“But which is the biggest, dumbest object of them all?”
July 22, 2016 5:44 PM   Subscribe

Big Dumb Objects: Science Fiction's Most Mysterious MacGuffins by Damien Walter [The Guardian] “When the unknown is also alien, the mystery only grows more magnetic. Think of that iconic opening to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey: a family of apes wake one morning to find a black monolith looming over them; that had its origins in Arthur C Clarke’s short story The Sentinel. Did some super-advanced civilisation intercede in the early evolution of intelligent life on earth? Or was the monolith just filming a very special edition of Life on Earth? We don’t know, and never find out. But this shiny, looming thing is just one of many Big Dumb Objects [wiki] that have turned up in science fiction over the decades.”
posted by Fizz (49 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
 
Mecha get really big, too.
posted by poe at 6:03 PM on July 22, 2016 [6 favorites]


Should've gone with the excession or something, for an Iain Banks example. If a Culture GSV counts as a Big Dumb Object, then so does Ignatius J. Reilly.
posted by sfenders at 6:20 PM on July 22, 2016 [17 favorites]


Culture Minds don't care what Guardian writers say about them. GCU Grey Area excepted, of course.
posted by Skaffen-Amtiskaw at 6:31 PM on July 22, 2016 [18 favorites]


Yeah. Citing Culture ships suggested to me a lack of clarity on the concept: They're characters in the books.

At least, I've always read "BDO" as "it's there and it's why we're having this grand adventure, but we're not really gonna delve into the 'why' of the thing outside of 'it is called for in order to have this grand adventure.'"
posted by mph at 6:33 PM on July 22, 2016 [6 favorites]


Disappointed not to see mention of Greg Bear's idea of the Way: a tunnel-shaped spacetime construct infinite in length and intersecting an infinity of other universes. Bonus: the Way is achored to another BDO, the asteroid ship Thistledown.
posted by audi alteram partem at 6:45 PM on July 22, 2016 [11 favorites]


Also the Way was investigated, IIRC, using a device to sense variations in pi, which is my favorite sensor idea ever. And contained a perpetual motion machine down the length of it for good measure.

While not as big as the Way (what could be?), Greg Egan came up with a sculpture that spanned quadrillions of universes, and was built out of depleted computronium.
posted by joeyh at 7:06 PM on July 22, 2016 [8 favorites]


So, in the Tingleverse, BUTTS are BDOs right?
posted by idiopath at 7:07 PM on July 22, 2016 [10 favorites]


"loom large over the genre, loaded with inscrutable significance" -- pretty much
posted by idiopath at 7:08 PM on July 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


Mecha get really big, too.

See also: João V. Tomotani, "Is the Great Attractor a Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann?" Journal of Geek Studies 3(1): 35–44. 2016.
posted by Wobbuffet at 7:23 PM on July 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


Let us not also forget V'ger, whose exploration with orchestral accompaniment lulled me to sleep at least twice in the movie theater.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:31 PM on July 22, 2016 [3 favorites]


They're characters in the books.

I kind of had that impression of the Lazy Guns, too.
posted by mhoye at 7:35 PM on July 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


Did some super-advanced civilisation intercede in the early evolution of intelligent life on earth? Or was the monolith just filming a very special edition of Life on Earth?

It was doing preliminary surveying for a hyperspatial bypass.
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:21 PM on July 22, 2016 [3 favorites]


Monolith's inner monologue: "I knew I shoulda taken that left toin at Moicury!"
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:22 PM on July 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


How do you bring up Dyson spheres without also mentioning their next logical step, Matryoshka Brains (mentioned briefly in one of my favorite sci fi stories of all time)
posted by Greg Nog at 8:44 PM on July 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


From the headline, I thought this was going to be about the recent failure to detect dark matter.
posted by oheso at 8:46 PM on July 22, 2016


So that's what's occluding Tabby's Star. A BDO.
posted by edheil at 10:26 PM on July 22, 2016


Am I the only one who thinks the list is little unfair? I think of MacGuffins as things like the briefcase in Ronin or per the link the "secrets" in 39 Steps--essentially meaningless excuses to get to the real plot. Those movies aren't about a briefcase or national security secrets, there about spies and double crosses. I'll grant the monoliths are arguably in that category, but the rest?

