The Clockwork Rocket

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There’s something about reviewing that has been troubling me for a while: how do you decide by which aesthetic standards to measure the work under review? A typical review evaluates a work against an aesthetic standard, but the standard itself is usually implicit and almost never justified. The reader has to deduce the standard by looking at the reviewer’s judgements of success and failure. For example, if the reviewer praises or damns a book’s “characterization”, the reader deduces that “good characterization” is part of the standard by which the reviewer is judging the book. But where does this standard come from? I guess if you’re an aesthetic objectivist, there’s no problem here: the standards of good works of art are what they are, and that’s that. But all right-thinking people are aesthetic relativists, and for us this means that there’s a lacuna here: who’s to say that “characterization” is an appropriate yardstick to judge the work under examination? It’s easy to think of books where characterization has been deliberately excluded by the author: The Pilgrim’s Progress, where the characters are subsumed by their allegorical roles; Last and First Men, where the grand scope of the work renders the human scale invisible; or The Erasers, where the distinctions between characters have been deliberately erased. If “characterization” is part of the measure of a good work, then these works are failures. But surely we want to be able to say that this is missing the point: different works can achieve different goals.

Where writers, reviewers and readers largely share a common set of aesthetic standards, this problem can safely be ignored. I’m pretty sure that the readers of the London Review of Books, for example, share the standards of the reviewers—or why else would they buy the magazine?—and the writers they choose to review are selected from the same literary establishment.1 But on the Internet such cultural boundaries are harder to maintain, and when groups with different (but unstated and implicit) aesthetic standards meet, misunderstanding results.

1. Ebert on games

I’ll give just a couple of examples out of the many that have pushed my thinking in this direction. First, a case where people have implicitly (and unwisely) accepted a critic’s aesthetic standards, and thus find themselves impotent in their disagreement with him. This is the long battle of film critic Roger Ebert against the idea that video games can be “art” (by which he means, great works of art). Ebert’s views are perhaps best summarized2 in these two replies to video gamers from November 2005:

2005-11-13: I believe books and films are better mediums, and better uses of my time. But how can I say that when I admit I am unfamiliar with video games? Because I have recently seen classic films by Fassbinder, Ozu, Herzog, Scorsese and Kurosawa, and have recently read novels by Dickens, Cormac McCarthy, Bellow, Nabokov and Hugo, and if there were video games in the same league, someone somewhere who was familiar with the best work in all three mediums would have made a convincing argument in their defense.

2005-11-27: [I] consider video games inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.

I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.

There are two arguments here.3 The one about “choice”, is, I think, down to a mistake. A natural mistake, certainly, for a non-player, because the idea—that the actions of the protagonist in video games correspond to moral choices on the part of the player—has been awfully convenient for game developers when challenged about the unsavoury content of their games. When it’s suggested that, say, murder is a pretty unpleasant subject for a game, the game’s developer and its fans can respond to the effect that murders are the player’s moral choices, and if players don’t want to commit murder they can do some other missions instead. The relative amount of development effort put into the depiction of murdering versus other activities get swept under the carpet.

Ebert’s other argument is that no game can be as good as, say, Seven Samurai, or Les Misérables, otherwise someone would have brought it to his attention. The unasked question here is by what aesthetic principles is that someone supposed to have made this judgement? Ebert leaves his principles implicit, but his choice of examples suggests that he has in mind visual, social and psychological realism, complex plots, elegant prose, and insight into human character. This is a well-laid trap: if you accept that the quality of a work of art depends on whether it adheres to these principles, then you’ve accepted a standard that privileges certain artforms over others. Novels, plays and films are forms that are simply better at achieving these kinds of effects than, say, music, dance, sculpture (and video games).

Ebert’s implicit choice of aesthetic principles is not, strictly speaking, answerable. If you believe that the greatness of all art is to be evaluated by the similarity of its emotional effects to those produced by great novels and films, then video games are certainly not great. But why would you expect one art form to produce the same kinds of effects as another? No-one expects music to resemble sculpture: why should games resemble novels or films? When Ebert asks when games will produce something with the emotional impact of Taxi Driver, it’s a mistake to try to bluff with a response like “well, um, the end of Ico is pretty moving, and well, it’s kind of sad when Aeris dies in Final Fantasy VII”. Attempting to bluff in this way just gives critics like Ebert an open goal to shoot at: for example, Kellee Santiago’s attempted defence, ‘Are Video Games Art?’ implicitly accepts Ebert’s aesthetic principles, and so is easy for him to demolish in ‘Video games can never be art’. No: you should ask instead, when film will produce as challenging a boss battle as the ones in Ocarina of Time?

This implicit acceptance of aesthetic principles that video games struggle to live up to turns actively harmful when game developers internalize them and try to make games accordingly. Most common is the game that wants to be a film, and wastes its development effort on lame cut scenes and irritating voice acting. Other games would like to be literature: Braid, for example. This is an elegant platform game that creates complex relationships between space and time and makes the player figure out how to manipulate them. But the game elements are interleaved with a poorly written story that makes out that this elegant puzzle-platformer is some kind of metaphor for the protagonist’s regret for things that went wrong in his relationship with a woman. What confusion of ideas could have led Jonathan Blow to imagine that a game ought to aspire to the condition of a bourgeois novel, but with additional platforming elements?

