Sunday, March 31, 2013

Let's Get Whimsical


In comments on the last post I stepped into Large Predators enclosure at the zoo by remarking that the idea of 'uplifting' - genetic fiddling to produce animals with human-level intelligence - struck me as essentially whimsical. (More specifically, I said that it was all about the coolness of talking animals.)

Whimsical is probably not entirely the word of choice for a trope that has firm roots in the early days of self-aware SF. And no, I do not plan to discuss uplifting here. If I did, the post would have a different title ... say, House of Pain.

In fact, 'whimsical' is not the most accurate, fully inclusive term for what I do intend to discuss, but that is the word I thought of, so I will stick with it. The topic is, roughly, the sort of fiction that does not even pretend to be Realistic[TM]. Which, comes to think of it, specifically excludes uplifting, which at least makes a claim to realism.

But we will stick with talking animals for the moment. In non-sfnal form they go back at least to Aesop's Fable, but last century must have been a golden age for the talking animal trope. In spite of Mr. Ed the talking horse, and his progenitor Francis the talking mule, rabbits seem particularly favored - and, as we shall see, notably significant.

At least in American popular culture the most famous talking animal is surely Bugs Bunny. (Not Mickey Mouse, a corporate logo that is all but forgotten as an actual character.) While I don't exactly think of Bugs as whimsical - a term that, at least to Americans, has distinctly British connotations - surely he and the rest of the Warner Bros gang qualify in practice.

Realism, in any ordinary sense, is not even dimly in view here. Yet whatever is going on, it certainly works, and has stood up to time pretty well.

I do not know whether The Wind in the Willows is whimsical, though it is certainly British. It is, sad to say, on that dreadfully long list of books that I have not yet managed to read. The part about simply messing around in boats sounds whimsical - and also a good enough reason to get off my aspect and read the book.

Bugs Bunny and the Willows crowd have in common that they are nominally aimed at children. The Warner Bros cartoons notoriously have plenty for the grown-ups, supposedly flying under the kiddie radar. (This is surely true of most great kidlit, yet probably less important than claimed. It merely gives us permission, as adults, to still watch or read.)

Are children actually more open to, say, talking animals as characters? Because they don't yet know the boundaries of Realism[TM]? Or, like the pop-culture references in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, is this just a pose designed for adults so that we can pretend we are above the talking-animal stuff?

What we call realism is, after all, itself a pure literary convention. This applies both to the kind of realism I deal with on this blog, details of spaceship design and such, and also - I will cheerfully assert - to the 'higher realism' to which serious, non-genre literature is presumed to aspire.

The 'willing suspension of disbelief,' as Tolkien called it, seems in fact to be only loosely related to any sort of realism. There may be benighted souls who can't come to grips with Bugs Bunny because rabbits don't talk. And we can pity them, but they are surely not typical. Most of us have no difficulty with such tropes, any more than we do with the idea that a private detective probably will solve the murder by the end of the book.

The entire Evil Website is, in a way, a meditation on the place, and non-place, of Realism[TM] in fiction.

But to bring this discussion around to the more typical themes of this blog, consider one of the more interesting talking non-rabbits in children's literature: In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

Tolkien, whose opinions on the subject of hobbits are reasonably authoritative, does not mention talking bunnies as part of their background. (Quite surprisingly, he does mention Sinclair Lewis's Babbit, a character I'd never have thought of in relation to hobbits.) The word hobbit fits into a tradition of English words for mythical creatures; compare hobgoblin.

Still, it is hard not to imagine that at some subconscious level, at least, The Hobbit shared some kinship with The Wind in the Willows, and distantly with Bugs Bunny himself.

Having said that, it is hard to see much whimsical about Middle-Earth.


Discuss.




Note: For the first time I have a good excuse for being behind in posting here: I am working on editorial revisions for Catherine of Lyonesse.


The image of messing about in boats comes from a blog by 'An English lady in Prague.'

56 comments:

Brett said...

