Tag Archives: Fiction

Financing Starships

A science advisor to the not-entirely-realistic recent movie Gravity said:

Often a story worth telling can fall apart if there is a complete dedication to perfect science. The goal is to make everything seem grounded enough in the physical world that it seems real. So story trumps science every time. (more)

Even the science fiction that tries hardest for realism usually sacrifices it for a better story. It isn’t just that authors make accidental mistakes due to a lack of attention. Quite often, realism gets in the way of the story, because realism conflicts with our tastes in stories. That is, many features we want in stories (like good beating evil) are intrinsically unrealistic.

This is why I think it important to highlight story unrealism, especially the unrealism intrinsic to the stories said to be most realistic. Its not just gotchas to show off how much you know, or teach in the process. Its also to counter the popular illusion that stories are how-to manuals, there to teach us about reality in a fast and fun way.

Many have praised Charlie Stross’s novel Neptune’s Brood, released in July. I also enjoyed it. But economists such as Krugman and Tabarrok have praised its econ realism, and I haven’t found anyone criticizing that. So I guess such criticism is up to me (again). (I have thought about related issues before; see here, here.)

The following quotes give the setting of Neptune’s Brood. (Worry not; I give no spoilers.)
Continue reading "Financing Starships" »

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Stories Change Goals

Narratives typically consist of protagonists pursuing goals. … Not only do readers of a narrative process protagonists’ goals in order to understand the story, but they may also appropriate those goals as their own. … There is ample evidence of increased accessibility of goal-related information (com- pared to neutral information) in narrative processing. …

The studies reported here yielded results consistent with the hypothesis that embedding a concept in a narrative is more likely to activate a goal than is priming that same concept out of narrative context. Specifically, embedding the concept of high achievement in a narrative led to greater post-delay behavioral assimilation than did priming the same concept in a non-narrative context, and lower post-fulfillment accessibility. … Narrative processing involves fitting the semantic information presented in a story into a situation model that is centrally structured around goals, and this processing serves to activate that goal. …

Cues that signal expended effort in the pursuit of goals increase the accessibility of goal-related information and increase goal-pursuit. In one study, for example, they had participants watch a short animated film in which a protagonist (a ball) tries to get a kite out of a tree for another character. In different versions of the film, the ball expends more or less effort in attempting to retrieve the kite. When participants were later asked to help the experimenter, those exposed to a more effortful protagonist were more helpful. …

There is growing recognition of the importance and effectiveness of narrative communication techniques in public service domains, such as health-related behavior change. (more)

You may see this as a good thing if you see yourself as a story-teller changing the goals of others. You may see more cause for concern if you see yourself as a story-reader whose goals are being changed by story-tellers.

I also consider this to be weak evidence that stories tend to put people in a more far mental mode.

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Are War Critics Selfish?

The Americanization of Emily (1964) starred James Garner (as Charlie) and Julie Andrews (as Emily), both whom call it their favorite movie. Be warned; I give spoilers in this post. Continue reading "Are War Critics Selfish?" »

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That Old SF Prejudice

Back when I was a physics student in the late 1970s, my physics teachers were pretty unified in and explicit about their dislike for so-called social “sciences.” Not only is there no science there, they said, there is no useful knowledge of any sort – it was all “pseudo” science as useless as astrology. Lots of “hard” scientists are taught to think pretty much the same thing today, but since our world is so much more politically sensitive, they also know to avoid saying so directly.

Old school science fiction authors were taught pretty much the same thing and sometimes they say so pretty directly. Case in point, Arthur C. Clarke [ACC]:

TM: Why has science fiction seemed so prescient?

