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Big Dumb Object: A Creative Writing Fallacy
Why it isn't enough to expect the reader to fill in the blanks
I was recently writing a short story for a science-fiction magazine. It’s not something I would do casually, as I tried writing science fiction as far back as 2008 with little to no success under pen names. The industry is dead because people are not interested in the genre anymore, they are illiterate, or people have moved on to greater pursuits in technology and the arts. When I decided to write this science fiction short story, I wanted to do something like Martin Gardner, Greg Egan, or Gene Wolfe. It reads like a short riddle, a puzzle, or a “game” one can enjoy reading over and over again. Little did I know, I was doing something redundant and cliche, which I felt great embarrassment over.
To get the context of what I was writing about that led to my guilt, what follows is the entire draft of my short story.
“Dr. Seth Gillan wrote the following in his journal for future colleagues to read:
I owe the discovery of Project Columella to the conjunction of our recent advancement with black holes. To put this in perspective for future research on this project, these "objects” act more like a game. And this “game” isn’t so much a puzzle, where there is a single solution at all. We call this game “Coulmella” because the “board” is shaped like a spiral, and because this has something to do with the “pillars” that move around it.
This is real Xenoarchaeology. This is a real alien artifact. What it does, we don’t know. I’ll best explain now how it functions and what we think it does.
First, there is a 20 by 18 rectangle board, which floats in the air. The material cannot be broken, and nothing under it is propelling it from gravity. We don’t know how it works.
Second, two nine square columns are going vertically on both sides of the board, and two twelve square rows connect to the columns. This creates a path of 42 squares.
Then, another two rows of five squares exist in the center, with two single squares acting as two attaching columns.
Next, there are seven “pillars” that all share the same space on the first single square column (on the right side) in the center. Each pilleater is a different color; red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, and grey.
There is also an extra pillar that isn’t one but looks like it. It is colored black with a tint of gold. This black pillar is on the other opposite single square column from the color pillars.
And finally, there are seven “gems” of each color respectfully.
With these components listed, we have surveyed possible “rules” of how this game could function, and why it is played.
This artifact likely uses some kind of random process to determine a number. With this number, it is measured in “points” that the player can use to move the pillars around the center squares in a singular direction. These points can be used on different pillars for their liking. It is when any pillar lands on the same square of the black pillar, that is there some measurement of the score. The outer rim of 42 squares measures the score, and it is believed that the game is over once a score marker reaches the 42nd square.
It may be evident that each gem is used as a secret identity for each player. If one play is red, they have the red gem and don’t show it to the other player till the game is over. The scoring is determined where each pillar is on the board. The first square is one point, the second; two points, and so on. This creates a buffing situation where one player pretends they are the other color to mislead the other player. One player may believe that the player is blue because that player moves blue to the highest point square. The gems are revealed at the end of the game to obscure who is in the lead. There is also the possibility somewhere in the middle of the game, that the player guests the other color, and gets points for it if guessed correctly when the game is over. The player with the most points wins, or so we think.
The system is still up for debate, and we can’t determine who and why anyone would play this game. The pillars have some magic to them we don’t understand. I hope anyone on our team can determine what this thing is about. Imagine the breakthroughs we are going to make!”
…It reads like an average story. So what’s wrong with it? Did you catch something interesting about it?
The epigraph is a nod to “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” you got that right. Latin words are used deliberately in the story to add a sense of realism. But the real level of cringe is the colorful description of this academic writing about what this elusive alien thing is or thinks it is. Meanwhile, the reader-response cycle that Wolfgang Iser imposed is there in full circle, where the reader is trying to paint in his mind what this subjective thing looks like, or how it’s played, against the will of the writer.
In the science fiction industry, they call this cliche the “Big Dumb Object.”
