Thursday, February 21, 2013

Review: The Practice Effect

By David Brin
Bantam Books, 1984

The science in this sci-fi tale is soft and squishy, but the philosophy is interesting.  Dennis Nuel, a gifted young physicist of the future, is involved in exploring alternative universes. Naturally, he finds himself stranded within one through the dastardly plotting of his rival. Dennis explores his location and attempts to return home. Meanwhile his belongings behave bit oddly. Distracted by the sight of native inhabitants who appear primitive yet are possessed of some bafflingly advanced technology, Dennis does not realize for some time what the physical rules of this universe are. He catches sight of a beautiful, captive princess in flowing white, is imprisoned by a cruel and oppressive baron, and makes friends with good-hearted peasants who take his modern know-how for wizardry. There is a touch of Connecticut Yankee here. If you are willing to tolerate a dated-to-the-eighties style and some cheesy plotting, you may enjoy the light-hearted adventure.

 What interests me is the philosophical implication of the world’s premise.  The second law of thermodynamics does not apply in the same way as in our world—in this universe, objects improve with use instead of deteriorate. Tools are badly made from primitive materials, but achieve breathtaking excellence in both form and function through sufficient “practice.” The poor are hired to wear the clothing of the rich in order to “practice” rough burlap into silken embroidery, and prisoners are required to beat on the walls of the prison in order to make it thicker and stronger.

            The practice effect hints at Platonism. If garments and artifacts become increasingly beautiful just because crowds of people LOOK at them, and if objects acquire qualities that are unnecessary to the function they are performing, does this not imply that there must be some higher form or archetype to shape the evolution of the objects? In Brin's world, it is not necessary for a human to plan or choose the final "look" of an object, so how does a knife of ever-increasing sharpness know that it ought to turn into translucent crystal? How does a fashionable dress of increasing silky-comfort decide whether it should be flared or A-line? Surely there must be some sort of “ideal” knife and dress, above all knives and dresses, for this theory to work. Otherwise, the objects, though increasingly good at their tasks, would not become so beautified.

            Over-analyzer that I am, I ponder next what these implications implicate. Do they suggest that many of us, like the author, possess some unconscious belief in an ideal design—or metaphysical ideal—existing behind the scenes of life, guiding objects to greater or lesser degrees of rightness and beauty? Is beauty a universal absolute that is independent of our cultural opinions? It does indeed seem human to stop in awe before certain sights in nature and in art, yet some would argue that there is no such thing as true beauty, and that the word merely implies a subjective, unprovable judgement. What do you think?

Want another sci-fi/fantasy review? Read about possible Deconstructionism in The Eyre Affair

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