiracy. The instinctive link between psychic powers and surveillance is obvious enough, but it’s in the 1990s when this really began to emerge, converging inevitably with the rise of the Internet as an implement of paranoia and surveillance. The contemporary descendent of these ideas is the Singularity - the idea that the emergence of the future is a fundamentally eschatological event.

This, then, is the context of SLEEPY and the Psi-Powers arc. This is oddly fitting for the state of affairs in the context of Doctor Who, which was itself facing something of an eschatological future here, with the end of the New Adventures looming, but looming due to what at the time still appeared to be a viable future in the form of the Fox movie. The New Adventures, by and large, are ending with one last engagement with the prospect of the future and reiterating the basic themes of the 1990s.

But SLEEPY in specific adds a further wrinkle to this pile of iconography. The other place where psychics were big business was in the New Age community, where the mid-to-late nineties contained another wave of popular mysticism. And this time the most popular thing was to talk to the dead. And for that you needed a psychic medium. Notably, this is a very different sort of psychic than the psi-powers sense - they don’t read minds, but instead have a nebulously defined access to the afterlife and to spiritual beings. But there’s still the same sort of teleology. The role of psychics as an evolutionary teleology of the species is primarily based on an aggressively anti-materialist strain of thought. That’s why I included Contact on the list up above - because it posits empathic sorts of communication as a trait of the higher species that we’re ostensibly progressing towards. And so even though Contact, as a film adapted from a Carl Sagan book, has a basically skeptical worldview that is openly hostile towards mysticism, there’s still a tacit alliance between its interests and the interests of New Age sorts who want to talk to the dead. Both are discarding the straightforwardly material world in favor of a non-physical or quasi-physical one.

But there’s a big difference between the new age approach of the 1990s and the 60s/70s, and it’s one that goes beyond the specific bits of floofiness that come up. The new age movements of the late 60s and early 70s were largely focused on the pseudoscientific. Von Danniken’s appeal was in part that he had a completely crackpot new age theory that more or less sounded like science and could pretend to be argued that way. And while you’ll still get reams of fake science in mysticism: homeopathy is a particularly and deliciously egregious example, there’s a different relationship with existing science. Von Dannikenism believes that science, done right, can show the way towards the mystical. But 90s New Agers and their descendants tended to be actively hostile to science, viewing science as a poorly conducted process that makes mistakes and, as a social practice, is likely to be full of lies.

Another way to look at this is that sci-fi psychics and New Age psychics reach in different directions. Sci-fi psychics collapses the future towards the present, New Age psychics collapse the past into the present, making the dead immediate and concurrent with our day-to-day life. Sci-fi psychics augur the looming and emerging future, whereas New Age psychics highlight the unerasability of the past.

And SLEEPY firmly has its feet in both sets of iconography. On the one hand it’s got not just psychic powers, but psychic powers that are tied to artificial intelligences - a veritable cornucopia of nineties science fiction iconography. On the other, it’s also got a world in which an ancient religion with a bunch of pyramids and a “cycle of death and rebirth” built around a religious figure called the Turtle. And while for the most part the Turtle’s direct influence on events grows more and more minimal as the story goes on, proving to be a bit of a red herring, Orman still uses the title “Turtle and Phoenix” for the third and final section of the book, indicating that there is a significant weight to the central metaphor.

All of this is lashed to another exploration of the gun/frock distinction - something that becomes explicit late in the novel when Roz comments that “sometimes it’s hard to go from guns to frocks so quickly,” and Benny proclaims that “frocks are the purpose of life… frocks are what it is all about.” But the more important moment comes a few pages earlier when the Doctor confronts the closest thing the story has to a villain, Colonel White, and asks him how he became “so fascinated by ships and guns and orders that you forget about real life,” to which White responds by declaring “this is real life, Doctor. Real history. History is ships and guns and orders.”

The connection between this and the gun/frock debate is straightforward, but there’s a new wrinkle to it that was only alluded to in Set Piece or Human Nature, the last two novels to really get involved in the gun/frock debate. The wrinkle is simple enough: the gun/frock debate is here being tied to one of the more longstanding debates in Doctor Who, which is the nature of history. And Kate Orman, building off of her own approach in Set Piece and some of the inherent point of Human Nature, is finally coming out and saying it: that the material social progress that is the secret of alchemy is not, in fact, big clanging military history. It’s the small and everyday meanderings of life.

This begins to make sense of the otherwise disjointed and strange Psi-Powers arc. It is, as we noted, an arc framed within a series facing a defined terminus. Even if the license weren’t being taken back by the BBC imminently, the degree to which the novels could serve as an extension of and expansion on Cartmel’s version of Doctor Who and McCoy’s performance of the character was going to be dramatically reduced in the near future. The TV Movie was, for better or for worse, about to change what Doctor Who was. And so in the face of a collapsed future they began the Psi-Powers arc, exploring a specific metaphor for the future. But what’s crucial is that the Psi-Powers arc is itself a collapsed arc that does not hold together. Instead of giving a coherent vision of the future it meanders about oddly and awkwardly.

