Archive | February 2013

Romanticizing the exotic

My Great-uncle Lyle used to tell the story of how his grandparents (my great-great grandparents) married. Great-great-grandpa had been raised a good Irish Catholic boy. He wanted to marry a Native American girl. His priest didn’t believe in interracial marriage, so they ran off to Kansas until they found a minister who would marry them. And that’s how we ended up being Baptists.

Once he told that story within earshot of his brother, my Great-uncle Roy. Roy said that wasn’t quite right. He’d been told that the state they lived in when they met didn’t allow interracial marriage, they’d had to run off to Missouri to marry, then settled in Kansas.

Lyle shrugged, said that great-great-grandma had said it was the priest. Then they both started speculating that it might have been something a bit less noble, such as that they were already living together, so the priest didn’t approve for non-racial reasons.

There are a few problems with the story. One: Missouri didn’t repeal it’s law against interracial marriage until the 1950s. Now, some of those laws only prohibited Whites from marrying Blacks, and didn’t specifically mention Native Americans. I haven’t been able to find out the specifics of Missouri’s law back in the 1880s, but it renders that part of the story a little suspect.

The other is that there’s some doubt about great-great-grandma’s ethnicity. Clearly she told her grandsons that she was full-blooded Choctaw. In the couple of photographs that have survived of her she certainly could pass for Native American. One of my cousins who is into genealogy has found contemporary documents that list her race as either Indian or Choctaw.

But going back one generation further, we find that at different times in his life her father claimed to be from the Choctaw tribe, and other times from the Cherokee. Her mother apparently told at least one person she was “half Indian” at least once. No official records list them as such, but then, since great-great-grandma’s father was born only four years after the passage of the Indian Removal Act, if they had recent Native ancestors, their families would have had reason to keep it secret, or at least minimize it.

Also, the geographical location of the families of both of great-great-grandma’s parents for several prior generations in northwestern Virginia, doesn’t make the Choctaw connection very likely, as the tribe’s traditional territory was south of Virginia.

Finally, records indicate Great-great grandma was born in Kansas in the county where she married Great-great grandpa. No indication of an elopement at all. He was born in Ohio, and appears to have met her after coming out west to “seek his fortune.”

A lot has been written about why some U.S. white families claim some Native American heritage when little evidence exists, and also why virtually no U.S. whites ever admit any African ancestry. I’m sure those sociological reasons play into our family’s excursion into this genealogical conjecture.

The whole thing amounts to a personal “just-so” story—an unverifiable and unfalsifiable narrative to explain a tradition, a biological trait, or a behavior. For instance, my Great-grandmother I. wanted white hair as she got older. Her hair stubbornly remained black, with only a very modest sprinkling of silver right up to the end. She always attributed it to “Mother’s people,” saying that her mother and maternal grandmother had dark hair that never went gray. My two great-uncles both took pride in their versions of the story because it seemed to cast our ancestors as independent people unfettered by societal conventions. Great-uncle Lyle usually brought up the story whenever someone in the family made any sort of racist comment, and concluding with an admonition against racism.

My amateur-genealogist cousin has uncovered a lot of family stories indicating that other descendants of our great-great-great grandparents would bring up the supposed Native American heritage as an excuse for being short-tempered; a bit less noble than my great-uncles’ take, but not really any more sensical.

For a long time I thought of the story as a sort of affirmation of my own non-heterosexuality. If these ancestors could defy the social and legal forces that condemned their love, raise five daughters who all went out to have families of their own (all seeming to live happy lives as productive members of society), then no one in my family had the right to condemn my love.

The narrative each generation of the family wove fit their own sensibilities, projecting our own notions about what is right and proper (and whether “proper” is a good thing or a bad thing) onto the previous generations’ stories. I don’t think that’s wrong, per se. I loved and admired my grandmother, great-grandparents, and great-uncles for various things they did while we were together, and am happy to keep their memories alive now that they’re gone. They were each attempting to do the same thing for the previous generations that I didn’t get to meet personally, and hoped that perhaps I would help keep those memories alive, too.

Memory isn’t the same thing as fact. Even in our own lives, so we shouldn’t be surprised to discover that memories passed down have taken on a life of their own that strays away from the purely factual.

Did my great-great grandparents elope? Doesn’t look like it. Was Great-great grandma Native American? Can’t verify it. Was Great-uncle Lyle correct to condemn racism? Absolutely.

