Page 1 – Creativity Hacker https://creativityhacker.ca A novelist and creativity scientist explores the intersection between software, writing, and creativity theory. Fri, 18 Feb 2022 16:15:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=6.3.1 FlipGrip: Read books while running. No, seriously. https://creativityhacker.ca/2022/02/18/flipgrip-read-books-while-running-no-seriously/ https://creativityhacker.ca/2022/02/18/flipgrip-read-books-while-running-no-seriously/#respond Fri, 18 Feb 2022 16:15:03 +0000 https://creativityhacker.ca/?p=11660 Those who’ve been following me for a while will know that reading books on the treadmill is kinda my thing. But what you might not know is how annoying it...]]>

FlipGrip in the handThose who’ve been following me for a while will know that reading books on the treadmill is kinda my thing. But what you might not know is how annoying it has always been to actually flip the pages. For years, I’ve been forced to keep a keyboard balanced on the console, just so I could hit the PageDown button every now and then. When I was actively writing ImmerseOrDie reviews, having the keyboard there was a necessity. I mean, how else would I have made notes on what I was reading? But in truth, running is an endeavor best pursued with your hands free. Have you ever tried to jog while carrying a pie? Sounds awkward, right? Well if it’s anything like running while typing, then I can tell you that it is. Very awkward.

Over the years, I’ve tried a number of different solutions to the problem – mice, trackballs, fancy handheld keyboards. You name it, I’ve tried it. But I could never find the “just right” solution: something comfortable, simple, and highly portable.

So this week, I built one.

I call it the FlipGrip, and it couldn’t be much simpler. Just a small cylinder that fits neatly into a semi-clenched fist, with 2 push-buttons mounted on it. One to send the PageForward command, and another to send PageBack. And since it connects over USB, it appears as a standard keyboard, so there’s no need for any driver software on the computer. Plus, that USB cable means I don’t have to worry about batteries running down or interference over Bluetooth or WiFi.

And for those rare times when I’m listening to music instead of reading, it even has a mode where I can send Play/Pause and NextTrack instead of the ebook paging commands.

It’s may not be rocket science, but it has definitely improved my treadmill time. And anything that can make treadmilling more endurable may actually play a role in saving my life, so that’s gotta be a win, too. Right?

Project Files are here (on PrusaPrinters.org)

]]>
https://creativityhacker.ca/2022/02/18/flipgrip-read-books-while-running-no-seriously/feed/ 0
Vibrating a guitar string in Blender https://creativityhacker.ca/2021/12/04/vibrating-a-guitar-string-in-blender/ https://creativityhacker.ca/2021/12/04/vibrating-a-guitar-string-in-blender/#respond Sat, 04 Dec 2021 20:43:03 +0000 https://creativityhacker.ca/?p=11432 I have a YouTube channel where I make lots of short gag vids about Ogg. He’s a caveman muppet character who’s been thawed out of the ice and is now...]]>

Ogg at the art galleryI have a YouTube channel where I make lots of short gag vids about Ogg. He’s a caveman muppet character who’s been thawed out of the ice and is now trying to figure out our modern world.

His performances are shot as live-action puppetry against a green screen, and I use Blender to create many of the backgrounds, props, 2D animation elements, and sometimes even his arms and legs. I’m now working on a script that will need Ogg to play the guitar and sing.

Making a muppet play the guitar is hard to do as a live shot – especially for a one-man production company with a crappy puppeteer – so once again I was developing a way to fake what I needed in Blender. I was happy with the pluck effect I created (shown here), but the production rapidly got too complicated for the joke, so I ended up abandoning the guitar sequence altogether.

Guitar string vibrating

 

Sadly, this means we won’t be seeing Ogg play the guitar any time soon, but since I’d already worked out the pluck effect, I thought I should at least share my technique with other Blender folks, in case anybody else might want to achieve something similar.

This technique works equally well in both Cycles and Evee, and relies entirely on material settings (plus one simple scale transform) to work its magic. No particles. No duplicated geometry. And no motion blur. So it adds almost nothing to the scene complexity and renders fairly quickly.