This is the one thing that explains why Cartmel’s novel is what kicks off the Psi-Powers trilogy. The central premise of Cartmel’s trilogy, and indeed his entire oeuvre, was that the important thing to focus on was the lives into which the Doctor intrudes. So to have the end of his contribution to the present of Doctor Who dovetail into the Psi-Powers arc makes perfect sense. Indeed, many of the authors of the Psi-Powers arc seem uncanny in hindsight: two representatives of the past from which this era extended (Aaronovitch and Cartmel), the writer who most defines the Wilderness Years as a whole (Orman), and the defining writers of two of the next phases of the series (Lawrence Miles and Russell T Davies). For an arc that begs to be read as a metaphor for the uncertain nature of Doctor Who’s future, this is almost as perfect a set of writers as could be imagined. All you really need is a book by Dicks or Robinson in there and you’ve got the perfect metaphor.

And so SLEEPY forms the opening salvo in this. On the one hand it presents a world that faces an uncertain or even collapsed future. And it does so within both of the metaphoric frames that Doctor Who has always hung itself: the science fiction frame and the fantasy frame. The story highlights both the uncertainty of an onrushing future and the fact that the past never quite goes anywhere. And then, crucially, having done both of these things it reveals its real point: that the celebration of the ordinary present, as opposed to the vast narratives of the past or of future, is the appropriate answer in the face of these visions of history. Let the history of the program advance. The Virgin era will always be a part of it now, and more to the point, will always be terribly, terribly fun.

Comments

Adam Riggio 4 years, 5 months ago

Some morning musings on the post even more vaguely disconnected than my usuals.

We're getting close to the Sokal Hoax's actual event, and I'm wondering what you're going to make of that. I mean, I know from previous posts back in the day what you think of it, but I'm wondering if it's going to come up again. Because you mention this hostility of mid-90s New Age thinking to science, and I think the unfortunate polarization of public discourse about science called the Science Wars brought this about. The popular image of science was (and largely still is, but a little less so, I think) that it was a reductive enterprise: phenomena are "nothing more than" bodies in motion.

My view of science in my own work is more along the lines of "Bodies in motion can do so much cool stuff!" which I think is more in line with what you describe as the science-focussed angle on psychic powers. This is different from the future-focussed concentration, where psychic powers are the "next step" in some teleological conception of human evolution. The "next step" conception is the centrepiece in the X-Men of Magneto's philosophy, where homo superior takes his hierarchically rightful place.

But my "Look how cool this stuff is!" view of science I think has real potential to get beyond the polarization of Science War hangover. Maybe you can call it an exhaltive view of science, one that, in our world, can include ecological and medicinal catalogues and practices of indigenous peoples in the same general category of building knowledge about the world as laboratory-based Western science and theoretical physics. And I think it's remarkably congruent with Doctor Who (and Fringe, a post I expect to see at least argued about in the comments sections of the late Tennant era). The exhaltive view of science demonstrates joy and fascination at how "the universe is vast and complicated," with no one set of explanations sufficing to cover everything at once.

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J. L. Webb 4 years, 5 months ago

Another fine essay rather abstract today, but the gun/frock 'what is history' connection feels like a major unifying of important thematic strands on this blog.

On the subject of Ms. Orman's fine work i've just finished Seeing I, and i have to say it's a shame it isn't on the reading list for the upcomming. You seemed pretty firm in your choices, but it's a real loss. Roaringly right-on (in a way which most of the othe books in the line handle much more ham-fistedly) stunning character work, and frankly a brilliant homage to The Prisoner as one of it's central plotlines.

But of course you are rather pressed for time, and it is a very long range of books.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 5 months ago

And I like to leave myself some fun for the book versions instead of just having a selection of books I actively didn't want to cover to choose from. Which is ultimately why Just War didn't make the blog - it left me something to look forward to in the McCoy book. Seeing I, similarly, feels skippable enough not to leave a huge hole in the narrative but interesting enough to be fun to go back and cover.

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jane 4 years, 5 months ago

I'm wondering, is the current catchphrase "Get your coat!" a nod in the direction of frocks? Oooh, ooh, and in Flesh and Stone, when the Angels snag the Doctor's coat, is that a way of showing he's losing a bit of his frockishness, what with coming off the gun-waving cliffhanger?

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Ununnilium 4 years, 5 months ago

"But my "Look how cool this stuff is!" view of science I think has real potential to get beyond the polarization of Science War hangover."

Indeed, and I think that's something that's happening in the culture at large - Science Is Awesome.

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Dr. Happypants 4 years, 5 months ago

You know what I have never understood about these "Science Wars" and the popular perception of science as reductive?

I've literally never met an actual scientist who talks about science that way, and I've known bunches of scientists personally and professionally since the late 90s. Every single one of them has had the "look how cool this stuff is!" mentality, and they all are onboard with "no one set of explanations sufficing to cover everything at once." Not all of them are great communicators, and sometimes some of them can be dicks, but if you aren't onboard with different sets of explanations for different situations, you can't do science. At all. Period. Biologists tease physicists about that all the time.

