Saturday, February 12, 2005

features of literature

Dave at Faith in Fiction is discussing a taxonomy of literature (link from Monday Afternoon). This is the sort of project that really sings to obsessive/compulsive types like me.

Actually a lot of software engineering involves breaking complex systems down into manageable chunks, so this is a lot like what I do for a living. If you view this as the task of taking a real-world business process and formalizing it, then it's exactly what I did for a living for five years.

On to the problem: Dave wants to formalize the current taxonomy of literature to find something more workable. He has some good ideas and he clearly knows more about the topic than I do, but he got off on the wrong foot. He is using as the basis of his formalization an analogy to biological taxonomy. This turns out to be a poor choice for literature.

Works of literature don't have an overall family relationship predicated on a small number of factors. Yes, you can find some family relationships, but each family is organized by different kinds of factors. The overall system ends up either looking chaotic or looking like a tree pasted over a simpler organization.

Instead, think of individual of properties. There is a Chinese food restaurant in Tucson --I think it's at Park and University-- that has an interesting menu. I only ate there once because the food wasn't very good, but I was impressed with their menu. It looked something like this:
Choose a Meat: chicken, beef, pork, shrimp (add $1)
Choose a Sauce: Lo Mein, Fried Rice, Sweet&Sour, Kung Pao, Garlic, Cashew
What was remarkable is that with just ten menu entries, they were able to describe twenty-four dishes. The cook had found the essential organizing element of Chinese cooking: multiple dimensions. He noticed that he had sweet&sour pork and sweet&sour shrimp and cashew shrimp and cashew chicken and Kung Pau chicken and Kung Pao beef,... and he realized that it could all be combined in different ways. This is multi-dimensional because you can view it as a two-dimensional table: meat on one axis and sauce on the other.

Linguists use a similar method to organize sounds, but there are lots more than two dimensions. A consonant in any language can be described by giving a set of phonetic features including tongue position, how the sound is produced, whether the voice is used, whether it ends in a stop, and a few other properties.

I think this is the best way to organize literature as well. Expanding on Dave's suggestions, I'll propose the following literature feature set:
Format -- prose, poetry, script
Setting -- modern, western, gothic, science fiction, ancient Greek, etc.
Genre -- action, adventure, romance, mystery, horror, etc.
Length -- *by number of words/minutes*
Subject -- fiction, biography, history, etc.
Content -- neutral, heroic, Christian, erotic, etc.
With this system, you categorize any work by specifying all of its properties. A Star Trek episode would be
[script, science fiction, action, 48 minutes, fiction, heroic]
A Zane Grey novel would be
[prose, western, action, 90,000 words, fiction, heroic]
Of course you could always shoe-horn this system into a hierarchy because the hierarchy is a universal data structure, you can shoe-horn any organization into it. Most data structures are universal in this sense. But there is usually a simplest and most natural organization, and in this case that seems to not be a hierarchy.

Slightly off-topic: here are some previous thoughts of mine on the issue of genres --specifically about science fiction and why Star Trek isn't.

Friday, February 11, 2005


This is part of an unfinished novel that I wrote around 1995. The novel spends quite a bit of time on hi-tech speculation and it's amazing how just ten years of advancement makes a lot of it look wrong. In this section, for example, the hero uses a rifle scope that he has to bring to his eye to use. Today, I would say that the scope has a video camera and that he would access it through a screen in his helmet.

Daniel stood alone in a small clearing, holding an 11mm sniper rifle with an under-the-barrel 30mm smooth-bore launcher. To his left was a yellow-greenish lake, all around him was a forest of oddly shaped trees, all of the vegetation was a light purple color. He carefully scanned the vegetation with the enhanced sensors of his scout-class combat helmet. Above his eyes was a computer screen. The center was partitioned into a circular area scanner that would show blips when it detected moving objects. He was using only the passive sensors at the moment, since he did not know whether any dangerous nearby foes would detect any particular kind of active sensors.

