The Science Of Fiction
    By Patrick Lockerby | June 4th 2010 02:46 PM | 6 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Retired engineer, 60+ years young. Computer builder and programmer. Linguist specialising in language acquisition and computational linguistics....

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    The Science Of Fiction

    Tip of the hat to Eric Diaz for reminding me of the muse.

    Long before writing was invented, amazing stories were told through the medium of the ballad and the saga.  Those old tall tales and modern science fiction often have a few common themes - ethics,  morality, gadgets and heroic deeds.  Gadgets run the full gamut  - from the bag of wind used by Odysseus to fill his ship's sails, to the talking computers and planet busters in movies.

    There are no epic tales in praise of cowardice.

    About the year 1991 I determined to remedy that defect.

    The following poem was inspired by Carl Sagan, Alan Turing, Robert Heinlein and Beowolf.  It 'wrote itself' in my mind in about ten minutes.  I wrote it in a (paper) notepad in about thirty minutes.  It took over an hour to feed it into an old MsDos word processor, save it to a floppy disk and print it.  It took all of five seconds to cut and paste it here.  Such is progress!


             We came out of Arcturus, headed for Sirius,
              ten thousand battlestars, faster than light,
             we wore body armour, our weapons were loaded,
              adrenalin flowed, we were ready to fight.

             The admiral told us we faced a vile enemy,
              alien, evil and ugly as sin,
             he said we must fight for our race's survival,
              and he had no doubts about which side would win.

             We filled empty time as we sped through the cosmos,
              preparing our weapons, preparing to die,
             we knew in our hearts we were doing our duty,
              yet some unknown coward had dared to ask "Why ?"

             This yellow and cowardly disgrace to the service,
              was flying a desk in a battlestar's core,
             punching a keyboard, programming computers
              and seeking the reason for starting this war.

             The database told him there wasn't a reason,
              at least, there was none the computer could find
             we'd never encountered such alien creatures
              but somebody thought that they threatened mankind.

             Statistics and logic dictated that, likewise
              the aliens reasoned the very same way,
             and when two great powers are ready for battle
              there's no man alive who can stand in their way.

             Computer projections revealed that a battle
              however we fought it would end as a tie,
             our weapons were fearful, but so were the other's
              and suns would go nova and systems would die.

             There was a solution, the programmer found it,
              established a link to the alien fleet
             and sent out a message to their ships and our ships
              "The cowardly enemy's admitted defeat."
             "The terms and conditions are not yet established,
              they want to negotiate just to save face,
             in deed, if not word, they have offered surrender
              your ship may stand down and return to its base."

             In due course of time we established a treaty
              of friendship and trading between the two powers;
             and the aliens swear it was their unknown coward,
              and yet, I would swear on my life he was ours.


    Copyright notice:
    I have no problem with educators printing this poem for classroom use, and other reasonable use for purposes of education, subject to proper accreditation.

    On the web, please do not copy the entire poem, just a sample and a link here, please.


    Copyright free picture courtesy of
    Harker Heights High School


    Great poem, I really like that!
    You have a really good point too about cowardice too. 

    By itself - all else being equal - cowardice would have to be considered a vice. But putting it in the context of action which we'd consider intelligent and virtuous seems like it momentarily splits your mind, forcing it to entertain 2 diverging views at once. I think that's part of what makes the poem work so well.

    Thanks for sharing.
    kerr jac: I am really glad you enjoyed this poem.

    By itself - all else being equal - cowardice would have to be considered a vice. But putting it in the context of action which we'd consider intelligent and virtuous seems like it momentarily splits your mind, forcing it to entertain 2 diverging views at once. I think that's part of what makes the poem work so well.
    Your analysis is spot on.  I don't analyse my own poetry - that way lies madness.  I had not realised why the story works, so thanks for the insight.
    That little poem worries me.  It reminds me of the CND types I used to encounter when you and I were young.

    However, this passage from Chapter VI of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy (online) contains an antidote:

    Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. "He that will lose his life, the same shall save it," is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book. This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or quite brutal courage. A man cut off by the sea may save his life if he will risk it on the precipice.

    He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine. 
    In praise of cowardice: Falstaff's monologue in Henry IV part 1. OK, it starts "What is honour?" and goes on at length about being unable to get drunk on it or exchange it for a free lunch, but is Falstaff making excuses as to why the survival of the cowards beats that of the vainglorious and foolhardy. Can't remember much else about the play!
    What makest thou of this?

     כִּי-מִי אֲשֶׁר יבחר (יְחֻבַּר), אֶל כָּל-הַחַיִּים יֵשׁ בִּטָּחוֹן:  כִּי-לְכֶלֶב חַי הוּא טוֹב, מִן-הָאַרְיֵה הַמֵּת

    For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope; for a living dog is better than a dead lion.   (Ecclesiastes 9:4)

    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Erinaceous, Rycharde, Robert:

    Gentlemen, thank you all for your comments.

    It takes a special kind of courage for a soldier to disobey orders and risk court martial - perhaps a firing squad - by doing what he or she knows to be right.

    The Nurenberg Principle states that a soldier cannot claim exemption from blame by proving that he or she was merely following orders.

    The primary duty of a soldier in war is to do everything possible to bring about a just and lasting peace.

    The primary duty of a soldier in peace is to do everything possible to prolong the extent of a just and lasting peace.

    A soldier who risks execution by disobeying bad orders in order to enhance the prospects of peace or reduce the prospects of war is not a coward, but a hero of a special kind.  That is why my saga concludes with each side trying to claim the unknown 'coward' as one of their own.

    In passing: how many poems do you know of which were written in praise of a computer hacker?