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From: "Greene, Carlton" <CGreene2@hunton.com>
Subject: (urth) Technology as Magic and Metaphor (long)
Date: Tue, 2 Nov 1999 10:38:03 

Nicholas Gevers wrote:

 >>I'm glad to see that my "Fairy Tale Logic" posting ended our dry patch;
I'm also gratified that mantis agrees with me in part, a rare event. But to
take up the cudgel again: I still contend that Inire's description of the
working of his mirrors is intentional gibberish on Wolfe's part, to the
extent that he wishes it to be read as gibberish, in contrast with all the
intended-to-be-plausible explanations of FTL technology in SF. An
ideas-driven writer like Poul Anderson or Isaac Asimov desires his FTL
conception to be believed, to be given the benefit of a very large doubt;
but for a style-driven writer like Jack Vance or Wolfe, an FTL-exposition is
a CONCEIT, a rhetorical contrivance, serving a metaphorical or humorous
purpose. Inire's mirrors should be interrogated on that basis. << 

Roy wrote:

<<To say nothing of the "white fountain". I would like to see the scientific
explanation for the mating of a man and a larval "angel" producing an
extra-universal remedy for a black hole in a dying sun. Roy >>

Two points.  First, I see no reason to give the boot to "scientism."
Second, and more importantly, "scientism" and technology-as-metaphor are not
mutually exclusive, but rather mutually enhancing.

Wolfe's explanations of technology are often mysterious and incomplete, but
Wolfe's resort to complete, detailed explanations for certain technologies
implies that even the really strange examples have some explanation to them
that has not been made entirely clear to the reader.  I agree that the
explanation of Inire's mirrors reads like sleight of hand, but wasn't it
supposed to be a simplistic explanation of a very complicated technology
given to a child? (Maybe I've forgottent the context in which the speech was
delivered).  As to Typhon and his grafted head, its important to remember
that the pieces of humanity's scientific knowledge that have survived the
aeons are weird and patchy throughout the books -- maybe a head graft was
the most rational means at Typhon's disposal to achieve his goals.  We know
very little about the operation itself or the medical knowledge available in
Typhon's time.  It boots us little to say that the operation makes no sense
because of what we know about medical science in the 20th century  -- many
of the technologies described in the TBOTNS assume capabilities (and
limitations) which we can neither verify or reject based on current science.
Instead, we take from Wolfe's attempt to provide or hint at some scientific
explanation for these phenomenon the *flavor* that these are miracles of
technology rather than magic.  In sum, the fact that many of the
explanations of particular technologies are shadowy, unclear, or apparently
paradoxical given current scientific understanding does not mean that we as
readers are not intended to, and should not, understand that some rational
explanation lies lurking in the background.  I think we are.

More importantly, maintaining the idea that some scientific explanation for
these phenomenon exists strengthens, rather than weakens, the power of these
technologies as metaphors.  If it were clear that items like Typhon's two
heads and apheta's quasar-producing, larval lust were meant simply as pure,
fluffy fanstasy, existing only as a metaphorical allusion, their power as
symbols would be less.  Instead, the idea that they are simultaneously
scientifically explainable events and spiritual metaphors with real power
creates a sense of destiny and religious meaning in our physical universe.
In TBOTNS every action, object, and interaction reveals some significant
truth about the Increate.  Sev's discovery of a thorn on a (Pacific!) beach,
which is at once biological matter, a relic of real physical power, and a
revelation of the divine nature of physical existence, is an example of this

One last point:  Given the above, it is interesting to note that the
technology of the heirogrammates, a technology infused with love and divine
grace, is more obviously metaphorical and more difficult to explain
scientifically as physical technology, as Roy points out.  My take on this:
the closer we get to the divine, the more we understand that the physical
universe does in fact exist, but is intended as a functioning, scientific
metaphor for certain underlying principles, a particularly graceful way of
revealing spiritual truths.  The heirogrammates pull the curtain aside on
this methodology in a way that we are not exposed to normally, explicitly
fusing technology and metaphor.  In contrast, the sturdiest scientific
explanations in the books are given for items in the hands of the "godless"
exploiters of scientific knowledge -- Baldanders and Typhon.  I always
understood this to mean that this was the sin makind was being punished for
-- the exploitation and achievement of god-like scientific power without the
concommittant moral and spiritual development -- without the principle of
love or grace or what have you.  Mankind is being punished for selling off
its emotions in furtherance of blind ambition.

I apologize if I am rambling here, but if I am, it is because I have been
inspired by the exceptional quality of the discussion on this list, and I am
certainly grateful for the opportunity to contribute.


*More Wolfe info & archive of this list at http://www.urth.net/urth/

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