Saturday, September 24, 2016

It's all about ethics in creative writing

I've reached a place in my fanfic where an ethical issue has become hard to ignore.

It always matters to get the facts right. To do the research. But there are some places -- even in a work of fiction -- where the writer bears a specific responsibility towards the facts.

The first reason is reproducibility. People will learn things from your book. On the negative side, this is why the writers of the television show MacGuyver were very careful; whenever Mac was shown making an explosive (or anything else an impressionable young watcher of the show might chose to duplicate themselves) they'd leave out a crucial step. Or intentionally get something wrong.

There's an almost identical act that gives me the impression of an understood professional obligation among nukees; apparently, if you know how to make an atom bomb, and you describe one in a book, you are required to get some of it wrong.

On the flip side of reproducibility, your book may be the only source of certain information. My star example is a friend who got an eye injury on his first day in town, but knew the name and location of the nearest Emergency Room due to it being mentioned in an urban fantasy novel. He was in pain, he was a penniless can't blame him for not taking the more reasonable course of, say, calling a cab and asking them to find him an Emergency Room. The point is; that it was in a book, the information was detailed and sounded reasonable, and at that moment that was what he reached for.

You can do the same for many trivial things; which train do you take to Harlem, is tap water safe in Bangkok, can you really make a sauce by boiling down tomato juice and beer (yes...I have learned cooking tips from Spencer.)

You can also find yourself the source of information in rather more critical times. If I put CPR in a scene, for instance, I owe it to the safety of the public to make it as accurate to current teaching of the American Red Cross as I can -- and if possible, put in a disclaimer as well (that you really, really need to be properly trained). The same goes for treating snake bite, handling firearms, fall protection gear, etc.

Because fiction has penetration, and fiction has weight. The person who is contemplating applying a tourniquet may not read non-fiction. They may not have studied the first aid they should have. They might, conversely, have been briefed extensively on expedient field medical care, but the dry rote memorization of those lessons flees before the emotional, full-color depiction they encountered in a work of fiction. What the instructor said sounded reasonable, but Spock made it look so right to do this...

And this brings us to facts that don't have a direct, day-to-day impact. History has always been a whipping boy for political movements, right back to the ancient kings who talked up their accomplishments (or outright lied about them) to cow outsiders and to strengthen their hold upon their own people. There are many peoples today who look to history to find justification for their actions in the past or their proposed actions in the future; "The Tutti cruelties upon our people must be avenged!" or "Taiwan has always been part of China!"

A surface impression of the various and sundry hoaxes and outlandish theories of fringe Archaeology is that they are amusing but trivial. Questions about who built the Pyramids, say. But when you dig deeper you quickly discover these are essentially codes for rather darker motivations; motivations of racial and religious antipathies, and excuses for imperialism and genocide.

Let me be very specific; in the American Southeast, there are incredible earthen mounds (some still survive and are worth a look.) There are, as there are of many spectacular ancient constructions, lots of amusing theories as to who built them. There is also the documented archaeological evidence of who built them.

The point is, all of the pseudo-archaeology boils down to, "Anyone but the (actual) Indians." Because that is how they were framed when the existing peoples of those lands were violently thrown off them. In fact, the "Vikings, Egyptians, Lost Tribe of Israelites" were specifically portrayed as, after having constructed the mounds as part of a high, complex culture, being massacred by the primitive savages. Whom the white races discovered squatting on those bloodstained ruins when they arrived; thus justifying their massacre in turn.

Don't trust me on this. Look at early sources. There are Founding Fathers who said almost exactly what I said above.

Now, this isn't as bold and direct today. But we still live in an era of marked inequities, and there are strong intersections between the people who spend effort on showing the Mound Builders have no relationship with modern Native Americans, and people who wish to throw a giant wall up along the Mexican border.

For another example, Great Zimbabwe was for decades described as the construction of, again, "Anyone but Africans." This was not fringe literature; this was the official word taught in Rhodesian schools. And since it was government policy, it was easy to get permission to dig, often destructively, in search of the desired evidence. Destroying much of the real archaeological record in the process. Fortunately, that has been reversed since 1980; the new regime even named itself in recognition of the past greatness of its peoples.

Not all pseudo-archaeological ideas are such trip-mines. But there is one particularly troubling problem I have yet to mention. And that is that there is a grab bucket of specific ideas that get reached for over and over by others -- including those with nakedly polemic aims.

