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What I'm reading

May 25th, 2003

When All Else Fails: Government as the Ultimate Risk Manager by David Moss and The New Financial Order: Risk in the 21st century by Robert Shiller. These are both important books and I plan to review them in the near future.

I also watched Enigma on DVD, expecting it to be based on some combination of the breaking of the eponymous German code and the life of Alan Turing. Instead, it was dominated by an absurd spy thriller/action hero subplot – I should perhaps have been warned off by Tom Stoppard’s credit for the screenplay.

But watching this movie prompted a question. In movies of this kind, it’s necessary that the audience have some idea what’s actually involved in codebreaking (or similar esoteric devices). Surely there must be some other way of conveying the relevant info to us than to have one character ask a lot of dumb questions, giving another (usually the hero) a chance to deliver a lecture.

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  1. Anthony
    May 26th, 2003 at 13:27 | #1

    The classic way. Large chunks of impenetrable text receding into the background with stirring martial music. So instead of “Imperial Senate blah blah Trade War blah” you can have “scrambler blah blah codebook blah blah day-key”. George Lucas seems to believe that audiences will tolerate about 20 minutes of this.
    That, or you could set a required reading list for films.

  2. James Farrell
    May 26th, 2003 at 16:09 | #2

    Why are you beating up on Stoppard? It was precisely because I expected so much more from him that I was disappointed by Enigma. I would have thought Stoppard’s treatment of chaos theory in Arcadia exactly answered your call for ‘some other way..’

    Though I agree Enigma failed to provide a window on codebreaking, its main flaw is combining two different stories and genres in a way that diminishes the credibility of both. On the one hand we have the spy story and romance, which is the kind of thing the British do well, with intimacy and subtle characterization. On the other hand there is the race against time to avert naval catastrophe, the sort of thing only Hollywood can make thrilling. So, while we are trying to work out what the girl knew and whom she told etc., every five or ten minutes we need to be reminded that submarines are about to sink a convey of battleships, killing thousands, unless the code is cracked fast. It becomes difficult to care about either outcome.

  3. May 26th, 2003 at 16:44 | #3

    “Surely there must be some other way of conveying the relevant info to us than to have one character ask a lot of dumb questions, giving another (usually the hero) a chance to deliver a lecture.”

    This is an issue which came up in SF writing as it matured. A number of editors and practitioners developed techniques which they could apply with varying success; that’s why the first Star Wars managed better than the second, with a better scriptwriter pedigree giving them a free ride on the hard won experience.

    One temptation is to drop the requirement of intellectual rigour and just prioritise story telling. That only works if you can do it and if that’s all you care about anyway.

    But if you yourself want a straight answer, just follow up the critical insights that Robert A. Heinlein worked out and applied – and which later schools read into his work. He wasn’t unique in the hard science area, just representative; you could also look at Poul Anderson, or cross read to the parallel insights of pulp writers in other fields, like Raymond Chandler in crime or even Wodehouse in comedy and light drama.

    Oh, my girlfriend has a PhD in history and tells me I cannot make economics interesting. She should know whereof she speaks, considering her father has written works at the borders of economics and history, ones that reached a wider readership. So if anyone can tell me how to make that side of things interesting, I would be much indebted.

  4. John Quiggin
    May 26th, 2003 at 17:13 | #4

    Why are you beating up on Stoppard?

    I enjoyed Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead very much, was ambivalent about later stuff and thought Shakespeare in Love was terrible, even allowing for the constraints imposed by the need to reach a teen market. So I guess I have been extrapolating a declining trend.

  5. May 29th, 2003 at 17:08 | #5

    Was that title chosen in imitation of the old saying “when all else fails, read the instructions”?

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