Paradigm: Topology

  • by Gitabushi


At one point in my schooling, I was introduced to the idea of topology. “The properties of space that are preserved under continuous deformations, such as stretching, crumpling and bending, but not tearing or gluing.”

Topologically, a coffee cup looks like a donut.

Topologically, I look like Harrison Ford: I have a pierced left ear, and a scar on my chin, just like him.  Although there may be other differences I’m not aware of that make us different.  Probably healed surgical holes disqualify that. Whatever. It sounded good at first.

Anyway, there are different aspects by which topology can be applied to life, thinking, and philosophy.

For instance, I first encountered the concept of “skins” with WinAmp.  Change a skin, and it looks like you have a whole different program, but it is functionally the same.  Your character plays the exact same way regardless of which skin you choose (Yes, yes, in one of the recent Zelda games, your abilities change as you change your clothes. I don’t care).

But it can go farther than that.  In some ways, the first Jagged Alliance game was not much more than a skin of XCom: UFO Defense.  Sure, the missions were set up and executed differently.  The weapons were different, movement and obstacles were different.  The bad guys in XCom were much tougher than Jagged Alliance. But play one, and you really understand the game mechanics of the other.

Or the GURPS and D20 role playing game systems: Once you learn the underlying rules, the only difference is what skin you put on it, to be able to play a dungeon crawl, or a 20s Gangster game, or an Old West game.

One could also consider Clarke’s notion that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” to be a topological notion.  If you create a stream of fire by saying some magic words, or press a button to create the same effect, is it any different to the charred remains?

Okay, here’s the payoff, and it probably wasn’t worth your time:

The problem I have with most of the pulp I’ve read is it is topologically identical to the “story” I made up in this post.

To me, most pulp just doesn’t have any real tension.  You know the hero is going to win, and there isn’t even any real tension in seeing how he is going to win.  ERB, at his worst, is just Unique Setting and General Badassery. Even REH, at his worst, is nothing more than that, but maybe with some extra-lush descriptions thrown in.

To me, a story isn’t a story unless there is development of some kind, something to be learned, an idea to be shared, a concept to be taught or explored.

Have you ever watched a replay of a sporting event?  Perhaps at the time, it was so exciting to watch as your team came back and won. Or exciting to see them come back and just barely fall short at the end.  In the replay, though?  While you can evoke some of the feeling of tension and excitement, you really are just remembering what you felt at the time.  The outcome is set in stone. It already happened. I doubt you make a habit of re-watching old games, unless you are looking for some specific information, like how well the OLB handled coverage duties.

That’s what many pulp stories read like.  The hero has been given abilities to overcome whatever the author can throw in their way, so it becomes as drama-filled as watching someone else play Pong.

Sure, every story follows the same few plots, but what makes a story good, memorable, and worth sharing and re-reading is conflict: the main character wants something, and there is someone who opposes him.  They use their abilities to vie for who will succeed.  Or the main character has a conflict within themselves about what they really want and/or really need, and there must be a struggle to see which desire will win out, and if it will be to his benefit or sorrow.  Or the main character wants something, but if he gets it, he loses something else, and must decide how to handle the trade-offs, and see if he can minimize the trade-offs.

For this, a writer must understand human nature, must understand motivation, must understand how different people think, how they pursue their goals, what their priorities are.  From this understanding, good stories arise.

Star Wars is not topologically the same as Groundhog Day. Ghostbusters is not topologically the same as 13 Hours: the Benghazi Story.  A good story, with conflict, is unique.

Wrap up: Sometimes I think it helps to think of things from a topological standpoint: are these two things that look different, actually just the same thing with different skins?  Or are these two things that look the same actually different in nature?

Let me know if you ever use this sort of thinking in your analysis of life, books, games, etc.



4 thoughts on “Paradigm: Topology

  1. There are only so many plots to be told in fiction, really. But what gets me invested in a story, even when we know the heroes will save the day in the end, are the characters.

    If you make fun, interesting characters who interact and respond to that plot in interesting ways, then you can do just about anything else with the plot and I’ll still be along for the ride. The characters are the vehicle through which we encounter the plot – if they aren’t doing anything engaging with it, then the audience won’t engage either.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve been chewing over this post for a few days. I think you’re right. I think that most genre fiction is only skin deep, authors tend to write the same stories over and over, and just “glue some gears” or whatnot on it.

    Liked by 1 person

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