Maybe his facts weren’t right, but the point he always made was that despite appearances, we’re all descended from the same big, tangled family tree. That it doesn’t matter where some of the intervening ancestors came from, because ultimately we’re all human. And that’s truth, which sometimes is different than fact.

This time it’s (not so) personal

When I wrote about how people process history and, more specifically, how believable character motivation in fiction is when based upon distant historical events, a few people pointed to ethnic conflicts which have gone on for generations as a counterexample. I had almost talked about that in the original post, but decided that might be one digression too many.

It’s certainly true that such conflicts have raged on for many generations, sometimes spanning centuries. The key here, I think, is that word “spanning.” People aren’t just holding a grudge about the injustice visited upon an ancestor 11 centuries ago, they are holding a grudge about indignities and atrocities they have witnessed themselves (or experienced the aftereffects of themselves), which they perceive to be a continuation of hundreds of other injustices going all of the way back to that original one.

For instance, a young man may grow up hearing tales from a very young age about how his father was killed by those evil Freedonians when he was just a babe, just as a couple of uncles, great-aunts and great-uncles, and so on where unjustly arrested, or tortured, or raped, or killed previously. The Freedonians have always hated the Sylvanians, he is told. Since he is a Sylvanian, they must hate him, too. Everything bad that happens to him in his life, he blames on the Freedonians, either directly because a Freedonian is present, or indirectly because he believes his hardships would be fewer if they hadn’t taken his father from him.

The historical narrative of the many past conflicts between Freedonia and Sylvania provide a context to his personal frustrations and disappointments. Tales of particularly egregious atrocities from the past serve as a rationalization for any actions against Freedonians he takes. Or excuses for any atrocities that others may point out Sylvania inflicted upon Freedonia.

There is also a sort of compound-interest effect. The young man was raised by people who had internalized their own victimization until it metastasized. People brimming over with hatred are not very good at nurturing. The more generations in a row this happens, the less likely each new generation is going to be to empathize with people they perceive as “other.”

The problem is that anyone who has not been raised in the same culture, has not witnessed similar injustices, has not experienced first hand the animosity between the two groups, has a very hard time understanding what the fuss is all about. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read or heard someone ask about troubles in the Middle East, or Subsaharan Africa, or Eastern Europe, “Why can’t they just come to a reasonable settlement?”

Which gets us back to the author’s difficulty.

In order to make a reader care as much about the injustices inflicted by the Freedonians as your Sylvanian protagonist, you have to put the reader in your protagonist’s shoes. It’s not enough to have one of your characters lecture another, “As you know, Bob, the Freedonians are a merciless, hateful people.” You have to show them being merciless. You have to show your protagonist suffering at their hands.

That requires telling the story of how these sorts of age-old hatred are perpetuated because they are renewed again and again with each new generation. Even then, most readers are going to see all those past actions as abstractions. They may sympathize with your protagonist, but they’ll also wonder why he can’t see how odd it is to hold a person living now responsible for actions that took place hundreds of years before that person was born.

Which is a good question to raise. There’s a lot of good drama you can wring out of that sort of situation. If that’s the kind of story you want to tell, go for it! But that means going all in. No half-measures. No long expository dump where one character lectures another about the 1200 year history of mutual failed (but not for lack of trying) genocide between Freedonia and Sylvania.

Show it, don’t tell it.

Nothing wrong with history

When I wrote about the problematic way some fantasy authors treat time, I alluded to some historic events from 1100 years ago in the real world in order to make my point. Since one of the points I was making was that events hundreds or thousands of years in the past are poor choices for motivating your characters, my allusion might appear to be a contradiction.

But there’s a difference between using history and misusing it.

In the previous post, while I alluded to historical events, I tried to do so in such a way that a reader who knew nothing about the events would still get the point. I happen to be one of those people who is interested in history, so I knew a little bit about Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, who happens to be an ancestor of the current English Royal Family. So I could make the allusion.

Whether you are writing epic fantasy, far future science fiction, or even contemporary fiction, some of your characters will know a lot about the history of their world. But a lot of them won’t. And even the ones who do, aren’t likely to make day-to-day decisions based on that distant historical data.