So where do these weird ideas about reductionism and "scientism" even come from? Who gave science this bad image? Was it a generational thing?

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SK 4 years, 5 months ago

Indeed, and I think that's something that's happening in the culture at large - Science Is Awesome.

Really? What evidence do you have for that? I can't think of many mainstream works with that view of science, or Science.

So where do these weird ideas about reductionism and "scientism" even come from? Who gave science this bad image? Was it a generational thing?

The Logical Positivists, I think, and their heirs (who bizarrely still haven't died, out, and indeed seem to be breeding in particular corners of the internet, where they gather around discussion of things like how to make artificial intelligences friendly).

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Ununnilium 4 years, 5 months ago

Really? What evidence do you have for that? I can't think of many mainstream works with that view of science, or Science.

It's a lot of things, but I think the aspect that's most visible is the rise of the mad scientist as heroic figure. This is often paired with a subversion of the supervillain archetype (Megamind, Despicable Me, Dr. Horrible), but not always (Jimmy Neutron/Dexter's Lab).

Other aspects include Bill Nye nostalgia and xkcd strips showing up in news articles.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 5 months ago

I'd say that psychic powers lend themselves to many interesting storytelling tropes. With telepathy alone, you have the ethics of poking into other people's heads, the internal experience of meshing with other people's internal experiences, the surveillance state (as mentioned), the swapping out of physical barriers to communication for emotion - and that's assuming that it's not the kind that involves mind control!

But there are so many possibilities with psychic powers that it's easy to assume you can just use "psychic" itself as a theme. And you can't - it's not one theme, it's a collection of wildly different themes that have to be picked and chosen from lest you end up with a bland mush.

(It's the same problem DC Comics keeps running into where they assume "magic" is a theme. So they shove together characters who are extended meditations on symbolism and characters whose origin is "a wizard did it" and assume it'll just work because "they're all magic".)

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SK 4 years, 5 months ago

It's spelt 'Nighy'.

I think we might have different meanings of 'mainstream'.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 5 months ago

I'd definitely say Dreamworks is mainstream. I see your point, tho.

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Daibhid C 4 years, 5 months ago

Off the top of my head - Fringe (as previously mentioned) A Town Called Eureka, and any documentary that features Dr Brian Cox in any capacity. Oh, and Doctor Who. Apart from the Cox dox I'm not saying any of them have a remotely *accurate* view of science, but they seem to agree it's awesome.

I might also add Discworld, in the sense that it pokes affectionate fun at "Science is Awesome", for instance by suggesting that the whole purpose of chaos theory is to produce "really cool images that look good on a t-shirt".

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Iain Coleman 4 years, 5 months ago

Dr Happypants:

You're quite right. As a research scientist turned science writer, my experience of actual real-life scientists matches yours. I remember the so-called "Science Wars" of the 90s at first hand, and they largely involved various scholars and sociologists making statements about science and scientists that were either trivial or wrong.

As to where these odd ideas come from, well, there are people out there who for various reasons fear, resent or distrust science. Some of these people are idiots or charlatans, such as those who make up daft criticisms of science in order to defend homeopathy. Others are intelligent academics who seem to resent both the cultural position of science and (most especially) the relatively large slice of the public funding pie that goes to the STEM subjects.

But right down at the fundamental level, I think it is because most people are still not prepared to abandon vitalism and teleology.

Science has demolished the idea that there is some vital essence that distinguishes living from non-living matter. Science is not reductionistic, but it is naturalistic. Nobody would try to explain a cow by simulating the quarks and leptons that make it up, but we have confidence that the high-level scientific laws of biology, psychology and so on are ultimately founded on chemistry, which is founded on atomic physics, which is founded on quantum field theory. At no step in the chain from quarks to cows do we need to insert some additional mystical quality or vital essence in order to explain the observed phenomena.

The other problem many people have with science is that it is mechanistic, in that it explains all phenomena with respect to the local physical conditions without any consideration of purpose, of direction towards some future goal. This is something a lot of people find really, really hard to accept. I mean, they aren't too bothered that apples fall off trees because of the local gravitational field, not because they strive to reach the centre of the Earth, but it still very common in popular culture to see evolution treated as if it had some ultimate goal in mind.

So, vitalism and teleology. When people criticise science for being "reductionistic", for "explaining things away", for "saying everything is nothing but atoms", these are the things that I think are really troubling them. They are also important sources of modern horror fiction, from Mary Shelley to Lovecraft.

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Dr. Happypants 4 years, 5 months ago

The Logical Positivists? Jeez. Nobody in science cares about those guys. Heck, we don't even care about them much in math! That ship sailed decades ago.

Fun fact: Wittgenstein was notorious for cruising the parks of Vienna for rough trade. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 5 months ago

See, I would flip that around and say that one of the main reasons is that people assume that science is trying to prove materialism. Which, y'know, it isn't.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 5 months ago

Though, personally, I'd entirely ignore the whole "Science Wars" thing - as I apparently did at the time - and chalk it up to an older set of social movements. Specifically, the science-as-progress theme of the 1940s to the '60s being largely chained to conservatism, leading to the backlash that Dr. Sandifer has mentioned. It took a long time to decouple, in the culture, scientific progress from the evils of the military-industrial complex, and it still isn't complete - witness how much of the completely justified backlash against genetically modified foods is couched in terms of genetic modification itself being evil.

