Spherical cow generation ships of 7-11

One of the key skills of a physics major that applies quite usefully to writing is analogy. The other day one of my Facebook friends asked a question from her daughter: what happens to pressurized containers in hard vacuum? And one of the keys to answering this question is recognizing the breadth of what “pressurized container” means. Within the kid’s experience, it has probably been used to mean things like soda cans. But from a physics perspective, it means soda cans, it means spaceships, it means the human body, it means a highly variable set of stuff. And we’ve stuck some of that stuff in space, and so we have the ability to talk about what happened and why, and draw analogous conclusions from there.

When you’re a kid, it’s sometimes hard to see which aspects of an analogy will be important and which will not, because you don’t have as much experience–with physics or with social situations or whatever else is up for discussion. My parents are still shaking their heads over the time in my early childhood that I was pining to go into a 7-11. I’d seen them in movies (oh, the Eighties!), but I’d never been in one, and I wanted to go. As adults, my parents had the cultural background to see that a 7-11 in Sioux Falls, SD, where we were visiting my Gran at the time, would be pretty much exactly the same as any other convenience store or kwik-e-mart in Sioux Falls, SD–that any differences would likely be regional, not brand-related (and even those would be pretty minimal). But I yearned. I was filled with curiosity. So Grandma, ever indulgent, took me in and bought me a Cadbury Crème Egg and let me see that the analogies held, the things I could expect of a Casey’s General Store, I could also expect of a 7-11.

One of the ongoing physics jokes is the spherical cow of uniform density, but that’s one of the things a physics major teaches you: when it’s okay to do that and when it’s just not going to work and what you need is a point cow of neutral charge instead. Once my aunt got a nerd test to give me, and when I was laughing ruefully at the spherical cow, my cousin asked what the joke was. My aunt said, “Because they’ve been in the lab so long, they’ve forgotten what a cow looks like.” And I stared at her, and I tried to be nice about it, but no. No. There is a foible to mock here, but it’s not that one. It’s the tendency to push an analogy farther than it will go. A cow, we think, is “sort of like” a sphere. Well, okay; sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.

One of the things that is most likely to make me bounce off a book can be conceived of as a failure to draw analogies–either in the spherical cow case or in its opposite. The fiction equivalent of the spherical cow comes up when the author doesn’t know much about an area and wants to tell you that something they have come up with will work “just as well,” and you know more about it, and it won’t. The opposite–well, this came up in a discussion at one of my favorite conventions, when the panelists were talking about generation ships. Generation ships, the panel nearly unanimously agreed, would be so very unfair because what if you were born into one and couldn’t do the job you really wanted because there was not room for you in it, and you had to do a job you didn’t like as much instead? How horrible this would be! How unbearable, and how completely incapable of forming a long-term functional society! Because people would be doing hard jobs they didn’t love! And I let them talk as long as I politely could and then put my hand up and said, “You mean like now? You mean like here?” Because seriously. That is the status quo. And if you’re talking about writing dystopias, “It will be a horrible dystopia the like of which the world has not seen since Tuesday!” is somehow less compelling. If you’re going to use something we already have as the main element that makes something dystopic, for heaven’s sake do so with malice aforethought.

Sometimes it’s our job to push a metaphor too far, to see what’s interesting about the ways in which it doesn’t fit–or the ways in which it unexpectedly does. But it’s always on us to make it clear what the hell we’re talking about, to convince the reader that we have not made a spherical cow, nor have we failed to notice that some of the cows are already spheres.

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