Dec 11, 2016

What Does An Economist, A Fish and Literature Have In Common?

Sturgeon's Revelation: In Defence Of Science Fiction

TL:DR? Want a short concise article about this? Try Sturgeon's Revelation: In Defence Of Science Fiction.

I've loved science fiction (SciFi) for as long as I can remember. The stories of spacemen flying around in space ships and fighting off B.E.M's* with ray-guns fired up my imagination more than anything else. But apart from my family only two other people really encouraged me to read science fiction and Fantasy, my Year Six teacher who encouraged my imagination and my Year Seven English teacher who pointed me in the direction of some great classics. Everyone else either dimissed the genre or openly mocked it.

I'd hear taunts from peers like:
"At least sports-ting is something real, McTavish, not like your Buck Rogers stuff!, that's for people who can't handle the real world." 

Or from Teachers I'd hear,
"Science fiction is not real literature, this is why we're going to be studying real fiction."

...Real fiction? An oxymoron if I've ever heard one.

This is why I was so pleased to learn about Sturgeon's Revelation (or most commonly known as Sturgeon's Law).

So What Is Sturgeon's Revelation And What Does It Have To Do With An Economist?

Sturgeon's Revelation first appeared in the March 1958 issue of Venture (a science fiction magazine) and is a defence of science fiction as a genre. While the proper citation of Sturgeon's Revelation is "Nothing is always absolutely so." (whatever that means).  It is Sturgeon's Law that is in the most common usage which says "ninety percent of everything is crap". Although I believe he used the word 'crud'.

This Is Where The Economist Comes In.

Purchasing stock was one of my favourite tasks when I worked in a book shop. I enjoyed the challage of Just-In-Time inventory control,  getting the delicate balance correct between having the shop full of books and other stock, which would sell quickly. The constant struggle to achieve the magical turn over of 5 consumed my thoughts.  I would talk to other shop managers, if I could and read industry articles and economic books on how to achieve this so I could run the book shop well.

During this journey I came across the Pareto Principle, this is also known as the 80/20 rule. This principle or rule states that '20% of of the invested input is responsible for 80% of the results obtained. Or 80% of consequences stem from 20% of the causes.' (1) Applied to my role in the book shop it meant that 80% of our sales came from 20% of the stock. That's the stock I needed to focus on.

This principle has been found to work for so many other areas of life in general:

  • In sports, 20% of sportsmen participate in 80% of big competitions and out of them, 20% win 80% of the awards. 
  • In business, 80% of problems can be attributed to 20% of causes.
  • In Information Technology,  Microsoft noted that by fixing the top 20% of the most-reported bugs, 80% of the related errors and crashes in a given system would be eliminated.
  • At work, look around you and you'll probably find that you're part of the 20% who does 80% of the work. 

This principle serves as a general rule not a hard and fast one, the ratios can be moved. For instance it could be 60/40 or 90/10.

So What Does This Have To Do With Literature?

If we apply the 'Pareto Principle' to all the books published you notice that only ten to twentl percent of them are good or expectional. This is not something new, Vilfredo Pareto wrote about his 80/20 rule as far back as 1896, and even earlier still in 1870, Benjamin Disraeli wrote:

Books are fatal: they are the curse of the human race. Nine-tenths of existing books are nonsense, and the clever books are the refutation of that nonsense.

This Is Where Our Fish Comes In.

There is a fish called a Sturgeon and we're discussing Sturgeon's Revelation / Law... get it (!) O.K. it's was my attempt at clickbait, looks like it worked though you're srill here. ☺

Back to Sturgeon's Revelation, in 2013, philosopher Daniel Dennett revitalised Sturgeon's Law as one of his seven tools for critical thinking. The full quote is recounted in Dennett's book Intuition Pumps, and Other Tools for Thinking:

When people talk about the mystery novel, they mention The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep.  When they talk about the western, they say there’s The Way West and Shane.  But when they talk about science fiction, they call it “Buck Rogers stuff,” and they say “ninety percent of science fiction is crud.”  Well, they’re right.  Ninety percent of science fiction is crud.  But then ninety percent of everything is crud, and it’s the ten percent that isn’t crud that is important, and the ten percent of science fiction that isn’t crud is as good or better than anything being written anywhere.

Dennett follows this by saying:

A good moral to draw from this observation is that when you want to criticize a field, a genre, a discipline, an art form,… don’t waste your time and ours hooting at the crap!  Go after the good stuff, or leave it alone.  This advice is often ignored by idealogues intent on destroying the reputation of analytic philosophy, evolutionary psychology, sociology, cultural anthropology, macroeconomics, plastic surgery, improvisational theater, television sitcoms, philosophical theology, massage therapy, you name it.  Let’s stipulate at the outset that there is a great deal of deplorable, stupid, second-rate stuff out there, of all sorts.  Now, in order not to waste your time and try our patiences, make sure you concentrate on the best stuff you can find, the flagship examples extolled by the leaders in the field, the prize-winning entries, not the dregs. (2)

So what Sturgeon is actually saying is that science fiction can stack up with the best of any other fiction genre if you give it a chance.

If you're new to science fiction or want to 'give it a go' what I would say to you is 'Yes, ninety percent of SciFi is rubbish so seek out the ten percent that is good and start with that.  Since life is short you could also apply this to life in general, replace SciFi with X and seek out the best in class

How Do I Know The Difference?

Firstly look around for people who are enthusiastic about the subject and see what they have to say, what they have to recommend. Don't forget to ask questions, if they're taking SciFi (or X) they're willing to provide advice. This is where the internet comes to it's own, and something I didn't have access to when I was growing up.

I'm may sound like an old man now when I say this but 'time will tell'. Time will winnow out the chaff.  Take a look back at what was on the best sellers list ten years ago and see how many of these titles are actually memorable or ones you would be willing to read again or recommend to someone.

In this example I was able to find's Top Ten Customer Favorite Sci-Fi/Fantasy Books of 2006 at TechRepublic, and in it there are only three titles, the bottom three, which are memorable, that I would re-read, or recommend as worth reading in 2016.

And of that three only one really stands out is Old Man's War by John Scalzi. (I would definitely recommend that you read this book.) Yet it was not on the's Top Ten Editor's Favorite Sci-Fi/Fantasy Books of 2006.

As you can see by the Vampire novels at the top of this list, some books may be good (or popular) at the time they were released but they don't age well, and this is typical of works of science fiction. They tend to age less gracefully than literary fiction, because both technology and society marches on. For example, Stranger in a Strange Land (which is considered a Classic SciFi novel) hypothesizes Starfish Alien Martians and fascinating new technologies, but still relegates women to sexy secretaries and nagging wives.(3)

This could be part of the reason critics think all science fiction is crud, apart from their lack of imagination.  Critics regard what they do as serious business. They're trying to calculate a canon of great works, and there's no room for anything less. They seem to think that if enough people consume good works, people will start giving out flowers and candy and overthrow 'The Man' and cure cancer, but if they consume bad works, people will have their souls crushed and vote to establish fascism. (3)

I'll finish off with a quote from C.S. Lewis which may help you with winnowing out the chaff as well.
It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones. (4)

...and don't forget to read more, think more with your favourite beverage!

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* B.E.M = Bug Eyed Monsters.
(3) not my thoughts, but I've forgotten the source. Let me know if you find it.


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