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encyclops 4 years, 5 months ago

SK: I think we're talking about Bill Nye the Science Guy and not Bill Nighy the Guy Shaun's Mom Married.

If someone can explain to me where the "scientism" problem comes from, I hope they can also explain to me why the literature courses I took in college were obsessed with Freud and Jung, while the psychology courses I took conspicuously weren't.

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encyclops 4 years, 5 months ago

Yes, I was going to say...Phil, first you said that psychic powers don't connect to anything, and then you listed a good starting list of the concepts they do connect to, and have been used to connect to in other works. I'll raise my hand as "liking psychic powers as a trope," if such a general statement means anything; I was fascinated by them (and The Tomorrow People, which I have on my shelf and need to watch as an adult one of these days) at almost exactly the same time I got into Doctor Who.

One trope I'd add is the idea that human potential is superior to or desirable over (or just an alternative to) technological enhancement, the best example I know of being Dune (computers outlawed and augmented minds being used for space travel, memory and calculation, and prophecy).

I'm guessing where you're coming from is that you don't find it all that interesting a concept. I generally enjoy it but I do think it's often treated blandly, or as a substitute for having characters actually work to discover things in more dramatic ways, and without taking the trouble to make it mean something. You probably have an "oh god, not again" reaction to it the way I do to alien "Greys." So I get it. :)

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SK 4 years, 5 months ago

Iain: Science is reductionistic when it comes to consciousness (cf Dennett et al) which I think is another stumbling block for many people: their first-hand experience of consciousness is prima facie evidence that 'scientistic' philosophers like Dennett seems to be ignoring, so they see 'scientists' as trying to tell them lies like, 'Qualia are reducible to physical brain-states.'

There's also I think a misunderstanding of Dawkins going on, in that people take the title of The Selfish Gene to mean that Dawkins thinks that our actions are determined by out genetic inheritance combined with the effects of our surroundings on us according to the laws of physics (whereas actually, Dawkins makes a big point of saying that we are the only animals who have the power whether to obey our genetic programming or not, so he clearly doesn't believe in materialistic determinism).

Actually I think Dawkins, one of the heirs to the Logical Positivists I mentioned above, is a big factor in making people hate science. But then a lot of the scientists I know try to distance themselves from him, so.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 5 months ago

I'd say it comes from the skeptic community and its various heirs, including, these days, the New Atheist crowd and, yes, the Less Wrong crowd, both of whom tend to make what strikes me as the same error, which is confusing "what empirically explains X" with "what is a useful way to describe the experience of X." And then declaring that because something is merely the latter it is bad or flawed for not being the former.

Which rather misses the point in a spectacular way.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 5 months ago

You said it perfectly.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 5 months ago

No, it's more that the concept of psychic powers as a metaphor is accreted from the idiosyncrasies of the context in which they were deployed. I mean, the idea of meshing with someone else's internal state, yes, it's a cool idea, but it has no natural analogue that it connects to.

Which differs from, say, robots, which are from the start a metaphor for automation. Or spaceships, which are from the start an expansion of the existing ideas of exploration and imperialism. Psychic powers are a strange spectacle, but not one that naturally connects to anything concrete. Which is a bit odd as sci-fi concepts go - most of them are fairly clearly distortions of existent phenomena. Psychics aren't, really.

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SK 4 years, 5 months ago

With telepathy alone, you have the ethics of poking into other people's heads, the internal experience of meshing with other people's internal experiences, the surveillance state (as mentioned), the swapping out of physical barriers to communication for emotion

But only one of those actually relates to anything in the real world. What can 'the ethics of poking into other people's heads' be used as a trope for? What real thing does it relate to? It doesn't, really.

That's as opposed to, say, cloning, which has obvious things it can be used as a trope for: the desire for immortality, an instrumental view of others depriving them of personhood, creation of an underclass, etc etc. These are all real-world aspects of human nature that can be explored using cloning as a metaphor (that being what a 'trope' is and anybody who uses the work 'trope' as a synonym for 'story element' is wrong and should be shot).

But 'the ethics of looking into people's heads'... what real-world experience does that relate to? I can't look into people's heads, and neither can you and neither will anybody ever be able to. 'If we could do this impossible thing, what would the ethics of it be?' might be an interesting intellectual exercise (though I'd dispute 'interesting') but lacks any relevance to real human nature. Whereas an instrumentalist view of people is a real aspect of the world and is what informs, say, Spares and is why it says something about human nature in a way that a book about psi-powers really can't.

(The one exception I mentioned above is 'the surveillance state' as reading-people's-minds can work as a metaphor for invasive surveillance, on the 'exaggerate to bring into focus' principle).

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SK 4 years, 5 months ago

Less Wrong: the most ironically named site on the internet.