In the fantasy novel I’m currently working on, for instance, some plot points hinge on something which happened 70 years prior to the current date. At that time, a supernatural creature bent on conquest was thwarted. The creature is trying again, but most of the characters in the current plot don’t know about those past events. For instance, one of the main characters begins the story being accused of murdering someone just a few days before the novel begins. His motivation is to find out who actually killed the other guy and why. And since the victim was his former mentor, he’s probably going to want to exact some revenge when he finds them. As the plot unfolds, as he learns why the victim was killed, he becomes aware of those events 70 years prior, but when he resolves his plot at the end of the story, his motivation will be avenging his friend and clearing his own name.

Because it is a fantasy novel (I usually describe it as a light fantasy in an epic fantasy wrapper), some of the characters are longer-lived than a typical human. One of the other main characters is old enough that she was actually involved in the events 70 years ago. She provides most of the link to those events for the reader. But even so, her motivation in this story is to try to recover a holy relic which has recently been stolen, and figure out whether an old friend who has been implicated is responsible or not.

There are a few other characters who are aware of the events either because they are history buffs or, like the one mentioned above, they are old enough to have experienced them. Those include a couple of supernatural beings who are also aware of somewhat related events going back much further in time. Most of those things are never going to be mentioned in the story. The few that are, will be mentioned in passing to provide a bit of verisimilitude. Or to set up a joke (it is a light fantasy, so humor drives a lot of my decisions as the author).

As the author, I have to be aware of the history of the characters in order to write them. But sometimes that awareness is in broad outline. The Mother of All Dragons, who is a peripheral character in this novel, obviously is extremely old and has a memory spanning back millennia. I haven’t written down an extended timeline of her life spanning all those centuries. There are a few key events in her life that I have nailed down, but the rest is left open. In part, because the more time I spend figuring that out and writing it down, the less time I spend telling the story I want to tell. I don’t need all the rest of that detail for this story.

And the needs of the story must trump everything else.

Many tasks facing a storyteller are similar to tightrope walking: one must strike a balance while moving forward. While it’s perfectly true to tell someone attempting to walk across a tightrope of the dangers of leaning too far to the left, that does not mean there is no danger in leaning too far the other way.

Time doesn’t work that way

Last year I bought an audiobook based on the recommendation of an acquaintance, along with several favorable reviews. The opening chapter was a bit heavy on the description for my taste—I don’t need to know the precise color, width, and material composition of every article of clothing on every character with a speaking role in order to follow the plot, for instance.

But when the author finally stopped describing the characters and let them interact, the dialog was good and the characters engaging.

Around about chapter four the author fell into the trap of many epic fantasy-type tales by having the older, experienced character give a long lecture about the history of the world to the younger, inexperienced character. This is a trap because the world background is seldom as interesting as the authors who do this sort of thing think. Also, a surprising amount of information can be conveyed about the setting of the world in little tidbits sprinkled through the dialog over many scenes. Just have a character mention imperial troops at the border, for example, and the reader will fill in a lot of the gaps accurately enough for the purposes of most plots.

Unfortunately, the lecture then took a terrible turn. “It all seemed settled, but the peace was short-lived, because 400 years later…”

And I hit the stop button right there. When I got home, I deleted the book from my iPhone. I will never recommend this author to anyone, and if anyone asks about her books, I will warn them away.

Why? Because time doesn’t work that way. It had already been established before this chapter that the middle-aged human character was considered almost an old man in this medieval-style settings. Which is entirely in keeping with the realities of that sort of technological level. Therefore, a span of 400 years is approximately 20 generations. No one considers a peace which survives for 20 generations as “short-lived.” Particularly not in largely illiterate societies where the vast majority of people get all of their historical data by word of mouth.

It’s a mistake that writers—particularly writers dabbling in science fiction or fantasy for the first time–make all the time. Starship crew stranded on a habitable planet, is discoved centuries later, and the great-great-great granddaughter of the original ship’s captain is the leader of the community. Not only that, she still knows the passcodes for the computer in the part of the original ship still orbiting. Even more important, she’s similar enough that the computer responds to her voice commands, mistaking her for her ancestor!

Or the rival prince plots the destruction of a neighboring kingdom because an ancestor was betrayed by the other king’s ancestor 1000 years ago.

Really? Do you know who your great-great-great grandfathers were, let alone what any of them did for a living, or where they hid their valuables?

