Tag: philosophy

why I write; what you can expect here; relationship between fiction and software

Writing Is Transgressive

Chuck Wendig posted an interesting piece about how writing is profane [link: ]. It’s a good piece, but it’s not what was in my head when I read the title.

What I was thinking of was how writing is transgressive: that when you write your truth and reach deep down inside to bring back the blood that pours from your wounds you are transgressing social norms. Even if you are writing in the same area, your own voice must in some way be different or unexpected to be successful.

I’ve written a little on this topic before, so I’ll just link to that for now.

Transgression and art.

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Russell Stories

Bertrand Russell was a very interesting fellow, who led a full and conscious life.

The Logician’s Tale

I first came across Russell in Gödel, Escher, Bach. He was portrayed as being at the centre of a vigorous discussion on the potential for consistency and completeness in mathematics.

The story goes roughly like this.

Gottlob Frege was a logician who wrote two books about the use of set theory as the basic operations of mathematics. It was a magnificent work, but Russell came up with a counter example (generally termed Russell’s Paradox [link]) which fatally undermined Frege’s work just prior to the publication of the second volume. Frege still published it, but with an afterword that acknowledged the truth of Russell’s discovery.

Russell (in collaboration with Alfred North Whitehead) then began a related effort to build a consistent and complete proof of mathematics, taking (for example) several hundred pages to prove that 1 + 1 = 2. This effort was also based on set theory, modified with specific qualifications to rule out the paradox that Russell himself had described.

However, after the book was published, a young German mathematician by the name of Kurt Gödel then proved that the idea of a consistent and complete proof of all of mathematics was impossible: he published two papers, the upshot of which was that a mathematical system which was consistent could not be complete, while one which was powerful enough* to have a shot at completeness could not be consistent. In other words, in order to contain no potential for contradictions a system would have to be weak enough to not be useful.

I love Gödel’s result, because it (and Turing’s formulation of it in his work on the Halting Problem) says a lot about how there are some things in computing which are simply impossible. That is wonderful thing to know, because software has no physics but you have to obey the laws of mathematics just like everyone else.

This story is expounded upon in much more length in the book Logicomix which I was delighted to receive for Christmas. It’s not just about Russell but it is told with Russell as the narrator, and goes into splendid detail on the mathematico-philosophical developments of the early 20th century.

Logicomix also describes the work of Wittgenstein in a way that I almost understood. I tried to follow Wittgenstein a few years ago and got very lost. So, recommended for providing a number of useful maps.

The Public Philospher

Russell was also well known as a public philosopher, educating the public on his ideas and those of other philosophers. It is in this vein that I offer another Russell nugget, his ten commandments:

  1. Do not lie to yourself.
  2. Do not lie to other people unless they are exercising tyranny.
  3. When you think it’s your duty to inflict pain scrutinize your reasons closely.
  4. When you desire power examine yourself closely as to why you deserve it.
  5. When you have power use it to build up people not to constrict them.
  6. Do not attempt to live without vanity, since this is impossible, but choose the right audience from which to seek admiration.
  7. Do not think of yourself as a wholly contained unit.
  8. Be reliable.
  9. Be just.
  10. Be good-natured.

These seem like good rules to follow, with or without the Abrahamic ten commandments in your life.

Go forth and live well.

[*] where “powerful enough” can be broadly described as “having the potential for self-reference”.

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Transgression and art

Early in 2012, a study was published which demonstrated a correlation between creativity and immorality*.

Far from being offended by this, I thought it was almost a trivial observation: creative people will naturally tend to think of things that others do not, which may be interpreted as immorality in those with a more conformist mindset.

The thing is that art is often a transgressive activity: creative people look for new things to say and new ways to say them, and this thinking of the unthought can lead to thinking the unthinkable. Making art obviously doesn’t lead inevitably to murder and bestiality, but it may lead to questioning social assumptions.

One interesting question I often see on writing forums is some variant on “can I do this?”: can I write a book about vampires when there are already so many? Can I write a story with a puppy turning into a dragon and then destroying all cats?

I usually refrain from answering because it seems to me to be the wrong question. Writing is not about seeking permission. If you are looking for permission to write something, then I would argue that you’re fettering your creativity before you start. Write about whatever you want: vampires, dragons, vampire dragons, vampire dragons in rockets flying to the moon… all of it is fair game.

