(Yesterday’s review of Chasing The Sun reminded me of this book, whose review I never published here. It shares similarities of viewpoint and of pacing problems. Given that and also current events, I’m posting this review.)
The story of an Arab doctor in Tel Aviv whose wife commits a suicide attack is vividly written, and the relevance to modern times is obvious.
Dr. Jaafari’s life is turned upside down following a suicide bombing, when it emerges that his wife died in the blast – not as a victim but as the perpetrator. Jaafari goes through denial, which then turns to curiousity: how could this happen without his knowledge? He investigates his wife’s secret life while still in shock, and his investigation puts him in danger.
The setting is fleshed out in great detail, which is nice for context, and Jaafari’s inner life goes on in great detail, which is useful at first. However, the plot often has to wait while extensive description of minutiae are provided in both setting and feeling. The story is also glosses over much of the politics, giving it to us in exposition instead of story. Worth reading for an on-the-ground look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but ultimately more a story of a man’s inner life, and not a great one at that.
I get one free book a month from Amazon Prime, and so far it’s delivered readable fiction – nothing lifechanging, but enough to get me through a domestic flight. Chasing The Sun fits this mold: competent but ultimately flawed.
Andres Jimenez, label manufacturing magnate in 1992 Lima, is experiencing marital troubles at the time the country is undergoing political turmoil. Car bombs and kidnappings have become more common, and soon Andres is affected when his wife Marabela is taken and held for ransom. Andres is eager to get her back, and with the help of professional negotiator Guillermo, he works to get the money to secure the release of the mother of his two children. His company, his life’s work, is at stake and his pushy mother is urging him to sell to a competitor. Meanwhile, Andres reaches out to an old friend who went through the same thing…
The setup is intriguing but the book is somewhat meandering and ultimately feels incomplete.* The kidnapping plot which drives the action suffers from the overly descriptive prose which kills any momentum. In parts this works – it captures the frustration of waiting and gives more space to the setting, but at times it feels like filler. The second half of the book also switches viewpoints and focus a bit, with makes the book feel slightly disjointed.
An okay read, although I found myself skipping descriptive passages after a while.
*I’ve noticed that most of the books whose endings I find incomplete are written by women. Not sure if that means anything.
I’ve written many times about my general disdain for fiction in books and movies that aren’t realistic in their representations of human nature (and thus aren’t, per Alex Tabarrok, hard social science fiction). My take was that “it’s not useful to to explore what people would do in a world where people do things that people wouldn’t do.” Now another George Mason economist blogger, Bryan Caplan, discusses a similar topic using a movie I mocked for the same reasons in the post I linked above (The Purge):
I’m not a hard sci-fi guy. But I do place great artistic value on emotional truth. The Purge has none. A single-digit percentage of young males probably do harbor murderous urges, but that’s about the size of it. And even young males with homicidal tendencies usually need intense social pressure to overcome their (a) natural squeamishness, and (b) natural cowardice. Trying to murder alert, well-armed strangers in their own homes is very dangerous even if you feel the urge to do so – a truism that the plot bears out ad nauseum.
What Caplan calls “emotional truth” is what I’ve tried to define as my main demand of good writing: a realistic depiction of human behavior. Obviously everyone agrees The Purge is the opposite of that (well, almost everyone – this person seems to think it’s a realistic take on how the rich really want to murder the poor at every turn), but I think it’s worth pointing out these failures so they can be purged (I’m sorry) from our cultural world.
I’ve been pondering at length (see parts one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, and eight) the nature of good and bad narrative writing (in the broader sense that includes TV and movies) and what an exacting audience member such as myself likes and dislikes in such writing. Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution weighs in and offers a useful distinction:
Hard science-fiction is science fiction that respects the findings and constraints of contemporary science. By analogy, I deem hard social science fiction* to be science fiction that respects the findings and constraints of contemporary social science especially economics but also politics, sociology and other fields. Absent specific technology device such as a worm-hole, hard science fiction rejects faster than light travel as little more than fantasy. I consider Eden-like future communist societies similarly fantastical. Nothing wrong with fantasy as entertainment, of course, just so long as you don’t try to implement it here on earth.
Tabarrok’s take is more policy-oriented, but since I share many of his econo-political views, I don’t mind. More importantly, he’s offered me excellent terminology in the distinction between hard and soft science and social science fiction. Many of my complaints in the posts link above seem to be complaints about pieces of fiction that are soft social sci-fi but claim to be hard social sci-fi. I’ve previously referenced movies that pretend to extend current trends into an inevitably dystopian future as a warning against continuing such trends – recently, the topic is inevitably wealth inequality. I’ve criticized these movies for their lack of verisimilitude, and I think it’s their pretense of realism that bothered me so. Tabarrok’s terminology captures my issues with such writing.