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David Kalat 4 years, 5 months ago

"the completely justified backlash against genetically modified foods"

I want to take issue with the casual assertion that the opposition to genetically modified foods is justified, much less completely justified.

Our entire diet consists of foodstuffs that have been developed and honed by agriculture and technology over thousands if not hundreds of thousands of years. From the simplest things like importing pigs and potatoes to places they never grew naturally to the more elaborate forms of careful breeding (no such thing as a Red Delicious Apple ever grew naturally), we eat foods whose genes have been modified by human science every day.

But the notion of "Frankenfoods" tries to draw a distinction between certain technologies as natural/good and others as unnatural/bad, and the only real distinction seems to be when the technology developed. And so we grandfather in a lot of inefficient techniques while stubbornly resisting efficient ones, without really adhering to a philosophical distinction that you could really defend.

Millions of children die every year from nutritional deficiencies which could be averted or ameliorated by such things as genetically modified "Golden" rice, but activists oppose it on principle. Meanwhile those very activists eat enriched white rice--grown in places rice never grew on its own, processed in modern factories, and then dusted with nutrients to make up for what is missing--all of which is inefficient and not at all natural.

In a few days most Americans will be sitting down to enjoy a meal of turkey--and nearly every single bite of turkey at every Thanksgiving table will involve an animal whose genome has been profoundly altered by human intervention. But as long as that intervention take certain forms (selective breeding, artificial insemination) and not others (direct manipulation of DNA) it isn't seen as problematic.

(I'm not arguing that we should think of intervention as problematic--I'm arguing we should embrace efficient means of intervention without demonizing them as Frankenscience. C'mon--I like Frankenstein!)

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Ununnilium 4 years, 5 months ago

Okay, I'm going to make a statement here which may be controversial: Not every fantastic conflict needs to be a metaphor, analogy or counterpart to a real-world conflict to be interesting as one of the main or secondary conflicts in a story.

One can put a character in a situation where they have to decide whether to infiltrate another person's mind against their wishes and get drama out of that situation without it having ever happened in the real world. And I mean, it's not like you couldn't make that into a metaphor about real-world abuses of power for what's theoretically the greater good. But you don't have to. It functions perfectly well on its own.

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SK 4 years, 5 months ago

All you really need to know about the Organic Foods lobby is that one of their allowed pesticides is copper sulphate.

Yes, that copper sulphate.

But it's pre-industrial, so it's got to be good, right?

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Ununnilium 4 years, 5 months ago

SK: That is really not all you need to know. That's a ludicrous oversimplification, implying that a "lobby" (instead of a movement among consumers) is applying contradictory and dangerous rules for stupid and shortsighted reasons.

But! Since I said something ludicrously oversimplified myself...

David, what you're talking about is exactly what I was objecting to. In fact, the completely justified part is specifically the irresponsible corporate use of genetic modifications, and even more specifically the stupidly common practices of:
a.) Making modifications without testing for safety, whether consumer or environmental.
b.) Quietly and without labeling using a.) as raw materials for all sorts of foods.
c.) Using patent law to control every seed on every farm that grows the GMO food, including accusing places where GMO pollen has spread outside those farms of patent infringement.

It's not that the technique of genetic modification is bad, but it's being used horribly and for the purposes of corporate control in the real world. The latter is what the justified opposition is to, and the danger of conflating it with the former is what I was talking about.

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Josh Marsfelder 4 years, 5 months ago

The people who fueled the science wars were on the one hand those scientists who feel hard science, and in particular physics, is the only field of intellectual study worth pursuing and that anyone who doesn't become a physicist is wasting their time (and the *do* exist: I went to school with them) and on the other social scientists going through an existential crisis in the wake of the post-modernist turn of the 1980s that redefined what things like Anthropology were.

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Iain Coleman 4 years, 5 months ago

SK:

Dennett is a philosopher, not a scientist. Scientists I know who are exploring things like human perception of colour, music and so forth don't seem to go around saying those sorts of things - indeed, it is precisely those areas where subjective experience and objective measurement differ that they find most interesting.

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SK 4 years, 5 months ago

That would be why I described him as a philosopher, and put 'scientists' in quotation marks.

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Iain Coleman 4 years, 5 months ago

Ununnilium:

It may not be necessary for a fantastical concept to relate to a real-world issue in order to get a good story out of it. However, the fact that the best psi-powers novel ever written (Alfred Bester's "The Demolished Man") does connect psi-powers to the surveillance state would certainly suggest that it helps.

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Iain Coleman 4 years, 5 months ago

Fair enough, but it is becoming apparent that a lot of this weird hostility to science is a reaction to things other than science.

More people should read Feynman. His down-to-earth cleverness and insatiable curiosity are much closer to actually existing science than anything written by philosophers.

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Dr. Happypants 4 years, 5 months ago

Thank you, Un! I like the cut of your jib.

There's a whole classic approach to sci-fi after all that doesn't use robots or cloning as metaphors, but throws them into a world and then milks interesting drama out of exploring how humans would react to this strange new intrusion into the world order. It's not just an old Golden Age thing either: Charlie Stross does this sort of thing all the time. As, for that matter, does Doctor Who.

