Monday, 15 February 2016

Impossible Histories

Impossibilities are of two kinds: physical and logical. If there is no way around the light speed limit, then faster than light travel remains physically impossible but we can conceive of it without self-contradiction so that it remains logically possible and might happen in another universe with different scientific laws.

Logic is simply the consistency between propositions without which we would not succeed in saying anything. I find it necessary to say this because I have met people who think that logic has something to do with Mr Spock not having emotions or that a film featuring talking animals is "illogical" merely because talking animals are counter-factual in our experience.

If an sf future history series contains internal inconsistencies, e.g., in its chronology, then the narrative of the series is to that extent logically impossible. An Empire cannot have been founded four centuries before a given date and also have been founded three centuries before that date. The author can revise the texts or the inconsistency can be explained away, e.g., as an error on the part of a viewpoint character or the readers might just have to accept that the fallible author made a mistake.

A textual inconsistency is an aesthetic interference condition because it interferes with our aesthetic appreciation of the text. A visual equivalent would be a painting showing salmon swimming upstream at a time of year when they should have been swimming downstream.

A text that consistently contradicted itself would not present any intelligible narrative. However, no author ever says anything like, "Have I given several incompatible dates for a fictitious event? That is because I transcend logic and am not obliged to be consistent." So everyone does in fact accept the dreaded "logic" even if they do not realize it!


  1. Kaor, Paul!

    Alas, I too have had trouble with persons who did not understand logic. Some even denied that "opinions" can be false. E.g., they denied that someone's opinion that Hitler was a good and saintly man was false. Or that two plus two does not have to ALWAYS equal four was false. I discussed this problem with Mr. Wright on his own blog and he found it interesting enough to write a long blog piece about logic.


  2. Paul:
    ' author ever says anything like, "Have I given several incompatible dates for a fictitious event? That is because I transcend logic and am not obliged to be consistent."'

    Actually, George MacDonald Fraser said something rather like that in the opening pages of his wildly funny and insanely anachronistic spoof *The Pyrates*. He remarked that the story begins on a day when Samuel Pepys recorded [certain incidents] in his diary, and John Evelyn recorded [certain rumors] in his, and then Fraser added that "anyone checking these entries will find they are years apart, which gives some idea of the kind of story this is...."

    Fraser was doing it to be funny (he succeeded). I don't know WHAT Walt Whitman had in mind when he proclaimed, "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes." What WAS going through his head -- and how much did he pay his pusher for it?

    1. David,
      Whitman must have meant something like, "On some matters of taste or opinion, I sometimes feel one way and sometimes another." However, he cannot sensibly have meant, "I simultaneously think both A and not-A."

    2. I think that Whitman went on to say that a foolish consistency was the hobgoblin of small minds? A foolish consistency would be holding someone to the letter of everything he had already said even when he was having the opportunity to learn more and to revise his opinions during a discussion.

    3. Kaor, Paul,

      I think it was Emerson who said that about a foolish consistency.

      Best Regards,
      Nicholas D. Rosen