Or maybe I'm just seeing something that isn't there....
June 14, 2010 7:15 AM   Subscribe

So when did every starship start coming equipped with a synthesist, and why?

So a while back there was a discussion of what books make up the MeFi Cannon and the novel Blindsight by Peter Watts came up. I hadn't read it, and it sounded good, so I did a little sniffing around. OK, Siri is a synthesist. And back in the day, didn't Alfred Bester write a book about a synthesist? And I vaguely recall the synthesist thing being bandied about in one or two other SF novels.

So where does science fiction's love of the synthesist thought style come from? Have I just stumbled upon a few books with this plot point or is this a significant meme?

Also, according to The Art of Thinking, I'm a synthesist (and probably the last person any government bureaucracy wants to deal with). Why the disconnect between the fiction and the reality?
posted by Kid Charlemagne to Society & Culture (3 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I've run across a few novels with something similar — think Brunner's Polymath. "Synthesist" has some science-fiction appeal because, hey, futuristic job which does not exist here and now, but other considerations exist.

The disconnect probably arises from the massive amount of specialization in society, particularly in production and the sciences. Other people manage, but their management is about task delegation, people herding, and project midwifing; it rarely seems to focus on reaching across many disciplines. Right down to the industrially-loved Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, we separate people into the "focuses on the little things" group and the "big picture, fuzzy on the details" group — we do not have a "can assemble something new and large from knowing tiny details resulting in new insights" group. This goes doubly for industrial work or the military.

Remember that Heinlein bit, "A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet ..." We see little of this in society now. I had a professor whose career was mostly made on the second excited state of the He-3 atom, which is quite counterintuitive given the scientific urgetowards a sort of intellectual parsimony, to wave the hand and say, "It is all one thing, really."

Going back to the original point, aside from a little ubermenchery, the synthesist's purpose in a literary sense is to narrate a bit from the outside (they must practice the two obs: objectivity and observation) and they can also simultaneously provide the resolution or otherwise fit everything together. As long as you aren't working a straight space opera angle, a lot of science-fiction involves either paradigm shifts or mysteries: the new age of humanity dawns as teachable telepathy is developed, a wild technology is born, the aliens are understood, the mystery of the artifacts solved, the missing stitch in the unwinding of the planetary ecosystem spotted.

Rather than a deus ex machina lowered to the stage, sent to untangle a complicated plot, these human Swiss Army knives cut through our knotted misunderstandings.
posted by adipocere at 7:41 AM on June 14, 2010 [6 favorites]

Heinlein's "Beyond This Horizon" has a major character who is an encyclopedic synthesist, and another who wanted to be one but couldn't because he didn't have an eidetic memory. I think that's what you're remembering. I don't recall Bester ever writing about such a thing.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:57 AM on June 14, 2010

Response by poster: I think the Bester book I am thinking of is The Deceivers but it has probably been fifteen years sice I read it, so don't quote me on that.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:39 AM on June 14, 2010

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