Sturgeon's Law (90% of everything is crap) significantly understates the problem

No, it’s not because that percentage is higher than 90% (it’s impossible to calculate, though there is no doubt it’s high!). The law as commonly quoted implies that quality is the issue, whereas IMO quality and redundancy are both huge limiting factors on the degree to which we can enjoy new works. In fact, redundancy is likely the bigger problem, since the more quality works that are “out there,” the fewer that can be created.

My relevant posts on the issue:

Story saturation and fatigue: a new limit to pop culture? (6/1/2015)

Stories are hard, so movies are hard (to do well) (2/18/2015)

I think the latter post is especially applicable to this issue considering the big movie of the year: Star Wars Episode VII:

It’s a goddamn remake/reboot/rehash/retread of Episode IV! Even people who like the movie are not denying this.

They have all the money and talent in the world at their disposal, and they can’t come up with a really good story and an original villain. But new stories are hard to write. Redundancy is the great enemy.

In our day and age, we tend to be picky about originality. We are IP-anal: you can find articles online about all manner of supposed ripoffs of riffs, lyrics, melodies, and whatnot. Sometimes, those ripoffs are absolutely real (cough, Led Zeppelin, cough). Sometimes they are merely plausible, and sometimes they are BS.

But ripping off something from a bad work to use in a superior work may be an IP sin, but it doesn’t necessarily create bad art. For another Star Wars example, some accuse John Williams of ripping off a British TV theme for his Star Wars theme. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t, but the former is not very good and the latter is a masterpiece. Most of Shakespeare’s plays do not have original stories, but we do not fault him for that.

But once we have a quality work like Hamlet, that draws shadowy barriers that we may not cross, lest we be redundant. Redo the story of Hamlet? Better have a good excuse, do something really new. How about having the ghost of a murdered king implore his son to exact vengeance? Nope, that was effectively used in Hamlet. How about the image of pouring poison in the ear to murder someone? Probably not, unless we want our work to be compared to Hamlet. And so on. The plot, images, dialog, etc., become off-limits to us.

But avoiding redundancy requires us to do much, much more than merely avoid “ripping off” other artists. The much more difficult task is not ripping off ourselves. My friend and I have been listening to the music of the Rolling Stones, going through all their albums. The redundancy issue is big. Perhaps any band is allowed a crack at the historically redundant 12-bar blues. Heck, it’s practically the same melody every time. But should a band do 50 12-bar tunes? Can they call be good? Distinct? And that’s just the start of the redundancy problem when listening to the Stones’ oeuvre. There are lyrical redundancies, instrumentation redundancies, melodic redundancies, tonal redundancies, and so on. Yes, 90% of it is “crap,” but large portion of that crap is crap because it’s redundant.

Music, however, is one art form where it’s relatively easy to avoid redundancy. Relatively. In stories, it’s very hard indeed. In fact, the point of my story saturation thread is that we have pretty much run out of broad strokes stories and are now just repeating ourselves to lesser effect. Mad but badass villain who wants to take over the world? Chosen one? Quirky sidekicks? Loveable rogues that get the girl? Macguffins out the wazoo? Been there done that a zillion times.

It’s old. Tiresome. Worn out. And we’ve only had video entertainment for 120 years and novels for 230 or so. Nothing is going to make this stuff fresh in the millennia that lie ahead.

More and more as time proceeds, Sturgeon’s Law is going to be less “hey man, that sucks” and more “hey man, that shit was old a hundred years ago.”


“Four are the stories. During the time left to us we will continue telling them, transformed.” – Jorge Luis Borges exaggerated and handwaved things there to an absurd degree as he usually and brilliantly did, but the point is, a demand for originality of fundamental ideas may be futile. The point in art is if not originality then at least novelty in the expression of the same ideas . You tell the same old story in a fun, exciting new way, and you’ll be rewarded with sales (see: Avatar). Or you tell it in a way that “respects” and “evokes” the original and the fans will reward you with sales (see: Star Wars).

But what Sturgeon left unmentioned as bloody obvious, that in any case 90% of everything is destined to be gone and forgotten and lost to time and memory by next decade anyway. We have Hemingway’s works but what about hundreds of “dime novels” that were pumped out weekly by the pulp publishers? How about the myriad titles of Harlequin Romances? Not everything is meant to be an immortal original.

What’s sad is how many really good novels have fallen into obscurity. Robert W. Chambers and A.E.W. Mason: close to unheard-of today, but brilliant.

