Cargo Cultism, Part Four: Other Disciplines

Just a couple quick follow-ups.

Mike Spille has some good comments tying the relationship between cargo cult programmers and abstraction layers together.

Mike Gunderloy wonders if I've ever read Steve “Code Complete“ McConnell's Cargo Cult Software Engineering essay.  I have now -- thanks!  However, this essay is about cargo cultism amongst managers of software teams, not the developers themselves. 

What this really shows is that imitating form without understanding content is a methodology in many disciplines.  It is certainly not limited to the engineering professions!  In fact, this problem in a completely unrelated discipline has been on my mind lately.

As Professor Thingo mentions in his recent blog entries, in addition to knowing a thing or two about scripting languages, I'm also an expert on the life and work of JRR Tolkien.  I have the dubious distinction of being the first person to put a Tolkien fan page up on the Internet. For many years that page was the first result returned by Google searches for "Tolkien", which got me a lot of email from kids doing book reports and a number of unintentionally hilarious interviews with newspapers when the first Peter Jackson movie was released.  The admins of the university server upon which the page resided finally noticed that I'd graduated eight years earlier and removed it some time last year; it had not been updated since 1997 and was a mass of dead links.

But I digress.  I think that it is safe to say that the vast majority of fantasy genre fiction produced in the last fifty years apes the form of The Lord of the Rings without coming close to the quality of the content.  Want to sell books?  Put a map in the back, have a few plucky short guys with swords go up against evil incarnate to save the world, and wait for the royalties to roll in. (See Tom Shippey“s excellent book Author of the Century for an in-depth analysis of this fact.)

Peter Jackson, in one of his Oscar acceptance speeches thanked the Academy for looking beyond the form -- the elves and wizards and hobbits -- to the underlying moral thematic core of the work.  And you have to look beyond it; most genre fantasy is derivative dreck, not to put too fine a point on it, and that prejudices people against it.  (A notable exception would be the early work of Guy Kay, who was Christopher Tolkien's assistant when he was editing The Silmarillion.  I haven't read any of Kay's recent work, so I don't know if it is still of such high quality.)

Cargo cultism is everywhere.

Comments (7)

  1. Zac says:

    Kay’s recent work is good, but seems to become less and less "fantasy" and more "slightly fantastical alterna-historical fiction" with each new book. For example, "Sailing to Sarantium" has a title adapted from a Yeats poem of a similar name. Can you guess what historical empire it mimics in form and tradition? I permit one google search to determine the answer.

    On another note, do I know Orbifold? It looks like I do. And Teaphile too!

  2. Eric Lippert says:

    Well, since Yeats wrote "Sailing to Byzantium", it’s not real hard to guess…

    And of course you know everyone on my "Old Friends" list Zac! If you had a blog, you’d be there too. (Apparently you and I haven’t come up with goofy nicknames yet.)

  3. Orbifold says:

    I actually prefer Kay’s "alterna-historical fiction", for the most part. I certainly prefer "A Song for Arbonne" and "Lions of al-Rassan" to the books in the Fionavar Tapestry trilogy, anyway.

    As for the goofy nicknames: my LiveJournal is just that…a journal. Unlike these "Fabulous Adventures", it has very little to do with my chosen profession. So I’m quite content to _not_ have it come in a Google search on my real name. I have an "offical" website for that.


  4. Bob Riemersma says:

    Don’t know if it fits in here, but it may be good for a chuckle.

    In the early 80s I was a mainframe systems programmer in this one shop. One day a recently hired Cobol programmer (with 5 years prior experience) ended up in the machine room on some pretext. He was really interested in the big iron, but especially wanted me to point out which box was the "Cobol compiler."

    Took me a couple of beats to understand what he was asking. With a straight face I just pointed to a cabinet housing a front-end processor. I mean, where to begin?

  5. Dan Shappir says:

    I certainly prefer books like Kay’s "Tigana" to stuff such as Jordan’s "Wheel of Time" or Brook’s "Shannara" (not to mention all the D&D related dreck that’s out there). That is not to say that there aren’t any good "straight" fantasy books out there, e.g. Le Guin, Leiber, and of course C. S. Lewis (ok, Pratchett as well, at least the first one).

    I’ve also find myself leaning towards "alternate history". For those interested, I would recommend Powers’ "The Anubis Gate", Barker’s "Weaveworld", Moorcock’s stuff, and May’s "The Saga of Pliocene Exile".

    Not sure how you would count Michael Scott Rohan, Gene Wolfe and Zelazny. Also, check out Garth Nix.

    Well, that had nothing to do with Cargo Cult Programming 🙂

  6. Or Peles says:

    If we’re on the subject of fantasy books and Cargo Cultism, I have to mention "Dream Park" by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes, for a mix of the two.

  7. Lord Dust says:

    Imitation and even out-and-out pladgarism in just about any "art" form doesn’t really qualify as Cargo Cultism, because the intended effect of most of these actions aren’t to create good anything; they’re intended to create ways of making money. Thus, the guys dressed up in the flight suits and waving the sticks around have learned something about cause and effect: waving the sticks doesn’t bring cargo planes in, but all sorts of OTHER kinds of people show up anyways to see what’s going on, and sometimes they bring gifts.

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