Tag Archives: writing

Caplan On Emotional Reality In Fiction

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.

Tabarrok And Hard Social Science Fiction

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.

Confessions of a Hopaholic

For my birthday, I was treated to tickets to the Chicago Beer Festival. Held in Union Station, a lovely venue, the festival features beer samples by small and large local, regional, and national breweries. I had an especially great time because it turns out that the craft beer boom of the past decade has manifested itself to a large extent in India Pale Ales (IPAs), whose hoppy bitterness is one of my favorite beer features. (My other favorite, pilsners, are much more difficult to come by.) While some, like Adrienne So, don’t like bitter beers and think the world should change to accommodate people like her, I am enjoying the fact that my prime years coincide with the rise of the IPA. (I don’t, however, like that my lifetime’s pop culture is heavy on zombies, vampires, and housewives.)

In honor of the beer fest, the rise of the IPA, and the pleasant buzz I had Union Station, I tweeted a number of great names for a craft IPA, largely inspired by the fine folks at Hopothesis. Here they are in one place, with corrected spelling and other minor changes.

Nucleus of Hoperative Facts
BeeHop and Rocksteady
Hop And Circumstance
Hop-Up Relievers
Teeny Hopper Movies
1200 Indian Hopees
The Big Hopla
Drrty Hop
A Multinational Hoporation
Click R To Hop The Image
Cash Hop
Black Hops Team
HOPS – whatcha gonna do when they come for you?!
The Egyptian Hopts
Hop Comic
Cornell Defeats Hopstra
Hop Goes The Weasel
Dishoptive Technology
Government Hoperty
The Public Hoption
Phantom of the Hopera
The Hoprah Network
The Hopping Block
Cape of Good Hop
Coitus Interhoptus
Hot Hopic

NDT On The Critique of Science In Film

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.




Legality And Morality In Storytelling

There’s a couple of things that are several years old now that I came across again in relatively quick succession, and it reminded me of why both of them bothered me back then. Specifically, there’s an underlying assumption that things that are illegal are also objectively bad. I obviously disagree. First, to the video:

In relevant part:

“Italian guys do the most evil stuff in the world yet they’re so religious. I’m driving in the car with my friend he’s like, “Hey Russ, check this out. Last night, me and Nicky, we had all these hookers and cocaine. Oh, hold on a minute, we’re passing a church, let me just-“ [crosses himself]

The lyrics are here, but basically, the singer encounters a prostitute, a robber, and an embezzling priest, asks them why they’re evil, and hears them explain that life is tough and sometimes you have to do evil things.

I won’t defend the robber and the embezzler, but are prostitutes and drugs really evil? (No.) Take forced prostitution out of the equation for now, and think about the voluntary interaction – say, a high end call girl. (The reasoning applies at any level, but it gets too easy to say that poor prostitutes are “forced” into it by poverty, and we get bogged down in a discussion of what “force” is.) Who is harmed by the voluntary interaction between a buyer and seller of sex? How are they different from the buyer and seller of a massage? As for drugs, I won’t rehash the arguments against the drug war here, but it’s safe to say I don’t think there’s a reason to make them illegal, let alone consider their use immoral per se.

There’s a reason, of course, at least in Meneve’s case, why he uses these two crimes. He knows they’re not “evil” like he says; he associates with people who engage in that stuff. I doubt he’d feel the same if they robbed gas stations or defrauded the elderly. But that doesn’t mean we should accept the implication that something that is illegal is also wrong. The fact that I notice these things is probably why I consider myself to be a difficult audience.

A Fellow Difficult Viewer

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:

Neil deGrasse Tyson voices his thoughts on the movie GravityThese 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.

Confessions Of A Difficult Audience Member

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.

PS: I’m not the only one who notices things:

The Rise Of The Difficult Audience

I keep writing posts 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.

On Good And Other Writers

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.