2. Greg Egan’s The Clockwork Rocket

The science fiction writer Greg Egan is another pertinent case. Judged by the standards of the literary novel, Egan’s works fall far short: his prose is dry and impersonal; his characters carry out their function in the story but no more; his plots are often episodic and lack dramatic conflict or resolution; he has a tin ear when it comes to satire. But all of that can be forgiven because he brings to his work a unique interest in the character of physical law. Many science fiction writers pay homage to this subject, of course, but for most the laws of nature are there to serve the story: a discursion on the physics of a wormhole, say, would be for most writers an adjunct to a fantastic voyage therein, but Egan has the chutzpah to imagine that the reader will delight in the physics for its own sake.

It’s this unique quality that makes Egan’s deficits excusable: a reader who seeks a novel that aims to provide insight into the human condition has ten thousand exemplars to choose from, but a reader who seeks a novel that aims to provide insight into the laws of general relativity has only Egan’s Incandescence.

And this is where the arbitrariness of aesthetic standards should be clear: if Egan had written “better” works, according to the standards of the literary novel, then that would have impoverished our culture and not enriched it.

Of course, general relativity doesn’t have as widespread appeal as the human condition, so it’s common for a reviewer to see clearly the flaws in a Greg Egan novel, but miss its qualities entirely, or to misidentify them as another kind of flaw. I dealt with Adam Roberts’ review of Incandescence at length here, so I won’t repeat myself, but I recently spotted a review by Jonathan McCalmont at sfsite.com which contains an off-hand dismissal of the meat of the work:

Clearly, Egan was sufficiently intrigued by Roi’s world to put up some drawings and maths on his website but in truth, the amount of detail lavished on these chains of reasoning smacks of self-indulgence...

This is an astonishingly poor judgement from a usually insightful critic: not only does McCalmont most probably have the inference backwards,4 but this ‘self-indulgence’ is precisely what is most distinctive and interesting about Egan’s work. You might as well admonish Tolkien for self-indulgence in the matter of Elvish languages, or Melville for self-indulgence on the subject of whales.

Egan’s new novel The Clockwork Rocket follows very much the same template as Incandescence: on an alien world, a young person studies basic physics, and in doing so uncovers a threat of catastrophic proportions. Only by the concerted and co-operative effort of the whole civilisation can the catastrophe be averted—though we don’t find out if the effort succeeds, as there are still two volumes of the ‘Orthogonal’ trilogy to follow.

(Reviewers who are primarily interested in the human condition ought to give pause for thought here, because this is exactly the situation in which we find ourselves: the study of basic physics—in our case, the absorption/emission spectrum of carbon dioxide—uncovered the threat of climate change, and only by concerted global action can catastrophic change be averted, if it is not already too late.)

In Incandescence, the characters’ discovery of general relativity reveals their peril: their world is spiralling into a black hole. In The Clockwork Rocket, Egan’s scheme is much more ambitious, because the world obeys different laws of physics:

For the past year or so I’ve been spending most of my waking hours in a place where light, matter, energy and time obey different laws of physics than those that rule our own universe. Studying the way things move and interact under these alternative laws reveals some familiar behaviour, some strange and eerily beautiful phenomena, and some terrifying risks. [From Plus, Minus: A Gentle Introduction to the Physics of ‘Orthogonal’]

The point of departure is just a change of sign in the formula for the space-time metric in special relativity: in our metric (‘Lorentzian’ in Egan’s terminology), the space-time separation of two points is (Δx)2 + (Δy)2 + (Δz)2 − (Δt)2, but in The Clockwork Rocket (‘Riemannian’) it’s (Δx)2 + (Δy)2 + (Δz)2 + (Δt)2. The consequences are worked out thoroughly and convincingly, and when the nature of the threat is revealed, its physical concept follows so naturally from what we have painstakingly learned over the first half of the book that the sheer chutzpah of the concept takes a while to sink in. In fact, so bizarre is the concept of this universe that I wonder if Egan can possibly pull off the dénouement: I’m in suspense not only as to whether the characters will survive and succeed, but as to whether the invented laws of physics will ultimately make sense. Now that’s a cliff-hanger!

In my review of Incandescence I appealed “for a second edition of the novel with twenty or so well-chosen figures”. I’m glad to say that I don’t have to make this appeal again here: The Clockwork Rocket has as many figures as you could wish for.

I’ll finish with a selection of reviewers who have missed the point of the novel in various ways:


  1. ^ I am perhaps rather unfair in picking out the London Review of Books here: John Lanchester is insightful here on the subject of video games, for example.

  2. ^ It is not altogether easy to trace Ebert’s opinions on video games, as these were committed to writing piecemeal, in dialogue with video game fans. As far as I can tell, it started with his panning of the movie Doom in October 2005. Vikram Keskar wrote in to defend the movie as a “tribute” to a great game and Ebert responded, “As long as there is a great movie unseen or a great book unread, I will continue to be unable to find the time to play video games.” In November 2005, Josh Fishburn challenged this “denial of video games as a worthwhile use of your time,” prompting Ebert to strengthen his stance: “I believe books and films are better mediums, and better uses of my time.” Andrew Davis was “saddened to read that you consider video games an inherently inferior medium to film and literature” and in reply Ebert made his most explicit justification. That in turn elicited a whole slew of responses from gamers, but there the matter rested for a few years.

  3. ^ This section is based on discussions in the comments to two posts on Emily’s Short’s blog.

  4. ^ As I hypothesized in my review, Egan’s goal in writing Incandescence seems to have been to dramatise the theory of general relativity by making the survival of the characters dependent on their accurate understanding of the theory, and to show the discovery of the theory by direct observation. The location and nature of the society support this goal, not vice versa.


Update 2012-01-02: There’s some discussion of this piece over at the Strange Horizons blog and at Super Doomed Planet.