Another Word: A Flock of Crows in a Swan Suit
rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno
Modern Translation: Whelp, I sure didn’t see that coming.
Recently at a convention, my friend Paul di Filippo moderated a panel where he asked several of us about writing near-future science fiction. Paul invoked Charles Stross’ World building 404: The unknown unknowns regarding worldbuilding, especially in near-future science fiction. For a few moments, the panel talked about known-unknowns and unknown-unknowns in fiction, both of which Charlie addresses. And then, moments later, discussion turned to “black swan” events—Charlie never called them by that name—which is a term used by many people in different fields to describe unexpected, and highly-impactful low-probability events.
While the Roman poet Juvenal spoke of black swans in his Satires (early 2nd century, AD), calling something “as rare upon the earth as a black swan,” the term was codified for the modern era by the randomness and probability scholar Nassim Taleb.
In his highly respected 2007 book Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Taleb declared many things to be impossible to predict—from runaway hit books to Wall Street crashes—both in terms of timing and in terms of impact. And as such, these kinds of events are intriguing, even tantalizing for a number of professions, from the military and intelligence sectors, to writers of numerous genres, including science fiction.
Here’s why some in the military and intelligence fields love black swans: they keep the job high-risk, hot-wired, and the professionals themselves relevant—at least for the postgame. As a good friend says, “people love responding to crisis far more than they like anticipating and preventing crisis.”
Here’s why science fiction writers sometimes love black swans: they allow for massive plot shifts, sudden upheavals, and many characters in crisis. The moon-situation in Seveneves could be interpreted as a black swan plot device. Failure to prepare for or respond quickly after a black swan event can be the kickoff for an entire media empire, as seen in The Stand.
In the way that no one ever expects the Spanish Inquisition, and no one ever thought black swans could exist in the wild, these events and plot items and the swans themselves do exist, we just weren’t looking for them. Or if we were, we figured they weren’t central to the worldview we were selling.
This has ramifications in all sorts of fields, including writing.
The original black swans—the birds themselves—weren’t known-unknowns or unknown-unknowns, they were moments in time where we’d developed an inability to look for something; where we were technologically limited in what we could see; or where we’d decided not to see, because we’d assumed a different premise was true. Some call this a failure of imagination. Some call it hubris.
On occasion, I like to call it a pile of crows dressed up in a swan suit.
Why crows? Because while they’re not hard to see, crows are so quotidian that they often go unseen, until they accumulate into something more dramatic. The collective nouns for crows are multiple themselves: most well known is “murder,” but “horde” and “wake” also apply. As such, a group of crows can be loud and unruly, and they can disappear just about anything they put their minds to (even a body). But from a distance, what they look like is a single dark entity. And the reverse is also true—a single dark entity (for instance, a black swan) can sometimes be revealed to be composed of smaller things.
Because in this highly technical world, as black swan events become cited more frequently (making them as a species even more statistically probable, right?) what we are often not seeing is small errors cascading into big ones. The funny two-digit dating-standard some programmer deployed to save a few keystrokes, or some program memory. The line of code that no one really understood but hey, Bob wrote the original and Bob was a really good guy so we’re leaving it. The dump-cache that accidentally never clears, which is then discovered by hackers.
Each of these items is an error, whether small or large. A black mark, a crow. A pile of them together, cascading over time—left untended by a series of burned-out coders in dead-end jobs with managers urging them to produce widgets faster and better—can look like a swan. But it’s not.
In fiction, as in life, while the appearance of one crow may not be statistically significant, the arrival of many crows begins to have a weighty effect. And the process of that influx, especially when built as a subtle reward for astute readers, can create a powerful sense of suspense and mystery. Will people see the signs in time? Will they respond?
Moreover, the crows-in-a-swan-suit analogy underscores another important issue: accumulation. Often, errors are made by different people at different times, often with differing motivations. Sometimes, they only become events when they accumulate, compound, and combine to create a dangerous situation.
Crows represent those multiple potentials accumulating, unnoticed, except occasionally by the astute reader, until such time as they emerge fully formed in their swan suit. In these instances, a writer is freed from the problem of the too-stupid-to-live protagonist who didn’t notice the one thing that could have saved everyone, because not many people notice small errors.
I’d add something to the worldbuilding kit, and something to the idea of a black swan, which is this: keep an eye out for crows.
A great, upcoming, example of this can be found in Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers, out this summer from Penguin Random House. For some in the book, the kickoff event does feel like an unknown-unknown, but Wendig does an amazing job showing both the accumulation of errors small and large and the societal cost to those who try to fix small problems before they become big ones.
In reality, errors such as a weak line of code or a missing cache-delete may be initially too statistically small to notice. People have been educated to focus on the big, known quantities—on the white swans, for instance. And the hard truth often faced in real life, is that it is very costly to chase down all the small errors in case they may cause a bigger one—especially when done properly, an exhaustive investigative effort keeps a large, catastrophic event from happening. Many then question the nature of the actual emergency, and whether prevention was needed in the first place.
So, there’s a strange societal reward built into reality for allowing small problems to accumulate—progress is happening—don’t sweat the small stuff! And there’s not much of a reward for chasing down those errors until too many gather. At that point, a fix is much harder—and much more heroism is required.
But the “I didn’t see that coming” caveat applies, especially in fiction—when a narrative misses obvious errors accumulating and grabs for a black swan event instead, the risk is flipped. Black swans can feel too sudden, too overwhelmingly impossible, without at least a few feathers appearing earlier in the plot.
For writers especially, it is well worth considering that increasingly often, some black swan events—while being impossible to predict in timing and impact—are visible in the wild when you understand that they can be made up of lots of smaller errors.
It’s the awareness of the small errors, rather than the plot-twist level appearance of a black swan (or ninjas, a rogue moon explosion, any Inquisition, your choices are vast) which can and should be a part of your worldbuilding practice.
Those things that go unobserved? Find them and use them. They just may add up to a satisfying conclusion in a much different way than the sudden appearance of a swan, where the swan always was.