On Gollum sinking into lava

Wired had this interesting article which states:

Gollum, if you remember, dove into the lava of Mount Doom after his precious ring was thrown in — he proceeds to sink into the lava (see below) and leaves the ring floating on the lava until it melts away. Guess what? Sinking into lava just will not happen if you’re a human (or remotely human). You’d need to be a Terminator to sink into molten rock/metal …

On a discussion of the article on some other site, author John Scalzi wrote:

In a film with spiders of physically impossible size, talking trees, ugly warriors birthed out of mud and a disembodied malevolence causing a ring to corrupt the mind of anyone who wears it (and also turn them invisible), we’re going to complain that the lava is not viscous enough?

I can understand Scalzi’s point, but I disagree with his argument that one shouldn’t complain about the physics of Middle Earth lava just because one has accepted the existence of fantastical Middle Earth creatures.

I agree with Scalzi when he writes:

… you should consider the work in its totality and ask whether in the context of the work, this specific thing is inconsistent with the worldbuilding.

I’d also add (though it should be obvious) that this will be a subjective issue. Some people can more easily suspend their disbelief about certain things than others. If your area of expertise includes lava, lava falsehoods will stand out to you more than talking trees (and Ents are not trees, by the way).

Personally, the lava issue doesn’t bother me, but I’ve never seen a living creature fall into lava before. And it’s not something I ever really want to see. But if I did see such a thing, aside from being scarred and depressed for the rest of my sad sorry life, I can understand why Gollum’s death goop might stop working for me, even while I accept all the other magic of Middle Earth. There’s nothing in the story that signifies that the lava should behave in any other way than it does here on earth. Similarly, gravity behaves the same way, temperature behaves the same way, elf and hobbit and wizard emotions behave the same way. So it’s not like we assume that everything is so different that we have to just accept everything that comes our way.

Imagine if Gollum had bounced on the lava as if it were a trampoline. Who would accept that? Would me saying “hey, you accepted talking trees!” make you change your mind? I doubt it. You expect the lava to behave a certain way in the context of the story.

I would say that most audiences accept the physics of Gollum’s death because that is exactly how most of us imagine falling into lava should look, because most of us haven’t witnessed creatures falling into lava before. When we watch videos of rivers of lava pouring down the side of a volcano, it looks as viscous as it does in Gollum’s death scene. So our acceptance of the physics of Gollum’s death is based on our own lava-physics ignorance, not on our consideration of our own acceptance of the wizards and talking trees and giant spiders that preceded it. This lava-physics ignorance is also what makes the Wired article interesting at all in the first place (at least to me). It’s fun and educational!

Also, I think we could argue that as the lava liquefies Gollum’s innards, because the ring of power has turned him into the ugly gross unnatural goblin-like creature he is, his unnatural innards would liquefy in such a way that they mix in the lava in such a way that what we see in the movie makes perfect sense. That is, the Wired article may be right about the physics of the lava, but it hath no knowledge about the physics of melting Gollum guts, which might become extremely dense at high temperatures. (Sure, why not?)  Or perhaps his skin vaporizes easily at lava temperatures, and lava pours into muscles and bones.  He’s not really sinking; he’s being pulled down by the flow of the lava.  Why didn’t Tolkien specify these sorts of things?  He could’ve had an entire section of the appendix for this!

Why In Fact Publishing Will Not Go Away Anytime Soon: A Play in One Act


ELTON P. STRAÜMANN, a modern-thinking man with exciting ideas
SEAN, a humble wannabe writer

Act I


STRAÜMANN: Do you want to buy this self-published book?


STRAÜMANN: Obama is awesome.


John Scalzi wrote a longer version on his blog that goes into a bit more detail on the subject, but really I think it just comes down to marketing, and the whole business of that.  A catchy professional-looking cover is part of marketing.  Potential readers have to expect that your book will be well-edited.  And having bookstore shelf-space is pretty huge.

Scalzi seems to miss one thing (which is not to say he doesn’t believe it; I just didn’t notice him mentioning it): a self-published book is NOT automatically worse than a professionally published one.

That said, from my few observations, self-published books definitely TEND to be of lower quality.  The few self-published books I’ve looked at have been so unspeakably awful that I’ve lost most faith in them.  I’m not very likely to buy one.  Ever.  At least if things stay as they are in terms of quality.  See this older post.

