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There is Nothing New Under the Sun
October 27, 2012 5:14 PM   Subscribe

She sat zazen, concentrating on not concentrating, until it was time to prepare for the appointment. Sitting seemed to produce the usual serenity, put everything in perspective. Her hand did not tremble as she applied her make-up; tranquil features looked back at her from the mirror. She was mildly surprised, in fact, at just how calm she was, until she got out of the hotel elevator at the garage level and the mugger made his play. She killed him instead of disabling him. Which was obviously not a measured, balanced action--the official fuss and paperwork could make her late. Annoyed at herself, she stuffed the corpse under a shiny new Westinghouse roadable whose owner she knew to be in Luna, and continued on to her own car. This would have to be squared later, and it would cost. No help for it--she fought to regain at least the semblance of tranquillity as her car emerged from the garage and turned north. Nothing must interfere with this meeting, or with her role in it. "Melancholy Elephants," an enthralling, Hugo Award-winning short story by Spider Robinson about a disciplined operative, a powerful senator, and a crucial mission to preserve humanity's most precious resource. (some spoilers inside)

Appropriately, Robinson's is not the only story on this theme -- as witness David Brin's 1997 tale "Reality Check."

Some argue the limits of the possible are cosmic. But with the increasing proliferation of sequels and remakes, perhaps it's closer to 1,462. Or thirty-six. Or seven. Or four.
posted by Rhaomi (14 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite

 
There is Nothing New Under the Sun

Appropriately enough, the story has been linked at least 9 times on MeFi before and 7 times on the green.
posted by jedicus at 5:20 PM on October 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


I can't ever recall a time when I hadn't read and enjoyed Spider Robinson. Nobody tell him about the fedora wars.
posted by mwhybark at 5:30 PM on October 27, 2012


Odd, interesting, but I'm not quite smart enough to understand it, I suspect :/ I feel like I'm missing something about Bob here.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:06 PM on October 27, 2012


That was wonderful. Thank you.
posted by Catblack at 6:21 PM on October 27, 2012


Clearly that was Robert DeNiro.

Much love for Spider Robinson!
posted by carsonb at 6:22 PM on October 27, 2012


I love this story so, so much.
posted by Space Kitty at 6:43 PM on October 27, 2012


Fantastic story. I see that Robinson dedicated it to Virginia Heinlein. I'm thinking perhaps that sheds more light on the mysterious Robert.
posted by platinum at 6:59 PM on October 27, 2012


Brilliant. Thank you.
posted by dickfitz2 at 7:05 PM on October 27, 2012


I haven't seen this story since I was a kid. Thanks for posting it.

Of course there's also the converse problem: Borges' library.

88 notes plus a rest -- 89. Assuming a briefest note of 1/32 s, that gives us 89320 possible ten second melodies, far more than the 1080 atoms in the universe. There are exponentially more possible songs once we start taking possible harmonies into account. Systematically searching the near-infinite library of possible songs for good ones would be hopeless. So, there will always be room for creativity.

It's only once we let copyright cover vaguely similar songs that Robinson's problem kicks in. For a real-world example, here's Vanilla Ice defending himself against charges of plagiarism.

Under Pressure: ding-ding-ding-dingiding-ding-ding
Ice Ice Baby: ding-ding-ding-ding-dingiding-ding-ding

Our choice is between the end of human creativity and standing with Vanilla Ice. God help us all.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 7:06 PM on October 27, 2012 [6 favorites]


88 notes plus a rest -- 89. Assuming a briefest note of 1/32 s, that gives us 89320 possible ten second melodies, far more than the 1080 atoms in the universe. There are exponentially more possible songs once we start taking possible harmonies into account.

Yes, but most of those suck.
posted by mobunited at 12:55 AM on October 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Appropriately, it reminded me strongly of the nine billion names of god to the extent that I thought, "Oh, bit of a ripoff".

And then I smiled, because it didn't matter.
posted by fizban at 1:34 AM on October 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


The 'Bob' referred to is absolutely Robert Heinlein --- one of Spider Robinson's biggest writing idols. And actually, there are quite a few less-obvious-than-his-name references all through the story. (Heck, even the name, Melancholy Elephants, is a Heinlein reference..)
posted by easily confused at 6:27 AM on October 28, 2012


88 notes plus a rest -- 89. Assuming a briefest note of 1/32 s, that gives us 89320 possible ten second melodies, far more than the 1080 atoms in the universe. There are exponentially more possible songs once we start taking possible harmonies into account. Systematically searching the near-infinite library of possible songs for good ones would be hopeless. So, there will always be room for creativity.

More room than you think. If the 88 notes referenced are the equal-tempered notes of the piano (ignoring for our purposes here the stretch tuning used to deal with inharmonic overtones in piano strings), that's only one tuning system of many. Some will sound similar enough to ET tuning, to the untrained ear, to not make much difference for perceptions of plagiarism, but others are radically different (e.g., Indonesian pelog & slendro scales, some of the Arabic maqamat.) I always have to chuckle when I see musical references that are mainstream Western-centric. ("Man, there are only twelve notes!", etc.)
posted by Philofacts at 8:28 AM on October 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


perhaps it's closer to 1,462. Or thirty-six. Or seven. Or four.

Or two (dunno where I found this): All stories may be reduced to two plots: 1) A stranger comes to town or B) Everybody goes on a journey.
posted by tspae at 3:00 PM on October 28, 2012


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