Sure, there are lots of dumb things about the physics and engineering of Ringworld*, especially a half-century later, but the book was very much about Ringworld. In the other examples the marvels still aren't Macguffins, they're more like landscapes that an author loves enough to devote time and imagination too. Might not be the main topic but they are part of the appeal of the books and they impact the characters.

Big dumb things for me would be more like oxygen generators in Total Recall which didn't interest the filmmakers or (I assume) anyone in the audience at all.

Dyson spheres OTOH are not as dumb, especially if not fully enclosed. They are bigger but more plausible, as they are actually stable constructs that won't go crashing into their sun.
posted by mark k at 10:29 PM on July 22, 2016 [3 favorites]


It's the equivalent of the ghost in the machine. Sometimes the BDO is the reason for the story and sometimes the BDO is the resolution, as in so many fantasy books, except in fantasy the BDO is usually magic. Hollywood is filled with BDO's in the form of being saved at the last second by the Good Samaritan, the falling tree limb, the sudden storm. There's no reasonable way to continue the story so let's put something impossible or extremely unlikely in it to further the plot.

And for what it's worth, Banks made the BDO problem more believable by making them characters. Really, a gravity-defying knife that's more intelligent than most things in the universe? Man, I miss him...
posted by ashbury at 10:29 PM on July 22, 2016 [4 favorites]


A BDO is a particular type of McGuffin; it's definitional characteristics are that it is big-verging-on-humongous, and dumb (either incommunicative, or lacking in intelligence). Almost by definition the monolith in 2001 is not a BDO; it's not huge and it's clearly doing ... something ... to the hominids that implies intention and intelligence.

Ringworld, in contrast, is big (light-minutes across) and dumb (it requires drastic and urgent maintenance in the second book of the sequence: there's no provision for it to fix itself). Rama, from Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama is arguably a Clarkean BDO insofar as it's bloody enormous by human standards, and very mysterious ... but it's at the lower end of the scale and shows signs of a disqualifying smartness. In general the term is mostly applied to megastructures like Ringworlds, Dyson Spheres, Matrioshka Brains, or Alderson Disks (ahem: feel free to enjoy); structures so vast they're inhabitable, larger than worlds, and not sentient in their own right.

And yes, I intend to commit BDO in my next space opera.
posted by cstross at 11:18 PM on July 22, 2016 [23 favorites]


Huh, thanks, I had no idea it was a term of art, but apparently I need remedial fan school. I figured "big dumb" was a comment on quality and amount of thought the author put into the thing, not a literal description of the type of object.
posted by mark k at 11:48 PM on July 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


The continued contributions of Giles Coren are potentially evidence that the GCU Grey Area is in this Universe at the moment.
posted by nfalkner at 11:49 PM on July 22, 2016


Pushing Ice, Alastair Reynolds. Two Big Dumb Objects, never quite find out for sure what their purpose is.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 12:53 AM on July 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


I thought I was the equal to any nerd on metafilter ... but I was wrong. I barely understand a sentence in this thread.
posted by kanewai at 12:53 AM on July 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


Strangely, TFA looming inscrutably in the FPP would help explain BDOs and make the conversation more clear....

It's like magic, it's so advanced!
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:05 AM on July 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


Can I just say that The Guardian has consistently better SF reporting than its US counterparts?
posted by newdaddy at 3:35 AM on July 23, 2016


A dead otter does more SF reporting than the Guardian's US counterparts.
posted by nom de poop at 4:09 AM on July 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


Dumb as in they don't talk.
posted by Autumn Leaf at 5:36 AM on July 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


Larry Niven's Ringworld is not stable, and would go crashing into its sun in a few years without constant active correction. The idea of doing this correction with a fleet of Bussard ramjets (themselves a rather iffy technology; I calculated for myself in high school that if they have to stop particles in order to fuse them the terminal velocity would be something like 0.17 c) is kind of laughable.