A blip appeared on the far edge of the area scanner --colored blue to indicate that it had been detected by the light sensors. Objects detected by sound would be colored yellow, objects detected by radio waves would be green, and objects detected by high-energy radiation would be red. Daniel turned in the direction of the blip to get a visual fix. He brought his rifle to his shoulder to use the scope --higher magnification than his visor. He saw that there was something flying toward him, but it was too far away to make out. A number beside the blip on his area scanner told him that at its current velocity, the object would pass near his location in two minutes. He dismissed it from his attention and continued to scan for the other dangers that he knew must be present.

Another blip appeared on his area scanner, yellow for a sound contact, and at the same time he heard a blurping sound. The computer was set to briefly magnify a sound that it identified as a contact at the same time that the blip appeared on the screen, that way he would know what sound had alarmed the computer. This contact was much nearer, and was in the area of the lake. He turned quickly, just in time to see a disturbance on the water. It looked as though a big bubble had risen to the surface. He stood facing the lake now, his rifle at the ready. There was a flash on his area scanner to show a change in status of the first blip. It had speeded up and would arrive sooner now. ``Great,'' he thought, ``It's probably going to arrive while I'm mixed up with some sea-monster.'' But the flying blip was still a long way off, so he kept concentrating on the lake.

His vigilance was soon rewarded by the appearance of something that looked like a jellyfish three feet across. He brought up his rifle and quickly put a high-powered 11mm round into the thing on the off chance that it would go away. The bullet just splashed the surface of thing, and shock waves quivered through it. But the bullet did not leave a hole, and the thing kept coming up. It now looked like a jellyfish five feet across. Whatever the thing was, it did not look fast, so he turned back to the flying threat and looked through his rifle scope to get a look at it now that it was closer.

He saw five bird-like creatures with oddly elongated heads. They were still too far away to make out clearly, so he turned back to the water creature which was now at least 10 feet across and obviously coming out of the water. He rotated the chamber of the launcher and fired a 30mm lead slug into the thing. The creature, as he had expected, ignored this also. He had really just wanted to see what sort of penetration it would have. It went pretty deep, so he rotated the chamber to high-explosive grenades and shot again. This time he got a reaction after the grenade went deep into the creature and exploded. The creature expanded about six inches all around with the force of the explosion, and then about a dozen holes opened up in it to let the gasses escape with a grotesque burping sound. The creature stopped moving forward, and Daniel didn't know whether it was dead, reconsidering its options, or just relishing the feel of a really good belch.

The status display flashed again, and Daniel saw that the flying creatures had speeded up again. They were now moving at a good speed, and had changed their direction slightly so that they were heading directly toward him. Big surprise that. In eight seconds they would be within long range of his 11mm. He decided not to worry about them until then, since he could do nothing until they were in range. The blob started moving forward again. Daniel rotated his chamber to nickels. At this setting the launcher would shoot a stream of sharp-edged disks, each about the size of a five cent piece.

He triggered the launcher and stitched a pattern on the blob in the shape of a figure-eight. Then he quickly chambered HEAT rounds into the launcher and fired two into the blob, one into the middle of each circle in the eight. It was beginning to look like he could not take this thing out without a lot of ammo. A HEAT round is an armor piercing projectile. It uses a shaped explosive charges, triggered to explode just before contacting an armored target. The shaped charge creates a jet of molten metal that can burn through several inches of armor plate. The blob was clearly not armored but the HEAT rounds created nice big holes anyway.

As he was calculating the effect on the blob, the area scanner flashed again to let him know that the flying creatures were now within long range. He ignored it. The blob was heaving and blowing, and a lot of fluid was coming out of the holes, which had not yet closed. He fired two more HEAT rounds at the thing to the left and right of the figure eight. The four big holes formed the corners of a diamond pattern.

He turned quickly to the flying creatures without watching the effect of the new HEAT rounds and sighted on the lead creature. It looked rather like a pterodactyl, but with a tubular mouth. He led the first carefully, aware that it would take his bullet about a second to arrive at its target, then he let out his breath, held it, and squeezed the trigger carefully. He felt a satisfying thump against his shoulder as the gun fired an 11mm high-velocity round at the target. He swung immediately to the next one, taking careful aim again, and as he did, he noticed a flash and smoke coming from the mouths of several of the creatures.

