Down in flames

August 25, 2018

I first encountered Larry Niven’s story/essay “Down in Flames” in the collection N-Space in high school. This was after I’d read Ringworld and most of Niven’s Known Space stories, so by the time I got to “Down in Flames” I had the context to get it. (You can read the whole thing for free here.)

Here’s the idea, from near the start:

On January 14, 1968, Norman Spinrad and I were at a party thrown by Tom & Terry Pinckard. We were filling coffee cups when Spinny started this whole thing.

“You ought to drop the known space series,” he said. “You’ll get stale.” (Quotes are not necessarily dead accurate.) I explained that I was writing stories outside the “known space” history, and that I would give up the series as soon as I ran out of things to say within its framework. Which would be soon.

“Then why don’t you write a novel that tears it to shreds? Don’t just abandon known space. Destroy it!”

“But how?” (I never asked why. Norman and I think alike in some ways.)

The rest of the piece is just working out the details.

“Down in Flames” brain-wormed me. Other than Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” I doubt if there is another short story I’ve read as many times. Mike once described the act of building something complex and beautiful and then destroying it as “magnificently profligate”, and that’s the exact quality of “Down in Flames” that appeals to me.

I also think it is a terrific* exercise for everyone who is a scientist, or who aspires to be one.

* In both the modern sense of “wonderful” and the archaic sense of “causing terror”.

Seriously, try it. Grab a piece of paper (or open a new doc, or whatever) and write down the ideas you’ve had that you hold most dear. And then imagine what it would take for all of them to be wrong. (When teams and organizations do this for their own futures, it’s called a pre-mortem, and there’s a whole managerially-oriented literature on it. I’d read “Down in Flames” instead.)

It feels like this! Borrowed from here.

Here are some questions to help you along:

  • Which of your chains of reasoning admit more than one end-point? If none of them might lead other places, then either you are the most amazing genius of all time (even Newton and Einstein made mistakes), or you are way behind the cutting edge, and your apparent flawlessness comes from working on things that are already settled.
  • If there is a line of evidence that could potentially falsify your pet hypothesis, have you checked it? Have you drawn any attention to it? Or have you gracefully elided it from your discussions in hopes that no-one will notice, at least until after you’re dead?
  • If there’s no line of evidence that could falsify your pet hypothesis, are you actually doing science?
  • Which of your own hypotheses do you have an emotional investment in?
  • Are there findings from a rival research team (real or imagined) that you would not be happy to see published, if they were accurate?
  • Which hypotheses do you not agree with, that you would be most dismayed to see proven correct?

[And yes, Karl, I know that according to some pedants hypotheses are never ‘proven’. It’s a theoretical exercise already, so just pretend they can be!]

I’ll close with one of my favorite quotes, originally published in a couple of tweets by Angus Johnson in May of 2017 (also archived here):

If skepticism means anything it means skepticism about the things you WANT to be true. It’s easy to be a skeptic about others’ views. Embracing a set of claims just because it happens to fit your priors doesn’t make you a skeptic. It makes you a rube, a mark, a schnook.

So, don’t be that rube. Burn down your house of ideas – or at least, mentally sift through the rubble and ashes and imagine how it might have burned down. And then be honest about that, minimally with yourself, and ideally with the world.

If you’re a true intellectual badass, blog the results. I will. It’s not fair to give you all homework – painful homework – and not take the medicine myself, so I’m going to do a “Down in Flames” on my whole oeuvre in the next a future post. Stay tuned!

6 Responses to “Down in flames”

  1. Kevin Says:

    I am astonished to see “A Sound of Thunder” mentioned in a vaguely positive way, as it sticks out in my memory as possibly the worst story I’ve ever read!

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Wasn’t that the one L. Sprague de Camp wrote “A Gun for a Dinosaur” in rebuttal to? Saying something like the story needed to focus less on time travel shenanigans and more on people actually interacting with dinosaurs?

  3. Kevin Says:

    I’m not familiar with the rebuttal, and in fairness I only know “A Sound of Thunder” from when I was supposed to read/analyze it with a high school literature class I was a substitute teacher for, so perhaps it was an abridged version. My recollection of the plot is basically this:

    Humans have invented time travel, and obviously the most readily apparent application of this technology is for big-game hunting in the ancient past, so there’s a company that takes people back in time to hunt Tyrannosaurus. So a dude signs up for a hunt, and while they’re all chilling in the present-day hunting lodge they’re all talking about an election that just took place, and how they’re relieved that they guy they like won, and not the guy they don’t like.

    Well anyway they give the hunter dude a big lecture about being careful not to change the past while he’s out there hunting, because it could affect the future. Like seriously if you even step in some moss it could destroy reality as we know it. But don’t worry, the hunting outfitters installed a levitating boardwalk in the Tyrannosaurus territory so you won’t step in any moss, and obviously a large levitating boardwalk won’t affect anything at all so whew we get to go hunting after all.

    Well they go back in time and sure enough there’s a levitating boardwalk, which apparently isn’t affecting vegetation growth or temperature gradients or animal pathways or anything at all really. Well WOW here comes a Tyrannosaurus! The hunting dude gets really scared of it and oh god he steps off the levitating boardwalk and right into some moss. Then the hunting guide shoots the Tyrannosaurus, right in the eyeball or something. Right after he shoots it and it falls over dead a tree branch falls down and the guide is like lolol that branch was going to kill the Tyrannosaurus anyway so that’s why we can hunt it without altering the future. Nevermind about the branch and the Tyrannosaurus and whatever else falling on different moss than it would have fallen on otherwise. And then he’s like “OMG hunting dude did you step in some flippin’ moss?? Ugh well I hope the future is still okay.”

  4. Kevin Says:

    Oh yea I almost forgot, I think the author mentioned that the Tyrannosaurus roared with a sound “like thunder.” I guess it cracked and rumbled? Lol whatev, okay.

    Hunting guide is really cranky now and makes scared hunting dude get the bullet out of the Tyrannosaurus skull with a dinky little pocket knife, because leaving a bullet in the past will change the future. Nevermind the giant boardwalk and the differently-paced Tyrannosaurus corpse and tree branch, those are okay. They just kinda ignore how impossible it would be to dig a bullet out of even a bear skull with a pocket knife, much less a Tyrannosaurus skull. But the author assures us that they managed it okay.

    Well anyway they teleport back to the present in the hunting lodge, and everything looks normal despite the fact that hunting dude stepped in moss. BUT WAIT. On the TV they see that now the OTHER politician, the one they didn’t like, has won the election. Because the hunter dude stepped in moss! Not because of the other stuff.

    So hunting guide is pretty upset about this outcome of the electoral process. So do you know what he does? Do you? He straight-up uses his hunting rifle to murder hunting dude right then and there, in the hunting lodge. And do you know what sound the author thinks rifles make? Do you? Apparently it’s a sound “like thunder.” Idk, maybe future rifles are different.

    So after we read this story in class, I am absolutely mortified. How did this awful story end up in a literature class? What is there even to say about it? It was literally the worst thing I had ever read, even worse than crap creative writing assignments turned in by apathetic high schoolers. I didn’t know what to do. So I just had everyone read another story instead, and we talked about that one. I wasn’t there the next day, it was my last day of subbing for that class. I have no idea how the teacher handled things afterwards.

  5. […] I am home sick with a sore throat today, and I can’t be arsed to (1) follow up on the “Down in Flames” post, (2) add anything thoughtful to the vertebral orientation discussion, or (3) crop or […]

  6. […] on the topic at the 1st Palaeo Virtual Congress. And I see that I still owe the world a “down in flames” perspective on my own […]

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