Now, I realize for the more successful royal families, at least some of one’s ancestors are known going back scarily long times. Queen Elizabeth II, for instance, knows her line of descent from Alfred the Great in the Ninth Century. But that sort of thing is the exception, rather than the rule. And even in that exceptional situation, if Her Majesty has any feelings toward Denmark, it is very unlikely that the wars fought over 1100 years ago between Alfred the Great, King of Wessex and Guthrum, King of the Dans, loom as large in those feelings as events that have happened in her own lifetime.

Epic fantasy gets its name from the tradition of Greek poetic tales outlining the grand sweep of the history of a nation or many nations. So I understand where the impulse to plot that sort mythic chronicle comes from. But even Homer’s Iliad, despite covering vast aspects of the Trojan War, remains focused throughout on the anger of Achilles and why it is directed at Agamemnon. The poem alludes to (and sometimes goes into detail about) historical and legendary events that led many of the supporting cast to the situation, but the story itself is about just a few weeks at the end of a war.

And at least the epic Greek poets had the excuse of having gods taking active roles in the action, so that beings whose memories span the centuries of history behind the events are actually walking around, talking to the other characters. If your characters are all ordinary humans living ordinary lifespans, history is going to be more of an abstraction. Zeus can hold a grudge for centuries, but John the Farmer will be motivated by events within his personal experience and memory.

And that’s the sort of motivation you can make your readers care about.


Related:

Not all reasons are reasonable

Several years ago I was browsing in a bookstore.

Now that I think of it, a lot more of my personal anecdotes probably ought to begin with that line than usually do. But I digress…

I picked up a paperback that had an interesting title. The back cover description gave the impression that the book was a parody of noir detective novels such as The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep, but with demons and faeries and werewolves and the like. I’ve been a fan of both science fiction/fantasy and detective stories for longer than I can remember, so this could be right up my alley.

Except, as I said, the description made it seem like a parody. Sometimes parodies are great. Sometimes they are just mediocre. And sometimes they are nothing more than mean-spirited dreck.

The back cover also had a photograph of the author. And the photograph was not encouraging. Everything about the stern-faced man’s pose, expression, and even hairstyle typified a kind of fan or writer I had met far too many times throughout my years in the fandom. They espoused a philosophy of social darwinism that holds most of the human race in contempt. Their idea of humor always involves belittling others while drawing attention to their own superior command of vocabulary, or (alleged) facts, or logic.

The only thing I enjoyed less than having conversations with them was reading anything they wrote. So I was quite certain this guy’s idea of a parody would be all about the mockery, with a healthy slathering of self-importance and self-congratulation at his clever turns of phrases.

The very brief author bio included beside the photo mentioned martial arts.

Every one of those aforementioned unpleasant fans who had been martial arts enthusiasts had been misogynist homophobes who were constantly explaining to people that they weren’t racist, but…

I put the book back on the shelf.

Several years later, through a series of coincidences including recommendations from friends who were the opposite of the kind of person I had inferred the author to be, I found myself downloading some sample chapters of the audiobook version of the first book in the series.

I enjoyed the sample. I found the main character very engaging and I wanted to know how the story ended.

So I bought the entire audiobook and listened to it. It was nothing like I expected the book to be, based on my reading of that back cover.

I was still buying books from the Science Fiction Book Club at the time, and they had some omnibus editions collecting the first seven books in the series into a few volumes, so I bought those. They arrived about a month or so before I was laid off at my previous place of employment.

One day, between contracting gigs, I started reading the first book—a few very short days later I had read all seven that I owned. I couldn’t put them down.

I needed to get more.

Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the author in person, even spoke to him very briefly in an autograph line. I spoke with his wife for a teensy bit longer. Between reading his books and short stories, reading some of his commentary, hearing him talk about his life and writing, and seeing him interact with his wife, it’s clear that my assessment was completely wrong. For one thing, those douchebags I had incorrectly lumped him with would never, even with a gun pointed at their head, willingly hold hands with their wife in public—let alone do a sneaky-pinky lock with a sidelong glance and a wink while being interviewed on stage

Which shouldn’t be surprising. I had based my assessment on a photograph and a single phrase in the author bio. The stories aren’t parodies, either. So that description from the back of the paperback was just misleading. As many are.

I could laugh the whole thing off as a very amusing case of forgetting the adage about judging books by their covers. But it isn’t that simple.