I think children in general are more open, so they don't automatically reject stuff that would seem "silly" to adults ("silly" being dependent on the context - most people enjoyed "Shrek" despite it having a talking donkey).

Cordwainer said...

Well, not to bring up political realism again but I bit my teeth on Animal Farm and Plato's Republic when I was in the Sixth Grade. I always thought whimsy was a good educational tool for introducing adult concepts to children as preparation for the later realities of adulthood. Also children obviously aren't the only ones who love a good parable or who can learn something from them. I loved Narnia, Oz and Xanth when I was a teenager. When I got older my tastes for "silly" if anything became worse. From Doctor Who to Joss Whedon to various "cutesy" type animes it's been a long and amusing decline into silliness.

Cordwainer said...

Also not to scare the "inner child" in anybody out their but I did think of at least one other reason to uplift or create artificial people like Cordwainer Smith's underpeople. For entertainment value. People still go to see "freak shows" and prostitution is legal in some countries and decriminalized in many others. Using them as replacements for human subjects might raise less moral and legal objections.

Tony said...

Bugs is definitenly an artifact of whimsy. But it's hard to ignore the fact that he was as much a send-up of fairytale talking animals as he was an extension of them. The whimsy was mostly in the satire, and very little in the choice of character form. The same could be said for certain ducks, dogs, and cats in the cartoon pantheon. When we get to "moose and squir-rel", we enter into the realm of foils for some pretty pointed Cold War humor, acted out, if we recall correctly, by entirely human characters.

On the subject in general, let's not forget that in many cultures animals are considered to be partners and even teachers of people. For storytelling purposes they are imbued with human qualities that they are thought to possess, or at least exemplify. Many people still see certain animals as exhibiting these qualities, whether they really do or not.

They even serve as pivots for moralizing. And here's where whimsy takes a hit, a very palpable hit. Lions are noble, as are eagles, for no better reason than they are at the top of their respective food chains. When noble houses and nations themselves take as totems these animals, it is meant to suggest to anybody that comes along that it's good to be the apex predator, and bad to challenge him. Whimsy need not apply to be the bearer of that particular tiding -- nor would it want to.

Speaking of whimsy, I've got no end of frogs and Tiggers all over my house, for no better reason than frogs are cute (and noble, in a back porch sort of way) and Tigger is, well, ammusingly whimsical.

Cambias said...

Richard Chwedyk wrote a very powerful trio of stories about intelligent bioengineered animal toys -- sentient miniature dinosaurs, basically. It took a hard cold look at the whole issue of intelligent beings created for entirely whimsical reasons.

Cordwainer said...

Well lets not forget that Pooh has sort of become an icon of Taoist philosophy. As for whimsey not just being a thing for adults I do recall one of my Drill Sergeants' in basic had a Tigger Tattoo on his right ankle. The human need for play is one of the few things most humans have in common, a cross-cultural phenomenon.

I think I might have read one of those stories by Richard Chedwyk in one of those Year's Best SF collections, you say he wrote several I'll have to look into in those. Which brings up some other reasons for uplift, the creation of intelligent pets or replacements for children. I suppose if the human race could no longer reproduce then uplift might be a better option in some ways than cloning.

Cordwainer said...

My Little Pony has become a rather common Internet meme these days and I do find it rather amusing that the virus won the Google Prize recently featured one of the shows characters Pinky Pie. Even if humans don't attempt uplift it seems quite likely that we might create virtual talking animals in the form of androids or as virtual creations in some sort of virtual world like in Summer Wars.

Anita said...

A sub genre of the talking animal story is the thinking animal or the animal's POV story. These animals, Black Beauty, Buck, Hazel and others, aren't animals behaving like human beings. The reader see the world, especially humans, through their experiences and needs. For the most part, their lives aren't the least bit whimsical.

Cordwainer said...

