BIG DUMB OBJECTS
   An unfailingly popular theme in sf is the discovery, usually by humans, of vast enigmatic objects in space or on other planets. These have normally been built by a mysterious, now-disappeared race of ALIEN intellectual giants, and humans can only guess at their purpose, though the very fact of being confronted by such artefacts regularly modifies or confounds their mental programming and brings them that much closer to a CONCEPTUAL BREAKTHROUGH into a more transcendent state of intellectual awareness (see also SENSE OF WONDER).The enormous constructs described in the titles and contents of Larry NIVEN's RINGWORLD (1970) and Bob SHAW's Orbitsville (1975) are typical: artificial biospheres orbiting alien suns (Shaw's is a DYSON SPHERE) and having a surface area millions of times that of Earth. Not so big but every bit as enigmatic is the derelict SPACESHIP Rama, a still-functioning technological artefact hugely in advance of anything we could build, in Arthur C. CLARKE's RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA (1973). More recently Greg BEAR topped this with another space habitat, bigger on the inside than the outside, one section of which is infinite in extent, projecting through time as well as space, in EON (1985) and Eternity (1988); exhausted by the sheer problems of scale he paused in the hiatus between these books to write The Forge of God (1987) in which we are visited by alien spacecraft modestly disguised as very small mountains.John VARLEY's Gaean trilogy - Titan (1979), Wizard (1980) and Demon (1984) - is also set in a space habitat, this one as large as a medium-sized moon, containing a whole set of lesser, but still biggish, dumb objects within, including the convenient staircases attached to its 600km (375-mile) spokes and at one point a 15m (50ft) Marilyn Monroe. The habitat is owned by, and in effect is an extension of the body of, a "goddess", Gaea, herself a construct (makers unknown) but sentient (GODS AND DEMONS). This makes her a LIVING WORLD and hence not truly dumb. Self-awareness in BDOs, Varley correctly calculated, was the next logical step.BDOs go back a long way in the history of written sf: the sun and planets within the Earth in Ludvig HOLBERG's Nicolai Klimii iter Subterraneum (1741 in Latin; trans as A Journey to the World Under-Ground by Nicolas Klimius, 1742), not actually artificial but still awesome, are proto-BDOs.BDOs have proved surprisingly difficult to create in film. The difficulty is one of scale: the screen itself is not huge, so tiny humans have to be superimposed on BDOs in order to create the apparent enormity through contrast. Surprisingly, given the expertise of special-effects crews through the 1980s and the nearly universal use of the wide-screen format, one of the very best BDOs preceded all this (in a smaller format) by decades. This was the enigmatic machinery of the Krel in FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956), extending in a perspective to the vanishing point.BDOs can also be plural in nature, and not restricted to orbiting a solitary star. There are many of these, a good example, demonstrating the recent popularity of grand-scale sentience, being "the swarm of the ten thousand moon-brains of the Solid State Entity" in David ZINDELL's Neverness (1988). (Many BDOs, as here, have been built by quasi-gods.) Charles SHEFFIELD's dubious strategy in Summertide: Book One of the Heritage Universe (1990), whose title gives fair warning, is to have 1200 or so gigantic artefacts scattered through our spiral arm of the Galaxy, necessitating a number of quotes from the "Lang Universal Artifact Catalog Fourth Edition". This comes close to BDO self-parody. To be fair, Sheffield concentrates on only one, a mildly spectacular bridge connecting the two worlds of a double-planet system.The most endearing aspect of BDO stories is the disjunction between the gigantic scale of the BDO and the comparatively trite fictional events taking place on, in or about it. The sf imagination usually, if charmingly, falls short at this point, and many BDOs become backdrops for soap operas. For all that, they retain an archetypal power, no matter what crudenesses they may encompass. Sf's much vaunted SENSE OF WONDER is seldom more potently evoked than in a good BDO story. The mystery, only to be explained by a new Carl Gustav Jung, is why, even when these tales are awash with a bathetic failure to live up to their own heroic ambitions, they nearly always work.The BDO story has certainly become a new subgenre within sf, its parameters already clearly defined. Newspaper critics of sf, in the face of the stupendous, have shown a shameful failure of creativity in not having found an adequate neologism to describe the BDO genre in a single, terse word. It is not wholly certain which critic first used the phrase "Big Dumb Object" to describe the subject of these tales - it may have been Roz KAVENEY in "Science Fiction in the 1970s" in FOUNDATION \#22, 1981 - but the term is now commonplace in describing megalotropic sf.
   PN

Science Fiction and Fantasy Encyclopedia. . 2011.

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