The idea is driven by a simple PLUCK value, which ranges from 0 when the string is not in motion, to 1.0 when the string is at maximum vibration. So this lets you animate the string as often as you like, at whatever time, and you can completely control both the attack and decay of the string animation – all by simply animating the pluck curve.

To my eye, a vibrating guitar string looks like multiple parallel strings shimmering beside one another within the overall vibration volume. You should be able to see right through that volume (between the phantom strings) and the whole effect should fade away at the edges too.

The pluck value I mentioned is implemented as a value node in the guitar string material, labeled “Pluck 0-1.” To define the overall vibration volume, I first cut and pasted this pluck value as a driver (not shown) to scale the string’s width across the fretboard, which will create the wider space needed for this material effect.

Node tree for the effect, along with a preview of the wave function mask that creates the illusion of multiple strings.

This pluck value feeds into a Multiply/Add node for tweaking, and then into the scale socket on a sinusoidal wave node. This wave will be used to wrap multiple fake cylinder highlights across the surface of the widened string geometry, as a bump map. By doing it this way, the effect still uses whatever color and shininess settings are already in your material. (Although if you’ve also got a bump map on your strings, you’ll have to combine that with the bumps generated here, but I’ll leave that as an exercise for the artist.)

Fading the edge of the volume

Edge fade mask

At the same time, the tricky vector math at the bottom of the node network extracts a mask that highlights the middle of the widened string and fades to black at the edges. (I tried using a simple fresnel node, but this setup works better at oblique camera angles.)

The inverse of the fake cylinder wave node is used to make the string volume transparent between the fake strings, so we can see the fretboard behind it, and then it’s also combined with the edge fade effect and used to soften the edges of the vibrating volume.

Note 1: This edge fade effect might be even more convincing if the mask is inverted so that the fake strings are clearest at the extremes of the volume, where the string would be moving most slowly, and most faded in the middle where they’d be moving at top speed, but I haven’t tested that variation.

Note 2: This implementation vibrates the entire string uniformly, but we all know that it should be stationary at the two ends (the bridge and either the nut or the fret at which the left hand is fingering). I think this could be handled by attenuating the Pluck value down to 0 at the min and max Z length of the string, but I didn’t need that for this video, so I didn’t try it.

The only other little trick in here is that bit where the Pluck value is dumped straight into the phase of the Wave node. This creates the little bit of ‘crawling’ you can see on the multiple strings, which to my eye, sells the whole effect.

Anyway, that’s the method that I found. If you know any other quick-render solutions for creating a vibrating string effect, I’d love to hear about it. And if you want to see more of Ogg’s vids, on subjects ranging from dinner parties, to real estate, to caveman bedtime stories, you can check out the index of over 400 topics he’s covered to date.

]]>
https://creativityhacker.ca/2021/12/04/vibrating-a-guitar-string-in-blender/feed/ 0
Behind the scenes with Ogg and Blender https://creativityhacker.ca/2021/09/15/behind-the-scenes-with-ogg-and-blender/ https://creativityhacker.ca/2021/09/15/behind-the-scenes-with-ogg-and-blender/#respond Wed, 15 Sep 2021 17:58:56 +0000 https://creativityhacker.ca/?p=11220 Last summer, my youngest and I created our own muppet character as a pandemic project. Ogg is a muppet-style caveman character, complete with muppety torso, head, arms and hands. He...]]>

Last summer, my youngest and I created our own muppet character as a pandemic project. Ogg is a muppet-style caveman character, complete with muppety torso, head, arms and hands. He has arm rods too (although I’m not a good enough puppeteer to use them yet) but he has no legs or feet. For as long as we were just playing with him in the living room, these limitations were not a problem, but for a few months now, I’ve been using Ogg as the frontman for a series of ultrashort (and hopefully funny) YouTube videos. And for producing those, there are about five different ways that Blender has been indispensable.

Backgrounds

Ogg (behind the scenes)

Ogg and Jefferson in their bare-bones studio setup.