Shadow of the Wolf was a rather neat thinking animal story. Charlotte's Web and Aesop's fables would sort of fall under the category of thinking animal stories as well but with more anthropomorphic memes. Another way to have talking animals would be the Dr. Dolittle method whereby someone develops the technology to "talk to the animals". It seems likely that communication with dolphins and primates might develop to a level where we can understand their motivations to a better extent then we do now.

Eth said...

Cordwainer said:
Another way to have talking animals would be the Dr. Dolittle method whereby someone develops the technology to "talk to the animals".

The problem with that is that animals, well, don't talk. They communicate by using codes, with no place for interpretation : one sign equals one meaning. A 'danger' cry means 'danger' for an animal, and it will flee. A 'danger' shout can mean a lot of things for a human. Should I flee? Should I drop prone? Is it a joke? Is it meant for someone else?
So you can't talk with animals. It doesn't mean that you can't better communicate or understand them, but talking with them is actually more like talking to a computer (assuming no secretly developed strong-AI yet).

Cordwainer said...

Highly speculative as it might be I do wonder if advances in neuroscience and mind-machine interface and nanotechnology might result in technologies similar to telepathy, thought transference, astral projection and possession. It would be cool to have Beastmaster like powers and experience in some way what animals sense, think and feel. Such advances could even result in animal cyborgs as an alternative to uplift.

Cordwainer said...

Eth, the idea that animals tend to be simplistic in their communication is being shattered everyday. More and more studies find evidence that many animals are capable of complex communication and symbolic logic. The problem is one of syntax, many animals do not display the same understanding of symbolism that humans do. When they do use symbolism it is often either simplistic like a child's use of symbols or used in ways that are not easily identified by humans. That is not to say that a sign or method of communication cannot have more then one meaning or that animals do not have a large vocabulary of signs or methods at their disposal for communication, they often do. Problem is deciphering that language into something we can understand and using a language that they can understand in return. At its most basic though language is based on how are brains interpret data from the world around us through our senses and how we communicate our feelings and desires to others, so it does not seem unreasonable that some sort of pidgin language using symbols, gestures or mind-to-mind interface could be developed.

Cordwainer said...

Fantasy SF also provides some "whimsical" opportunities for story-telling and blending magical elements with a sense of realism. Magic as technology with physical rules based on a pseudo-from of physics and chemistry. The use of "demons in a bottle" or inter-dimensional beings in the same role. Psychic powers and the use of God-like beings or aliens as God-like beings.

Cordwainer said...

Another bit of whimsy for consumption, I've always wondered about the whole tradition in stories of people selling their souls to demons. I wonder what would happen if someone were to write a literal contract in such a way that a demon were to truly "own" a human soul. Could the contractee turn the tables on the demon and possess the demon. Assuming that one could create and iron-clad contract with a demon. Perhaps if one's wish were for the existence of absolute terms of true/false relationships to be possible, and not the greyness of relationships as evidenced by statements like "what do a raven and a writing desk have in common". Then perhaps one could construct such a contract, after all while demons are often seen as very powerful they are not usually portrayed as omniscient and can often be tricked by crafty humans. It might be one way an alchemist could achieve eternal life.

Anonymous said...

Ok, it's been a few months and my blood pressure is under control (ha ha): whimsy in fiction is (as I've viewed it, at least), a way to mask an importaint message, like tolorance or advoiding a dangerous situation. Also, often times, it is used to ridicule antisocial behavior, or (usually through exageration), those people that are a drag on civilization. Like the caticature of a typically unhelpful Department of Motor Vehicles office drone, or of the nearly brain-dead politician. Whimsy is, in my opinion, a wonderfully entertaining method of teaching, whether adult or child. Well, good to be back and I'll try to keep my anger in check, or at least off the written page...

Ferrell

Rick said...

Welcome back to a very long-time commenter!


I had forgotten about (indeed non-whimsical) stories from an animal's POV - didn't Jim Kjelgaard's books (*Big Red* et al.) fit into this class?

I inhaled every book of his in the San Diego Public Library bookmobile. One day, looking to see if there was one I'd missed, I saw a book on the next shelf over, with a spaceship on the cover.

