Notes from The Buffer Zone:
The Analog Couch
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First, before I tell you this story, I must tell you that I’m a member in good standing of the Analog Mafia. When I earned my Analog Mafia button—by selling to Analog magazine—I became one proud, validated science fiction writer. You see, I’d been told at Clarion by other writers that my science was bad, and I would never ever be a science fiction writer.
Mind you, the writers who told me that my science was bad were post-docs in various scientific fields and one was already working at NASA. (My husband later said to me, You were trying to compete scientifically with them? Really? Point taken.) Still, the words stung so badly that no sf sale ever made me feel better. Not until I sold to Analog when it was edited by Dr. Stanley Schmidt, who once rejected a story of mine because “your (made-up) planet’s name does not fit into the nomenclature.”
Okay! Got it!
Shortly after Clarion, I moved to Eugene, Oregon, where I often attended the monthly story critique sessions at the home of Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm. The critiques were unfettered there; if someone had the floor, they could have it as long as they wanted it. (And if you’ve never heard a beginning writer expound about commas for twenty minutes, well, then, you probably have no idea why all of the workshops Dean Wesley Smith and I ran had a time limit on critiques.)
The long critiques led to a lot of note-passing among the bored writers. And a bunch of us noticed that writers tended to congregate in groups. Fantasy writers huddled next to each other for warmth, newbie writers sat as close to Damon or Kate as possible, and hard sf writers sat on the hardest sofa in the world.
Those hard sf writers wouldn’t expound about commas. Instead, they’d go off on what—to my ears—was always some ridiculous tangent. The story might be a slam-bang action adventure space opera, with Our Hero saving the universe, but one of the hard sf writers on the hard couch would say something like, “There’s no way that a spaceship of that size would be able to travel at that speed for that distance without blowing out its engines.”
Never mind that the engines hadn’t been described. Never mind that the fuel had never been named. Never mind that Our Hero would never have wandered into engineering unaccompanied.
Nope. The hard sf writers on the hard couch could not be swayed by such details. To them, it ruined the story.
We note-passing writers sitting on even harder chairs (and having endured the comma critique from hell) needed a shorthand way to complain about the hard sf writers. So we called them “The Analog Couch.”
We did not mean it nicely. We meant that these writers could be distracted by the wrong detail and go off on some scientific tangent that really had nothing to do with the story.
There’s a great example of this from an early episode of The Big Bang Theory, in which Sheldon and Leonard discuss whether or not Superman could catch Lois Lane when she’s falling from space. Wouldn’t the force of her fall break her in half when she hit his arms? And how could the writers make that fall fit into the law of physics?
If you saw that episode and shouted at the television, “Superman can fly! Lois can’t recognize a man without his glasses! You’re asking for real world logic from a comic book!” then you do not belong on the Analog Couch. If you said, “Exactly,” make the hard sf writers scoot over, because your ass belongs on that hard cushion too.
Among our writing friends and in our writing network, the shorthand stuck. Now we use “The Analog Couch” to describe any critique that focuses on a silly scientific detail that makes no sense at all in context of the story.
I thought I was immune from the Analog Couch curse, but I find as I consume more and more science fiction in all its various forms, I sit on the Analog Couch a lot. Heck, I sometimes sleep there. And (blushing) I probably live there.
(Beware! Spoilers Ahead)
For example, the movie Passengers.
A man on essentially a cruise ship heading to a new world wakes out of cold sleep to find himself alone with no help at all. The movie deals with his dilemma, both physical and personal. It also presents some icky awful ethical conundrums in a way that only sf can do.
So what bugged me about the film?
If he was such a great engineer/tinkerer, why didn’t he 1) rig the food system so he could get a higher class of food? 2) build more androids from the specs he found in the back room, androids like the interactive bartender android on the ship? Oh, and 3) why was there only one interactive human-looking android on a ship that large? Why not dozens, or hundreds of them, especially considering the cost of putting the crew in cold sleep?
I could go on and did at length to my husband. He finally asked me to quit.
Or take the now-canceled TV show Time After Time. Critics complained about a lot of things. Viewers never warmed to the show. Me, I wanted to know this: how did Jack The Ripper get into the elaborate time machine in H.G. Wells’ basement in London and end up in 2017 New York? It was a time machine, not a machine that moved through space.
I try not to have these Analog Couch moments. I watch the Marvel-based movies, the DC-based TV shows, any sf that shows up on film, and I grit my teeth past the inconsistencies by reminding myself that it’s a comic book or hey, Kris, you accept time travel, so why can’t you accept that the machine crossed the ocean as well?
The reminder usually works. Okay, it sometimes works. Okay, it works enough that I can usually enjoy whatever I’m doing.
But believe me, I’m aware that I have crawled over to that extra hard couch, and I actually like sitting there much of the time.
Where do I stand on the Lois Lane/Superman physics conundrum? Well, you see, if Lois is dropped from space, and if she didn’t burn up during re-entry, she’d still be dead from lack of oxygen when she hit Superman’s arms, so who cares if she breaks in half?
Besides, the woman is dumb as feathers. Here —watch me take off my glasses to prove it.
Being a member of the Analog Mafia has nothing to do with the Analog Couch. I had joined that couch long before I earned my stripes as an Analog writer. I think nitpicking about the weirdest details is part of being an sf fan.
At least, that’s what I tell myself as I start watching yet another sf TV show, hoping for perfection. As I write yet another sf story, hoping for perfection. Or rather, hoping that I closed the curtains tight enough over the process, that no one on the nearby Analog Couch thinks of peering behind them.
Because you can’t satisfy all of the people all of the time, as some wag once said. And you certainly can’t deal with all those Analog Couch nits, no matter how good your story is.
You just have to hope that you’ve written it well enough that no one has time to think of any objections—until hours after they finished the story.
And maybe, not even then.