The basic premise of the series is that Ogg is an intelligent caveman who has recently been thawed from the ice and now walks the streets of our world, trying to make sense of the wonders he encounters. That premise requires him to be seen in lots of different settings – places where he will find confusing things to wonder about. For most videos, I accomplish this by shooting the puppetry in front of a green screen and then dropping him over an appropriate background photo, but you might be surprised how often I have trouble finding an image that works for the scene I’ve shot.

Example Blender backgrounds

Does anybody recognize the inspiration for that lab?

When that happens (about 15 of the 75 videos posted to date) I turn to Blender, creating a custom 3D set that I can render out using Cycles. So far, Blender has contributed a laboratory (video), a museum (video), an art gallery (video), and a poetry/reading stage (video).

The backdrops produced are not particularly detailed or realistic, but they don’t have to be. In fact, they shouldn’t be. Ogg’s channel feels more like a video cartoon strip than cinéma vérité, so the backgrounds actually work better if they feel like they live on the rim of the uncanny valley. Somewhere between realism and cartoonism. And the best part of this solution is that if I ever need a similar backdrop again, I can whip up the next one in no time.

In fact, my most frequent trick so far has been to put Ogg in an art gallery, standing in front of some painting or sculpture that might conceivably have launched him onto his rant of the day. And each time I do this, I create a new painting in the gallery model, adding it beside the previous one. Over several months of doing this, that model has grown into a sort of museum gallery of its own. Maybe some day, I’ll have him stroll through this set and make some kind of pithy comment about the state of virtual art. :-)

Museum of caveman trigger art

The Museum of Caveman Trigger Art

Leg fakery

I mentioned above that Ogg only exists from the waist up, so when I wrote a script that required him to sit in a chair reading a book, I had to stifle my inner panic. How was I going to show that? Fortunately, writer-Jeff didn’t have to worry about it. That was a problem for director-Jeff to deal with later. So I wrote it up the way it needed to be and threw the script onto the pile. When future me picked it up on shoot day, I found myself with two problems: Where was I going to get legs? And how was I going to have Ogg hold a book?

Ogg reads a bookI could have secured a physical book to his tummy and pinned his hands to the edges, but I’m a complete noob when it comes to puppeteering and did not like my chances of pulling that off cleanly in camera. Nor did I want to build fleece legs for a single 10 second shot. So I was momentarily stumped on both counts.

But then I realized that I could shoot the whole scene in Blender – stage, backdrop, chair, book, hands and legs – and then just sandwich the green-screened puppetry footage in between the foreground hand/book elements and the background stage/chair elements. And to my utter surprise, it worked (video).

It isn’t Hollywood caliber, but I’m delighted by the results. The cartooniness of those skinny, hairy legs seems a perfect match for the rest of Ogg’s look, and is something I doubt I could have achieved with real fleece and foam anyway.

And as an unexpected bonus, I’ve already re-used this “chair on a stage” set several times.

Hand replacement

Meat hand rendered vs wireframeWhen I first started making these videos, I actually constructed a pair of Muppet gloves, thinking that I’d be able to shoot footage of my own hands in the gloves (in front of a green screen) and layer that footage over the puppet performance to give the impression that Ogg was holding or manipulating things with his hands. But I’ve never actually used them. The five times I’ve needed to show Ogg’s hands so far, it ended up being easier to knock together a quick animation in Blender instead. My virtual Ogg-hands have served as digital stand-ins to hold: a club (video), a haunch of meat (video), and several photographs and paintings (video).

Ogg holding picture of whiny kidFor episode #29, about whiny kids (video), I needed Ogg to interact with an example of a poorly behaved child. But to keep production of these videos simple, Ogg rarely interacts with other characters or even moving backgrounds, so I needed a different way to include my poster child character. Naturally, the solution was to make them a literal poster child. This foul-tempered brat appears on a board that Ogg can gesture with as needed. But as I’ve already said, my puppeteering skills are already strained to their limit by making his mouth move in time with my own, while also operating the camera and the script, so using some kind of rod-based poster stick puppet would likely have driven me into an overload coma. So instead, I made a simple model of Ogg’s virtual hands holding the poster and animated that to rise and fall when he needed to add emphasis. Then I added a small noise animation to the position so that the hands and poster appeared to jiggle a bit as Ogg speaks and moves around on screen. The result (video) may not win any Oscars for animation, but it makes the necessary point in a suitably cartoonish way, and that’s all I needed.