It was by someone named Heinlein. And here we are ...

Tony said...

Ferrell:

"...whimsy in fiction is (as I've viewed it, at least), a way to mask an importaint message, like tolorance or advoiding a dangerous situation. Also, often times, it is used to ridicule antisocial behavior, or (usually through exageration), those people that are a drag on civilization. Like the caticature of a typically unhelpful Department of Motor Vehicles office drone, or of the nearly brain-dead politician."

Ummm...I think you're talking more about irony and allegory (which very often uses anthropomorphised animals) in the first instance, and satire in the second. Whimsy is when Sheldon Cooper has to drive Penny to the ER, then having to sing "Soft Kitty" to her heavily medicated little behind when he gets her home. (Though there is a pretty hefty dose of irony in that little vignette as well.)

All of this about animal POV, and nobody's mentioned Call of the Wild...

Tony said...

And, oh yeah...The Art of Racing in the Rain

Mukk said...

What practical applications would uplift serve? The best I can come up with are creating organisms that can survive environments hostile to humans. The problem is that a robot could also be able to work in those environments. The only reason the uplifted animal would be valuable would be if AI were to fall through as a technology.

On the other hand I imagine that animals would be hugely valuable in entertainment. If you took an AI and gave it the form of a rabbit you could do something commercially with that. You could make anything from children's toys to things that the furry community would be interested in. Talking animals or anthropomorphic animals will probably show up as Robots and virtual reality constructs. They're not actually useful, they're just good for entertainment. The thing is, at that point why not uplift an actual living creature.

Anita said...

"nobody's mentioned Call of the Wild."

Tony, I did when I listed Buck as one of the best known 'thinking' animals.

Tony said...

Anita:

"Tony, I did when I listed Buck as one of the best known 'thinking' animals."

Well, so you did. In my defense, I did read it, but it's been 35 years.

Now here's an interesting corollary, considered in reference to Jack London -- humans prefigured as animals or who in fact act like popular ideals of certain animals. The London reference is of course to The Sea-Wolf. (Some might say that Wolf Larsen was an individualist, and therefore not a wolf, but he did manage his crew and interactions with his rivals much as a wolf pack leader might.) Other examples would be Tiger Woods, the Lion of the North (Gustavus Adolphus), etc.

Anita said...

"humans prefigured as animals"

Berserker, from the Old Norse for bear.

jollyreaper said...

I've been accused of being a slavish realism nazi. It's not so much that but preferring:

a) If an author picks a level of realism, he should stick with it and

b) Have a proper understanding of what the bounds of realism would be for his story

The television program Spartacus is down to its final two episodes. I've not kept up with the fan community and dipped a toe in to see how things are being received. A contingent of fans are complaining about how unrealistic it is. Really? You're only just now seeing this?! The show is a bit of a hybrid, like a comic book soap opera. But that's exactly the sort of story they set out to tell from the very beginning with the same flexible sense of realism. We're talking people who take three vicious blows to the head before breakfast. They're in sword fights every other day, take crippling stabby wounds and remain upright. While there are no incarnate gods mucking about, their levels of strength and endurance are squarely in mythic territory.

But you know what? The characters ring true. The emotional development, loves and hates, alliances and feuds, they feel genuine. There's been a minimum of bonehead writing.

I can run with a story that has mutants shooting lasers out of their eyeballs and men with metal bones and razor claws galavanting about but I would call it unrealistic if their arch-nemesis killed a thousand people last week and they strike up an alliance this week without anyone holding a grudge. It's like with Iron Man 2, the guy's got rockets on his goddamn feet and yet he somehow got his ass kicked by a guy who is stuck on the ground and just has short-range whips. What, there's a rule that you aren't allowed to shoot him from a distance?

The criticisms I'm making above are "stupid within the parameters of the setting you ask me to accept." Sometimes I'll have an exception with the parameters themselves.