The Big Dumb Object is mysterious, an object of extraterrestrial or unknown origin, with immense power over humanity. It generates a sense of wonder, the suspension of disbelief, and a cosmic horror beyond human comprehension. “Science fiction” becomes “speculative fiction,” or a “science fantasy,” retaining the initials of “SF” as real science departs from any logic, and into a creative writing expression of poetry. It’s an act of conjuring, where we believe it’s magic, and yet there is no explanation for the Big Dumb Object. It’s a derogatory term meant to deflate the intended grandeur of the mysterious object that is trying to be described as meaningful. The Big Dumb Object becomes the entire thesis, the punchline, and the reason why the story is being read. If people came for the beautiful women in the R-rated film, some readers got interested in the latest pulp story describing what this month’s Big Dumb Object is.
I wasn’t doing anything new. I was mixing the formula of H.P. Lovecraft and Jorge Luis Borges, where a journalist (or reporter) describes a hideous event, or an object, that has many levels of detail, all while not explaining what the logic or science is behind it. The monster, the artifact, the machine, the robot, the starship, the game, or the object, is just that cliche. I felt embarrassed coming across the term on Google when I was researching alien artifacts and the joke of the “MacGuffin,” an object that drives the plot and motivation of the characters but is insignificant to the entire story.
My description of Project Columella was rather just a retelling of Wolfgang Kramer’s 1984 board game, Heimlich & Co. If I described what the game was about in the context that it was oriental or alien, then the reader could create their imaginary version of the game in their mind, and then create new variants in reality that drift away from the original design. This would help the reader appreciate design and the application of it in fiction. Unfortunately, there is nothing special about a Big Dumb Object without a science behind it. Why is it special? Because aliens made it? Is that the whole pun?
The creative writing fallacy presented in the Big Dumb Object is that it lacks effort. The artist wants to clearly express his emotions in the best way possible. All literary devices and novel attempts at writing are negated as preferred “aesthetics,” where the artist collages his favorite imagery or describes something because Cormac McCarthy can do it in a single sentence. The design is cryptic and unexplainable, and so they say, “Use your imagination.” Don’t question the advanced computer and how it can do things, just believe that it works! Create your own Big Dumb Object, and everything should do the rest. If Edward Lee can write Brain Cheese Buffet in all gruesome detail, why can’t you?
You can’t have a proper technical understanding of your world if you are explaining a science or structure that is unexplainable. It’s conjuring up magic. It’s the easy way out.
There is a difference if the Big Dumb Object carries a myth around it, and intertwines with many narratives and devices. Nonfiction is superior to fiction because it’s about the reality and history that makes us human. Fiction can only go so far as to explain or emulate what was, and creative expression can only enlighten us if we have the criticism and insight for it. The creative writer is supposed to be expressive. It’s about the devices that are used when writing the novel, the story, the instructions, the collage, the gamebook, the historical account, or the Big Dumb Object.
As a rule to creative writing, we are writing, not “writers.” A “writer” is an ideological term, a fake profession, and something so vague and ambiguous as breathing air. “I’m a breather. I know how to breathe air. It’s my occupation. It’s my ideology.” Everyone can write. It’s required to speak, read, and write in English, the most spoken language in the world. There is nothing special about knowing how English operates. It is a skill to write English in perfect clarity because everyone is interested in communication, not fancy poetry or dense allusions.
The short story itself is becoming obsolete because it can be portrayed in video and other technological forms. The written short story is becoming an elite niche for an intellectual audience that can read and write English. The printed short story is no longer a dominant form of media or hobby enjoyed by the masses. It’s never coming back to popularity. It will always remain an elite endeavor and hobby.
The new way to “write” a story is about typing English in a word processor or online for the sake of it. “Writing” has been replaced by design. When we “write” a short story, we are designing. We are writing an instructional manual for the reader, and what those rules will incite. We are programming, not writing. Programming has replaced writing, and the short story and novel are constructed through design.
To move away from the Big Dumb Object fallacy, one must become a programmer and designer. The Big Dumb Object becomes a Complex Intelligent Object. That is the point of writing science fiction in 2023 and beyond. It’s not about gay black lesbians or some unspeakable horror. Why are the lesbians gay and black, and how is the horror unspeakable? That’s how we get over the fallacy.
From there, I suggest playing board games and reading the instruction manuals as seriously as any other novel you may enjoy. Instruction manuals are also the expressions of the game, and not the game itself. The rules tell you what you can read.