One day I may find a situation that requires hand movements that are beyond my ability to animate, and on that day, I’ll finally break out the puppet gloves, but until then, Ogg will continue performing with his arms at his sides, and I’ll just add the hands later.

Overlays

I keep finding new ways to add Blender to my workflow. Most recently, I needed Ogg to visualize a hunting sequence from his caveman days, but the image had to be cartoony enough that it would read as an imagination figment, rather than something taking place in his surroundings with him.

Ogg with flying cavemanFor this, I built a quick little 2D cardboard caveman in Blender and set a few keyframes to achieve the simple motions I needed. And by supering that animation over a blank stone wall in the final composition, I was able to impart a sort of “cave painting” style to the sequence that reinforced the notion of it coming from Ogg’s imagination (video).

(In hindsight, I probably could have played around with Freestyle rendering to create thick, primitive outlines around the character, and then maybe applied some kind of chalk or charcoal texture to those images to create a more convincing “cave painting” effect, but that didn’t occur to me until I’d already posted the video. If I get a chance to do another one, I’ll give that a try and post a follow-up note about how it turned out.)

Future

The one thing I haven’t tried yet is producing a full-body animation of Ogg doing something completely in CG. I hope I never have to, because I’m not sure I can pull it off. Even if it’s “just a puppet,” believable animation is hard! So for now at least, I’m happy with this hybrid technique of using live puppets for the talking head part, and filling in around the edges with Blender.

Some directors like to say, “Let’s fix it in post,” but more and more, I find myself saying, “Let’s fix it in Blender.”

]]>
https://creativityhacker.ca/2021/09/15/behind-the-scenes-with-ogg-and-blender/feed/ 0
Cable Wrangler for the DM6000AR multimeter https://creativityhacker.ca/2021/08/31/cable-wrangler-for-the-dm6000ar-multimeter/ https://creativityhacker.ca/2021/08/31/cable-wrangler-for-the-dm6000ar-multimeter/#respond Tue, 31 Aug 2021 17:06:47 +0000 https://creativityhacker.ca/?p=11175 Consumer products have to be designed for the typical user. It’s the only way manufacturers can hope to sell them by the millions. But if you find yourself using them...]]>

Cable wrangler in actionConsumer products have to be designed for the typical user. It’s the only way manufacturers can hope to sell them by the millions. But if you find yourself using them in an atypical way, your experience can often be frustrating. Take the thing out, use it, chafe once again at some irritating detail of how it works, put it away, grumble to friends and neighbors, repeat as necessary. For most of my life, that has been the shape of the story told by a number of different products.

Case in point: multimeters.

I don’t know how other people use theirs, but I keep mine in a drawer and pull it out when I need it. Maybe for 30 seconds to test continuity in a cable, or maybe for a week while I’m designing some new gadget. But every time it emerges from that drawer, it brings six or eight victims along with it, strangled in the tentacles of its snarled probes and still dangling from them, like desiccated corpses of its recent meals.

I’ve tried just wrapping those cables around the body before putting it away, but without some way to secure the probes at the end, they always seem to come unraveled and revert to their treacherous ways.

For years, I’ve been getting by with a cheap Radio Shack meter that I bought in the 80s. But with a slate of new projects on the horizon, I decided to treat myself to a modest upgrade. Nothing excessive. I just wanted to get the benefit of some of the more modern features. Things like auto scaling, audible continuity testing, transistor testing, etc. And I found everything I wanted in the DM6000AR from Astro AI.

To my dismay, however, even after 30 years of steady advancement in the field, these things are still ravenous drawer kraken, with their insatiable, untamed cables. Some features, it seems, will never change. But this time, I refused to repeat the cycle of despair I’ve been trapped by the past. So instead of complaining, I just designed a solution that seems to tame this beast once and for all.

the cable wranglerAnd here it is. A simple cable wrangler to keep that pesky drawer kraken at bay. It’s just a winding post (with two built-in probe clips) that snap-fits around the waist of the meter. It isn’t fancy, but it does the job. Now when I’m ready to consign the meter back into its darkened lair, I just wind the cords around the post and snap the probes handles into the clips. Voila! No more kraken. The next time I pull it out, it’s still the same meek and mild instrument that I put away. No dangling victims. No headaches. And no neighbors complaining about all the angry grumbling coming from my lab.