That said, I do think there are unpublished writers out there somewhere who’s works of fiction I would enjoy immensely; I do not believe publishers and editors are the almighty gods of determining what writing is good and bad.  I am that god.

So what self-publishers really need if they want to prove Scalzi wrong (though the character Scalzi created would never be so adept) is to 1) actually polish their writing (I think editors are a huge help, but not the end all be all, and certainly NOT the reason publishing will not die soon) and 2) market better.  Now, how exactly one “markets better” is a huge subject, and not one that I claim to have much of a clue about.  However, starting a Twitter following campaign is probably not the way to go.  If you are dumb enough to market like that, then of course your writing must be garbage.  (As in many arts, it’s a lot easier to recognize what not to do.)

It would be nice if there was a way for self-published books that aren’t garbage to get noticed more easily.  I’m sure there are some people out there working on this problem, perhaps through blogs or sites that review self-published stuff, or at least track sales.  And there’s the whole book-podcasting thing.

But can self-publishers ever market with the power of the big publishers?  I don’t see how, unless they just overwhelm the market with quality content, which I can’t see happening.  The big publishers have the money to market.  If your self-published book does well and a publisher becomes interested in your material, you’d have to be a complete idiot to refuse… and though you’d benefit from that, you’re also making them stronger.  Not that that’s bad.

All this talk kind of makes me want to be a publisher… but I can’t really afford such a gamble right now.

The only other thing that remains to be seen is the effect of book piracy.  When publishers aren’t making money, will that even the playing field?  Will there be enough pirates to do that?  How popular will ebook readers become?  I still think ebook readers and ebooks are a bit of a rip-off, so I don’t see myself switching any time soon.  I can’t predict the future very well (I thought the iPhone sounded like a dumb idea… (so does the iPad for that matter…) but I was right about blu-rays winning the high-def format war) but if a lot people think like me, ebooks and ebook readers will either have to become drastically cheaper, or remain about as popular as they are now, which doesn’t seem very (though enough that publishers are continuing to pursue it).  But… who can know?

A rather lengthy aside: if ebooks do become much more popular, I have a very very tough time believing publishers and distributors wouldn’t have to change their business models drastically.  If I were a published author, and the publisher and distributor were no longer dealing with a bunch of physical inventory, then their roles would be completely different.  I’m not even sure why I should need the distributor at all if all they’re doing is hosting digital files, besides to make my book easier to find.  But shelf space becomes infinite.  And certainly the publisher shouldn’t need as much $$$$ if they don’t have to deal with paper.  Look at this recent fight between Macmillan and Amazon regarding ebook prices.  Macmillan wants to charge $15 for some ebooks?  What morons out there are buying ebooks for that price?  (I shudder to think.)  I have to side with Amazon on the issue… but even $9.99 is too much… what in the world are publishers thinking?! I guess they just don’t how to work this business yet and are trying to be safe… and rip people off while they can… (Or are they trying to counter ebook piracy losses early on?  And punish the legitimate buyers?  Nah…)

Another aside, as I browse Scalzi’s blog… Scalzi wrote about the Amazon vs. Macmillan and wrote a post about supporting authors.  I guess I might seem cold-hearted, but… NO.  Ever hear the phrase “don’t quit your day job”?  Yeah, well… Not that I think stealing is the way to go, but when I buy a book, it’s a trade for my benefit, not the author’s.  If you [authors] want more $$$$, maybe find a way to cut out the middle men with all this new technology?  Oh, but no, you don’t want that… well don’t go whining about financial troubles to me then.  (Not that Scalzi is really whining, I’m just being dramatic.)  If Amazon’s move was against authors (as Scalzi seems to claim), it was also for readers.  So are the authors against readers?! What do authors think about Macmillan’s pricing?  If they think $15 for an ebook is OK, then I’m not sure I want to read their books because they obviously don’t mind being published by a company who would like to rip-off customers.  Thanks!  Don’t ask us, the audience, to do something about it.  You do something about it.  You’re the ones getting paid.

OK, I digress…

Anyway, to sum up my point, publishers won’t go away anytime soon simply because most people who buy books buy them from professional publishers.  That’s really all it comes down to.

Now you must admit that my play is better than Scalzi’s, right?