The Froomistat Conundrum

by wjw on April 16, 2015

Uh-oh.  Our hero is in trouble.

“Captain!  The enemy’s Vetch Cannon are proving more than a match for the shields generated by our Krump Vanes!”

“Blast it!  I warned the Admiralty that this would happen!”

“We’re really getting a pounding, sir!”

“Mr. Blazey— do we still have those froomistats in the hold?”

“Yes, sir, but what . . . ?”

“Those froomistats are composed primarily of omniblendium, which when hooked into our power system can be used to provide a temporary reversal of the Vetch Field.”

“Why— why that’s brilliant, sir!”

“Get busy hooking up those froomistats, mister— and then anyone firing a Vetch Cannon at us is going to get a very unpleasant surprise.”

“Yes— and we’ll have won yet another astounding victory against overwhelming odds!”

I assume you’ve all read something like this, or seen it on television— Next Generation Trek was infamous for this sort of scene, and when this brand of drama was called for the screenwriter was told to simply write [tech], and the writers who specialized in that sort of dialogue were called in.  (I always wondered why screenwriters pressed for time simply didn’t write whole pages consisting of nothing but [tech] [tech] [tech] [tech].  Had I been there, I’m sure I would have had [tech] on a macro.)

Here I’ve written a particularly egregious example, but I’m actually trying to make a serious point, which is that I am not moved by a scene in which an imaginary whatsit is afflicted by another imaginary whatsit, only to be rescued by a third imaginary whatsit.

When this sort of thing happens, I as a reader remain unmoved.

Which may sound odd, seeing as I’ve devoted most of my career to imaginative literature, and therefore might be expected to devise imaginary whatsits on a regular basis.  But I’d like to think my whatsits are a superior sort, because they have some connection, however tenuous, to reality.

I mean, when I decided to write a space opera, I used real physics!  (Well . . .  realish)

I’ve always felt that an imaginary dilemma solved by an imaginary solution— and by an imaginary person, to boot— lacks dramatic savor.  What is at stake, exactly?  And how brilliant does your protagonist have to be to deploy the froomistats the author has carefully stowed within reach?

And besides, it’s too damn easy.  How stirring is your hero’s victory when you invent the situation, invent the technology, invent the problem, and invent the solution?  It’s like playing with loaded dice.

This is why science fiction is loaded with fictional geniuses who excel at solving fictional problems.  And also why I don’t care about any of them, particularly.

Now it is possible to anchor imaginary tech in another sort of reality.  Human reality.  If your character is interesting enough, and has enough human problems to go along with her imaginary ones, the reader will follow along.  I don’t give much credence to the technology in the Verkosigan stories, but Miles Verkosigan is a wonderful character, and I’ll cheerfully follow him from one adventure to the next.

The more removed from reality your scenario, the more human connections the reader will need in order to care about the action.

My problem with froomistats and Vetch Cannon is equalled by my problem with virtual characters having virtual problems in a computerized virtual environment.  I just don’t care.  I want to shout at them, “You’re electrons— get over yourselves!”

But this may just be a personal kink.  But I’ve been encountering the Froomistat Conundrum as lot lately, and it’s high time I lodged a protest.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

TRX April 16, 2015 at 9:03 am

For a huge number of people, technology and magic are the same thing. No difference between Newton’s Laws and the One Ring, or a search engine or a crystal ball. So [tech] doesn’t bother them at all.

I was maybe thirteen when I read “The Lord of the Rings.” But I’d already been contaminated by E.E. Smith, and I kept thinking, “Well, if it’s so wonderful, why not just make more magic rings? Someone did it once, you could do it again.” You could set up a factory…

The difference, of course, is that technology is reproducible and works for anyone whether they believe in it or not.

-dsr- April 16, 2015 at 11:06 am

I think there’s one exception: mysteries. A completely fair SFnal mystery can have the solution be [tech], but it’s very hard to do while keeping it interesting. Asimov and Niven both wrote a bunch of those stories. I think that it’s telling that I largely remember them by the solution, not the characters or plot.

Jerry April 16, 2015 at 1:03 pm

1) At first I thought you had found a previously-unknown Keith Laumer manuscript. And I LIKE Kieth Laumer.

2) Isaac Asimov said very much the same thing you say here, about [tech] as [deus ex machina], and expressed similar feelings. You keep great company. (BTW, I also LIKE Isaac Asimov and WJW – a lot!)

3) I always thought that “froomistat” was spelled “franistat.” Oh well, live and learn.

Brian Renninger April 17, 2015 at 1:46 am

The solution to the Froomistat Conundrum is to increase the power to your kvetch field.

ralf T. Dog April 17, 2015 at 7:05 am

It does not bother me AS MUCH if, the imaginary technology is long established and consistent. As you know bob, the real crime is making the story about the technology, the magic or the science and not the people.