The only caveat is that the waist clip that attaches the wrangler to the meter does so in a way that obstructs the built-in stand from being opened. I’ve never seen the point of standing these meters up, myself. In my view, that only makes them more unstable and more likely to fall over if the cables get tugged. So this limitation is just fine by me.

If that’s a problem for you, then I guess that makes you an atypical user of the wrangler. My apologies to your neighbors. :-)

Model Files: Prusa

]]>
https://creativityhacker.ca/2021/08/31/cable-wrangler-for-the-dm6000ar-multimeter/feed/ 0
Ogg Celebrates A Milestone https://creativityhacker.ca/2021/08/13/ogg-celebrates-a-milestone/ https://creativityhacker.ca/2021/08/13/ogg-celebrates-a-milestone/#respond Fri, 13 Aug 2021 16:20:54 +0000 https://creativityhacker.ca/?p=11126 They say the first step in battling an addiction is admitting you have one, but why are people constantly quoting that at me lately? It’s true that my YouTube channel...]]>

50+ cardThey say the first step in battling an addiction is admitting you have one, but why are people constantly quoting that at me lately? It’s true that my YouTube channel now has over 50 Ogg videos and shows no sign of stopping. But it’s not like I’ve already written enough scripts to fuel him for the next 18 months, continuing to post a new video every Mon, Wed, and Fri, is it?

Oh my god. It actually is like that. I do have that many scripts. But come on folks. Addiction? Can’t we agree to maybe call it an affliction instead? That sounds much better, and totally not like I’ve gone off the deep end, hiding behind a sock puppet so I can lampoon every corner of modern society. It may have started as a pandemic exercise to sharpen my comedy skills, but it has fully metastasized now, so you’ll just have to bear with me while the disease runs its course.

But with so many videos piling up, I suppose I should at least provide an index, so my caregivers can track the progress of my madness. To that end, I offer this Ogg-specific summary page, where they can scan the list of topics Ogg has examined so far, although you can use it too, if you like. In fact, especially if you like. Speaking of liking, please send some of those likes Ogg’s way. Or send subscribers. Those are balms that will surely give me the strength to endure. But just to be safe, better send both.

]]>
https://creativityhacker.ca/2021/08/13/ogg-celebrates-a-milestone/feed/ 0
Ogg is moving to YouTube https://creativityhacker.ca/2021/05/27/ogg-is-moving-to-youtube/ https://creativityhacker.ca/2021/05/27/ogg-is-moving-to-youtube/#respond Thu, 27 May 2021 16:33:51 +0000 https://creativityhacker.ca/?p=11078 [embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f6sLXiZNq9I[/embedyt] Ogg says hello to fans of ImmerseOrDie. Anyone who has seen any of my streams lately will know that I’ve been conducting a writing experiment lately, using short-format...]]>

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f6sLXiZNq9I[/embedyt] Ogg says hello to fans of ImmerseOrDie.

Anyone who has seen any of my streams lately will know that I’ve been conducting a writing experiment lately, using short-format TikTok videos to polish my comedic writing skills. Well, after two months and 45 videos, I’ve finally reached a conclusion. Two of them, in fact:

  1. I love the ultra-short video format
  2. TikTok is not for me

Finding a character and format you’re having fun with is rare news, so the fact that I’m not loving TikTok shouldn’t be a problem. I’ll just move Ogg to YouTube. In addition to being more familiar territory for me, YT also allows Ogg to go longer than 60 seconds if necessary. (90% of his videos are between 15 and 30 seconds, but from time to time, he gets a head of steam going and finds that 60 second limit a bit tight.)

So if you’re curious what a paleolithic caveman might think of the modern world, or if you just want to watch me make a fool of myself as I try to create a new muppet character with no training and little aptitude, then come check it out. You can try his series intro, watch one of my favorite videos to date, or just scan the entire playlist and see if any of them intrigue you. Or, I guess you could just go about your day and ignore Ogg completely, but is that any way to treat a newcomer to our modern world?

