Friday, 11 July 2014

A Treatise on Human Nature

I recently heard something truly brilliant about cake mixture.

No.  Stay with me on this one.

Apparently, when instant cake mix was first marketed it was a total flop.  The trouble was that it was too easy.  The early variants needed nothing added to them to make your cake, you just poured it out into the right sized tin and popped it into the oven.

It was only when you had to add eggs and milk to some dehydrated powder and mix it yourself that the stuff took off.  More work, more washing up.  How on earth can that be?

To me it’s all about ownership.  It’s human to want to put some effort in, make a mark, even if it’s just adding milk and eggs and whisking.  It’s what gives us a mental stake in whatever it is - just try handing out organisational tasks to children, they lap them up.  As regards the cake, weighing, measuring, judging the state of the mix takes (a modicum of) skill in a way that just pouring gloop into a loaf tin doesn’t.  Previously your oven, given the tricky task of actually cooking it, would have had a greater sense of ownership.

Of course, the option of just buying a cake is (and was) always open, but somehow that doesn’t carry with it the same expectation of being a stakeholder in its creation.  Ownership, sure.  But not stakeholdership, whereas buying old style cake mix gave you ownership but also a frustrating delay whilst you added effort but not a commensurate degree of finesse.

There’s probably a PhD in this, which is probably what somebody has done and I was reading about.

Whilst on the subject of human nature - and, as Harry Hill so correctly observed, you can tell a lot about a person’s character from what they’re like - I recently went to see the Tour de France as it raced across the flatlands of Cambridgeshire.  Me and, apparently, at least a million others.  On a Monday.  (And, yes, Cambridgeshire isn’t in France, but I’ve always liked the organisers’ seeming inability to do geography).

Two hours driving, two hours stood by a road watching out for red ants whilst being besieged by thunderflies, all for twenty seconds or so of racing.  It shouldn’t have worked, but, oddly, it did.


Something to do with being human in a large group of fellow humans sharing an expectation, sharing an experience.  Not a crowd of individuals, but a crowd that has magically become more than the sum of its parts.  Not just an ‘I was there’ but an ‘I was part of it’ moment.  Not quite religious, but definitely on that spectrum.

I’ve read one theory that, as Thatcher fractured society so completely, robbed of the sense of community that our predecessors would have got from, well, their community, we now seek out ‘gatherings’ and ‘events’ whether they be Glastonbury or sport to make up for it.  Maybe, maybe not.

And the relevance to science fiction? - other than the fact that waiting for the Tour as the several hundred support and sponsors’ vehicles zoomed past in the two hours prior reminded me of nothing more than the hicks standing at the roadside waiting for the lights in Close Encounters.

Well, sci-fi's read by people, humans, and as such it has to be relevant.  I don’t mean relevant as in Star Trek’s loosely disguised coverage of racial and sexual politics and other 1960s dilemmas.  I mean that as writers we have to populate our stories with humans who are recognisably human regardless of when and where our stories are set.  We're always writing for 21st century Earthlings, an audience who we're still finding out about, let alone our characters.

The lesson is, whether Dick’s paranoids or Douglas Adams pompous bumblers, none of them, absolutely none of them, should be advocates of early cake mix, but they should be happy to stand on a roadside for two hours for twenty seconds of 'I was there' humanity coming together.  No, doesn't make sense to me either...

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