Impossible

Let’s talk about “impossible” for a moment.

Have you seen any of the dozens of articles and videos making the rounds under some variant of the headline “This boat is impossible to capsize”? If you haven’t, there’s a good example at Popular Mechanics.

It’s immediately obvious reading the article that the boat can be capsized; the real brilliance here is that it’s designed to flip itself back over automatically.

With a caveat or two. The article above cites three design factors that contribute to the self-righting capability. All are subject to failure modes: “the cabin itself is watertight” (provided no hatches are left open) and “it has a very low center of gravity” and “the cabin is built to be extremely buoyant” (assuming all cargo is stowed properly and nothing heavy is mounted on the upper deck).

This boat was designed for law enforcement, the Navy, and what PM calls “other groups who sail in high-pressure situations”. How many of those organizations are going to want hull-mounted weapons of some sort? Sure, you could counterbalance the guns by stowing their ammunition at the bottom of the hull–but then, are you going to jettison the guns when you run out of bullets?

“Programming today is a race between software engineers striving to build bigger and better idiot-proof programs, and the Universe trying to produce bigger and better idiots. So far, the Universe is winning.” (Rick Cook, The Wizardry Compiled)

It’s not just programming, and the Universe is winning in all fields of endeavor–as I’ve noted before, you can verify this any day on the freeway. All it takes is one person who doesn’t read the directions to undo even the best design.

And that assumes the designers haven’t overlooked anything. Lest we forget, the original “unsinkable” ship, the Titanic, failed to live up to the hype in part because of a design flaw*.

* Accounts differ, but most note that the bulkheads intended to isolate compartments and confine water coming in to a limited area did not extend to the full height of the ship. When enough water had entered the sealed compartments, it began to flow over the top of the bulkheads and fill adjoining compartments.

But I’m not here to denigrate the boat’s designers. Realistically, headline writers are indulging in a bit of click-baitish hyperbole.

I’m on record as accepting the contradictory usages of the word “literally”. But I’m drawing a line here. “Impossible” does not mean “can”. Not even “can, but reversible”.

We need a word to mean “can not under any circumstances”, if only to save writers’ fingers when discussing the likelihood of finding compassion among the Republican’s party leaders.

Don’t sink the Titanic, don’t capsize the Thunder Child, and don’t erode the utility of “impossible”.

Those Words

Warning: This post discusses certain words shunned by polite society. The actual words do not appear, but they are referred to in unambiguous terms. If you find such references offensive, please stop reading now.

So, yeah, a little more information about my current project leaked out. I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was researching inside-the-park home runs for the new novel*. Now, my co-conspirator/co-author has let a couple of additional tidbits loose.

* For those of you wondering what’s happening with our first collaboration, The RagTime Traveler, I counsel patience. The publishing industry is many things, but speedy is not one of them. Rest assured, as soon as there’s anything to report, you’ll see it here.

Mo’less Jones is under construction–a phrasing that makes it sound slightly more frankensteinian than it really is–partway through Draft 1. And yes, Jackie Robinson’s and Branch Rickey’s assault on the color barrier in baseball is relevant.

Now, normally I wouldn’t have mentioned this; I know that if you read this blog, you also eagerly load the Poisoned Pen Press blog on the thirteenth of every odd-numbered month to see what Larry has to say. But, quite coincidentally, literary agent extraordinaire Janet Reid* raised the question of forbidden words, and the “N-word” in particular.

* No, not my agent, darn it. I’m still looking, and besides, she doesn’t represent SFF.

Janet observed that we’ve reached the point as a society where some people feel that certain words should never be spoken or written. She feels–and I agree–that a blanket proscription against the use of a word because somebody might be offended is counterproductive. A universal barrier removes thought and empathy from the equation. Better to teach people think about what they’re saying and consider the impact on the listener, than to just say “Don’t use this word. OK, moving on to the next topic…”

So, yeah. It’s my responsibility as an author to tell my story–whatever story I’m telling–as honestly and effectively as possible. If I’m dishonest, if I omit certain words, situations, or concepts to avoid offending someone, then I damage my credibility and, more importantly, my story.

Is it possible to write fiction about the 1940s without a character using the N-word? Absolutely. Is it possible to write fiction about race relations in the forties without using that word? Maybe. Depends who your characters are and what’s happening. But it’s not possible to write fiction–honest fiction–about breaking the color barrier without using the N-word and all its only slightly-less-forbidden synonyms. Why? Because those are the words that were used by the players and fans to punish Jackie Robinson for daring to invade their turf.

That’s not to say the writer can use those words carelessly or with intent to hurt the reader. But carefully placed and with malice toward his characters? Absolutely. No other word could replace the N-word and still give the reader the same punch in the gut that the character is feeling.

The movie 42 got it right, but using the N-word (or any similarly loaded word) properly is very easy thing to get wrong. Use the word as often as it was used in reality and either the reader becomes desensitized or throws the book aside in disgust. Don’t use it enough, or use it in the wrong places, and the reader loses empathy with the character and his or her motivation doesn’t ring true.

Difficult to write, uncomfortable to read. But absolutely necessary.