Big Dumb Objects

Posted: July 14, 2010 in books, Braak, poetics
Tags: , ,

This is something that turned up on Jonathon McCalmont’s blog, he’s reviewing a book called Wolfsangel, and he wants to delve into the idea of the Big Dumb Object, which is a term I hadn’t really heard before.  Is it possible, he asks, to create a fantasy Big Dumb Object? (I’m paraphrasing that, obviously.)

The whole idea is interesting, and I want to consider it.

So, the first question I have to ask, because my (admittedly shallow) reading on the subject didn’t make it explicitly clear:  why are they dumb?  There are a bunch of examples used — mostly titanic artifacts of alien civilizations (the Monolith, for instance), sometimes ghost ships, &c.  Is “dumb” a pejorative, here?  Is it a reference to the fact that the objects don’t seem to exhibit any kind of consciousness?  Or does it simply refer to the fact that they don’t say anything?

I actually think the answer is probably the last one, because it’s the lack of the Object’s communication that is the relevant piece in all of these stories.  In Event Horizon, when the Event Horizon shows up again, the driving element of the plot isn’t just “what happened here?” but the ship’s utter refusal to explain itself.  The same is likewise true with other enigmatic relics:  Rama’s presence isn’t the only important part of the story; equally important is the mystery (a consequence of the Object’s refusal to speak) surrounding it.

McCalmont says that the Big Dumb Object is not a MacGuffin, and also that it sometimes functions as an inverted MacGuffin, and I’m not sure that’s a hundred percent true, because I think these two things don’t necessarily describe the same thing.  The term “MacGuffin” explicitly refers to something’s relationship to the plot, but (if the examples on Wikipedia are to be believed) the Big Dumb Object doesn’t necessarily — it can, certainly, and it can function, as McCalmont suggests, as a tool for controlling the flow of information about itself, but it doesn’t have to; in fact, since it’s the Object’s “dumbness” that drives the story, the less it does that the better.

Consider:  the Event Horizon is not a MacGuffin; it is big, and fearful, and awesome, and refuses to explain itself, but it is not the object of a protracted chase.  It retains most of its Dumbness through the end: the Event Horizon is a vehicle through which we explore the human reaction not just to the unknown, but to the flatly incomprehensible.

On the other hand, the Excession in Excession absolutely IS a MacGuffin.  It is

MacGuffin: Oh my god, check this out, it is awesome.

almost a textbook case:  an object that is the subject of a protracted chase, driving the action of the plot, and the nature of which is not actually relevant to the plot’s resolution.  (For those of you not familiar with Excession — well, it happens basically like that; an object older than the universe appears in space, a few giant space cultures try and get it, it disappears without the audience ever really understanding what it was.  The plot, which is really about how the Culture and the Affront will come to deal with each other, is not contingent on anyone ever actually getting or understanding the Excession.)

This does lead to some interesting questions in terms of fantasy:  namely, does fantasy have an equivalent of the Big Dumb Object?  I don’t think that, as McCalmont suggests, the One Ring qualifies; it is certainly the artifact of an ancient power, and we certainly don’t know how it works, but neither do we especially care.  While the Object is Dumb, its Dumbness is of no particular significance to the story, since we already know everything we need to about it (It Is Evil and Must Be Destroyed).

I was going to use, as examples, the glass cities in The Lies of Locke Lamora, but in retrospect, they don’t really fit my definition either.  Again, ancient artifacts of unknown construction and unusual properties, but no one really seems to care about what they are or why they’re there, the story itself being preoccupied with a mafia war.

I can’t really think of a good example.  It’s interesting; McCalmont asks if it’s possible to make a Big Dumb Object that operates according to laws other than the laws of the natural universe (unlike, say, Dyson Spheres, which are at least theoretically possible within the regular rules of time and space).  Certainly there’s no reason this shouldn’t be possible; the challenge, of course, is that in a fantasy world the expectation is already that there isn’t going to be a lot of explanation according to the how and why of “magic” — and the lack of explanation is what makes the Big Dumb Object interesting.  That is, a huge enigmatic mystery is only significant in a world in which pretty much everything else can be readily explained.

It’s not impossible, obviously.  I don’t know for sure why you’d do it, since the purpose of the Big Dumb Object is to challenge the hard SF position of know-it-allness (which is not something that you typically use fantasy for).  It’d have to be a setting that was very precise in terms of how and why things worked (magically or otherwise), and the Object would have to be resistant to those pre-established methods for understanding.

Then, obviously, you’re stuck with the question, “What is the object really?”  And human consciousness throws out the challenge of:  “Also, don’t make it turn out to be something stupid.”  Which is hard; it’s especially hard in a fantasy world where, again, the violation of natural law is already de rigeur. You’re talking about a story in which you deliberately limit the nature of the world, specifically so that you can exceed those limits, and then that excession (hah!) must also be something that we care about.

Or, alternately:  MacGuffin.  I’m starting to see the appeal of a plot device like that.

Thoughts?