I think Aeschines has a point, but it was probably as true 2,000 years ago as it is today. “There is nothing new under the sun” – an observation some 2,700 years old!

The trick is to seek out those who are re-telling the perennial canon over again in a clever way. Patrick O’Brien hasn’t said all that much that C.S. Forester hadn’t already said, but he’s saying it in a new way. (New wine in an old skin? Old wine in a new skin? Either way, it’s new to me.)

(By the way, for Naval Adventures…skip Victor Suthren. Awful! The first of his “Mainwaring” books was one of the worst pieces of trash I’ve ever been exposed to.)

Sturgeon originally applied his law to sci-fi stories in the 1950s, a time of great originality and hope for the genre. So I don’t think it was particularly aimed at trash that wasn’t even attempting to be good.

Why do you think that is?

This is a way of dismissing the danger I describe that I encountered in the other threads. People may have felt that way 2,700 years ago, but they were wrong. The novel hadn’t been invented then, and a good Chosen One story would probably have seemed quite fresh to them. Heck, I think it could have seemed fresh 50 years ago. Today, no. I think we underestimate just how much pop culture has flooded our senses in just the past 50 years.

For example, how many color major motion picture space adventures had there been when Star Wars came out? You had Forbidden Planet (1956) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). That’s basically it! Throw in some outliers like Barbarella (1968), and you have at most a handful of movies. Star Wars is not even 40 years old, but there have been a near-infinity of space movies and TV shows since then.

You may be right…but I think the problem really is universal. We’re a social species, and we reinforce our standards, day by day. Everyone tells everyone else (to a degree) “what to think.”

Look at a number of “fairly good” movies, like “Van Helsing” or “John Carter” which people have made up their minds are “bad.” Look at the strong hatred formed for “The Hobbit” trilogy. We’re making up our minds as part of a social exercise, as part of our social instincts. Fashions come and go, and what’s hot today is old and tired tomorrow.

Some of the great writers of the past have simply not been kept up in the popular mind; they don’t have enough of a “cheering section” to survive in the competitive market.

Why is Kipling remembered but Talbot Mundy is all but unknown? Why did J.K. Rowling explode into a billion-dollar industry but Esther Friesner (a much better writer!) is so little known?

Social support, cheerleading, and “the grapevine.” It’s like how some American celebrities – Kardashians, e.g. – are famous just for being famous.

where’s yours, then?

Who’s this “we”? It does not seem to me that most people are particularly picky about originality. It should be obvious enough that many successful works are not particularly original. It should also be obvious that many people have little regard for intellectual property law – it’s easy enough to find not just unauthorized derivative works like fanfiction and fan videos online, but pirated copies of the original works themselves.

Finally, a work can be derivative but still avoid violating intellectual property law. The bestselling novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (soon to be a major motion picture) doesn’t just use Jane Austen’s setting and characters for a zombie story, it consists largely of Austen’s actual words. All the zombie stuff was added in by Seth Grahame-Smith, but lengthy passages are copied almost verbatim from Pride and Prejudice. There are even less creative alternate versions of Pride and Prejudice out there where a modern author has done nothing but add in some sex scenes. These, and countless other Austen sequels, prequels, and various other knockoffs, are all perfectly legal since Austen’s work is in the public domain.

Too late to edit, but 50 Shades of Grey may be an even better example of this. It’s one of the best-selling books of all time (according to Wikipedia it’s sold more copies than Gone With the Wind or To Kill a Mockingbird), and it originated as Twilight fanfiction. Twilight is a recent work that isn’t in the public domain, but this apparently didn’t hurt 50 Shades of Grey.

I’ve been following Galactic Journey, a very entertaining blog which reviews the science fiction digests from 55 years ago, for a couple of weeks now. Sturgeon was an optimist.

This video was posted in the SW:TFA thread, but is also applicable here, I think:

Star Wars Minus Star Wars

How about:

Destination: Moon(1950)
Robinson Crusoe on Mars(1964)
Dark Star(1974)

I’m sure there’s more I can’t think of.

The amazing thing is how much of that crap people will buy.

I started writing a reply and realized it was about the same as what I already posted to the previous topics.

When someone complains about a story not being original I want to ask what the last original story was. I’m still not sure what the answer is, or if one is even possible. It’s interesting seeing people learn something they thought of as original was actually heavily influenced by something from before they were born or never even heard of.

Everything is a Remix is a short vid that touches on this topic. Its basic point is that creatvity is less about flashes of insight and more about combining existing elements. Not only media like music and movies, but inventions and philosophy too.