Take one specific instance; the Khufu cartouche in the resting chamber of the Great Pyramid (or, rather, the idea that this is a 19th-century forgery). I'm writing a story in which this is offered as one of the pieces of evidence that the Giza group was built under the direction of aliens. Thing is, this is being brought up today (well, as of this blog post, two days ago in the comments of an archaeology-related blog I follow) as proof that the Pyramids were constructed by....well, you know the refrain by now. And this is of course an insult to the Egyptian people. And it is a muddying of the real work being done in understanding early Egypt.

So if I place this same piece of contentious "evidence" in my story, I am not just supporting my own plot, I am lending that one more brick of citation to this "fact" that will be used in arguments I am morally opposed to (among the people who pull this plum from the grab-bag are Creationists...and I really don't feel the need to list the rest.)

There are many of these bits, and they are well known; some, known enough that your reader will have heard of them already, lending an extra verisimilitude to your story, in the same way H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth referenced each other's made-up reference works of occult literature (and Robert E. Howard borrowed at least one of their mythological entities). That makes them dangerously attractive to the writer.

I suppose I should sort this list a little. There are the non-mysteries; Who built the Easter Island heads? (The locals) Then there are the non-facts; are the Tolima figurines ancient fighter jets? (No.) And there are the non-artifacts; Is the Yonaguni Monument a sunken city? (No.) You can reach for any of these as a writer and there is a good chance your reader will have encountered them before (or will encounter them later), and that gives the imaginary world you are creating an extra weight of citation. But at the same time, you are aiding in the spread of misinformation, and some of this misinformation is applied towards specific and dangerous social goals.

I can easily throw out references to the Bone Wars, the mysterious disappearance of the best specimens of "Peking Man," the recent homo floresiensis and of course eoanthropus dawsoni (aka the Piltdown Hoax) to establish a fictional world where modern humanity is actually a recent interloper who migrated here from the land of the Fae (and have ancestral memories of magic and wee folk and all that). But when I do so, I am adding emphasis to citations of the same by Creationists who have successfully thrown barriers in the way of teaching science in my local schools!

To more specifics. Within the 119,000 words of my current fanfic I've already talked about several well-known archaeological mysteries (or "non-mysteries"). Whatever the line it is that I'm trying hard not to cross, I don't feel as if I crossed it yet.

I mention the Voynich Manuscript. In fact, I provide my own "explanation" for it. This doesn't bother me because the facts about the manuscript (its date of creation, what is known of its provenience) are not disputed in my story. And although I offer a theory, there are many, many theories out there, all with approximately equal support. So I am not throwing weight on a single disputed point. Lastly, my theory is rooted in the specific mythology of a certain television show. Saying the equivalent of "The sphinx's nose was shot off by vacationing Klingons" adds nothing to any existing disputes.

I make a similar throw-away on the Phaistos Disc. My explanation of the Golem of Prague is slightly more troubling, but just in one aspect. The Golem is firmly understood as mythology in the first place; it isn't an established or even contentious bit of history. And there are similarly many, many golem stories. And also similarly to the example above, my spoof explanation is entirely dependent on the mythology of a specific television show.

I do, however, make remarks about the reality of various and sundry copies of the Spear of Longinus. But I am not sure this is particularly in contention. I do no, in manuscript, specifically attack any singular example and say that this one is not acceptable as a relic.

What bothers me more in this sequence is I do a POV scene from an actual historical character. However; there are many tales already told about High Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, and I hope I was somewhat successful in framing that excerpt so it can be understood to be another fictional exploit by the High Rabbi in the style of the Jewish fables and tales.

(I also have a manuscript discovered in Prague that details the death of Grand Duke Vytautas during the Battle of Grunwald. But once again, my embellishment does not add or subtract to any contentious history.)

The minefield I am walking into now, however, is this; in the universe of the Stargate franchise, not only were early humans visited by aliens, some of these aliens interbred with humans, passed themselves off as gods and inspired worship, and may have gifted insights into technologies such as agriculture and writing.

This is insulting to humanity and counter-factual to everything known from the archaeological and paleontological record. It supports an anti-science bias. And there is worse. There are several specific threads of pseudo-archaeological and supernatural belief that demon-like creatures -- fallen angels, evil aliens -- actively interbred with humanity and are working through their progeny to destroy modern humanity. That these variously-named "Nephilim" control the media, suppress science, push dangerous "vaccines" (which are of course poisons), even "encourage homosexuality" (somehow) to further degrade, enslave, and destroy all good right-thinking people.

