Tag Archives: Fiction

Science Fiction Is Fantasy

Why do people like fantasy novels? One obvious explanation is that “magic” relaxes the usual constraints on the stories one can tell. Story-tellers can either use this freedom to explore a wider range of possible worlds, and so feed reader hungers for variety and strangeness, or they can focus repeatedly on particular story settings that seem ideal places for telling engaging stories, settings that are just not feasible without magic.

It is widely acknowledged that science fiction is by far the closest literary genre to fantasy. One plausible explanation for this is that future technology serves the same function in science fiction that magic serves in fantasy: it can be an “anything goes” sauce to escape the usual story constraints. So future tech can either let story tellers explore a wider space of strangeness, or return repeatedly to settings that feel particularly attractive, and are infeasible without future tech.

Of course it might be that some readers actually care about the real future, and want to hear stories set in that real future. But the overwhelming levels of implausible unrealism I find in almost all science fiction (and fantasy) suggest that this is a negligible fraction of readers, a faction writers rarely specialize in targeting. Oh writers will try to add a gloss of realism to the extent that it doesn’t cost them much in terms of other key story criteria. But when there are conflicts, other criteria win.

My forthcoming book The Age of Em, tries to describe a realistic future setting in great detail. I expect some of those who use science fiction in order to consume strange variety will enjoy the strangeness of my scenario, at least if they can get over the fact that it doesn’t come packaged with plot and characters. But they are unlikely to want to return to that setting repeatedly, as it just can’t compete with places designed to be especially compelling for stories. My setting is designed to be realistic, and I’ll just have to see how many readers I can attract to that unusual feature.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: ,

Industry-Era Action Stories

This semester I teach graduate industrial organization. And while preparing, it occurred to me that if our stories adapted fast to our changing world, many and perhaps most action stories today would be about industrial organization, i.e., about firms competing over industries. The fact that most action stories today are not about this is a sad commentary on how slowly our stories adapt to our world. Let me explain.

Action stories are about conflict; people fight over big things at stake. Stories about one-on-one physical fights or chases come come from deep in our animal background. Related stories have conflicts within a couple who might mate. Similar stories about physical fights, chases, or love polygons among small groups come from nearly as far back. An animal fight story can have one animal notice and then run from another, with a climactic battle where one animal wins and the other goes away.

While such stories can happen for most any animal, it takes humans to have stories where tools are used to fight, hide, or chase. And it takes humans to have language to coordinates acts, to share info, and to deceive. And also to have social norms drive the coalition politics fights. Stories about humans can have villains deceiving others about their social norms violations, while good people use language and tools to coordinate to uncover and oppose villain crimes. Most crime and superhero stories fit well here.

Farmers told stories with all these same forager elements. But farmers also added new elements, such as overt inequality and classes, and stable locations, property and trade. Farmers also had larger social groups like clans, towns, and empires, and powerful moralizing gods. Farmer action stories often have wars, wherein large groups identified by their towns or clans, and led by elites, violently attack the known property, places, or elites of other large groups, with the just side often supported by moralizing gods.

The world of industry has also added new elements to our world, such as ideology, schools, firms, cities, fast travel and communication, and complex machine tools. And the stories we tell during the industry era certain do often include many of these new elements. But the core conflicts in our stories haven’t changed that much; we still love chases, fights, villains, and wars. Yet the core conflicts in our world have changed.

The world of animals was greatly shaped by chases and fights. But even though most of us are rarely involved in such things, we still love chase and fight stories. The world of foragers was greatly shaped by efforts to identify and oppose villains. But even though most of us rarely do that, we love crime and superhero stories. The world of farmers was greatly shaped by wars, and we still love war stories, even though wars happen and matter a lot less now.

Today the big fights that most shape our world are not the fights that dominate our action stories: fist fights, catching criminals, and wars between nations. While those mattered greatly in past eras, the fights that matter most today are arguably fights between firms over industries. The products and services we see, the cities where we congregate, and the people who are rich, are determined much more by which firms tried what in their battles to win customer allegiance.