Advertisements
Comments
  1. Moff says:

    Fantasy-wise, there might be some BDOs in the Elric books. But I haven’t read them recently enough to cite one precisely.

  2. braak says:

    Yeah, it’s definitely a body of work that would allow for it, though I also cannot think of a specific example.

  3. Jonathan M says:

    Hi there 🙂 Glad my comments inspired you!

    As for why they are DUMB, you’d have to ask Roz Kaveney really… I took them to be dumb in the sense of someone being a ‘big dumb guy’: they’re huge hulking masculine things that impress simply by their size. There’s something decidedly phallic and compensatory about a BDO. What kind of culture would feel the need to express its power in so vulgar a fashion? Real world BDOs like the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise or the Great Wall of China are all exteriorisation of cultural tensions.

    Regarding the One Ring, I do explicitly say that it’s not a BDO. I think it’s a MacGuffin : It drives the plot and we never really learn that much about it. There’s no exploration of the One Ring. Excession is also a MacGuffin, I completely agree. Textbook example of one, much like the contents of the glowing briefcase in Pulp Fiction.

    My distinction between BDOs and MacGuffins is as follows :

    MacGuffins drive the plot. It is always about finding the MacGuffin or capturing it. The MacGuffin itself seldom has clear characteristics, it’s just something that is wanted and those desires force the characters to act and so the plot happens.

    BDOs are the subject matter of the stories. Stories with BDOs in them tend to be about exploring the objects. The plots effectively serve to move the camera around the edifice, illuminating different aspects of it as the characters explore.

    Of course, there are cases when objects shift their functions. I haven’t read it but I think Hamilton’s Void Trilogy uses this trick. The first book is about getting TO the BGO and then the emphasis shifts towards exploring the object.

  4. braak says:

    I actually kind of wonder if, in The Scar, it’s not the Avanc that serves as a kind of de-facto BDO, but the Scar itself. Or, almost. Maybe if they’d actually gotten there, or if the nature of the Scar had some direct effect on the story. Ostensibly, it functions instead as a MacGuffin–an object sought after to drive the plot, but whose acquisition is inconsequential to the plot’s resolution.

    Hmmm.

    There has to be a strong example in fantasy, somewhere.

  5. Lindsay says:

    Hmmm… I hadn’t heard this term before, but maybe some of the various unknowable temples/cities of ancient construction that, for example, Conan explores? The stories are short, but there’s the mystery, the exploration, and then the characters either figure out what the purpose is, or figure out enough that they know to get the hell out, leaving the ultimate source/purpose unknown.

    I get the sense that type of thing in a fantasy setting would have to be a structure of some kind, a city or catacombs or something. Nothing more specific comes to mind, though.

  6. braak says:

    Well, the Mary Celeste is essentially a BDO, and that was a pre-industrial event. Ghost ships and such.

    And, really, if you think about something like Event Horizon–the SF part of it, the technology, is real technology, but it doesn’t have to be. Ancient Ascalonian Thaumaturges could have built a vessel meant to explore the Outer Night using magicks that have since been lost. It returns, sending horrific nightmares to the kingdom’s oneiromancers (killing the lesser hedge-magicians that practice their arts in the dark corners of the city, and driving the royal Haruspex insane). The ship floats in the air ten miles south of Ascalon, and doesn’t cast a shadow…

    I mean, I mentioned before that SF and Fantasy are basically differences of vocabulary. That’s not to say those differences aren’t important, but, ostensibly, there’s nothing you can do with one that you can’t do with the other.

  7. dagocutey says:

    “Real world BDOs like the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise or
    the Great Wall of China are all exteriorisation of cultural
    tensions.”

    Or Rush Limbaugh, or Glenn Beck, or my brother, Albert. All real life BDO’s, and not part of anyone’s fantasies.

  8. Hsiang says:

    Check out the Dragon Graiule stories by Lucius Shepard. I think the corpse of a beast so large that cities are built upon it qualifies as a BDO.

  9. Dmart says:

    It seems like BDOs are particularly suited to science fiction because they have so much to do with the nature of science specifically. I mean, you’ve got a notable, mysterious natural phenomenon that challenges existing knowledge, and what the characters do learn about it, they learn through application of the scientific method. A BDO is just a more dramatic version of real scientific phenomena that took real science to figure out, like electricity or the motion of stars. Then again, that still allows for a fantasy equivalent, but it seems to me to be a tad redundant.

  10. John says:

    “And, really, if you think about something like Event Horizon–the SF part of it, the technology, is real technology, but it doesn’t have to be. Ancient Ascalonian Thaumaturges could have built a vessel meant to explore the Outer Night using magicks that have since been lost. It returns, sending horrific nightmares to the kingdom’s oneiromancers (killing the lesser hedge-magicians that practice their arts in the dark corners of the city, and driving the royal Haruspex insane). The ship floats in the air ten miles south of Ascalon, and doesn’t cast a shadow…”

    I want to read this book. Write it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s