On the other hand Iain M. Banks totally fixed this with his idea of Orbitals, which are actually in orbit around their stars and don't need a shadow ring (itself a stability problem) to make day and night. Although he admitted to nakedly ripping off Niven, I don't think it's really a ripoff if you take a defective idea and neatly fix all its problems.
posted by Bringer Tom at 5:48 AM on July 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


Terry Pratchett has a universe filled with BDOs in his early novel Strata. It's worth reading.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:53 AM on July 23, 2016


Rendezvous with Rama
posted by leotrotsky at 6:22 AM on July 23, 2016


I'd argue that the Culture's ships don't count as BDO's at all. They fill none of the roles of a BDO, they're just characters with rather large and powerful bodies.

He did have a few BDO's. The titular Excission for example, or the Shellworld from Matter. But to say the ships are BDO's is a category error.
posted by sotonohito at 6:28 AM on July 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


BDOs seem to me to be a literary variant of the linguistic concept of Empty Signifiers. In this way I would agree with MarkK, and say the the story is "about" a ring world. And I would disagree with CStross and suggest the Black Monolith is big relative to the pinnacle of ape technology--femur bone clubs.

But I would also make this caveat. In the literary world the focus should be about inspiration and affect (or is it effect?) ehehe
posted by xtian at 6:44 AM on July 23, 2016


Gravity plates in the Star Trek universe. No plot would be complete without them, yet they almost never are mentioned, even in passing.

In fact, they are taken for granted, and continue to function even when the rest of the starship's equipment is getting all sparky. The inertial dampeners, I presume, are one function of the gravity plates, but nobody has ever actually said so. Maybe that's how come Kirk gets thrown around the bridge when the warp core's diagnostics fail to reform the gravimetric override parameters after resuming sub-space functions.

Dunno. Someone ought to check into this.
posted by mule98J at 7:19 AM on July 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


The inertial dampeners, I presume, are one function of the gravity plates

I think this was actually mentioned in one of the early episodes of Enterprise.
posted by Bringer Tom at 7:39 AM on July 23, 2016


Bringer Tom: I will confess to ripping off Iain's Orbitals in the new space opera I mentioned. Mostly because they seem to work and they fill a useful niche. But I'm not using them as a BDO in context: they're just a setting with useful features.
posted by cstross at 8:39 AM on July 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


I think orbitals moved into the public domain with Halo. They're like ansibles now.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:00 AM on July 23, 2016


Says the BDROU.
posted by Skaffen-Amtiskaw at 9:03 AM on July 23, 2016 [7 favorites]


A dead otter does more SF reporting than the Guardian's US counterparts.

Do you know if this dead otter has a blog or something that I could follow?
posted by indubitable at 9:34 AM on July 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


Strangely, TFA looming inscrutably in the FPP would help explain BDOs and make the conversation more clear....

I read TFA and it is what prompted my ill informed question. The emphasis on negative aspects--alienating readers, not explaining anything, using it as a MacGuffin--made me misunderstand that a BDO was primarily just a Big Object and not a phrase to apply to lazy dumb science gobbledygook.

Rereading after the conversation here, OK, I get what he's saying. Still not sure it's great--per Charles Stross' post neither the opening example (monolith, not physically big) nor the "best" example (Adams' supercomputer Earth, not dumb) are actually BDO's.
posted by mark k at 9:43 AM on July 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


I'm with you, mark k: with all respect to professionals here, the term BDO seems to (1) misunderstand what a MacGuffin is and (2) fails to capture what role these entities play in the stories. I don't read Ringworld because of the characters of the people who wander around the structure, I read because I am interested in the structure itself. I assume I am not alone in this.