I recently quoted blog-favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Twitter feed and called him a fellow member of the “difficult audience,” the group of people (of which I am one) that nitpick movies/TV shows/books for scientific and social-scientific accuracy. His tweets got quite a bit of media attention, and the man himself responded. In the interest of full disclosure, here’s an excerpt, but the whole thing is short and worth reading:
What few people recognize is that science experts don’t line up to critique Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs or Man of Steel or Transformers or The Avengers. These films offer no premise of portraying a physical reality. Imagine the absurdity of me critiquing the Lion King: “Lions can’t talk. And if they could, they wouldn’t be speaking English. And Simba would have simply eaten Pumba early in the film.”
The converse is also true. If a film happens to portray an awesome bit of science when there’s otherwise no premise of scientific accuracy, then I’m first in line to notice.
People who know me know I’m a huge fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson. My favorite piece of his is The Perimeter of Ignorance, and I recommend both the essay and the presentation. I’ve written quite a bit about good, bad, and enjoyable (either good or bad) writing lately, and I was happy to find Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeting away about the movie Gravity. Tyson, of course, is a space expert, and much of the action takes place somewhere in orbit around earth (I haven’t seen the movie.) Tyson asks a few pointed questions:
These are all things most of us wouldn’t notice, and I would probably consider them acceptable breaks from reality. Tyson admits he likes the movie, and I’m not particularly bothered by the inaccuracies. It wouldn’t be hard to concoct a scenario in which the above “mysteries” aren’t mysteries (“An explosion on a new Chinese space station that is near the Hubble telescope forces a medical doctor to…”) so I forgive the movie makers for not forcing us through those motions. I am definitely glad that someone is noticing the discrepancies. It’s important to keep them honest.
I praised yesterday the good work of the fine people on the internet who dissect TV shows, movies, and books, for their contribution in the rising quality on the high end in these areas. I referred to them, collectively, as a difficult audience – one that won’t let you get away with basic factual errors or implausible decisions that make your life easier as a writer or director. I like to consider myself a fellow traveler of this group, and after writing about it occurred to me why some people write so passionately about fiction with the aim of improving it. Yes, some people are just self-righteous and enjoy criticizing others, but mostly, we, too, want to enjoy ourselves. Humans enjoy stories – we are a narrative species – and we, too, crave the same sort of entertainment everyone else wants. Our problem is that we can’t overlook the unnecessary flaws we encounter, and that takes a lot of the fun out of fiction for us.
I don’t want us to sound like a humorless crowd – we’re not. We love 30 Rock as much as anyone, and it’s hardly the model of internal consistency. We’ll suspend disbelief and we’ll go as far as anyone to justify why this or that character made a stupid decision. The problem arises when we’re hit with something that undermines the entire premise of what we’re watching, and immediately the joy is gone.
It’s happened to me several times this past week while watching standup, which I do a lot.I got to see Bill Burr live, and he repeated a mistake about (over)population he’s made before. He talked about the need to reduce the world population to 500 million, and then even questioned that number as too high, “like, if we lost this one guy, we suddenly wouldn’t know how to make toothpaste?” Burr was mostly wrong here, without knowing why: there is no person on Earth who knows how to make toothpaste. There isn’t a single person on Earth who knows how to make anything, basically, as L.E. Reid’s old essay I, Pencil showed over half a century ago. At 500 million, a single person’s contribution to anything is basically negligible. At smaller numbers, everyone matters – the Maori regressed big time when their population dwindled – but at that level, complex technology doesn’t exist anyway. (So Bill Burr’s previous wish for a worldwide population of 30,000 so everyone could get Super Bowl tickets is nonsensical on its face.)
In a similar vein, Louis CK, another excellent performer, has a delightful misanthropic strain and jokes that the Judeo-Christian God, were he to return, would be upset with humanity for what they’ve done to the planet. Worth watching but NSFW:
I like this bit. It makes me laugh. And yet, while I watch it, I still think how wrong he is about human well-being. Our times are richer and healthier, and happier than any previous ones, and almost everyone alive today is better off than they would have been had they been born in biblical times. More importantly, there are 7 billion people living today, impossible to do had we followed Louis CK’s “God’s” instructions and lived off the earth.