Agreed again. Robert Sheckley is a great sci-fi writer worth reading today, but he seems to have been pretty much forgotten since the 70s at the latest. I discovered him by finding one of his paperbacks sitting on a shelf in a classroom in high school.

You are talking about a different issue, but I think it’s quite an important one. In addition to 90% of everything being crap, it is also very difficult for society to maintain in the collective mind and appreciation that which is already acknowledged to be good.

If we weren’t social, we wouldn’t have a “collective appreciation” in the first place. But we’re so social that we tend to elevate things above their worth because of their popularity itself. It’s tough to find that balance (and we’re not in control of it, anyway).

In my MIND, baby!

Fair points that made me think, thanks!

Let me put it another way. There is always a noisy subset of the population that will point out how something is derived from something else or uses parts of it. I think the new Star Wars movie is a good example of this. The overall, un-picky reaction to the film has been, “10/10 on IMDb, best Star Wers EVAH!!!”, but there are also a lot of 1/10 reviews up excoriating it for not having an original story.

A couple years ago, the shitteyyy “Blurred Lines” was the song of the summer. Most didn’t care that the beat was derivative of Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” (the beat was purposely imitated). But they got sued by Gaye’s estate anyway, even though it technically wasn’t a copyright violation.

If I were to write a new song and simply lift a catchy, iconic riff from another song without giving credit and paying to use it, I would catch both legal and critical hell for that. So we, as a species or culture or both, care about originality and IP in this way. Though yes, the vulgar masses typically don’t care or notice.

No doubt, and I even said that it could be good art even if it did.

Yeah, I also thought of Silent Running (which was said to perhaps influence the cute droids in Star Wars), but there weren’t a lot.

The point I was making wasn’t about originality–we all know that George derived Star Wars to a great extent from the cheesy serials of his youth. The point was that there was a huge unmet demand in 1977 for this type of film.

I don’t disagree with you, but I also don’t think your point counts against my argument. Rock ‘n’ roll was a remix of R&B, country, and other genres, but it sounded so fresh in the mid-50s when it appeared in large part because of where it appeared on the timeline of recorded music. I.e., the dawn of recorded music in the grand scheme of things. Less than a decade earlier, people had been listening to 78 rpm records on highly primitive sound systems. The remixing that then took place with rock as a base was thrilling in its own right: punk, New Wave, hip-hop. Then reactions against the reactions, like grunge, etc.

I infer you are taking the optimistic stance that we will go on remixing forever, and it will be great! I’m saying, nope. Everyone alive has lived through an anomalous period, the dawn of modern pop-culture, in which a lot of stuff is truly new. And in which a lot of the potential remixing has been front-loaded.

But lest my argument be misunderstood, I think what’s been taken is a lot of low-hanging fruit. There is always room for subtlety. The trouble is that the vulgar masses want the broad strokes, the big boom! And I am using “vulgar masses” ironically here: this mode of being is part of all of us to a greater or lesser degree. People have had such a hunger for the new Star Wars movie because they either remember when such a space adventure was new(ish) and mind-blowing, or they have experienced that thrill vicariously through their parents or the pop culture collective. I remember that too and would love to go back. The filmmakers took the cheap path of simply rehashing the broad strokes, and this is just 38 years onward from the original.

Time lies infinitely ahead of us. Are we just going to reboot Star Wars every 40 years for the next couple hundred years?

Apropos of this thread, I think, is this manifesto by Edward Meadham of Meadham Kirchhoff (whom I just learned about–I won’t pretend to know fashion well):

a manifesto for a modern fashion industry

Anyhow, apparently these guys are big. So for their collection in 2014, they enjoined us to “Reject everything!” So I bet this is going to be really new and original stuff, right? Really crayzee, right? See for yourself:

Annnnd… I think they totally failed. It looks like a 1980s parody of “modern fashion.” Or you could have worn anything in here to a New Wave/punk scene in the 80s (you know how in movies they would show those crazy clubs!!!), and people would probably nod admiringly or not really notice. But no one would be shocked.

It’s not original. It may reject everything, but it doesn’t reject the longstanding rejection of everything.

And thus we return to the issue of redundancy. We’ve had pretty much the same fashions with minor variations and several reduxes since the 1980s. Some parts and pieces, such as men’s suits and various women’s dresses could be worn nearly a 100 years ago, and vice versa. But clothing is a basic need, and we’ve settled upon some styles that “work.” I doubt things are really going to change very much over the next 50 years.