Thus fights between firms are the great fight stories of today, in the sense of the being the large scale fights that most shape our world. And while during past eras the main stories told during those eras adapted to be about the main fights that shaped those eras, during out industry era we have not yet adapted industry-era stories to be about industry-era fights.

Few novels or movies tell the story of firms struggling to win customers. Sometimes we like stories of heroic inventors, but we usually suppress the group nature of their efforts. For example, recent movies on Alan Turing and Steve Jobs make it seem like those individuals did most of the work, ignoring the large teams that supported them.

If colleges taught courses detailing the methods of war, many young men would eagerly take them, and be quite engaged. But when we instead teach courses on industrial organization, i.e., on the many ways in which firms compete for customers, far fewer students take them, and their interest is more muted. Industry-era tastes for stories have not caught up with the industry-era reality that today these are the great conflicts that shape our world.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: , ,

Forged By Status

To encourage people to associate with us, we want to seem principled, with a stable permanent nature. We want this nature to seem attractive and to fit with our community’s social norms, we want it to be associated with high status, and we want it to fit our personal situation and preferences. However, community norms and status rankings often change, and we often participate in overlapping communities with different norms. So we need to be able to change our nature and norms, to adapt to changing conditions. Yet we also want such changes to feel authentic, and not consciously or overtly done just to accommodate neighbors. How can we accomplish all these goals at once?

One simple strategy is to have a stable personality, but to sometimes let impressive high status people move us to change that personality. When we hear someone express an opinion, directly or indirectly, we evaluate that person and their expression for impressiveness and status. The higher our evaluation, the more receptive we let ourselves be to the emotions they express, and the more plastic we become at that moment to changing our “permanent” nature in response.

In this way we can limit our changes, yet still track changing norms and status. We become like metal that is forged by heat; we usually have a solid reliable shape, but we let ourselves be reshaped by the rare heat of great impressiveness. Some recent evidence suggests that we in fact do this:

In one experiment, … psychologists … randomly assigned participants to one of two groups: one whose members read .. [a] short story centered on marital infidelity, and another whose members read a “nonfictionalized” version of the story, written in the form of a report from a divorce court. The nonfiction text was the same length and offered the same ease of reading. … It contained the same information, including some of the same dialogue. (Notably, though readers of this text deemed it less artistic … they found it just as interesting.)

Before they started reading, each participant took a standard test of the so-called big five personality traits. …. Then, after … were again given the personality test. … The personality scores of those who read the nonfiction text remained much the same. But the personality scores of those who read the … story fluctuated. The changes were not large but they were statistically significant, and they were correlated with the intensity of emotions people experienced as they read the story. …

Another experiment … asked participants to read one of eight short stories or one of eight essays. Essays … average length, ease of reading and interest to readers were the same as those of the stories. … We had expected that people who read a piece of fiction would experience the greatest fluctuation in their personality scores, but we didn’t find this. The genre of the text — fiction or nonfiction — didn’t matter much; what mattered was the degree of perceived artistry. Those who read a story or essay that they judged to be artistic changed their personality scores significantly more than did those who judged what they read to be less artistic. (more)

Fluctuations in personality comparable to those that occurred in reading artistic literature have been found when people listened to music (Djikic, 2011) and looked at pieces of visual art (Djikic, Oatley, & Peterson, 2012). These results support the hypothesis that literature shares with other arts an effect of introducing a perturbation to personality, which can sometimes be a precursor to a more permanent personality change. (more)

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: , , , , ,

Relishing Inequality

As we’ve become richer, we have moved from farmer toward forager values. This has made us more egalitarian – we are more averse to inequality and domination, and more uncomfortable when people brag, give orders, or act overtly as if some people are much better than others.

On the surface, our stories tend to affirm our social norms. Villains are often greedy disagreeable unstable illicit dominators, while the heroes who oppose them are often modest, agreeable, and capable, but not assertive or aggressive.

However, not all is as it seems on the surface. For example, we are far more interested in seeing drama or action shows centering on theses kinds of jobs: police, soldiers, doctors, lawyers, scientists, chefs, actors, athletes, and musicians. These are jobs where extreme outcomes are more possible, either because big harms can be avoided, or because great status or honor might be gained.

