Tag Archives: Fiction

Ems in Walkaway

Some science fiction (sf) fans have taken offense at my claim that non-fiction analysis of future tech scenarios can be more accurate than sf scenarios, whose authors have other priorities. So I may periodically critique recent sf stories with ems for accuracy. Note that I’m not implying that such stories should have been more accurate; sf writing is damn hard work and its authors juggle a many difficult tradeoffs. But many seem unaware of just how often accuracy is sacrificed.

The most recent sf I’ve read that includes ems is Walkaway, by “New York Times bestselling author” Cory Doctorow, published back in April:

Now that anyone can design and print the basic necessities of life—food, clothing, shelter—from a computer, there seems to be little reason to toil within the system. It’s still a dangerous world out there, the empty lands wrecked by climate change, dead cities hollowed out by industrial flight, shadows hiding predators animal and human alike. Still, when the initial pioneer walkaways flourish, more people join them.

The emotional center of Walkaway is elaborating this vision of a decentralized post-scarcity society trying to do without property or hierarchy. Though I’m skeptical, I greatly respect attempts to describe such visions in more detail. Doctorow, however, apparently thinks we economists make up bogus math for the sole purpose of justifying billionaire wealth inequality. Continue reading "Ems in Walkaway" »

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: ,

Compelling ≠ Accurate

Bryan Caplan:

As a rule, I don’t care for “hard sci-fi.”  In fact, artistically speaking, I normally dislike true stories of any kind.  And I barely care about continuity errors.  When I read novels or watch movies, I crave what I call “emotional truth.” ..  “it’s the idea of becoming someone else for a little while. Being inside another skin. Moving differently, thinking differently, feeling differently.” .. When creators spend a lot of mental energy on the accuracy of their physics or the historical sequence of events, they tend to lose sight of their characters’ inner lives.  A well-told story is designed to maximize the audiences’ identification with the characters .. you know a creator has succeeded when you temporarily lose yourself in the story.

Many have said similar things. For example, Jerome Bruner:

There are two modes of cognitive functioning, two modes of thought, each providing distinctive ways of ordering experience, of constructing reality. The two (though complementary) are irreducible to one another. .. Each .. has operating principles of its own and its own criteria of well-formedness. They differ radically in their procedures for verification. A good story and a well-formed argument are different natural kinds. Both can be used as means for convincing another. Yet what they convince of is fundamentally different: arguments convince one of their truth, stories of their lifelikeness. The one verifies by eventual appeal to procedures for establishing formal and empirical proof. The other establishes not truth but verisimilitude. ..

“Great” storytelling, inevitably, is about compelling human plights that are “accessible” to readers. But at the same time, the plights must be set forth with sufficient subjunctivity to allow them to be rewritten by the reader, rewritten so as to allow play for the reader’s imagination.

Yes, readers (or viewers) value stories where readers lose themselves, feel like they are inside character inner lives, and identify with those characters. To readers, such stories feel “lifelike” — in some important way “like” real and true events. And yes, surely this is because these best stories do in fact match some template in reader minds, a template knitted in part from the many details of the world that readers have witnessed during their lives.

But, such stories are much better described as “compelling” than “true.” As a large literature has shown, the stories that we like differ in many big and systematic ways from real life events. Stories differ not only in external physical and social environments, but also in the personalities and preferences of individuals. Furthermore, even conditional on those things, stories also differ in the feelings that individuals have and the choices that they make.

We understand some but not all things about why people are built to prefer unrealistic stories. But there seems little doubt that the stories we like are in fact unrealistic. Compelling but not “true.”

I’m not denying that some stories are more realistic, I’m doubting that the stories that we get more lost in are in fact mainly those more realistic stories.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as:

Talks Not About Info

You can often learn about your own world by first understanding some other world, and then asking if your world is more like that other world than you had realized. For example, I just attended WorldCon, the top annual science fiction convention, and patterns that I saw there more clearly also seem echoed in wider worlds.

At WorldCon, most of the speakers are science fiction authors, and the modal emotional tone of the audience is one of reverence. Attendees love science fiction, revere its authors, and seek excuses to rub elbows with them. But instead of just having social mixers, authors give speeches and sit on panels where they opine on many topics. When they opine on how to write science fiction, they are of course experts, but in fact they mostly prefer to opine on other topics. By presenting themselves as experts on a great many future, technical, cultural, and social topics, they help preserve the illusion that readers aren’t just reading science fiction for fun; they are also part of important larger conversations.

When science fiction books overlap with topics in space, physics, medicine, biology, or computer science, their authors often read up on those topics, and so can be substantially more informed than typical audience members. And on such topics actual experts will often be included on the agenda. Audiences may even be asked if any of them happen to have expertise on a such a topic.

But the more that a topic leans social, and has moral or political associations, the less inclined authors are to read expert literatures on that topic, and the more they tend to just wing it and think for themselves, often on their feet. They less often add experts to the panel or seek experts in the audience. And relatively neutral analysis tends to be displaced by position taking – they find excuses to signal their social and political affiliations.

The general pattern here is: an audience has big reasons to affiliate with speakers, but prefers to pretend those speakers are experts on something, and they are just listening to learn about that thing. This is especially true on social topics. The illusion is exposed by facts like speakers not being chosen for knowing the most about a subject discussed, and those speakers not doing much homework. But enough audience members are ignorant of these facts to provide a sufficient fig leaf of cover to the others.

This same general pattern repeats all through the world of conferences and speeches. We tend to listen to talks and panels full of not just authors, but also generals, judges, politicians, CEOs, rich folks, athletes, and actors. Even when those are not the best informed, or even the most entertaining, speakers on a topic. And academic outlets tend to publish articles and books more for being impressive than for being informative. However, enough people are ignorant of these facts to let audiences pretend that they mainly listen to learn and get information, rather than to affiliate with the statusful.

Added 22Aug: We feel more strongly connected to people when we together visibly affirm our shared norms/values/morals. Which explains why speakers look for excuses to take positions.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: ,

Alas, Unequal Love

We each feel a deep strong need to love others, and to be loved by others. (Self-love doesn’t satisfy these needs.) You might think we could pair up and all be very satisfied. But this doesn’t happen for two main reasons:

  1. We each prefer to love the popular, whom more others also love. So a few get lots of love, while the rest get less.
  2. We can more easily love imaginary fictional people than real people. Especially ones that more others love.

So even if you are my best source for getting love, the love I get from you may be far less than the love you are giving out, or than I’m giving out. And a few exceptional people (many of them imaginary) get far more love than most people need or can enjoy.

This seems an essential tragedy of the human condition. You might claim that love isn’t a limited resource, that the more people each of us love, the more love we each have to give out. So there is no conflict between loving popular and imaginary people and loving the rest of us. But while this might be true at some low scales of how many people we love, at the actual scales of love this just doesn’t seem right to me. Love instead seems scarce at the margin.

Can we do anything about this problem? Well one obvious fact is that we don’t love people we’ve never heard of. And we can control many things about who we hear of. So we could in principle arrange who we hear about, in order to get love spread out more evenly. But we don’t do this, nor do we seem much inclined to do anything like this. We instead all devote a great deal of time and effort to hearing about as many popular and fictional people as possible. And to trying to be as popular as we can.

I don’t have great ideas for how to solve this. But I am convinced it is one of our essential problems, and it is far from obvious that we’ve given it all the careful thought we might. Please, someone thoughtful and clever, figure out how we might all be much loved.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: , ,

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
loading...
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
loading...
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
loading...
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
loading...
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
loading...
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
loading...
Tagged as: , ,