SK...surely telepathy speaks to the most basic human desires for connection and understanding without intermediation and misinterpretation? Allowing us to explore all sorts of weltschmerzy human reactions to the inevitability of miscommunication and error? It's not a metaphor, but surely the trope can help us tell meaningful stories about our nature as speaking beings?

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SK 4 years, 5 months ago

Well that's what I was trying to say. The hostility is due mostly to trying to extend bits of the scientific method (sometimes misunderstood) into domains to which it does not apply.

Which was precisely the mistake the Logical Positivists made, which is why I mentioned them.

Actual scientists tend (there are tedious exceptions; I've met a couple, but they are exceptions) to be aware of the limits of the scientific method. Unfortunately they also tend to look at their feet and mumble a lot, so the louder, more irritating not-scientists-but-claim-to-be are the ones people remember.

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Josh Marsfelder 4 years, 5 months ago

@Iain

This is why I read ethnography of science, not philosophy of science.

I like science. I like scientists. What I don't like is when scientists adopt chauvinistic New Atheist and arch-rationalist beliefs and hold the practitioners of such beliefs up as spokespeople for all of science. Science is about an ever-changing view of what exists and what's possible, not an authoritarian set of rules and regulations to be imposed on the Believers-That's just Asimov's Church of Science.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 5 months ago

Fair enough, but it is becoming apparent that a lot of this weird hostility to science is a reaction to things other than science.

Indeed. It's an annoying human trait to take your anger at something and implicate everything associated with it. (Especially if you can blame a nice, big, vague target, like "science".)

(Or like "religion". scurries off)

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SK 4 years, 5 months ago

Science is about an ever-changing view of what exists and what's possible

No, science is about constructing models to explain observations. It makes no statements at all about what exists.

People who think science makes statements about what exists are exactly the problem.

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Josh Marsfelder 4 years, 5 months ago

Well, that's sort of what I meant: I'll admit it wasn't phrased well. Yes, of course it's a model to explain observations, but its a model people use to help understand that sort of thing. I think if you asked a scientist though that would be close to the answer you'd get.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 5 months ago

Iain: I'm definitely not saying that connecting the two is a bad thing! And generally, finding a good way to connect your themes to real-world concerns strengthens your work. But it doesn't have to be at that one-to-one level. (Also, my one experience with Bester is reading halfway through The Stars My Destination and giving up because I felt absolutely no connection with this character or his quest, so.)

Dr. H: Why thank you! And yes, there are excellent episodes of Doctor Who that just put people in a weird situation and explore their actions and reactions, without referring to any themes more specific than human emotions and the character's reasons for doing what they do.

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Dr. Happypants 4 years, 5 months ago

Fun fact: I once applied to teach at the Less Wrong guy's Center for Modern Rationality.

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encyclops 4 years, 5 months ago

SK, oil up your gun: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trope

Are we going to claim that stories about time travel are inherently uninteresting because there is no natural analogue that time travel connects to? Or are you going to tell me the missing element in "robots:automation::spaceships:imperialism::time travel:??" that is less tenuous than "telepathy:communication" or "precognition:criminal profiling" or "clairvoyance:surveillance state"?

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SK 4 years, 5 months ago

The thing about Wikipedia, see, is that it's mostly written by people who are wrong.

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storiteller 4 years, 5 months ago

Well that's what I was trying to say. The hostility is due mostly to trying to extend bits of the scientific method (sometimes misunderstood) into domains to which it does not apply.

I don't know about at the time of the "Science Wars," but I think now the social study of science is much more interested in critiquing how science is used and abused by non-scientific authorities than the scientific process itself. We discussed this in graduate school a lot, and we tended to look at how society looks at science, which almost always lacks the subtlety that scientists themselves have. Society, particularly politics, often portrays science as an either/or proposition. Either it explains everything and is without any problems whatsoever, done by objective scientists with no identity. Or science is all wishy-washy stuff that changes all of the time and is motivated strictly by scientists' personal feelings. The second one is obviously problematic, as it fuels creationism and the continuing argument over "climate science." The first can be just as dangerous, even if it doesn't seem that way. Policymakers can use that perspective to justify a lot of bad policy under the from-authority argument of "because science says so." It can also lead to bizarrely anti-science perspectives and policies, such as can be seen in the recent guilty judgment of the Italian seismologists. Much of the current "science studies" field is interested in probing that dualism and trying to communicate about science in a way that breaks down that dualism instead of reinforcing it. I'm a science communicator, so I'm particularly interested in that aspect.

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Iain Coleman 4 years, 5 months ago

That certainly sounds a much more productive and credible research programme than some of the stuff that was being bandied about in the 90s.

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BerserkRL 4 years, 5 months ago

The fact that defenders of naturalism think anti-naturalists (must) believe in "some additional mystical quality or vital essence" is part of the reason we call naturalists reductionistic. Everything we say about constitutive conditions, naturalists reinterpret as claims about causal conditions.