In jobs with more extreme possible outcomes, we are more comfortable with overt inequality and domination. We are more ok with the capable doc getting explicit deference, and berating the incompetent doc. Or with junior chefs saluting “yes chef” like soldiers. Or with the super musicians not giving much consideration to the grips and groupies who serve them.

We are not only more ok with such overt inequality and domination for these jobs in real life, we are also more ok with it in fiction. In fact, you might well say we relish it. Just as little girls fantasize about being a princess, or little boys fantasize about being action heroes, we all like to imagine we are the more able workers shown in these stories. We like to imagine getting the status and deference that these fictional characters are shown to be justified in getting.

Of course we prefer to paper this over with a villain who is far worse, making our heroes look great by contrast. So we can pretend that what we really want is to bring down the arrogant. This is somewhat like how we like stories that titillate with sexual or other indulgence, but then pretend to endorse a morality tale where such behavior is punished in the end. In both cases we can enjoy a fantasy of vicariously experiencing pleasures, while officially pretending to disapprove of them.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: , ,

Fair Movie Reviews

US news media are not biased to favorably review movies made by their owners:

We find no evidence of bias in the reviews for 20th Century Fox movies in the News Corp. outlets, nor for the reviews of Warner Bros. movies in the Time Warner outlets. We can reject even small effects, such as biasing the review by one extra star (out of four) every 13 movies. We test for differential bias when the return to bias is plausibly higher, examine bias by media outlet and by journalist, as well as editorial bias. We also consider bias by omission: whether the media at conflict of interest are more likely to review highly-rated movies by affiliated studios. In none of these dimensions do we find systematic evidence of bias. Lastly, we document that conflict of interest within a movie aggregator does not lead to bias either. We conclude that media reputation in this competitive industry acts as a powerful disciplining force. (more)

GD Star Rating
Tagged as:

Thrown’s Kit’s Self-Deception

Back in July 2010 Kerry Howley published a nice New York Times Magazine article on the tensions between my wife and I resulting from my choice to do cryonics. The very next month, August 2010, is the date when, in Howley’s new and already-celebrated book Thrown, her alter-ego Kit first falls in love with MMA fighting:

Not until my ride home, as I began to settle back into my bones and feel the limiting contours of perception close back in like the nursery curtains that stifled the views of my youth, did it occur to me that I had, for the first time in my life, found a way out of this, my own skin. … From that moment onward, the only phenomenological project that could possibly hold interest to me was as follows: capture and describe that particular state of being to which one Sean Huffman had taken me.

I’ve read the book, and also several dozen reviews. Some reviews discuss how Kit is a semi-fictional character, and a few mention Kit’s pretentiousness and arrogance. Some disagree on if Kit has communicated the ecstasy she feels, or if those feelings are worthy of her obsession. But all the reviewers seem to take Kit at her word when she says her primary goal is to understand the ecstasy she felt in that first encounter.

Yet right after the above quote is this:

And so naturally I began to show up places where Sean might show up— the gym where he trained, the bar where he bounced, the rented basement where he lived, the restaurants where he consumed foods perhaps not entirely aligned with the professed goals of an aspiring fighter. I hope it doesn’t sound immodest to say that Sean found this attention entirely agreeable.

Kit does the same to another fighter named Eric, and later she gets despondent when Erik won’t return her calls. She tracks him down to a fight, hugs him in front of the crowd, and is delighted get his acceptance:

My moment of embarrassment had already transformed into a glow of pride. The entire room saw that I was his, and he mine.

While Kit only feels ecstasy during an actual fight, she spends all her time as a “groupie” to two fighters, Sean and Erik. (She says she is a “space-taker”, not “groupie”, but I couldn’t see the difference.) Kit mainly only goes to fights when these men fight, even when such fights are months apart. Kit’s ego comes to depend heavily on getting personal attention from these fighters, and her interest in them rises and falls with their fighting success. The book ends with her latching on to a new fighter, after Sean and Erik have fallen.

