Sturgeon’s Law

Theodore Sturgeon

Theodore Sturgeon

In a rare case of a favorite quote being by an actual human being and not an anime cat-girl or Wolverine, “Sturgeon’s Law” is named for science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon, who most modern geeks haven’t read because he didn’t write books about the New Jedi Order. The naming and content of Sturgeon’s Law are prime “Um, Actually” territory, but for our purposes the law is thus:

90% of everything is crap.

Sturgeon intended it to shut down condemnation of the science fiction literary genre in the 50s. Upset that critics were pointing to the absolute dregs of the offerings, Sturgeon was pointing out that every genre has a majority of garbage within it, and a small percentage that’s actually worthwhile. By focusing only on the crap, critics were unfairly targeting the quality material, which was both deceptive and unfair.

Sturgeon makes a good point, and his “law” is worth keeping in mind. In capable hands, Sturgeon’s Law is a reminder that there’s a lot of chaff in any area to sift through before you get to the wheat. But we’re not talking about capable hands, we’re talking about geeks. And geeks, naturally, have perverted Sturgeon’s Law.

Geeks invoke Sturgeon’s Law as an excuse, not a defense. When they use it, it’s usually in the context of someone pointing out the flaws of something the geek likes. “Yeah, this comic isn’t great,” the geek will say, knowing he’s going to continue buying and probably complaining about it, “but 90% of everything is crap.” In this context, instead of noting that one should seek out the rare good material, the geek is comforted by the fact that it’s okay for this thing to be junk because most stuff is. Instead of providing a sort of signpost to other, better material, the “crap” is somehow upgraded into “good enough”.

A shrug and Sturgeon’s Law suddenly becomes the opposite of what the author intended. “Yeah, whatever, it’s junk, but most stuff is, so that’s fine.” instead of, “Yeah, this isn’t very good. I’d really like to get to the better material.” It’s an excuse to continue being the sort of lazy, passive consumer most geeks are (and take pride in being.) Since limiting yourself only to genre offerings that are actually worthwhile takes effort and means you might not see Go-Bots vs. Sectaurs on opening night, better to simply recognize that there’s better stuff out there and hope it somehow eventually places itself in front of you.

(You can even take the extreme route, pioneered by nerd loves of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and The Room and declare that it’s the crap you want, but usually ignoring the logical conclusion that even if that’s the case, there’s still only at most 10% that’s going to be “worthwhile” crap, and once again just passively consuming whatever is offered.)

It lets them gorge themselves on garbage while at least pretending to have some level of quality control, so geeks LOVE Sturgeon’s Law!

2 Responses

  1. Sturgeon’s “More Than Human” was awesome.

    I always saw the quote rendered as a two clause “90% of SF is crap; however, this is because 90% of everything is crap” which made the response to the mainstreamers a little more obvious, but I don’t know the original text.

  2. Perhaps the problem is rooted in the geek’s mania for completion. 10% isn’t enough for them–they must have THE ALL OF IT.

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