]]>
https://creativityhacker.ca/2021/05/27/ogg-is-moving-to-youtube/feed/ 0
A caveman comments on the modern world https://creativityhacker.ca/2021/03/15/a-caveman-comments-on-the-modern-world/ https://creativityhacker.ca/2021/03/15/a-caveman-comments-on-the-modern-world/#respond Mon, 15 Mar 2021 20:23:51 +0000 https://creativityhacker.ca/?p=11048 It’s been a while since I had anything to announce, but I’d like you all to meet Ogg. He’s the culmination of a family project that we started last summer,...]]>

It’s been a while since I had anything to announce, but I’d like you all to meet Ogg. He’s the culmination of a family project that we started last summer, and we finally figured out what we want to do with him.

You’ve never heard of him, but Ogg was the greatest mind of his time. Sadly, an experiment in early refrigeration went sideways and he vanished from the prehistorical record, only showing up again last Tuesday, when he was thawed from the ice by government scientists. Now he wanders the modern world, trying to make sense of the wonders he encounters. Then he tries to explain what he’s learned on his new TikTok channel.

We don’t know if TikTok will love him or hate him, but it’s a fun experiment either way. We’ve got enough material for Ogg to post every day for the next month or two, and there’s a lot more where that came from if he proves popular. So if you want a laugh, or just a chance to gawk at another strange experiment from me and shake your head sadly, come check out Ogg’s new digs. And if you happen to enjoy it, we’d love it if you could help spread the word.

]]>
https://creativityhacker.ca/2021/03/15/a-caveman-comments-on-the-modern-world/feed/ 0
The snarky llama is back! https://creativityhacker.ca/2019/08/29/the-snarky-llama-is-back/ https://creativityhacker.ca/2019/08/29/the-snarky-llama-is-back/#respond Thu, 29 Aug 2019 19:01:35 +0000 https://creativityhacker.ca/?p=10899 The most ambitious Karsten and Babette tale yet. And possibly the funniest, especially if you like your humor dark and twisted. Just when it looked like they might finally be...]]>

promottional card for Plague of Peskies

The most ambitious Karsten and Babette tale yet. And possibly the funniest, especially if you like your humor dark and twisted.

Just when it looked like they might finally be settling down and getting a hand on all this magery stuff, the idiocy of others takes a crap on their happy little plans.

]]>
https://creativityhacker.ca/2019/08/29/the-snarky-llama-is-back/feed/ 0
Karsten and Babette are at it again https://creativityhacker.ca/2019/08/17/karsten-and-babette-are-at-it-again/ https://creativityhacker.ca/2019/08/17/karsten-and-babette-are-at-it-again/#respond Sat, 17 Aug 2019 20:35:50 +0000 https://creativityhacker.ca/?p=10895 Installment 4 of The 13th Advocate, A Plague of Peskies, is making its way to book vendors near you. Seeking shelter at the edge of the world, in a place...]]>

A Plague Of Peskies coverInstallment 4 of The 13th Advocate, A Plague of Peskies, is making its way to book vendors near you.

Seeking shelter at the edge of the world, in a place where only madmen tread, Karsten and Babette must set their plans aside to rescue a fellow traveler. But no good deed shall go unpunished, and soon the pair is embroiled in a situation that is equal measures tragic, horrifying, and funny.

Pre-order your copy now, or pick it up when it drops on Aug. 29.

]]>
https://creativityhacker.ca/2019/08/17/karsten-and-babette-are-at-it-again/feed/ 0
Soft-serve Sci-Fi https://creativityhacker.ca/2019/05/11/soft-serve-sci-fi/ https://creativityhacker.ca/2019/05/11/soft-serve-sci-fi/#comments Sat, 11 May 2019 20:12:56 +0000 https://creativityhacker.ca/?p=10874 Over the course of my lifetime, science fiction has gone from a niche-market storyform aimed at geeks and propeller-heads to a cultural juggernaut consumed by the masses. So you would...]]>

Over the course of my lifetime, science fiction has gone from a niche-market storyform aimed at geeks and propeller-heads to a cultural juggernaut consumed by the masses. So you would think that, as a one-time card-carrying member of the Junior Space Ranger’s Adventure Club, I would be delighted by the scifi-rich world I now find myself living in.