It seems to me that if Kit had wanted mainly to study her feeling of ecstasy while watching fights, she would have gone to lots of fights, and tried to break her feelings down into parts, or looked at how they changed with context. She could have also talked to and studied other fighter fans, to break down their feelings or see how those change with context. But Kit instead sought to hang with successful fighters between fights, when neither she nor they felt this ecstasy she said was her focus. She didn’t even talk with fighters much about their ecstasy feelings. What mattered most to Kit apparently was that fighters associated with her, and that they won fights.

Kit quits her philosophy program:

I knew what they would turn my project into, these small scholastics with their ceaseless referencing of better men would, if they even allowed my explorations as a subject of dissertation, demand a dull tome with the tiniest flicker of insight buried underneath 800 pages of exegeses of other men’s work. Instead of being celebrated as a pioneer of modern phenomenology, I would merely be a footnote in the future study of Schopenhauer, whom, without my prodding, no one would study in the future.

It seems to me that Kit is self-deceived. She thinks she wants to study ecstasy, but in fact she is simply star-struck. The “ecstasy” feeling that hit her so hard was her subconscious being very impressed with these fighters, and wanting badly to associate with them. And she felt very good when she succeeded at that. By associating with their superiority, she could also feel feel superior to the rest of the world:

I would write my fighterly thesis, but I would not fraternize with the healthy-minded; better to leave them to their prenatal yoga, their gluten-free diets, their dull if long lives of quietest self-preserving conformism.

Of course Kerry Howley, the author, does not equal Kit, the voice Kerry chooses to narrate her book. Kerry may well be very aware of Kit’s self-deception, but still found Kit a good vehicle for painting an intimate portrait of the lives of some fighters. But if so, I find it odd that none of the other dozens of reviews I’ve read of Thrown mention this.

Added 21Oct: Possible theories:

  1. Most reviewers read the book carefully, but are too stupid to notice.
  2. Most reviewers are lazy & only skimmed the book.
  3. Reviewers hate to give negative reviews, & this sounds negative.
  4. Readers crave idealistic narrators, and reviewers pander to readers.
  5. My reading is all wrong.

Added 27Oct: Note that at the end of the book Kit articulates no insight on the nature of ecstasy. You might think that if understanding ecstasy had been her goal, she might have a least reflected on what she had discovered.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: , ,

More Stories As Religion

Most people who say they are atheist or agnostic still believe in supernatural powers:

In the United States, 38% of people who identified themselves as atheist or agnostic went on to claim to believe in a God or a Higher Power. While the UK is often defined as an irreligious place, a recent survey … found that … only 13 per cent of adults agreed with the statement “humans are purely material beings with no spiritual element”. …

When researchers asked people whether they had taken part in esoteric spiritual practices such as having a Reiki session or having their aura read, the results were almost identical (between 38 and 40%) for people who defined themselves as religious, non-religious or atheist.

This is plausibly reinforced by fiction, which (as I’ve said) serves similar functions to religion:

In almost all fictional worlds, God exists, whether the stories are written by people of a religious, atheist or indeterminate beliefs.

It’s not that a deity appears directly in tales. It is that the fundamental basis of stories appears to be the link between the moral decisions made by the protagonists and the same characters’ ultimate destiny. The payback is always appropriate to the choices made. An unnamed, unidentified mechanism ensures that this is so, and is a fundamental element of stories—perhaps the fundamental element of narratives.

In children’s stories, this can be very simple: the good guys win, the bad guys lose. In narratives for older readers, the ending is more complex, with some lose ends left dangling, and others ambiguous. Yet the ultimate appropriateness of the ending is rarely in doubt. If a tale ended with Harry Potter being tortured to death and the Dursley family dancing on his grave, the audience would be horrified, of course, but also puzzled: that’s not what happens in stories. Similarly, in a tragedy, we would be surprised if King Lear’s cruelty to Cordelia did not lead to his demise.