ACC: Well, we mustn’t overdo this, because science fiction stories have covered almost every possibility, and, well, most impossibilities — obviously we’re bound to have some pretty good direct hits as well as a lot of misses. But, that doesn’t matter. Science fiction does not attempt to predict. It extrapolates. It just says, “What if?” not what will be? Because you can never predict what will happen, particularly in politics and economics. You can to some extent predict in the technological sphere — flying, space travel, all these things, but even there we missed really badly on some things, like computers. No one imagined the incredible impact of computers, even though robot brains of various kinds had been — my late friend, Isaac Asimov, for example, had — but the idea that one day every house would have a computer in every room and that one day we’d probably have computers built into our clothing, nobody ever thought of that. …

To be a science fiction writer you must be interested in the future and you must feel that the future will be different and hopefully better than the present. …

TM: What’s a precondition for being a science fiction writer other than an interest in the future?

ACC: Well, an interest — at least an understanding of science, not necessarily a science degree but you must have a feeling for the science and its possibilities and its impossibilities, otherwise you’re writing fantasy. …

TM: Is it fair to call some science fiction writers prophets in a way?

ACC: Yes, but accidental prophets, because very few attempt to predict the future as they expect it will be. They may in some cases, and I’ve done this myself, write about — try to write about — futures as they hope they will be, but I don’t know of anyone that’s ever said this is the way the future will be. …. I don’t think there is such a thing as as a real prophet. You can never predict the future. We know why now, of course; chaos theory, which I got very interested in, shows you can never predict the future. (more)

You see? The reason to be interested in science fiction is an interest what will actually happen in the future, and the reason fantasy isn’t science fiction is that gets the future wrong because it doesn’t appreciate scientific possibilities like flying, space travel, and computers. But chaos theory says you can’t predict anything about politics or economics because that’s all just random. Sigh.

Of course folks like Doug Englebart were in fact predicting things about the social implications of computers back when Clarke made his famous movie 2001, but Clarke apparently figures that if the physics and sf folks he talked to didn’t know something, no one knew. Today’s science fiction authors also know better than to say such things directly, but it is really what many of them think: our tech future is predictable, but our social future is not, because physical science exists and social science does not.

Added 10a: Note how it is easy to entice commenters to say they agree with the claim that there is no social science, but it is much harder to get a prominent physics or sf blogger to say so in a post. Lots of them think similarly, but know not to say so publicly.

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Adam Ford Interview

Late on a freezing grey afternoon last December, Adam Ford filmed me outside in front of Oxford’s Christ’s Church, me all bundled up a coat, scarf, and cap. Youtube says Ford has 506 videos (and more at Vimeo), almost all talking to futurists, so he’s pretty experienced at this. He edited our talk down to 31 minutes; these were our topics:

  • Morality Tales, The Future, And You
  • Future Thinking Near & Far Modes
  • Utopia
  • Whole Brain Emulation
  • Dystopia
  • Mythology
  • Escapism
  • Nature & Progress
  • Acceleration & Change
  • Risks & Growth Trajectories
  • The Road Ahead

Other recent short videos of mine: TEDx Tallinn talk (19min), my BBC Interview (4min).

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Future Story Status

Orson Scott Card on story characters:

Four basic factors … are present in every story, with varying degrees of emphasis. … milieu, idea, character, and event.

  • The milieu is the world surrounding the characters, the landscape, the interior spaces, the surrounding cultures the characters emerge from and react to; everything from weather to traffic laws.
  • The idea is the information that the reader is meant to discover or learn during the process of the story.
  • Character is the nature of one or more of the people in the story – what they do and why they do it. It usually leads to or arises from a conclusion about human nature in general.
  • The events of the story are everything that happens and why. …

Each factor is present in all stories, to one degree or another. Every factor has an implicit structure; if that factor dominates a story, its structure determines the overall shape of the story. …

All [these] factors are present in The Lord Of The Rings, but it is the milieu structure that predominates, as it should. It would be absurd to criticize The Lord Of The Rings for not having plot unity and integrity, because it is not an event story. Likewise, it would be absurd to criticize the book for its stereotyped one-to-a-race characters or for the many characters about who we learn little more than what they do in the story and why they do it, because this is not a character story. …

Character stories really came into their own at the beginning of the twentieth century, and both the novelty and the extraordinary brilliance of some of the writers who worked with this story structure have lead many critics and teachers to believe that only this kind of story can be “good.” … [But] other kinds of stories have long traditions, with many examples of brilliance along the way. ….