Big Object of Wonder would be a better term, tying it in to the term Sense of Wonder you often see. That's not how language works, of course, so it's Big Dumb Object and you have to explain what it means...
posted by alasdair at 10:28 AM on July 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


cstross I think Iain worked out the idea of Orbitals so well that it can't really be ripped off any more than the idea of a "planet" can be ripped off; once pointed out it's so obvious that given the means it's an obvious thing to create. This in contrast to Niven's Ringworld, which seemed like a species kind of showing off, which is proved by the fact that they only did it once.

Also, I'd say the Excession is a like the GSV's a character rather than a BDO because it writes the freaking epilogue of its own story,and voluntarily decides to accept its Culture-given name.
posted by Bringer Tom at 7:32 PM on July 23, 2016


God I miss the Culture. I feel like the Excession serves as a BDO for the majority of the book. That coda is like being given a diary entry written by the Monolith. It doesn't change how any other character in the story behaves.
posted by fFish at 6:12 AM on July 24, 2016 [3 favorites]


@alasdair,
I think you're onto a relevant difference with "of Wonder" modification. The Guardian article's examples straddle several different senses of the BDO.

"That's not how language works, of course, so it's Big Dumb Object and you have to explain what it means..."

I don't understand this statement. I'm curious how far we are from agreeing on the empty signifier sense of meaning of the BDO. My naive sense of the archetypical empty signifier in literature would be any object which the author adds, but doesn't explain. In turn leading to frustration in the reader--something of the opposite effect of the author explaining everything.
posted by xtian at 6:14 AM on July 24, 2016


Ah! Sorry. I mean "the term BDO will have to be explained over and over because its meaning is counter-intuitive." It's a problem for future discussions of SF. See, for example, how this thread has gone: not so much "what is a cool /sucky BDO in an SF story" as arguments over semantics.

Be The Change You Want To See, so: I absolutely LOVE BDOs in SF. They are my super-favourite things and why I read SF, probably. I still read Niven, even though the characterisation and gender politics are troubling for me now, and even though I know the nature of the BDOs. I don't read Aldiss, though I suspect it's better writing and politically correct, because it's psychological drama, not Big Mysterious Things In Space.

Though... Can things that are not Objects also be BDOs? Like finding out about the Moties' life cycle in MOTE IN GOD'S EYE? That elicurs a similar feeling for me.
posted by alasdair at 8:11 AM on July 24, 2016


Apparently the whole term in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction was a joke!

"I decided to write an April Fool's entry. I would pretend that a phrase I’d always liked, originated by the critic Roz Kaveney but not in general use, was actually a known critical term. I would write an entry called 'Big Dumb Objects' in a poker-faced style, suggesting an even more absurd critical term to be used in its place, 'megalotropic sf.'" From Wikipedia
posted by alasdair at 12:58 PM on July 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


Mecha get really big, too.

I mean that's a big drill.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:55 PM on July 24, 2016


Also re: the actual article, for talk of BDOs, that piece is remarkably slight.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:59 PM on July 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


Can things that are not Objects also be BDOs?

A series that is absolutely stuffed with BDO's is Frederich Pohl's Gateway. Gateway is a BDO, the Heechee are BDO's, the way of controlling the Heechee ships is a BDO, there is a Heechee BDO out in the Oort cloud with a telepathic couch BDO on it, then there are meta-BDO's that are BDO's to the Heechee themselves. It's BDO's all the way down.
posted by Bringer Tom at 6:46 PM on July 24, 2016 [2 favorites]


Apparently the whole term in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction was a joke!

From that description, though, isn't it at least as legitimate as a bunch of (very useful) critical terms that John Clute added to the Encyclopedia of Fantasy?
posted by Gerald Bostock at 10:27 AM on July 25, 2016


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