Is Nothing Always Absolutely So?

By John Hertz: (reprinted from Vanamonde 1334)  The s-f community knows Sturgeon’s Retort “90% of everything is [worthless]” (he’d been told “90% of s-f is [worthless]”).  William Tenn reported hearing it from Theodore Sturgeon in 1951.

I’ve mentioned the 80% – 20% proportion found so widely by Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923); Kipling had it yet earlier (“Four-fifths of everybody’s work must be bad.  But the remnant is worth the trouble for its own sake,” The Light That Failed ch. 7, 1890).  Sturgeon was fairly well-read; I don’t remember his ever mentioning Pareto, or Kipling on this point; I’m sorry I never mentioned it to him.

Sturgeon’s Real Law as formulated “Nothing is always absolutely so” (“The Claustrophile”, Galaxy Aug 56) invites two jests, if I may call them that.

First, it’s a kind of pseudomenon (like “Does ‘Rules get exceptions’ get exceptions?”) – is it always absolutely so?  But this is actually what Heinlein’s characters in “Gulf” (1949) call a grammatical error (“Paradoxes are verbal, do not exist in the real world”).  Russell and Tarski showed that even the ultimate pseudomenon “‘Yields a falsehood when appended to its own quotation’ yields a falsehood when appended to its own quotation” falls when subjected to better grammar: it should be “‘Yields a falsehood-0 when appended to its own quotation’ yields a falsehood-1 when appended to its own quotation” whereupon it is plainly seen to be false-2 (see e.g. W. Quine, The Ways of Paradox rev. 1976, pp. 7-8).

Second, it’s a wonderful Taoist pun.  To a Taoist “Nothing is always absolutely so” taking nothing in the sense of the Tao Têh Ching (“the formless form, the immaterial image” ch. 14, “here before Heaven and Earth … dwells apart and never varies” ch. 25, “not conferred but always so” ch. 51).  This is so Sturgeonesque I’m really sorry I never mentioned it to him.  Of course a Confucian would say “That’s right, you should take nothing in the sense of the Tao Têh Ching.”


Since a well-known fan, who is still my friend, once called me “an earnest man in a propeller beanie”, two notes.  When I misspelled the fannish missspelling “poctsarcd” (see H. Warner, Jr., A Wealth of Fable rev. 1992, pp. 163-64; or here) as poctsacrd, Jack Speer promptly replied “Nothing is sacrd.”  And this.

One thought on “Is Nothing Always Absolutely So?

  1. When I worked on a “Practical Dialogue System” at the University of Washington about ten years ago, I realized that some input sentences (like “this statement is false”) would result in a stack overflow. The easiest way to handle that was to limit recursion and throw a grammar exception if the limit were reached. I thought about that scene in “Gulf” at that point, although I’ll confess I didn’t remember which story it was from.

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