It is a mistake to think that deep, detailed characterization is an absolute virtue in storytelling. .. If you choose not to devote much time to characterization in a particular story, this won’t necessarily mean you “failed” or “wrote badly.” It may mean that you understand yourself and your story. (more; pp.62,63,74,75; see also)

Card suggests that the current high status of character stories is a temporary historical accident, which suggests that it will eventually decline. Someone will write such a damn impressive milieu, idea, or event story that others seeking to look impressive will try their hand, making that structure the ideal of a “good” story.

I’d guess that rising incomes contributed to the rising status of the character story. Rich self-indulgent folks are more likely to be obsessed with their own internal feelings, and our wealth has allowed us the slack to often have dramatically dysfunctional character features. Also, our psychological aversion to seeing ourselves clearly has made those who can overcome such aversions more clearly impressive. However, if our descendants are less rich, less free to change their social roles, or if they can more easily see themselves clearly, character stories may seem less compelling. My weak bet is on the eventual rise in status of the milieu story, as I’ve recently come to see how very hard it can be to describe a coherent yet different world.

Added 8:30p: I went searching for criticism of Card’s framework here, and couldn’t find any. Odd.

Added 7a: On reflection, it is also pretty plausible that increasing density, size, and specialization has only recently created a niche for cognitive elites to write for other cognitive elites, which let writers focus on impressing such elites. Impressively realistic character stories are mostly impressive to other cognitive elites, and much less so to ordinary readers.

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Real Drama

I’ve now seen all nine of the 2013 Best Picture Oscar nominees. Metacritic.com rates Zero Dark Thirty highest at 95, but gives second highest at 94 to my favorite, Amour. (Intrade gives Argo, rated 84, a 72% chance, and Lincoln, rated 86, a 23% chance, to win.)

There’s an apt old curse, “May you live in interesting times.” Which highlights the fact that while we like stories with drama, we don’t actually want drama in our lives. If you ignore the very end, and the fact that the characters are very high status artists, Amour is quite realistic and by far the drama most likely to actually be experienced by many of you. Which is why most folks don’t like it, because they don’t actually want to see realistic ordinary drama.

Amour is about a women who gets sick and then dies. I was stuck by the fact that what most bothered her and her husband were the insults to her pride. They could mostly handle the pain, the drudgery, and the loss of opportunity. But the loss of status, oh that stung.

I was struck by something similar lately while reading the classic Studs Terkel book Working, in which dozens of ordinary workers tell how they feel about their jobs. While they sometimes complain about being bored or tired, they seem mostly ok with this. What really bothers them is when other people don’t give them as much respect or pay as they think they deserve. Again, it is status that seems to drive them most.

I found this quote interesting:

I would like to see a building, say, the Empire State, I would like to see on one side of it a foot-wide strip from top to bottom with the name of every bricklayer, the name of every electrician, with all the names. So when a guy walked by, he could take his son and say, “See, that’s me over there on the forty-fifth floor. I put the steel beam in.” Picasso can point to a painting. What can I point to? A writer can point to a book. Everybody should have something to point to. (Studs Terkel, Working)

I’d guess that if building makers could get this if they were willing to take a 5% pay cut to pay for it, and that it doesn’t happen because such workers don’t want it that much. Anyone know how much of a pay cut people take to get their name in the credits of a movie? How much of a pay cut to get your name shown as author of a novel? Do artists care more about getting visible public credit more than construction workers? If so, why?

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Here Not Be Dragons

“Here be dragons” is a phrase used to denote dangerous or unexplored territories, in imitation of the medieval practice of putting dragons, sea serpents and other mythological creatures in uncharted areas of maps. (more)

Stories tend to be more interesting if they a) have characters like us, b) have extreme items, creatures, events, etc., and c) don’t seem clearly impossible. So story tellers face tradeoffs – they often try to make stories as extreme as they can without seeming impossible.