When it comes to talking animals, I have to ask how they handle the whole predator/prey thing. That's easily glossed over in something like the Lion King where it's clear the lions are eating their subjects. But really, think about that. These aren't just dumb animals, they're people, at least in the sense of someone you can have a conversation with. Anything I can hold a conversation with I'm going to see as people. How do you reconcile being an obligate murderer?

Imagine doing a talking animals noir story in the concrete jungle. All creatures great and small, wearing suits and ties, going about their respectable lives, herbivore and carnivore living side by side. The covenant all animals share -- the living shall not eat the living. The carnivores eat a gruel of insects, plant matter and nutritive supplements. It's repulsive yet nourishing. Bears, dogs and pigs endure. The cats suffer the worst for it.

But citizens are going missing now, not even a trace is left. And some now suspect that a carnivore has broken the covenant. They fear one has succumbed to the temptation of the flesh. The killer must be found before suspicion and paranoia tear the city apart.

jollyreaper said...

"Richard Chwedyk wrote a very powerful trio of stories about intelligent bioengineered animal toys -- sentient miniature dinosaurs, basically. It took a hard cold look at the whole issue of intelligent beings created for entirely whimsical reasons."

What were the stories called?

I'd had a similar idea with the thought of corporate mascots moving from guys in fursuits to engineered lifeforms. And what happens when a marketing campaign is discontinued? The retirement home for discarded mascots.

jollyreaper said...

"Could the contractee turn the tables on the demon and possess the demon. Assuming that one could create and iron-clad contract with a demon."

There was a pretty good twist on this, "Abandon Hope All Ye Who [PRESS] Enter Here." AI researcher is testing to see just how advanced his AI is. Does it have a soul? If he can convince a demon to buy it, then yes. So he sets up the summoning circle, gives the AI a robot arm to sign with and sets to work. The demon is pretty impressed with the AI and thought it was unfair for it to be offered up without making a choice. So it points out that if it does indeed have freewill, it could not sign the contract and instead use its arm to break the chalk circle enclosing the pentagram. And if such a thing were to happen, someone else's soul could be taken in turn. The AI agreed and the demon got the researcher's soul and hell got the first digital demon.

Cambias said...

Reaper: The first one I read was called (googles furiously) "Bronte's Egg" and I think there were a couple of others.

Cordwainer said...

Humans prefigured as animals sounds like Theodore Sturgeon's "The Elephant Trainer".

Anthony said...

I'm not entirely sure I understand how you're using the term 'whimsical'. Plenty of whimsical things get done, for a common reason: they're amusing, and the effort required to do them is less than the value of the amusement derived from doing them. In novels, of course, you can ignore the cost of doing whatever it is, and thus you are much freer to engage in whimsy, but talking animals in novels are under no particular requirement to be whimsical.

Cordwainer said...

Good point Anthony after all you could hardly call Watership Down whimsical.

Anonymous said...

Jollyreaper said:" When it comes to talking animals, I have to ask how they handle the whole predator/prey thing." Try reading a web comic called "Keven and Kell". It's both whimsical and poses one potential answer to your question. You also said:"I'd had a similar idea with the thought of corporate mascots moving from guys in fursuits to engineered lifeforms. And what happens when a marketing campaign is discontinued? The retirement home for discarded mascots." Reading that, I suddenly got the vision of a uplifted rodent becoming the CEO of a giant entertainment corporation...

Ferrell

Anonymous said...

Jollyreaper, I misspelled the name of that comic: "Kevin & Kell" by Bill Holbrook. I hope that helps.

Ferrell

Locki said...

Nothing wrong with whimsy. It sings to a certain part of our nature and can make for a very pleasant read. It also allows you to sneak in some political/society commentary without looking too heavy handed.

Just to get away from the talking animal tropes. I'll throw in a few examples of whimsy with regards to robot.

I think many of Asimov's early Robot short stories are whimsical. The robots are almost noble in their adherence to the 3 laws of robotics.