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Adam Riggio 4 years, 5 months ago

Storiteller: There's another problem with the popular view of science as an absolute consensus of the scientific community that explains perfectly how everything works, is totally objective in the strongest sense of the term, and where scientists never disagree. With that premise in mind, all that a creationist or a climate change skeptic needs to "disprove" rhetorically a scientific claim is to find one or two dissenters or a couple of divergent views within the broadly agreed consensus. If the public view of science is monolithic, then finding any dissent on a topic makes that topic "controversial," and so not settled. But any view of science that says settling a concern means there's no longer any dissent at all is ridiculous.

I wrote some of these ideas in more detail on social-epistemology.com earlier this year, if you want to check it out (and drive up the traffic a little!).

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BerserkRL 4 years, 5 months ago

Which differs from, say, robots, which are from the start a metaphor for automation

But robots were multivalent from the start; R.U.R. is a dramatisation of both the workers' fears of being replaced by machines and the capitalists' fear of being replaced by workers (as well as Capek's broader fears about dehumanisation generally). Thus robots from the start symbolised both automation and human workers.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 5 months ago

Well, yes, but my point is less about the singularity of the metaphor as it is about how practical and concrete a concept it refers to.

I'm certainly not saying that psychic powers cannot work. I'm saying that the concept of a seven book cycle about them inspires more of a "... really? That's what you're doing?" than other concepts, particularly given that psychic powers weren't some big pre-existing concept in Doctor Who either, so the arc really did come out of left field a bit.

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jane 4 years, 5 months ago

time travel:memory

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encyclops 4 years, 5 months ago

I didn't say they were right. I just implied that you'd have quite a lot of them to shoot.

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BerserkRL 4 years, 5 months ago

Also defenders of naturalism have this idea that "teleology" involves some kind of spooky supernatural causal relation. Of course there have been teleologists who have thought this - but they are hardly where the action is in the philosophy of teleology.

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Matthew Blanchette 4 years, 5 months ago

Fun Fact: I just re-read a book on my shelf about World War I... apparently, the "frock" term stems from what Lloyd George wore to the Versailles Conference.

The commentator who made the remark was bitter that men who had been able to sit this horrible war out now decided the peace, and where to draw national lines. The commentator, who I believe was a former soldier, was disgusted.

Funny how terms shift over a hundred years, eh? ;-)

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Matthew Blanchette 4 years, 5 months ago

Wikipedia, however, manages to be quite good at self-correction. ;-)

It's also amazing what stands the test of time: I remember writing the bit in the Julius Caesar article concerning the Theatre of Pompey and Caesar being "blinded by blood, he tripped and fell" in... oh, must've been eighth or ninth grade. It's still there, to my eternal pride. :-)

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Josh Marsfelder 4 years, 5 months ago

@Storiteller, Adam, RL

Absolutely. As someone trained in that particular field, I'd say you've all pretty much hit the nail on the head. It's not about the process per se so much as it is the way the process is used/abused/understood/misunderstood and recognising how things are translated in different sociocultural contexts.

Sadly, those fighting the Science Wars tended to lack that kind of perspective.

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encyclops 4 years, 5 months ago

I always got the sense that the Science Wars were maybe 20% intelligent debate and 80% "my team would kick your team's ass in a fight." Can't we all just get along?

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encyclops 4 years, 5 months ago

We've already covered that, at least in the Doctor Who usage, "frock" and "frock coat" are two different things, right?

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encyclops 4 years, 5 months ago

But I can't remember the future, and I can't change my memories, so by SK's logic as I understand it, we're not relating it to a "real-world experience."

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encyclops 4 years, 5 months ago

I'll cheerfully agree it's a little overly general as the focus of a "story arc." I find the idea of a seven-New Adventure arc about robots or spaceships a little general too, so I guess all I'm saying is that I don't think (the debatable proposition) "it isn't a trope" is the reason why.

Un: Was it because of Bester's writing, or because the protagonist is a flaming asshole?

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Ununnilium 4 years, 5 months ago

Dr. Sandifer: Yeah, that's a very good point.

There's something else weird here, too, about the subjects of the NA arcs. "Alternate History", "Psi-Powers", "Future History"... these all seem to be "the TARDIS randomly ends up in a themed set of settings for a few trips". Which, uh, isn't really an arc as such.

encyclops: Both, really. I mean, the latter was the main thing, but the tone of it... well, when you've got lines like "the war (like all wars) was the shooting phase of a commercial struggle"...

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jane 4 years, 5 months ago

Ah, but it's a metaphor, so it necessarily breaks down. As for remembering the future, we do it all the time, making plans, anticipating moments of joy and potential disasters; at the same time, we are always altering our memories of the past -- memory being notoriously unreliable, not to mention how we block out or even mythologize/symbolize particularly traumatic events.

And, perhaps, the only way we can even conceive of "time" is through memory. Without memory, we'd be ever locked into the present. (Though, to be fair, our primary metaphor for understanding time is a spatial metaphor; time-travel is predicated on spatial travel.)