Once upon a time, a handy way to make this tradeoff was to tell stories about familiar kinds of people in far away lands. Because less was known with confidence about far away places, the “don’t seem impossible” rule constrained stories the least there. In far away places, there might plausibly be extreme animals, buildings, devices, customs, etc.

Just like parents today who conspire not to tell their kids the truth about Santa Claus, ancient travelers who visited distant places probably tended to conspire not to reveal that foreigners weren’t so strange. After all, travelers could get more approval from telling tall tales of strange things far away. And they could bond with sophisticates via winks that say “yes, you and I are smart enough to know better.” Lovers of stories, imagination, creativity, etc. who knew better probably reasoned that most people enjoy life more if they can believe in far away strangeness, and saw little harm in the exaggeration since few locals ever interacted with distant others.

Today we know too much about far away places to let ourselves set much story strangeness there. So when we want to tell strange but not impossible stories, we tend to set them in our future — the future is our go-to place for plausible strangeness. No one has actually seen the future, so no one can contradict stories about strange futures with much authority. Furthermore, lovers of imagination and creativity tend to excuse the impossibilities in such stories, because they think folks enjoy their lives better when they see anything as possible in the future.

Actually, this idea that anything will be possible in the future seems to be an axiom of faith for many. I’ve had several folks react this way to my em econ talks on this basis – how dare I forecast when we all know forecasts are impossible?

For some, believing in an anything-goes future expresses faith in human innovation and potential. For others, it says societies are too complex to be understood by simple theories. For still others, it expresses allegiance to scientific method – scientists must only say things that they can prove with theory or experiment, and if neither applies to the future scientists must stay silent about it, which in practice gives the impression that all future speculations consistent with basic science are equally valid and believable.

The big problem with anything-goes futurism is, of course, that keeps us from learning about and preparing for the actual future. If an ancient society were about to actually move en mass to a far away land, their story-inspired misconceptions about distant lands could do great harm. Alas, since our society is actually moving whole-sale and rapidly toward that supposedly anything-goes future world, our misconceptions can matter a lot.

The future will of course have some strange elements, at least to our eyes, if not to theirs. But it will be far from maximally strange. The more one learns about technology, economics, biology, etc. the fewer of our commonly-heard strange futures seem possible. No, we can’t prove much, but we can in practice learn a lot. Yes, those well-informed level-headed forecasts won’t be as creatively inspiring, won’t make for stories as fun, and may fail to affirm a faith in unlimited human potential. Our real descendants will have real limits. But they will really exist, and our actions will really matter for them.

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Death Is Very Sad

Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a simple but heart-breaking story of a dying man. In this passage, Ivan finds it very hard to translate his far outside view about his death to a near inside view:

Ivan Ilych saw that he was dying, and he was in continual despair.

In the depth of his heart he knew he was dying, but not only was he not accustomed to the thought, he simply did not and could not grasp it.

The syllogism he had learnt from Kiesewetter’s Logic: “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,” had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself. That Caius — man in the abstract — was mortal, was perfectly correct, but he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite separate from all others. He had been little Vanya, with a mamma and a papa, with Mitya and Volodya, with the toys, a coachman and a nurse, afterwards with Katenka and will all the joys, griefs, and delights of childhood, boyhood, and youth. What did Caius know of the smell of that striped leather ball Vanya had been so fond of? Had Caius kissed his mother’s hand like that, and did the silk of her dress rustle so for Caius? Had he rioted like that at school when the pastry was bad? Had Caius been in love like that? Could Caius preside at a session as he did? “Caius really was mortal, and it was right for him to die; but for me, little Vanya, Ivan Ilych, with all my thoughts and emotions, it’s altogether a different matter. It cannot be that I ought to die. That would be too terrible.”

Such was his feeling.

“If I had to die like Caius I would have known it was so. An inner voice would have told me so, but there was nothing of the sort in me and I and all my friends felt that our case was quite different from that of Caius. and now here it is!” he said to himself. “It can’t be. It’s impossible! But here it is. How is this? How is one to understand it?”