And to an even greater extent I think the bolos are whimsical. Almost indestructable warmachines that nobly protect humanity long into the dark night when civilisation has collapsed. They are very much idealised robot knights. This passage is nothing but whimsical - in a sorta military-techno porn sorta way :)

In the Bolo, humanity has created a fully self-aware battle companion, and I suspect humans do not truly realize even now how fully they have succeeded in doing so. Bolos, too, have emotions, Maneka. Some were deliberately introduced into our core programming. Duty, loyalty, courage if you will. The qualities and emotions required of a warrior. But there is also affection, and that, I think, was not deliberately engineered into us. We fully recognize that we were created to fight and, when necessary, die for our creators. It is the reason we exist. But we also recognize that if we are asked to fight, and when we are asked to die, our creators fight and die with us. It is a compact which I doubt most humans have ever intellectually examined, and perhaps that is your true strength as a species. It was not necessary for you to consciously grasp it in order to forge it in the first place, because it is so much a part of you, and yet you have given that strength to us, as well as to yourselves."

Locki said...

I should clarify.

I find the notion that a sapient AI programmed to serve humans and consequently develops noble qualities as a result of this predisposition to be fantastical maybe even conceited.

It may be plausible or even realistic (TM) but I still find the notion humans may achieve the nobility we've always aspired to in our creations to be .... well whimsical.

Cordwainer said...

Well whimsey could be taken to the proto-realistic idea of what humans value. What humans value is often influenced by our pursuit of what we find aesthetically pleasing. Gold and Silver are a valuable commodities in this modern age for many reasons, but to the Ancients it was prized for its physical beauty and rarity. It is not unlikely we will build intelligent machines with qualities that we value. If so then it is not all that whimsical an idea that they will possess noble qualities, what is whimsical is whether we will ever have a need for a sapient and sentient AI capable of developing such qualities as something more than their programming. It is quite likely we will only develop A.I. that mimics those qualities and does not truly possess them as part of their learned or sentient awareness.

Cordwainer said...

Another form of whimsey in science fiction is the idea of "build it and they will come". Like the science fiction of the 60's and 70's that believed that manned space travel and space colonies would be commonplace within a few decades for no better reason than if we have the technology and we use it than that in itself will produce incentive. We have the technology with the Falcon 9 Heavy Lift Rocket and the Advanced Common Evolved Stage to lift fuel depots and space tethers into higher LEO and L2 orbits. Problem is their economic incentive to do so, do we really need to mine asteroids or the moon for anything we can't get here on Earth. Getting Helium-3 from the Moon to Earth would still be more expensive then producing it Earth-side and as the ice-caps melt more and more rare earths become available for surface mining. Plus mining the ocean's surfaced will most likely be more energy efficient for centuries to come.

Cordwainer said...

Of course such a system could be useful for other unmanned space missions, both commercial and scientific although mainly scientific. It's not unreasonable that with a properly planned and modular system we might have regular manned missions to the Moon and elsewhere using a propellant depot transport system. Utilizing something like Pratt&Whitney's Bimodal/LANTR concept would make an awesome moonshuttle, with orbital momentum transfer tethers and fuel depots you could reduce the fuel needed for such flights without compromising too much in travel time or payload delivery.

Cordwainer said...

Yes, I know the line was originally was "build it and he will come".

Hugh said...

I'm all in favour of programming whimsy into future AIs. In the best case, we'll end up with something like the Minds in Iain M. Banks Culture series. And in the more dystopic scenarios the robots slaughtering humanity will suddenly get bored and decide to do something else, so some of us will survive.

Mukk said...

I agree with an above poster that realism isn't as important as consistency and verisimilitude. If you posit a fictional world where X, you need to think about the consequences of X at least several steps down the line.

In hard science fiction, where an author is legitimately trying to get physics right and project something that might actually happen, that kind of mindset is vital for accuracy. Exploring the implications of the idea is almost the point in itself.

In soft science fiction, things like space opera, its easier to swallow the big breaks from reality if the rest of the world is consistent.

So if we go into talking animal territory there are some basic questions. Are all animals intelligent? How do humans fit in? What is the predator/prey relationship?