In writing, technology, science and magic are tools, not the objective.

Dave Bishop April 17, 2015 at 9:08 am

“The more removed from reality your scenario, the more human connections the reader will need in order to care about the action.”

The trouble with that is that in Hollywood ‘SciFi’ blockbusters the scenarios are soooo far from reality that all we really get is the protagonists’ personal problems plus some (often spectacular) special effects.

Take Spielberg’s ‘War of the Worlds’, for example. There’s lots of stuff about Tom Cruise’s character’s personal life but, as an SF fan, what I wanted to know was what was the aliens’ motive for invading the Earth? Why did they go to all of the trouble of burying their war machines when they could have taken over the planet BEFORE human technological civilisation emerged? Surely, human city builders would have detected buried alien war machines when they were in the process of installing buildings’ foundations? Finally, how come a super-intelligent species, capable of crossing interstellar gulfs (not to mention maintaining supply lines and communications across such gulfs), and burying war machines for eons, didn’t seem to know about microbiology!! The ending may have delighted H.G. Well’s readers – but things have moved on since then!

grs1961 April 17, 2015 at 12:16 pm

Its “Vorkosigan”, the Vor are the nobbly class on Barrayar.

Christopher K. Derrick April 17, 2015 at 1:49 pm

You could turn the froomistat story into something interesting if the focus of it was navigating the kafkaesque bureaucracy to obtain the froomistats in the first place. That would be a human story in which the details might change, but the plot has been constant since the days of Babylon.

TRX April 17, 2015 at 3:32 pm

> In writing, technology, science and magic are tools, not the objective.

Yes, kinda-sorta. Maybe.

When I was much younger I grooved on the like of Campbell’s “Wade, Arcot, & Morey” stories, and E.E. Smith’s “Skylark” and “Lensman” sagas. It wasn’t until much later that I realized how much scutwork was waved away in Campbell’s stories, or that Smith’s were thinly-disguised fascist pr0n. I liked the *stuff*, and to this day, I’m bored to tears with the “human interest” bits.

A story has to *do* something. Solve a mystery. Fight bad guys. Build something.

As an on-topic example, Heinlein’s “Friday.” We got cover art with giant hooters, chase sequence, some rape, chase sequence, some rough sex, chase sequence, some other stuff, more chasing, ah to hell with it go live happily ever after. Stuff is happening all the time, jammed in fast forward… but the “story” is just some whitewash over what’s basically a novel-length chase scene. I’ve read it a couple of times; the first time, I finished the last page, looked at the book, and wondered, “did I miss something?” I read it again later. Nope, I didn’t miss anything. Despite the frantic activity the story was lame.

Questioning other Heinlein fans, none of them saw any problem. Giant hooter cover art and the sex scenes were all they could talk about. (hey, this was over 30 years ago; back in those days it was wild stuff…)

Oz April 17, 2015 at 7:36 pm

When I read that opening dialogue, I thought you were commenting on the Puppygate. srsly. ‘Imaginary whatsits’ rescued by other ‘imaginary whatsits.’ :::snort:::


Ralf T. Dog April 17, 2015 at 7:46 pm

TRX, If yo ever read it again, think about who Friday is at the beginning of the book and compare it to who she is at the end. You might look at how she views others. More importantly, think about her motivations at the beginning and how they change through to the end.

At the start, she does not trust anyone. She does not think about trust, she thinks about the mission. She does not understand the concept of family. By the end, Family, paying social debt and helping others are her centers of existence.

wjw April 18, 2015 at 5:27 am

I read “Friday” when it first came out, and I noticed that the book started all over again after 100 pages, with a new situation and a new crisis (and a new chase). And then 100 pages later, it restarted, and restarted again after another 100 pages. It was full of interesting ideas, but none of them were ever worked out, and eventually I decided that all Heinlein had left was about a 100-page attention span. I never read any of the novels subsequent to that one.

TRX April 18, 2015 at 1:54 pm

You were smarter than I was… I kept thinking “well, most writers go through a bad spell every now and then, but the next novel will surely rock.”


Jerry May 12, 2015 at 10:37 am

1) I was right! In the Rocky Jones, Space Ranger 1955 Movieum-ex-three-episodeia, “Menace From Outer Space,” at 49:15, Winky (Rocky’s co-pilot and comic sidekick), clearly says “frannistat.”

2) My allusion to Isaac Asimov referred to a cocktail party conversation he reported, with a gentleman who said science fiction writers could just make up death rays or hyper-doodads to extricate themselves from tight spots. Asimov considered that and rejected such devices as trash. He reasoned that similarly, Mystery writers could introduce random characters at will to solve “whodunits,” but that would be cheap and disappointing.

wjw May 12, 2015 at 6:02 pm

Asimov was smart that way.

Now a frannistat is different from a froomistat, and both are different from a frammistat. Let’s keep our technical terms correct, here.

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