He squeezed the trigger again, and as he did the first one jerked and began falling. He had hit it. ``Damn good shot'' he congratulated himself, sighting on a third one. As he was about to pull the trigger again, he heard a whistling near his ear and dropped immediately to the ground. ``Damn, they're shooting back!'' he thought. He realized that the flashes he had seen from the creatures mouth were muzzle flashes. ``How cute,'' he thought, ``biological firearms.'' He sighted through his scope again to see that there were only three creatures left, and they were diving to get below his line of site. He must have hit the second one as well.

He quickly got up and turned back to the blob, which had not moved again. It looked like it was melting out through the holes he had made.

His area scanner beeped again, this time posting a brown spot, very near by. He whirled to face it, bringing up his gun, and saw nothing. ``Brown!?'', he thought, ``what the heck is that?'' Then suddenly remembering, he pointed his rifle at the ground and ripped out a stream of the high-penetration 11mm rounds, just as he began to see dirt move. Brown was for seismic contacts.

A large insect-like creature erupted from the ground, and he sprayed more 11mm rounds into it, the force of the impact threw the thing to its back as another one came out of the hole and charged him. He blasted this one as well, but there was already a third coming out. He glanced quickly at his area monitor, and saw that there was a whole line of the things, so he blasted the third one, then rechambered his launcher and fired two high explosive rounds into the hole. There was a satisfying flash and boom as the tunnel collapsed, and he shot the remaining creature only a few feet away. Still worried about the flying things, he turned on active radar, hoping it could penetrate the trees around here. As he did, he noticed that there was still some movement under the ground.

Three green radar blips showed on his monitor, the three remaining flying creatures had spread out and were coming over the tree line right fricking now. He dropped to the ground again, remembering that these animals could shoot back. As they came over the tree line, he was already pointing at the right-most one. He squeezed the trigger, the rifle jumped, he swung to the left, the rifle jumped again, he swung further to the left, the rifle jump again. Three shots, three down. Without pausing to congratulate himself, he swung back toward the insect like creatures.

Now that he was on the ground, he could not see them through the tall grass, but the still active radar told him that three more were out of the ground. He didn't have time to get up, so he quickly switched his visor to display radar images, and three transparent grey blotches appeared within the grass. He triggered three-shot bursts at each of the blotches before jumping to his feet. They were all down. As he quickly scanned for more dangers, he heard a small bell, and the scenery faded to a round sky-blue wall, a holo screen that circled the room.

UPDATE: By the way, as a short story, the ending looks kind of lame --one of those, and-then-he-woke-up things. In the context of the novel it wasn't especially surprising. Each chapter begins with a dream, a flashback, or something else that isn't quite real. It's part of the structure of the novel. So get off my case, OK?

Here's another chapter-beginning in the same novel.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005


Donald Crankshaw is accepting entries for the next storyblogging carnival. If you have ever written a story for your blog, we'd love to see it in the carnival.

Monday, February 07, 2005

a different class

Howard Kurtz writes in an email to Mickey Kause
... Two other Post reporters pursued it, spoke to Jordan and decided not to write anything based on the fact that what was actually said was in dispute.
Something struck me about this (besides the obvious jaw-dropper that a reporter would avoid writing about something because it was controversial), and that is the dramatic difference between this story and the story about General Mattis.

Several bloggers have pointed out the discrepancy between the way the media has handled the Jordan story and the Mattis story, but this quote from Kurtz reminded me of another contrast: the difference in the way Jordan and Mattis have handled the story.

Both men put their foot in it. Yes, lots of bloggers have defended Mattis, but you can't deny that he spoke recklessly. Both men said things they really shouldn't have --things bad enough to possibly effect their careers. Of the two, Mattis's job is probably more on the line. Yet Mattis did not try to weasel out of his words the way Eason Jordan has done. Mattis didn't deny he said what he did in the face of several witnesses the way Jordan has done. The taped words of Mattis were available to journalists immediately. The taped words of Jordan are surprising hard to track down.

Jordan is supposed to be the journalist. The one with the enormous respect for the truth and the people's right to know. Yet the Jordan case is the one where the people can't seem to find out the truth.

Isn't that odd?