But I’m not.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against this strange new form of SF that sets traditional soap operas on space ships and colony planets. But in the rush to serve the masses anything with blinking lights and technobabble, the kind of SF I crave seems to have been shuffled out an air-lock to make room.

Classifying science fiction
Anyone familiar with the field will likely know the distinction that is often made between “hard” SF and “soft.” As they are usually defined, those terms distinguish between stories that are steeped in provocative scientific or technical ideas (the hard stuff), and the ones that lean on the softer sciences, which also tend to put greater emphasis on other aspects of the story-builder’s toolkit, like character development, and plot.

But that hard/soft distinction has never served much use for me, because it doesn’t help me to find the kinds of stories I’ll like, or to avoid the ones I don’t. I think of myself as an equal-opportunity reader on the SF hardness spectrum, and have enjoyed plenty of stories of both kinds.

There is, however, a bisection I can make of the field that does serve as a helpful razor. I call the two camps “structural” vs “ornamental” science fiction.

All science fiction stories are based on at least one disjunctive premise; one idea or assumption that is taken as true, but is contrary to the truth of the present world. Maybe it’s that humanity has expanded to other worlds, or that time travel is possible. Maybe aliens have made contact, or perhaps the world around us is a lie being fed to us by our computer overlords. But whatever form the premise takes, the story unfolds in a world where it is true. That’s what makes it science fiction.

So why is it that so much of the science fiction being made these days is so hollow and unsatisfying to me? In a word, it’s because it’s all in the “ornamental” camp, while I’m looking for the “structural” ones.

The test for which camp a story falls into is simple: Remove the disjunctive premise. Move the story back into the real world by trading “space ship” for “cruise ship”, “colony village” for “fishing village” or whatever transformation does the job. Now, does the story still work? Is it still just as dramatically engaging? If so, you are probably looking at an ornamental SF story, because structural SF cannot function without its disjunctive premise.

Think about Larry Niven’s Ringworld. You could remove the two-headed alien or even the General Products spaceship hull and still have essentially the same story. But there’s no way you could remove the Ringworld itself. Without that colossal achievement of far-future engineering, there’s nothing left to talk about. No story at all.

Or try the same thing with Asimov’s Foundation series. Here the focus is on more human stories, but if you take away the disjunctive premise of the two foundations guiding human social evolution, the entire thing becomes meaningless. You might just as well try to pull off The Matrix without including virtual reality, machine overlords, or sentient Agent programs.

To me, structural dependence on the premise is what makes science fiction worth reading. But sadly, those stories are not only rare today; they’re getting rarer. Perhaps because most people who self-identify as science fiction fans these days are happy enough with the ornamental varieties. To them, the tech-infused setting is all that’s needed to scratch their itch. And in a way, I envy them. Their style of SF is on the rise and it’s just going to keep on climbing.

By its nature, structural SF is harder to write and more challenging to read, so not only are fewer writers qualified to write it, the market is smaller as well. And then, once such a tale has been written, it still has to compete with ornamental stories for the attention of executives who don’t know the difference. And since ornamental can be appreciated by a much larger audience, they are much more likely to get the green light. It almost makes you wonder why anybody would bother writing structural tales anymore.

But they say, “Write the stories you wish to see in the world,” and those are the ones I’m looking for, so you can be sure that my first SF novel (which I’m working on now, nestled in among my other fantasy projects) will not be ornamental. I don’t yet know where readers will place it on the hard-soft spectrum, but I defy anybody to call it ornamental.

Go ahead. I dare you.

(PS: Has anybody read anything recent that they’d classify as structural SF? If so, I’d love to hear about it. Tell me what you thought via reply email and maybe I’ll share your report with the entire class.)

]]>
https://creativityhacker.ca/2019/05/11/soft-serve-sci-fi/feed/ 3