Big Men with Screwdrivers

Interocitor Assembly
See big men sticking screw drivers into things - turning them - AND ADJUSTING THEM!
Today's topic comes courtesy of a comment left on a previous post by anonme:
I mean this with all sincerity, but one of these days you are going to have to make a detailed blog post detailing what you think "big men with big screwdrivers" is, because to this day, I still have no idea what you mean by that.
I know you have gone into it on twitter, but twitter being twitter, it's a nutshell explanation that still uses me confused. I get that it's about characters trying to solve all problems with science, but that sounds more like a critique of stuff like Tom Swift, but the context you usually use it in is to comment on modern science fiction, or Cambellian SF, so I'm not really sure what you refer to.
 Anonme demonstrates that he pretty much has the gist of it. But since he asked, and my readers are the boss, I'll explain in greater detail.

Big Men with Screwdrivers is a term that I paraphrased from Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie as shorthand for Campbellian hard SF stories, or later stories that emulate those tropes.

That definition will suffice for some of you, but for those stuck on this side of the Appendix N generation gap who don't know what Campbellian science fiction is, let me turn the proceedings over to the eminently more qualified SF grandmaster John C. Wright.

According to Wright, Campbellian Hard SF consists of:
  • Speculation about how near-future technological advances might affect man on a social and metaphysical level
  • Scientific optimism combined with classical Liberalism
  • A naive love of theory (Which William M. Briggs has wisely called the root of all evil.)
  • Malleable human nature
  • Protagonists who tend to solve problems with their wits more than with brawn
  • Main characters guided by an ethical code of vague origin that holds up man as an inherently moral being
In sum, the general theme of a Big Men with Screwdrivers story is "The stars are humanity's for the taking once inevitable advances in technology and psychology correct all our problems!"

Anonme is also correct to imply that I'm critical of Campbellian SF. The reason I'm not a fan of this subgenre is simple. When a story written in 1955 predicts that we'll have moon colonies and flying cars by 1997, it's a bit hard to suspend one's disbelief--especially when a Facebook news feed or a window is close to hand.

Frankly, I have a hard time reading Campbellian fiction. It comes off as unintentionally funny or tragic.

The Achilles' heel of spec fic predicated on assurances of utopia ushered in by the triumph of scientific optimism, classical Liberalism, and infinite human malleability is that all of those ideas have been given centuries-long global field trials, and they all failed.

Perhaps we'd have a Mars colony by now if we hadn't wasted $20 trillion trying to make everybody the same.

Science can't fix broken human nature. We're not building O'Neill cylinders anytime soon. At this point, our efforts are better spent trying to avoid the future envisioned by George Miller instead of chasing the one envisioned by Heinlein. At least for now.

That's why I write stories set in alternate universes or in the far future. Those places still have room to grow.

To some people, this will sound weird coming from a professional science fiction author--and a Campbell nominee, to boot. It shouldn't. SF, especially in the pulp era, has always had stories inspired by escapism, and the lines between genres used to be as blurry as a Sasquatch photograph.

Right there on the soft, blurry line is where my stories are most at home.



  1. Thanks for clearing that up for me.

  2. We live in a different time/place than Campbell, so those stories don't hold up. We know more about the scientific, political, and social limits we live under, so a story about a bunch of boys putting together a Moon rocket in their backyard just won't work. Though they are still fun stories (in an alternative universe kind of way), they are too much a product of their day for a modern audience.

  3. Nice header pic. Interocitors feature large in my 'Uncertainty: The Soul of Modeling, Probability & Statistics'. Thanks for the shout out!