Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Seven Ciphers in Classic Speculative Fiction, OR, Why Ciphers Are Bad

The cipher is the character in fiction whose experiences let us learn about the world and plot. They’re the new guys in town, the teenagers coming of age and, as Steven Erikson devastatingly put it, “the people who need their own world explained to them.” There’s a strong bias against ciphers in Speculative Fiction because they’re a cheap mechanic. We live casually around things that to every previous generation would seem unbelievable. The cipher generally causes us to sacrifice the casual nature of actually using and working with things, and thus the immersion in the concocted world, for the sake of holding hands with our audience. Generally these ciphers do insult the audience, hedging that they can’t figure things out on their own, or don’t have they don’t have the attention span and intellect necessary to do so.

Early in my writing life I set out to avoid ciphers. I wanted to be fresher, more original, to challenge my readers in exciting ways. I was convinced that anyone with talent would avoid using such a low device. In retrospect of that opinion, let’s review a few of the ciphers from Speculative Fiction’s history.

Want to drive a nerd insane? Sneak up behind them
and say, "I heard those Harry Potters are based
on a book or something."
Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling)
Arguably the most brilliant and blatant cipher of all time. He's a kid, so he’ll learn just by virtue of inexperience. He travels to an unknown part of our world, so he's out of his element and has to interact with everyone for the first time. And he goes to school, a building that exists so people can tell you things. He is buddies with a hardcore nerd, a wildlife enthusiast, and the ancient head of the school, all of whom vomit knowledge at him. This seven-book series could have fit in a single marble composition book if you excised all the Harry-learns-things (give or take a second composition book for redundant-events).

Alan Grant (Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton)
He knows everything about dinosaurs except that they’re alive. He also doesn’t know much math. Many of Crichton’s novels are secretly about scientific education. Congo is about primate cognition, Prey is about nanotechnology, Terminal Man is about the nervous system, and Jurassic Park is cloning. Cloning dinosaurs, and so Alan also has the park explained to him, and the cloning process, and Chaos Theory. But Alan Grant stands out as an admirably complicated cipher, introducing us to both the fun plot stuff and real theoretical science.

Bilbo and Frodo Baggins (The Hobbit and
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien)
You bet your ass someone tells him what this is.
These two hobbits are the classic fish-out-of-water ciphers. They come from one specific place and have limited handiness at the outset of their stories. Their journeys force them to learn about Middle Earth, though this education causes them to grow more sufficient until the learning processes are not as explicit. Better, they’re increasingly able to deal with the strange things they run into, while not exploding into wish-fulfillment bad asses. By the end, they are winging it without learning, and the writing is implying rather than preaching. Ironically the two share one mentor, Gandalf, who at many points exists  to tell us what Tolkien was building in his world today.

Richard Cypher (The Sword of Truth by Terry Goodkind)
Richard Cypher. Richard Ding-Dong Cypher. Goodkind knew what he was doing to sphincter-tightening degrees. The special kid of Sword of Truth is just one of many special kid ciphers following an established publishing trope. Harry Potter was another. Following the success of Tolkien's Bilbo and Frodo, many Fantasy authors created their own rags-to-heroism ciphers, packing them with even more wish fulfillment. Richard doesn’t stay a little guy suffering to toss a ring into a volcano; he’s going to grow up, get hot girlfriends, own magic swords and slay villains. Unlike Tolkien, the new Fantasy tradition was to introduce awesome stuff so that the cipher could become awesome at that awesome stuff, or at least always witness awesome results from it. The Epic Fantasy sub-genre positively strains under the weight of these wish-fulfillment ciphers today.

Ender Wiggin (Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card)
A cipher so deliberate he even has to be told he won the war. God help us all.

Also the poster for "Fuck Yeah: The Movie"
Luke Skywalker (Star Wars)
As formative as Frodo Baggins, Luke starts at the bottom of the totem poll on a backwater planet. He fixes R2D2 to learn about the rebellion and plot of A New Hope. He pursues Obi Wan Kenobi to learn about his family, and in turn, we watch him studying and revealing the ways of the Jedi. In terms of ciphers, he gets some of the best emotion. One particular bit of information he uncovers is the most famous reveal in all of Science Fiction, but it resonates because it was as much of a shock to audiences as it was to the boy. His ascent fits both the Hero’s Journey and the model of the cipher’s journey. We want to learn more about the Jedi. We want to learn if there’s anything left in his father’s heart. The best way a cipher can succeed is when we want to learn what they’re going to teach us about their fictions.

Upon learning what the cipher is, you gradually realize that they were integral to droves of the Speculative Fiction you enjoyed. Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Peter Parker? Kvothe? John Crichton? Chell? David Bowman and friends? This is Commander Shepard’s favorite cipher on the Citadel? Speculative Fiction will be a richer landscape when more of it is about people casually living with the fantastic, but the cipher will probably never go away. Not so long as there are more generations growing up and learning things for the first time.


  1. LOVED this piece. Firstly, can you write the tag lines for all movie posters? "Fuck Yeah: The Movie"? *grin*
    Secondly, this really resonates with me right now, trying to finish up a story wherein the main character relies on flashbacks and overly explanatory conversations with others to try to pull the reader through the confusion. I could’ve used a cipher.

  2. Like most plot elements, I think they can be used well or badly. I wouldn't categorically say they are bad. Depending on the audience, sometimes this kind of thing is needed to slowly immerse the reader int he world, rather than expect them to pick up speed all at once. I've found regular sf/f readers far more tolerant of being plopped straight into a strange world, than others.

  3. No love for Ender Wiggin! *sigh* I know, John. I'm just joking. Orson Scott Card is not... a subtle writer, by any means. ^.^;

    I adore this. I especially adore that when I was reading the bit about Harry Potter, I kept hearing you shout, "it takes place... in a SCHOOL!"

    And. The captions. Are priceless. PRICELESS. "Fuck Yeah: The Movie" makes me so happy.

  4. You make a lot of excellent points, John! I love your essays about the writing process and what you see other authors doing. I enjoy ciphers within reason - but there's a limit to how far the fish-out-of-water trope can go.

    It would be interesting to see Harry Potter without a cipher character in a school environment - but I think that takes away a lot of the books appeal to many people. I think ciphers appeal because readers like learning along with the characters, rather than feeling like a fish out of water themselves as they try to adjust to what's normal in the world.

    Also, I would totally go see Fuck Yeah: The Movie.

  5. The cipher makes lots of things about telling a story easier. They only annoy me when they go on and on and on about the same thing.

  6. I suppose the key thing here is always whether that is the character's sole function, or whether they exist as a meaningful character in their own right rather than just a writer's get out clause.

  7. *Sigh* I came here for entertainment and now I've gone and learned something.

  8. You know I've never given this a lot of thought, but your article has now given me food for thought ^_^

  9. john--i've tried to start this comment a number of times, and i keep erasing.

    let me try and sum it all up...

    you never fail to awe me...


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