Where things get tough is whether anyone will want to read what you write – will your book, the umpty-tumpth vampire novel, find an unjaded audience? Will space-faring vampire dragons be perceived as too silly to read? Is what you write going to be interesting to a reader?

This is where the transgression comes in, I think, as well as risk. If you write about something that is unacceptable or uncomfortable to some people, then they decide not only not to read your book but that they should appeal to others to not read your book also. This is where things like library bans for innocuous books like Harry Potter come from: someone gets the idea that any sympathetic portrayal of the supernatural is promoting satanism, and *boom*! the book is banned in schools**. But if you write about things that others are not then you say things that many will want to read.

The alternative, really, is to write the same thing as everyone else, and who really wants to read more of the same thing?

[*] the link rather amusingly suggests there is a link between creativity and immortality, which is almost exactly untrue.

[**] I did look for specific examples of Potter being banned, and this series is apparently now the most banned book in the US the only specific example of a banning which my superficial search found was of a church school in Kent.

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The Perils of Science Fiction

We are all living in science fiction.

Science fiction is the fiction of ideas. The concepts expressed in the pages of stories and in the images of film have been inspirational to scientists and the general public alike: communication satellites, the Internet, tablet computers – all of these have been made real in the wake of stories featuring them.

The problem for authors is that science and society sometimes move faster than ideas can be written.

This is especially true of near future SF, of course. Charles Stross (Charlie’s Diary) wrote Halting State and then watched as his technological predictions came true. His sequel to Halting State was pre-empted by actual events when the plot was played out by one Bernie Madoff (and was ever a crook so perfectly named as he made off with the money?).

The reworked sequel, Rule 34, seemed more fanciful – well-grounded fantasy to be sure, but quite fantastic all the same. Then I saw this story in The Guardian –

Download, print, fire: gun rights initiative harnesses 3D technology

There are echoes here of the HEAP gun from Cryptonomicon also, with the emphasis on producing guns for personal defense (HEAP standing for Holocaust Education And Prevention). The question is how printing of barrels and  receivers is supposed to work – as someone I know who is experienced with 3D printing pointed out, most printing fabricators make models which are brittle, that do not deal well with mere rough handling, let alone the pressures of explosive ammunition.  The HEAP gun in Stephenson’s book required barrels to be brought in from some external source – maybe something like that is needed here too. That Guardian piece includes a claim of having fired 200 rounds from a printed receiver, but that may have been using an industrial fabricator – others in the same piece said that the guns could best be considered single use. The risk of personal injury seems very high.

For my own work, I try to avoid the very near future. A Turquoise Song is set 75 years hence, for example, which is close enough to be predictable but far enough away that I am unlikely to be embarrassed by anything I predict.

Still, we truly are living in science fiction.

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Identity Function

Welcome to my writing blog.

I used to have a blog called “Why Should I Listen To You?” It was important to me for a while, but it was always an unfocussed place and its relevance to my life diminished over time. When the platform broke during a server move I didn’t even notice for a year.

But I still wanted to write about writing, which is where this place comes in.

Identity Function is my blog about writing. I have been working as a professional writer in the genre of software for a long time. In that area I have written a lot of code and documentation and design documents. But what I want to be writing is fiction… I wrote fragmentary pieces as a child, put together some roleplaying scenarios when I was at Uni, and wrote a couple of works of serial fiction after I started work. Then I stopped writing stories.

Ten years later, after I had moved to the States. I found National Novel Writing Month. It was a revelation. That first novel took me less than three weeks to knock out. I have since competed in National Novel Writing Month seven more times, winning every time (although 2006 and 2008 were close).

The place I fail in writing fiction is in completing revisions so I have something to actually submit. My goal with starting this blog is to talk about my experience of writing, but in the very short term just to get me writing regularly again. Because, you know, writers write.

What I write is speculative fiction, mostly science fiction with some occasional horror elements. As of this writing, I have two books in active development. I will probably self-publish one of them.

In this space you’ll hear more about all of these things, along with war stories, influences, and perhaps even occasional nuggets of advice – which in this context are things that work for me. What you won’t see here is my fiction: if that is available on-line it will be under separate cover.

So that’s me. How about you? Do you write? What kind of stories do you enjoy?

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