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Big Dumb Objects. Large scale science fiction things that themselves are a character or at least a tangible and inescapable feature of the novel or story. They are part of the fabric of science fiction ranging from E.E. Doc Smith to Peter F Hamilton. So the question for the panelists this week is:
Here’s what they said…
I don’t like the classic BDO’s: the Ringworld from Ringworld and the Rama from Rendezvous With Rama. It may have something to do with the fact that I thought the stories were dull, but I just found them, well, too dumb. Some people found the objects, they wandered around a little bit, then they gave up and left. Not much sense of wonder for me I’m afraid.
The BDO’s that actually generate that required sense of wonder for me are a bit more intelligent. I particularily like stuff from Iain M. Banks Culture universe, like the layered world from Matter or the Culture Orbitals (although I’m not sure they really qualify as BDO’s because they have a very clever mind at their core?)
My favourite BDO however is not fiction at all, despite featuring heavily in Science Fiction: it’s the Universe. Our Universe. It’s a big object and it’s mostly empty, and therefore dumb, inert, silent. It’s mysterious, we’ve spend lifetimes trying to figure it out and will spend lifetimes more. And yet amidst the emptiness we’ve found fantastic things: nebula, super nova, glorious looking galaxies. It’s endless. It’s amazing. We’re living in a BDO!
In sf, a Big Dumb Object (BDO) is any mysterious object that generates an intense sense of wonder just by being there. My fave is the one I’m working on in a two-volume novel I’m writing with Larry Niven. Larry said to me recently, “Big dumb objects are so much easier. Collapsed civilizations are so much easier. Yeah, bring them up to speed.”
Ours appears in the first novel, The Bowl of Heaven, to come out next year. It’s a shell several hundred millions of miles across, held to a star by gravity and some electrodynamics forces. The star produces a long jet of hot gas, which spears through a hole at the crown of the cup-shaped shell. This jet propels the entire system forward – literally, a star turned into the engine of a “ship” that is the shell. On the shell’s inner face, a sprawling civilization dwells. The novel’s structure resembles Larry’s Ringworld, based on the physics worked out by Benford.
The virtue of any BDO is energy and space. The collected solar energy is immense, and the living space beyond comprehension except in numerical terms. But….this smart craft is also going somewhere, and its builders live aboard. Where are they going, and why? That’s the fun of smart objects – they don’t just awe, they intrigue.
Since I like an element of outrageousness in my Big Dumb Objects, I’m strongly tempted to opt for the planet in Christopher Priest’s Inverted World — a hyperboloid which zooms off to infinity at both poles and every point of its equator. The fascinating problem of how this monster avoids intersection with its similarly shaped sun can be circumvented only by $SPOILER, with the unfortunate side-effect of making the Inverted World not in fact a BDO at all. So, after briefly considering the utter just-because-we-could-do-it silliness of the Chain Stars in Terry Pratchett’s The Dark Side of the Sun (two linked toroidal suns), I’ll pick the one-dimensionally infinite Way of Greg Bear’s Eon … an almost cosy tunnel through space/time that happens to go on forever. Though I’d be happier if that nice Mr Bear hadn’t blown it up in the sequel.
All these remain Big Dumb objects, ingeniously constructed by sometimes godlike Builders but not actually sapient. The current editors of the Encyclopedia of SF began to get itchy about the increasing number of Big Smart Objects (usually with built-in AI) being filed under the 1993 edition’s headword BIG DUMB OBJECTS, and — while not dropping that entry entirely — came up with the new headword MACROSTRUCTURES. Which saves a lot of repeated explanation that the BDO now under discussion is not, despite what we just called it, Dumb….
I gave this some thought, and realized I don’t like most of sf’s Big Dumb Objects. I like objects that turn out to have a brain. My favorite, my very favorite, is the Tardis. I love that little beastie. I love that it’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. I love that the interior changes all the time. I just adore it. I suppose if I have to choose another, it’s the Starship Enterprise, but that’s mostly because my old pal & hero James Kirk loves it. I have a special fondness for that ship.
But there are so many BDOs to pick from! One of my favorites from written SF is Tanya Huff’s “Big Yellow,” a neon-colored BDO discovered at the beginning of her Confederacy novel The Better Part of Valor. What I like about Huff’s story is the sly acknowledgement in the beginning that Big Yellow is, indeed, a plot device. Additionally, Huff’s reconnaissance marines are smart enough to recognize a honeypot when they see one and are suitably suspicious. Big Yellow turns out to be made of gray sentient goo that has an agenda, of course, which drives several more novels in the series. It becomes a character in its own right.
I’ll also mention a favorite BDO from movie SF, which is the moon-sized glob of evil bearing down on Earth in The Fifth Element. This BDO takes the name “Mr. Shadow” and we see him telephone his underling on Earth to speak about his plan. While this isn’t particularly credible (Mr. Shadow obviously previously recruited the underling yet only recently acquired communications equipment, so how were complex plans previously conveyed, etc.), it establishes Mr. Shadow as a character with independent motivation.
Obviously, I love the use of BDO as character. It’s this use that separates Science Fiction’s BDO from “the McGuffin,” used by film directors and mystery writers as a plot device. Sure, they both start the plot rolling, but the McGuffin doesn’t have to be fully explained or even play a part in plot culmination (as Hitchcock said, it’s only important that all the characters desperately want the McGuffin). Since mysteries/thrillers are about uncovering human motivation, the McGuffin is good enough. But Science Fiction is about exploring and expanding human motivation, so our BDO should do more than the McGuffin. That’s why SF authors regularly make the BDO a character and gradually expose its motivation–often in sequels, unfortunately.
Personally, I love the “Big Dumb Object” trope. It is one of the few tools in the SF toolbox that, when used properly, hasn’t been quite dulled by repetition. When the BDO comes on screen, I suspect the sense of wonder it engenders in a modern audience is the same as was felt by readers in the era of Hugo Gernsback. The typical BDO is not just several orders of magnitude beyond the author’s technology and level of understanding, but beyond the characters and cultures in the work where it appears. Ringworld isn’t just amazing to us. It’s amazing to everyone who comes in contact with it.
I’m also pretty partial to the idea of planets as artifacts (or vice-versa), such as the above Ringworld by Larry Niven, or the Riverworld books by Phillip Jose Farmer. Less well known is the planet Patra-Bannk from Tony Rothman’s novel, The World is Round. Though, if I was to take my favorite example of this sub-trope, I would have to pick Earth itself from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.