(This is not an American peculiarity but it is particularly strong here).

For reasons of my plot I would like to have a character theorize that Monks Mound in Illinois was constructed with the aid of some of the "Ancient" race -- survivors of Atlantis, in fact -- and that some modern people carry a genetic signature (as given in the Stargate franchise, the "ATA Gene") as a result of interbreeding. But in doing so, I am playing directly into the abhorrent belief set above. What I haven't decided, however, is that whether, as bad as these ideas are by themselves, tying them into specific pseudo-archeological or counterfactual claims makes it worse.

I feel as if it does. Let me go to a completely different example. Say I want to establish some sort of mental powers (psychokinesis, say) in the world of some story I'm writing. As tempting as it might be, I'd never roll out the old "we only use 70% of our brains" canard. Because this is bad science, but more specifically than that, this is a well-entrenched bit of falsehood that should be confronted wherever it is found. It may not mean anything beyond itself (except for supporting a credulous and at least slightly anti-science viewpoint). If I mentioned it at all, it would be to point out that it is wrong. And not simply to naysay, but to use it as a teaching moment as to how actual science is done and give some glimpse into the state of the art of neurology (that we've moved a wee bit beyond phrenology, and we do in fact have some idea how our brains work).

Saying "A certain hawk-nosed centurion commanded his men to destroy the nose of The Great Sphinx as it was insulting to him" does little harm because it isn't a well-established counter-factual. Saying "Klingons on shore leave shot it off" is even less damaging (except to the Sphinx) because Klingons are clearly fictional. Saying "Caesar accidentally damaged the Sphinx when attempting to transport it back to Rome" is more dangerous as the specificity of detail gives it a surface plausibility -- claiming the same of Napoleon is worse as it would be within keeping of his documented behavior and is more likely to be believed without supporting citation. Saying, however, "The original broad, flat nose of the Sphinx was destroyed in the 18th century in order to cover up the actual racial identity of the rulers of the Old Kingdom" plays into an existing dialog and is, of the above, the worst of all (regardless of what radial characteristics you wish to establish as being "proven" by the nose in question).

So what is the conclusion? Obviously, be aware and respectful, and do the research. It is one thing to propagate an error due to a necessary dramatic choice, and another to do so out of ignorance that it is an error. Somehow it is worse. Don't ask me to defend why -- well, most likely because knowing the truth gives you more tools; to use the thing but to clue in the reader what you are doing, or to find a better option.

This is akin to my argument about realism in Science Fiction -- which overlaps into realism in doing Historical Fiction. The reaction in far too many writers (and certainly the defense resorted to by counter-critics) is that it is necessary to stretch the truth in order to make the story work.

Balderdash. Yes, it may be, but the actual error being made is starting with story and then trying to fit the facts to it. And this is an error of creativity. When you start with the thing you are going to reach for facts to support (and if you fail to find facts, then falsehoods) is that the bucket you are reaching into for that original idea is shallow. You are aping whatever was done in fiction already. Often what's been done to death. I hear this cry about the nasty old facts stifling ones creativity, but what I see being done is tired retread.

If you start with the research, you discover the real world is vastly more complex and interesting than whatever you might have imagined. I could easily create a fictional Pharaoh out of hazy memories of all the fictional ones I'd seen before (Ten Commandments et al). Or I could read up; the heretic Akhenaten, the cross-dressing Hatshepsut, the boy king Tutankhamen -- would I have dreamed up anyone as interesting as them?

The time to go sideways is after you've researched the real thing and tried to work with it. Trying to write Space Opera these days puts one up against the light-speed limit and forces you to either bend some physics or get really creative.

And that I guess is my best advice. Do the work. Don't reach for the easy "Bermuda Triangle" or "Nazca Lines" -- unless you can say something new and original about them and in that way refuse to simply pass on and add to the echo chamber reinforcement of the existing anti-science claims.

And I am glad that, even though he is living in a fictional world in which Ancient Aliens are a thing, my Dr. Zahi Hawass was able to use the words of his real-life counterpart and educate the reader; "My people did not need help to make a pile of rocks."

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