Indeed, it appears that stories exist to establish that there exists a mechanism or a person—cosmic destiny, karma, God, fate, Mother Nature—to make sure the right thing happens to the right person. Without this overarching moral mechanism, narratives become records of unrelated arbitrary events, and lose much of their entertainment value. In contrast, the stories which become universally popular appear to be carefully composed records of cosmic justice at work.

In manuals for writers (see “Screenplay” by Syd Field, for example) this process is often defined in some detail. Would-be screenwriters are taught that during the build-up of the story, the villain can sin (take unfair advantages) to his or her heart’s content without punishment, but the heroic protagonist must be karmically punished for even the slightest deviation from the path of moral rectitude. The hero does eventually win the fight, not by being bigger or stronger, but because of the choices he makes.

This process is so well-established in narrative creation that the literati have even created a specific category for the minority of tales which fail to follow this pattern. They are known as “bleak” narratives. An example is A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry, in which the likable central characters suffer terrible fates while the horrible faceless villains triumph entirely unmolested.

While some bleak stories are well-received by critics, they rarely win mass popularity among readers or moviegoers. Stories without the appropriate outcome mechanism feel incomplete. The purveyor of cosmic justice is not just a cast member, but appears to be the hidden heart of the show. (more)

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: ,

Will Rituals Return?

Many social trends seem to have lasted for centuries. Some of these plausibly result from the high spatial densities, task specialization, and work coordination needed by industry production methods. Other industry-era trends plausibly result from increasing wealth weakening the fear that made us farmers, so that we revert to forager ways.

An especially interesting industry-era trend is the great fall in overt rituals – we industry folks have far fewer overt rituals than did foragers or farmers. From Randall Collins’ Interaction Ritual Chains:

Only around the nineteenth century, when mansions were build with separate entrance corridors, instead of one room connecting to the next) and back stairways for servants, did the fully private peerless introvert become common. … Until the beginning of the nineteenth century where is no distinctive ideology of intellectuals as withdrawn and at odds with the world. … The marketing of cultural products … put a premium on innovativeness, forcing periodic changes in fashion, and concentrating a new level of attention on the distinctive personality of the writer, musician, or artist. … The political ideology of individual freedom – which arose in a movement concerned largely to break into the aristocratic monopoly on power rather than to withdraw from it – was often blended with the ideology of the freelance writer, musician, or artist. … Alienation, rebellion, glorification of the inward, autonomous self, an oppositional self taking dominant society as its foil – this has become part of intellectual discourse. …

The daily and annual rounds of activity in premodern societies were permeated with rituals that we would easily recognize as such by their formality; living in a patrimonial household in a medieval community (not to mention living in a tribal society) would have been something like what our lives would be if Christmas or Thanksgiving happened several times a month, along with many lessor ceremonies that punctuated every day. … Modern life has its points of focused attention and emotional entrainment largely were we choose to make them, and largely in informal rituals, that it takes a sociologist to point out that they are indeed rituals. (pp. 362-368)

We can plausibly attribute our industry-era loss of rituals to many factors. Increasing wealth has given us more spatial privacy. Innovation has become increasingly important, and density and wealth are high enough to support fashion cycles, all of which raise the status of people with unusual behavior. These encourage us to signal our increasing wealth with more product and behavioral variety, instead of with more stuff. With increasing wealth our values have consistently moved away from conformity and tradition and toward self-direction and tolerance. Also, more forager-like egalitarianism has made us less ok with the explicit class distinctions that supported many farmer-era rituals. And our suppression of family clans has also suppressed many related rituals.

These factors seem likely to continue while per-capita wealth continues to increase. In that case overt ritual is likely to continue to decline. But there is no guaranteed that wealth will always increase. If we find ways (as with ems) to increase the population faster than we can increase wealth, wealth per person will fall. And if wealth falls, we may well see a revival of overt ritual.

I can’t think of a historical novel that makes clear not only how common was ritual and conformity in farmer or forager societies, but how well that comforted and satisfied people. Nor can I think of science fiction stories portraying a future full of beloved ritual. Or any stories that show how lonely and disconnected we modern folks often feel because we lack the rituals that gave deep meaning to so many humans before us. We tend to love novels that celebrate the values we hold dear, but that can blind us to seeing how others held different values dear.