In thinking about this post, I remembered an old joke by Christian Finnegan, mocking his wife’s chihuahua and saying, “I wish Darwin was still alive so I could just show him my wife’s dog, like, “uh, excuse me, Chuck, uh, explain that thing right there.” Finnegan argues that neither evolution nor intelligent design could result in such an “eyeball caddy” that shivers at 80 degrees. I smile, and then I think how badly Christian Finnegan misunderstands evolution. Sure, the chihuahua couldn’t be naturally selected, and it wasn’t – it was artificially selected. The reason for the chihuahua isn’t an intelligent creator or natural selection. If you want to blame someone, blame the Aztecs.
I keepwritingposts about writing, and the things that differentiate good writing from bad, with a big nod to writers who keep things realistic in a few key areas. Specifically, I’ve argued that the setting must be realistic, in the sense that it would logically emerge from the premises, and that character decisions must be realistic, in the sense that they are consistent with the mentality of the character and the incentives he faces. So, on the former, I am perfectly fine with space robots, as long they and the humans they interact with don’t act in galactically stupid ways. On the latter, I’m happy to concede that some people are insane and would do irrational things (leave clues for the police or challenge a rival just for the thrill), but their behavior should then be internally consistent. I realize this makes me a far more difficult audience than most people – the Transformers franchise has grossed nearly $3 billion worldwide – but I think the world (or at least the West) is becoming a more sophisticated audience.
For example, there is an emerging consensus that we live in a golden age of television. The best shows on TV today are far superior to even those a decade ago (just compare them), and the worst shows get filtered out much faster than they used to be. The system isn’t perfect, of course, but I believe it’s improving (though I have no data to back up the intuition). I also have no real data for my pet theory that the reason for the improving quality of today’s scripted TV* is the rise of feedback and commentary on the internet. With shows rerunning more often, more people writing about TV online, more people discussing TV in forums and message boards, and Facebook and Twitter allowing people to share opinions instantly, it’s becoming more and more important to get things right. There are tons of sites dedicated to dissecting, discussing, analyzing, criticizing, and, in a basic sense, holding accountable the TV shows of our day. There are sites discussing show after show, looking for and cataloging plot holes, and each one comes with message boards and comment sections of people taking apart every scene, line, and character. The rising level of consumer sophistication means improvement in the product. So enjoy the Transformers, if you must, but be grateful to those pickier souls who demand – and get – the top shelf TV we now have.
*I believe that movies are fundamentally different from both writing and TV, because of the limited time and format. Steven Johnson explains the difference in his superb book Everything Bad Is Good For You.
I said yesterday that I’d continue my thoughts on good vs bad fiction writing. This has been on my mind as I’ve contemplating a few novel-length projects myself, and I keep running into plotting difficulties. Often I find an easy way to write my way out of those places, but only by doing some of those things that I hate in other people’s writing – coincidences, luck, fortuitous timing, or bad decisions. These things aren’t necessarily bad writing – Charles Dickens loved himself a good coincidence – but they tend to bother me. I often find myself explaining away plot holes in movies, so I am willing to suspend disbelief as much as anyone, but I simply don’t enjoy authors who write themselves into a corner through convenience. TV Tropes, a highly addictive site, lists many of the frequently used such shortcuts in narrative fiction.
I like writing in the least convenient possible world, a rationalist technique that lines up the world against you to make sure your ideas still stand up. Writing in this way means avoiding the fortunate coincidences that let your hero win – your hero should win even with no lucky breaks. (Obviously, luck can be a theme itself, in which case it’s fair game.) I’m always disappointed when a criminal mastermind is undone by a stupid mistake that someone capable of putting his plan together would be unlikely to make – how impressive is a hero who defeats such a bumbling fool? I also hate villains who are undone by their psychological compulsions to defeat the hero a certain way, but that can sometimes be excused as a legitimate point – the kind of person who would put such a plan together would also be likely to have other bad character traits. For a list of silly things supervillains tend to do that ruin the quality of writing, see again TV Tropes: The Evil Overlord Checklist.
I’ve praised Joss Whedon in the past for impressive writing in both “Firefly”/”Serenity” and “Dollhouse,” where he doesn’t stumble into the problems of “Equilibrium” or “Elysium” mentioned above. The difference is that the question Whedon’s staff starts with a defensible premise and seems to ask “what happens if…” Sometimes this “if” is a ludicrous technology as in Dollhouse, but that’s an appropriate way to veer from reality – technological change happens, and it’s interesting to explore what-if scenarios even with unrealistic technology. Bad writing instead picks an intriguing premise (“Crime is legal!”) and barely bother to justify it, even if it is based on unrealistic actions. It’s not useful to to explore what people would do in a world where people do things that people wouldn’t do. Some say that it doesn’t have to be realistic to be fun (true) but then it can’t be expected to be taken seriously. We can’t really draw any conclusions built on such faulty premises, and anyone who thinks they’re making a political statement (like The Purge) is wrong. And you already know that I hate it when people who should not feel good about themselves feel good about themselves.