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Christopher Haynes 4 years, 5 months ago

There's also TV Tropes, which is mostly written by people who are casual and humorous.

http://tvtropes.org/

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Matthew Blanchette 4 years, 5 months ago

I don't believe we'd mentioned the Lloyd George connection, though...

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encyclops 4 years, 5 months ago

Ah, but it's a metaphor, so it necessarily breaks down.

Q.E.D. No further questions, your honor. :)

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jane 4 years, 5 months ago

Not QED -- it's the metaphor that makes it interesting. Before it necessarily breaks down (at the edge of every map may it be written, Here Be Dragons) there's all kinds of interesting connections to be made.

It's even better when the story works as a metaphor for the personal issues the characters are facing. The End of The World, for example, introduces Rose to what the Doctor's just gone through -- and it facilitates her understanding of him, all the while functioning as an exciting story in its own right. (It also works as a metaphor for the inevitability of death, which is always fine by me.)

And, I'd argue, the same employment of metaphor and analogy makes stories like The Happiness Patrol much more interesting than, say, The Ice Warriors, which is nothing more than a base under siege. Well, if you're interested in more than popcorn-munching thrills, that is.

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Iain Coleman 4 years, 5 months ago

BerserkerRL:

I don't want to dismiss something out of hand based on just a blog post, but I found the account of constitutive conditions in the linked post very unconvincing. The relationship it puts forward between mathematics and science (in this case, geometry and chemistry) is at best naive. But perhaps a fuller and more systematic account would be more convincing.

I'm a bit more concerned by the argument that philosophy of mind has no need of neurobiology. To take just one well-known result, consider the findings that in some cases our body's physiological action occurs prior to our mind's conscious decision to take that action. Forget about disciplinary labels, I would think that anybody who was really interested in the nature of mind would be absolutely fascinated by that result, which goes against so much of our intuition and introspection. This sort of thing is fertile ground for philosophers and neuroscientists to work together. Most interesting work these days happens across disciplinary boundaries, after all. To put up barriers, to say that you don't need to know anything that Plato didn't know - I can see how that might be a defensive move in some academic turf war, but I don't see how it has anything to do with a real curiosity about the nature of mind.

Conceptual and empirical questions are not separate - they interact, and feed off one another.

And to riff off one of your other points, you talk about "where the action is" in philosophy. In general, scientists who get involved in public arguments about these sorts of issues have a very different idea about "where the action is". For them the action is in schools screwing up the teaching of biology out of theological prejudice. It's in patients and the public being ripped off by bogus medical treatments. It's in unvaccinated children dying of preventable diseases. The kinds of philosophical errors underlying these issues might seem trivial or naive to you, but because they have real harmful effects outwith the world of academic discourse, that's where scientists are motivated to get engaged. COnversely, the more elevated discourse to which you allude doesn't appear on the radar of many scientists.

One might well ask why this is being done by scientists, rather than by philosophers who one might think would be better qualified to do it. Perhaps they think the scientists are doing a fine job. Personally, I prefer it when the task is taken up by comedians. Tim Minchin's "Storm" and Dara O'Briain's "Get in the feckin' sack" are worth more than any number of po-faced Skeptics.

This all ties back to the Sokal hoax, which kicked off this whole digression. Sokal's explicit motivation was about real-world politics. He was not particularly bothered about some scholars saying silly things about science, but he was concerned about the harmful effects of that discourse upon left-wing political activism. Interestingly, Bruno Latour seems to have recently rowed back on some of the positions he took in the 90s, because of what he regards as their undesirable political consequences.

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encyclops 4 years, 5 months ago

I love metaphor and analogy, and I totally agree it makes stories interesting. What I was trying to propose was that time travel is not more completely connected to "real-world phenomena" than telepathy, and that neither is inherently less interesting as a science fiction concept than robots or spaceships.

I feel as if you're saying you agree with me, but I could be wrong. Sometimes I feel that I'm not even speaking the same language as some of the commenters here and maybe I should just shut up.

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elvwood 4 years, 5 months ago

I feel as if you're saying you agree with me, but I could be wrong. Sometimes I feel that I'm not even speaking the same language as some of the commenters here and maybe I should just shut up.

Please don't. I sometimes feel the same way, although I don't post as often; but it's no reason not to join in! (I find your contributions interesting, BTW.)

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encyclops 4 years, 5 months ago

Thanks. :) Glad to hear I'm not just babbling senselessly. And the feeling is mutual.

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SK 4 years, 5 months ago

Stories about time travel, ie, that deal with the mechanics of time travel rather than just using it as a device to start the plot by dumping some characters in a time not their own, are inherently uninteresting, yes.

Well, I suppose they could be 'interesting' in the sense of an intellectual exercise, but they aren't going to say anything about the human condition, so they're pretty empty.

See for example Blink, which even Moffat has said is an emotionally empty piece of nonsense, that has nothing going for it except its own clever-cleverness. and clever-cleverness is easy, it's saying something real that's hard.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 5 months ago

IMHO, what it has going for it is being a tight, effective horror story in an anthology format.

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