Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Those who do not learn history...

...have an easier time writing a quick novel?

The character Sam Starfall (from the webcomic Freefall) once said, "My lies are more convincing when I don't know what's impossible."

Back when I was hacking out an artwork or two with Poser and Bryce (anyone remember Bryce3d? The textures were legendary. So were the render times) I was a member of a 3d art forum. And the same conversation came up over and over again; a (usually young) artist complaining they didn't want to learn perspective, color theory, the other basics of traditional art. Their stated reason? Because that would negatively impact their ability to bring out their own, unique, vision.

My usual rejoinder is that yes, Outsider Art is a thing, but most of us benefit from learning the rules before we go around breaking them.

But, as I get deeper and deeper into history, archaeology, and the classics, I'm starting to have more sympathy for the "Sam Starfall" school.

When I set out to write a 3,000 word humorous encounter between the Adventure Archaeologists of two different media properties, I had no idea I was going to embark on two years of saturation in the world of the working archaeologist. Familiarity doesn't breed contempt in this case; it breeds a sense of ownership. I care about archaeology now. I feel I owe it to the field to get it right.

And that has made it a lot harder to write certain kinds of stories.

The same pattern is well known in the Science Fiction field. Learning about science gives one an ever-growing sense of obligation to get the science right. And on the other side of that learning curve, over and over a young writer or an outsider will come to the field with some lovely idea they've worked out in their head. They have a sparkling vision of how exciting it looks, how it plays out in the story, etc. And they are appalled to find out science doesn't support it.

If they are a certain kind of writer (looking at you, Hollywood) they ignore or distort the science until that scene, moment, gadget, or whatever happens the way they first imagined it.

Imagine how history works! It is difficult for me to imagine doing the research for a story without getting bit by the history bug. And once bit, it is not only difficult to contemplate getting the facts wrong, it is difficult to contemplate not making the effort to get the facts right.

But then, people do. All the time.

Thing is, what I was too polite to say to those artists of several years ago is that they had the conflict wrong. It wasn't a unique vision against the cold dusty commandments of contrapposto. None of us are raised in a vacuum. Like it or not we are exposed to a lot of artwork. Or, to abandon the art analogy, to history and science.

Much of this is, no surprise, pop culture. It's sort of the definition of the term. And pop culture, sadly, tends towards small reference pools. It is always simplified, and often incorrect.

If you set out with no science background to write SF, you will reach first for the well-used furniture, the warp drives and blasters and so forth that are copies of copies of copies of something from someone who actually opened a science text once. Same for history; your first, untutored stab will be towards what it looked like in a some movie -- not what current thinking is on it.

Used furniture works. It's been tested over and over. It also has the utility of familiarity; with a few broad strokes you can bring the reader in. You don't have to drop endless Maid-and-Butler dialog to explain how this world works.

And there's worse. So pervasive are the simplified, often wrong versions, if you try to go beyond that you may have to fight to get them to abandon their preconceptions. Sometimes it is smarter to stick with what the audience thinks is right and just get on with the story.

I believe there is a purpose, however, in the real. One is that the real is more interesting. And the ideas that come from studying the real are more likely to be unique; reaching for the used furniture supports rolling out the same tired plots as well.

Another is that I feel there is an obligation towards education. Some errors in science and history are not simple accidents, they are part of a larger dialog.

But the last reason is pure self-interest. Because not all of your audience lacks any true grounding in the material. Historians read fiction with historical elements. And science fiction fans, for all the echo chamber they tend to create by conversing within the field, do converse outside of it as well. They may indeed known the science. Some of them will know it better than you do.

And this is where I think this connects to the contract with the reader. A frequently stated myth is that fantasy must be easy to write because anything is possible. Yes, bad fantasy is. To actually unfold a plot, to have conflict, to have suspense, the writer needs to be able to define what is possible and stick to it.

And this is true regardless of the genre. Thing of it is, physics is a real thing that exists outside of a particular work or genre. So is history. So is the real world. It allows for at least some efficiency in explaining the setting. The SF novel may not have the luxury of simply saying "telephone" or "car" and the audience grasping what is meant and what the implications of its presence in the story is. But they can and do say "oxygen" or "gravity."

As long as, that is, the reader and the writer both agree on what oxygen is and how it works. And here is where the writer who does not do the research shoots themselves in the foot. Because the moment they show something from that real world of physics -- or something from the known world of history -- in a way that the reader clearly knows is wrong, they have lost the trust of that reader.

And that means all suspense is gone. The conflict fall apart. The plot has broken, because the reader doesn't know what the writer will make up next. It is as if the cowboy gets out of a tough spot in an otherwise normal-appearing Western by utilizing the ability of horses to fly. You are no longer waiting in suspense for the writer to pull a rabbit out of their hat and extricate the protagonists from the tough spot they are in. You are waiting for them to make some shit up and hand wave the problem away.

So I understand why there are writers that don't want to learn. I sympathize, and as long as they stay clearly within the bounds of a limited set of familiar and agree-upon stock elements they can get away with it. But it will be a stronger book in all senses of the word if they take the harder path.

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