Perhaps the closest examples are war stories, where soldiers find comfort in finding distinct roles and statuses that relate them to each other, and where they act out regular intense synchronized actions that lead to their security and protection. But that is usually seen as applying only to the special case of war, rather than to life more generally.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: , , , ,

Review of LockStep

Since the tech of science fiction tends to be more realistic than its social science, I am especially interested in science fiction praised for its social realism. Alas I usually find even those wanting. The latest such book is Lockstep. Cory Doctorow:

As I’ve written before, Karl Schroeder is one of the sharpest, canniest thinkers about technology and science fiction I know. … Now he’s written his first young adult novel, Lockstep, and it is a triumph. Lockstep’s central premise is a fiendishly clever answer to the problem of creating galactic-scale civilizations in a universe where the speed of light is absolute. … Lockstep has enough social, technological, political and spiritual speculation for five books. It is easily the most invigorating, most scientifically curious book I’ve ever read that’s written in a way that both young people and adults can enjoy it. (more)

Paul Di Filippo:

And then, within all this gosh-wow fun, Schroeder inserts a detailed subtext on economics. He’s concerned with income inequality, arcane trade arrangements between locksteps, theft and conquests of sleeping cities. In fact, this book should probably be read in parallel with Charles Stross’s Neptune’s Brood. … Both these books prove that far from being the “dismal science,” economics can provide fascinating grounds for speculations. (more)

To explain my complaints, I’ll have to give some spoilers. You are warned. Continue reading "Review of LockStep" »

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: ,

Reason, Stories Tuned for Contests

Humans have a capacity to reason, i.e., to find and weigh reasons for and against conclusions. While one might expect this capacity to be designed to work well for a wide variety of types of conclusions and situations, our actual capacity seems to be tuned for more specific cases. Mercier and Sperber:

Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. … Poor performance in standard reasoning tasks is explained by the lack of argumentative context. … People turn out to be skilled arguers (more)

That is, our reasoning abilities are focused on contests where we already have conclusions that we want to support or oppose, and where particular rivals give conflicting reasons. I’d add that such abilities also seem tuned to win over contest audiences by impressing them, and by making them identify more with us than with our rivals. We also seem eager to visibly hear argument contests, in addition to participating in such contests, perhaps to gain exemplars to improve our own abilities, to signal our embrace of social norms, and to exert social influence as part of the audience who decides which arguments win.

Humans also have a capacity to tell stories, i.e., to summarize sets of related events. Such events might be real and past, or possible and future. One might expect this capacity to be designed to well-summarize a wide variety of event sets. But, as with reasoning, we might similarly find that our actual story abilities are tuned for the more specific case of contests, where the stories are about ourselves or our rivals, especially where either we or they are suspected of violating social norms. We might also be good at winning over audiences by impressing them and making them identify more with us, and we may also be eager to listen to gain exemplars, signal norms, and exert influence.

Consider some forager examples. You go out to find fire wood, and return two hours later, much later than your spouse expected. During a hunt someone shot an arrow that nearly killed you. You don’t want the band to move to new hunting grounds quite yet, as your mother is sick and hard to move. Someone says something that indirectly suggests that they are a better lover than you.

In such examples, you might want to present an interpretation of related events that persuades others to adopt your favored views, including that you are able and virtuous, and that your rivals are unable and ill-motivated. You might try to do this via direct arguments, or more indirectly via telling a story that includes those events. You might even work more indirectly, by telling a fantasy story where the hero and his rival have suspicious similarities to you and your rival.

This view may help explain some (though hardly all) puzzling features of fiction:

  • Most of our real life events, even the most important ones like marriages, funerals, and choices of jobs or spouses, seem too boring to be told as stories.
  • Compared to real events, even important ones, stories focus far more on direct conscious conflicts between people, and on violations of social norms.
  • Compared to real people, character features are more extreme, and have stronger correlations between good features.
  • Compared to real events, fictional events are far more easily predicted by character motivations, and by assuming a just world.
GD Star Rating
Tagged as: , ,