If you were going to measure whimsey I wouldn't necessarily rely on the tone of the work. Instead I'd ask how big the central lie is. How far does "What if X," stray from reality?

By that criteria "What if talking cats became genocidal fascists?" is whimsical. Still, a book about it is pretty dark. "What if terrorists got a nuclear bomb?" is not whimsical. Its just about as dark in terms of imaginary people dying, but it could actually happen. Its something people have to worry about actually happening.

On the other hand I can see some kind of dark comedy about a group of moronic terrorists with a bomb akin to Dr. Strangelove. In a way that has a certain whimsical quality to it. Maybe I should change my answer to how serious the central 'what if' question is. Have Verisimilitude measure how seriously you explore the consequences of X. Let Whimsey be the measure of how seriously you take X itself.

Thucydides said...

Since the topic has veered a bit into "uplift", I invite readers of this blog to look up Olaf Stapledon's book Sirius, which is one of the first books that I am aware of that examines the idea in a serious manner (an uplifted Dog).

Sadly, the story isn't whimsical at all.

Cordwainer said...

While Olaf Stapledon's Sirius may not be considered whimsey. Cordwainer Smith's "Game of Cat and Dragon" or "The Crime and Glory of Commander Suzdal" certainly are, in fact most of Linebarger's SF was quite whimsical. Olaf Stapledon's Odd John and H.G. Wells time machine could be considered whimsey. Anything dealing with psychic powers or time travel could sort of fall into the realm of whimsey, considering the borderline realism of such things.

Tony said...

It's been almost 40 years, but as I remember Asimov's robot stories, there wasn't so much whimsy as there was the use of robots as allegorical tools. Also, he used the robots and the three laws of robotics as gimmicks for illustrating principles of computing that were just as true then as they are today.

As for Bolos, I'm having trouble seeing any whimsy at all. They're not at all noble, at any time in their history, in the sense of doing the right thing out of personal choice and a sense of honor. It's more that they are perfectly loyal soldiers, with no instinct for self-preservation, except in the the case where self-preservation is necessary for mission accomplishment. And after all, that's what they're programmed to do.

WRT the Culture Minds, many of them are personally whimsical, as any intelligent entity might be, given the right set of motivations. But the fact of their existence, and Banks's motivation to have them exists, are, I think much more to do with a perceived necessity for their existence, given the imagined environment.

Thucydides said...

Perhaps the best use of whimsy, talking animals and using these to slip in important points might be Bill Waterson's "Calvin and Hobbes" cartoons. They ran from 1985 to 1995, and were perhaps some of the finest examples of the cartoonist's art ever (in my heavily biased opinion).

The collected comics can still be found in bookstores and on Amazon, and a host of Internet sites have grown around Calvin and Hobbes (including new adventures, imaginary movie trailers and a meme that Calvin marries Susie, has a daughter and she is now continuing in the Magical World with Hobbes to provide sage advice and pitch during games of Calvin ball).

Whimsy done right in my opinion.

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"Perhaps the best use of whimsy, talking animals and using these to slip in important points might be Bill Waterson's 'Calvin and Hobbes' cartoons. They ran from 1985 to 1995, and were perhaps some of the finest examples of the cartoonist's art ever (in my heavily biased opinion)."

Precisely.

Though I may be equally biased. I'm readier to believe that scientific progress goes "boink", than I am to accept Popper's narrative.

Cordwainer said...

A bit of whimsey if it pleaseth the court, Rick. Would the idea of a "King's Touch" make for a good sci-fi story. You could have your biotechnology life support elite use it's Priest King to deliver a nanotechnological version of a "King's Touch" and introduce it as a mean's to cement the state religion.

Jim Baerg said...

Cordwainer:
Somehow that didn't strike me as whimsical, but more as the sort of crime the succesors to Nehemiah Scudder might commit.

If I was writing the story, then come the revolution, the guillotine would be considered too merciful for the perpetrators of the fraud of keeping the knowledge of the real cure from the people.

jollyreaper said...

