Friday, 28 April 2017

The Truth About Fiction

We would not exist without it.

There are some bizarre reality-fiction interactions. I see a photo of Prince William on the cover of a celebrity magazine in a supermarket, then read about King William V in SM Stirling's Emberverse: kind of like Paolo Roberto in a novel by Stieg Larsson or the sf writers at the beginning of another novel by Stirling. (See the same link.)

A hospital porter smiled at a newspaper headline displayed by his colleague, then asked, "Wha'? In real life or in t'soap?" (See here.) The story was appreciated before it was ascertained whether it was news or fiction.

Human society would be able to exist without any of its present members but not without any human beings. Similarly, fiction would exist even if Sherlock Holmes, Nicholas van Rijn, Dominic Flandry etc had not been created but not without any fictional characters. But there is something else that Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman have articulated in works of graphic fiction. There would be no fictional characters if there were no human beings to imagine them. But also there would be no human beings if there were no fictional characters.

Try to imagine rational beings whose libraries contain only history and science but no fiction. Even if this is possible, such beings would certainly not be human beings. And we would not be the particular people that we are if we had not read about - guess who - Sherlock Holmes, Nicholas van Rijn, Dominic Flandry - and many others.


David Birr said...

A comic book titled *American Flagg!*, published in 1985, included a British-born computer hacker living in the Chicago area in 2031, 35 years after world civilization more-or-less flushed itself down the toilet. (Famine, plague, nukes, governments collapsing, trade collapsing, ALL the usual suspects in just ONE year....) His name was given only as "Bill." One of the female characters, though, told the protagonist:
"On more than one occasion, under influence of obscure and exotic herbs, Bill has shown me tangible and irrefutable evidence that he's the rightful King of England. Straight and sober, he denies it, of course."

Paul Shackley said...

Are there any computers left for him to hack?

David Birr said...

Yeah, TECHNOLOGY didn't quite make it down the drain; what was left in the places that didn't actually get nuked — such as Chicago — was a very cyberpunk society. By 2031 it was actually PROSPERING in some senses of the word, but with rampant corruption, drug use, corruption, neo-fascism, and corruption. Including that "The Plex," formerly known as the United States Government, was cheerfully SELLING the continental United States, people and all, to a South-America-based cartel.

S.M. Stirling said...

Human beings use story and metaphor to understand the world, and I would argue that they do so instinctively -- history itself was originally seen as a branch of literature, not science (or "natural philosophy").

Sean M. Brooks said...

Dear Mr. Stirling and Paul,

And what KIND of intelligent race would literally not understand fiction? I'm not a Star Trek fan, but the Vulcans comes to mind as being a sternly logical, "just the facts" only kind of race.

I've also thought of the Moties of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's THE MOTE IN GOD'S EYE. I think the Moties are mentioned as finding FICTION a strange new concept.


David Birr said...

The Vulcans weren't BORN logical, though: they trained themselves from childhood to suppress their emotions, which were actually so intense and violent that Vulcans had come close to extinction in constant savage war before a charismatic leader came up with the "emotionless logic" idea and talked them into it.

Terry Pratchett's *Discworld* describes dwarves as having little understanding of metaphor (working in dangerous places such as mines teaches people to say EXACTLY and CLEARLY what they mean). DON'T tell a dwarf policeman to "throw the book at" a criminal if you're in a library. So their comprehension of fiction is likewise a bit shaky.

Sean M. Brooks said...

Kaor, DAVID!

That I hadn't known of the Vulcans! I do wonder, however, if it would be POSSIBLE for an entire race or people to so sternly control their emotions and insist on logic only.

Amusing, what you said about Pratchett's dwarves!


S.M. Stirling said...

The thing to remember about logic is that it's a -technique-. A very powerful one, but it's a means, not an end.

The "powerful" one is that logic/reason are powerful solvents of ideas if you start taking them seriously.

Eg., look at the effect of the Socratic negative elenchos on Classical culture; that's why the Athenians killed him.

Sean M. Brooks said...

Dear Mr. Stirling,

I think I see your point about logic, that it's merely a method, not an end in itself. All the same, considering how terrible so much of public discourse and debate has become, a return to emphasizing logic seems like a good idea.

Yes, I can see how the Socratic method, the negative elenchos, led to Socrates' death. As Socrates himself said at his trial, he had become a gadfly, an intolerable irritation to the Athenians.