Better learning through sci-fi

I am reading "Lord of Light," a science-fiction book by Roger Zelazny. It's about a planet where the human inhabitants live in a primitive culture that is ruled by a pantheon of Hindu "gods" who are really people with incredibly advanced technology. In the book, one of the main god characters, Sam, speaks to a group of followers about the nature and limitations of words, the naming of things, and how words relate to the things they name. Here's a longish, but interesting, excerpt:

Names are not important. To speak is to name names, but to speak is not important. A thing happens once that has never happened before. Seeing it, a man looks upon reality. He cannot tell others what he has seen. Others wish to know, however, so they question him saying, 'What is it like, this thing you have seen?' So he tries to tell them. Perhaps he has seen the very first fire in the world. He tells them, 'It is red, like a poppy, but through it dance other colors. It has no form, like water, flowing everywhere. It is warm, like the sun of summer, only warmer. It exists for a time upon a piece of wood, and then the wood is gone, as though it were eaten, leaving behind that which is black and can be sifted like sand. When the wood is gone, it too is gone.' Therefore, the hearers must think reality is like a poppy, like water, like the sun, like that which eats and excretes. They think it is like to anything that they are told it is like by the man who has known it. But they have not looked upon fire. They cannot really know it. They can only know of it. But fire comes again into the world, many times. More men look upon fire. After a time, fire is as common as grass and clouds and the air they breathe. They see that, while it is like a poppy, it is not a poppy, while it is like water, it is not water, while it is like the sun, it is not the sun, and while it is like that which eats and passes wastes, it is not that which eats and passes wastes, but something different from each of these apart or all of these together. So they look upon this new thing and they make a new word to call it. They call it 'fire.'

If they come upon one who still has not seen it and they speak to him of fire, he does not know what they mean. So they, in turn, fall back upon telling him what fire is like. As they do so, they know from their own experience that what they are telling him is not the truth, but only a part of it. They know that this man will never know reality from their words, though all the words in the world are theirs to use. He must look upon the fire, smell of it, warm his hands by it, stare into its heart, or remain forever ignorant. Therefore, 'fire' does not matter, 'earth' and 'air' and 'water' do not matter. 'I' do not matter. No word matters. But man forgets reality and remembers words. The more words he remembers, the cleverer do his fellows esteem him. He looks upon the great transformations of the world, but he does not see them as they were seen when man looked upon reality for the first time. Their names come to his lips and he smiles as he tastes them, thinking he knows them in the naming. The thing that has never happened before is still happening. It is still a miracle. The great burning blossom squats, flowing, upon the limb of the world, excreting the ash of the world, and being none of these things I have named and at the same time all of them, and this is reality — the Nameless.

I don't agree that words don't matter, because being able to describe reality, even in the abstract, is important. But experiencing the world is important too, because it gives meaning to the words.

This is an important idea when talking about writing, both in newspapers and other places. One writing cliche is "Show, don't tell." It's much better to give details that tell the story, rather than just describing things.

The New York Times' Dexter Filkins, who is one of my favorite reporters, is a master of this. One example was cited in last week's "After Deadline" NYT critique:

Dexter Filkins demonstrated the power of showing, not telling, to make a point, ending his story about U.S. military efforts against opium in Afghanistan with this sharp vignette (Foreign, 4/29):

But the trickiest thing will be winning over the Afghans themselves. The Taliban are entrenched in the villages and river valleys of southern Afghanistan. The locals, caught between the foes, seem, at best, to be waiting to see who prevails.

On their way to Zangabad, the soldiers stopped in a wheat field to talk to a local farmer. His name was Ahmetullah. The Americans spoke through a Pashto interpreter.

“I’m very happy to see you,’’ the farmer told the Americans.

“Really?’’ one of the soldiers asked.

“Yes,’’ the farmer said.

The interpreter sighed, and spoke in English.

“He’s a liar.’’