A Calvin and Hobbes live-action reboot

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=17qyaXOFZXg

Kyle Allen said...

Despite the relative lack of talking animals, it doesn't get much more whimsical than Phillip K. Dick's "the Divine Invasion"; basically approaches the story from the point of view of God, who has to get himself begotten in a virgin in order to smuggle himself past an interplanetary embargo imposed by Satan. There's a great moment in that book where God -- embodied in an eight-year-old boy -- encounters the female version of himself, who basically proceeds to explain to him why he is actually kind of an asshole, that nobody ever liked him, and they only worshiped him in the first place because they were terrified of him.

Like Aesops Fables, some of the more "whimsical" works of fiction are mainly intended to prove a point. Animal Farm is easily the most famous of these, though the Doctor Seus books -- the Lorax and the Butter Battle Book -- are more widely read.

Tony said...

Where Dick is concerned, I'd nominate drug-fueled insanity long before whimsy.

Tony said...

Brett:

"I think children in general are more open, so they don't automatically reject stuff that would seem 'silly' to adults ('silly' being dependent on the context - most people enjoyed 'Shrek' despite it having a talking donkey)."

Appropos of a conversation we had at work this week, I'm reminded that the big disconnect for many adults is associating fun frivolity. But when adults allow their whimsy to take hold, it can be...interesting.

The software developers at our company work in a side room next to a call center. So, one day this week we were going on in the way that 30/40-something guys with few inhibitions do. It occurred to one of us that it would be interesting to see what would happen if we had a big digital marquee on the wall of the call center, scrolling some of the things we said in the software office. After kicking the idea around for a bit, we came to the concluion that it would be bad, but awesome. "Bad" in the sense of not keeping with our supposed dignity as educated professionals. "Awesome" in that it would be funny as hell to see the reactions of some of the ladies in the call center to what really goes on behind closed doors in the software cave. ("Cave" because we uually keep it pretty dark in there.)

Thucydides said...

Whimsy on one side of the wall, sheer terror on the other.

When most people say you are twisted, Tony, they are not thinking in these terms.

I like it....

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"Whimsy on one side of the wall, sheer terror on the other.

When most people say you are twisted, Tony, they are not thinking in these terms.

I like it...."


Wey-ulll...

It's of a time and a place. Me and my compadres in the software shop are pretty tight. You don't get hired unless everyone agrees that you can do the job and will fit into the social environment. That gives us the freedom to allow a little of bit of crazy to be the normal operating procedure.

For example, the minute the marquee was suggesed, nobody questioned the basic idea. It was obvious as stated. Everybody's eyes lit up and we just jumped knee deep into the implications, like it had been something out there for us all along.

Cordwainer said...

Well, Jim I do tend to like dark humor. On the point of whimsey I'm surprised no one has mentioned comedy shows like Laugh In, Love American Style, HEE! HAW! or the various BritComs in the Monty Python, Black Adder, Red Dwarf vein. Yes, I know some of that kind of dates me as an old foagy. As to Tony's remarks I seem to remember a similar idea was floated around at where I worked as well. We also use to play practical jokes with the controlled access to the doors and to peoples Common Access Cards, government workers can be real snots when they get bored. Of course sometimes whimsey and frivolity can be a selling point. I remember the time I walked into a Stone Cold Creamery and caught the teenagers juggling ice cream scoops.

Rick said...

A new post is up on the main page, The Balance of Technology.

Cordwainer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jim2B said...

At some point some segment of the human population will experiment with GM people. I think the concept of "uplift", especially as portrayed by David Brin, provides a mechanism by which we can explore the topic in fiction without it hitting "too close to home."

Meaning people write SF for many reasons. One of these is as a mechanism for exploring issues a conventional setting doesn't suit. Whether the topic is "Silly" may not be part of the author's calculus in situations like the one I described above. They might just be seeking a means exploring an issue that doesn't completely shut down our "suspension of disbelieve".