He could not understand it, and tried to drive this false, incorrect, morbid thought away and to replace it by other proper and healthy thoughts. But that thought, and not the thought only but the reality itself, seemed to come and confront him. (more)

We could each gain great insight into ourselves if only we could consistently take the features we believe apply to many folks around us, and honestly ask ourselves if they apply to us as well. Folks around us are often boring, failures, irritating, misguided, vain, and, yes, dying. Are we?

In Tolstoy’s story the people around Ivan overwhelming cared about how Ivan’s death would affect them. They were eager to appear like the proper sort of caring person, but in fact didn’t care much. To comfort themselves, they preferred to blame Ivan for his problems, and refused to directly acknowledge that he was in fact dying.

Reading reviews of the story, I find that some (e.g.) also prefer to blame Ivan for his sad death. Tolstoy presents Ivan as a flawed person living a flawed life, and reviewers seem to think that Tolstoy was saying this is why his death was sad. Which seems to me to miss the point: no matter how your life went your death will be sad, especially since most around you will be focused more on how your death affects them than on how it affects you.

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Beware Gods Out There

Bryan Caplan notes that we’d actually treat X-men quite differently from the stories:

In the X-men comics, t.v. series, and movies, normal humans instinctively treat super-powered mutants with fear and disgust. The popular mutant policy options are: (a) register them as deadly weapons, (b) preemptively imprison them, or (c) kill them one and all.

Is this how real-world humans would actually react to the emergence of super-humans? I seriously doubt it. As long as the mutants accepted conventional norms of their societies, we’d treat them like celebrities or sports stars. Each country would take nationalistic pride in “their” mutants, just as each country now takes pride in their freakishly talented countrymen in the Olympics. …

If 5% of mutants tried to seize power, existing authorities would almost certainly recruit the remaining 95% to defend themselves – and hasten to add that “The best defense is a good offense.” If the U.S. and U.S.S.R. could competitively embrace former Nazi scientists after World War II, it’s hard to believe that the world’s leading governments would ever decide, “The only good mutant is a dead mutant.” (more)

As it happens, I just re-watched the first three episodes of the original Star Trek TV series, all of which were about super-powerful human-like beings, seen as monsters to be killed or isolated. In the third episode, a brush with something just outside the galaxy kick-starts rapid ESP-power growth in a few crew members, who then get big heads about it, and so must be killed:

KIRK: You must help me. Before it goes too far.
DEHNER: What he’s doing is right for him and me.
KIRK: And for humanity? You’re still human.
KIRK: At least partly, you are, or you wouldn’t be here talking to me.
DEHNER: Earth is really unimportant. Before long, we’ll be where it would have taken mankind millions of years of learning to reach.
KIRK: What will Mitchell learn in getting there? Will he know what to do with his power? Will he acquire the wisdom?
DEHNER: Please go back while you still can.
KIRK: Did you hear him joke about compassion? Above all else, a god needs compassion. Mitchell! Elizabeth.
DEHNER: What do you know about gods?
KIRK: Then let’s talk about humans, about our frailties. As powerful as he gets, he’ll have all that inside him.
DEHNER: Go back.
KIRK: You were a psychiatrist once. You know the ugly, savage things we all keep buried, that none of us dare expose. But he’ll dare. Who’s to stop him? He doesn’t need to care. Be a psychiatrist for one minute longer. What do you see happening to him? What’s your prognosis, Doctor? (more)

After they kill him they apparently never go back to this place again, even though it had done the same thing to a previous ship. In the real world, of course, groups would eagerly be sending ships to the area in the hope of creating their own gods, or becoming gods themselves.

Do we understand why fiction and reality are so different here? I think so – resisting an illicit dominator is our most common hero story, and early TV writers seeking a mass audience for stories set “out there” naturally focused on the very human scenario of humans becoming extreme out there. So of course they tell stories of how out there makes people into powerful illicit dominators, who heros resist.

Beware: powerful illicit dominators resisted by heroes remains an all too tempting story for us to tell about our future as well.

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