I wrote a while ago about how a couple of futuristic settings approached a similar situation: the movie Equilibrium was set in a society where humans strive to eradicate emotion and feeling to avoid World War IV, while Joss Whedon’s Serenity gives us a society that fell apart once emotions were chemically suppressed. I argued that the former is nonsensical while the latter is plausible, and that science-fiction tends to make more such logical errors because, while most people know what is reasonable in their societies, they’re less likely to analyze superficially plausible premises in unfamiliar (future or alien) societies. I was reminded of this as I ran across a review of a largely failed summer film The Purge over at the AV Club:
Set in the near future, the movie portrays a quasi-libertarian America where, once a year, law enforcement and emergency services are shut down, and murder is decriminalized for 12 hours. Couched in the language of pop psychology and American exceptionalism, this so-called Purge is far from an equal-opportunity massacre; for the most part, it consists of the wealthy and well-armed killing the poor for sport. The message is blunt, but cogent: Any system that claims that no protection is the same as equal protection is really a system for protecting the privileged.
Both the movie and the reviewer are wrong on so many levels, but most people won’t think long enough to realize it because “a society that makes crime legal” sounds intriguing and not altogether implausible given the general public’s pessimistic bias. The premise is simply ludicrous, even if you ignore the perils of terrorism and mass destruction: only violent sociopaths might benefit from the legalization of violence. The rich, as a general rule, are not violent thrill seekers, and even in the most unfree and unequal societies the rich don’t hunt the poor for sport. The rich have much more to lose from lawlessness than the poor. But forget all that – any society that tried this wouldn’t last past the first year: a period in which laws and contracts can be broken in a short window would destroy the trust that makes civilization possible. You can’t have a wealthy advanced economy if once a year it’s okay to murder everyone who owes you money. Employment, insurance, medical care: they’re all impossible. The political message that the AV Club finds so cogent is equally nonsensical: for most of human history, pre-government humans had no legal protection for the weak or poor, and they did fine by banding together and keeping the strong in check. (A system worse than the rule of law, to be sure, but workable.)
It’s this political addendum that the movie makers and the reviewer just had to jam in there that made me notice the other reason fiction makes these mistakes with such frequency: ideology.* A writer who wants to make a point that “government must protect the poor lest they become game for the rich” can much more easily do that in a dystopia than the present. It’s easy, especially post-Great Recession, to play on people’s fears of rising inequality and disdain for the proverbial 1%. It’s instinctively plausible that the powerful would be bullies – we’ve known bullies – so it’s easy to accept the premise and ultimately swallow the political message along with it.
The Purge is hardly the first such movie. The anti-colonial and quasi-socialist worldview underpinning the Star Trek universe gave us something so stupid as the Prime Directive, which tells us that “As the right of each sentient species to live in accordance with its normal cultural evolution is considered sacred, no Star Fleet personnel may interfere with the normal and healthy development of alien life and culture.” Basically, the rule defines “don’t interfere” as “leave alone,” thus dooming many life forms to suffering and/or death. Star Fleet’s technology could save many of them, and they would certainly benefit from exchanging knowledge and goods with the rest of the universe.
Another recent project, Elysium, which seems to be about rising inequality but might also be about mass immigration (depending on the political leanings of the viewer), makes huge mistakes in the name of the message. I won’t spoil the movie, but the super-rich, who have escaped to an orbiting paradise, own devices that can cure diseases nearly instantly and at low cost. The ground-bound poor have no access to these things and thus die and suffer unnecessarily. (The rich are bullies!) Nowhere in this worldview is there room for an entrepreneur who sells the healing pods to the world’s poor – surely if enough of them pooled their money, they could get this magic gadget even at high prices. Nowhere is a single philanthropist who donates one of these machines to the world. Instead, the rich have to constantly battle the poor who try to sneak into Elysium. If you’re trying to curse inequality, you have to ignore these more likely events.
This post is already too long and I haven’t even gotten to my thoughts on good vs bad writing in this context, so I’ll get to that tomorrow.
Thoughts on law, economics, sports, food, and pop culture. Not necessarily in that order.