The assessment came out of personal experience. I can’t count the number of guys I’ve met—mostly in fannish circles, but not exclusively—who shared that particular combination of beliefs and attitudes. In person, the attitude usually manifests fairly quickly. And they usually just as quickly place me into one of the categories of people they hold in contempt. Of course, since they seem to hold most people in contempt, that isn’t surprising.

They aren’t just unpleasant to be around. Whether they are active in politics or not, they spend a lot of their time trying to convince people of the validity of those social darwinist ideas I mentioned above. That means they advocate policies that threaten me and people I love (not to mention society as a whole). So I have really good motivation to identify people with those attitudes, if for no other reason than to minimize the amount of time I have to spend with them.

We make decision like that every day, without even thinking. While walking down the street, or up a grocery aisle, standing in line at the bank, or selecting a seat on a bus, we assess people on a variety of superficial characteristics, then act accordingly. That gut reaction, that ability to put together a bunch of nonverbal cues to identify people we should be cautious around is a valuable survival trait.

But, having spent my entire life fighting for respect and acceptance in a world that rejects gay men (or any one who doesn’t confirm to certain gender expectations), I understand the dangers of misjudging people.

The reasons behind our gut reactions aren’t logical; they don’t conform to the rules of deductive reasoning. That doesn’t mean they are always wrong. Even if they did conform to the tenets of logic and rational analysis, they wouldn’t always be right, either.

The best we can do is keep as close an eye on ourselves as we do strangers we meet throughout our life. When we recognize a mistake, we can correct it, and learn to be a bit less hasty in the future. And when we’re right, we can feel a little less guilty about the times we weren’t.

Not the cool one

I love The Big Bang Theory. I didn’t expect to. In fact, when I read about the show before it first aired, I was convinced that not only would it be horrible, but that it would obviously be a collection of low-brow humor built around making fun of nerds.

And since I’m a nerd, freak, and a geek from way back, I just didn’t see the point.

Then a pair of friends—both nerds—told me how funny it was. As one said, “Yes, the humor is at the expense of the nerds, but it’s things that are true about nerds. Not only do I know people exactly like them, many times I’ve been the people just like them.”

As I watched it, I’ve had one realization over and over. Every time I start thinking that while I am nerdy, of the four central characters, I’m more like Leonard (the least socially awkward one), Sheldon (the über-est nerd) will do something that is exactly like me. Or I will say something that I realize would be totally in character for Sheldon to say.

For instance, today a friend made a comment on Twitter about President’s Day, and before I knew what I was doing, I had replied to point out that the official Federal holiday is called “Washington’s Birthday Observance.” President’s Day is a completely unofficial name adopted mostly by advertising people. Explaining that to someone is something I could easily see Sheldon doing on the show. Having dipped my toes into Sheldon-land, I might as well leap on in.

I’m old enough that I remember when the Uniform Monday Holiday Act was passed by Congress (it was signed into law during the summer of 1968—between my first and second grades—though it didn’t go into effect until January of ’71). I have quite distinct memories of teachers explaining, after the law was passed, how Lincoln’s Birthday and Washington’s Birthday would no longer be observed as separate holidays, but that a Monday between them would be the new holiday.

Except not one fact in that sentence was true.

Lincoln’s Birthday, February 12, has never been observed as a Federal holiday. Some states at various times have observed it, but as far as I have been able to tell, none of the states I lived in as a child was one of them. I could digress for a bit about how there are no national holidays, and why states are free to ignore federal holidays, and why a Lincoln’s birthday is controversial in some states, but let’s leave that for another day.

Washington’s Birthday, February 22, was observed as a holiday only in the District of Columbia beginning in 1879. It wasn’t until 1885 that an act of Congress declared it a holiday to be observed at all federal agencies and offices throughout the states and territories.

In the 1950s some citizens started lobbying to have March 4, the original Inauguration Day, declared a federal Presidents’ Day holiday to honor the office of the presidency. A bill to name both Lincoln’s Birthday and this March 4 Presidents’ Day as federal holidays in addition to the existing Washington’s Birthday got stalled in Congress in part because some felt that three federal holidays in such close proximity was too much.

By the time the Uniform Monday Holiday bill was introduced, the first draft did specify that the third Monday in February would be observed as Washington and Lincoln Day, but that draft never got out of committee. The bill that was actually passed named the third Monday in February Washington’s Birthday Observance. Lincoln’s Birthday wasn’t included or mentioned.

A couple of states do officially observe a Presidents’ Day, but neither does so in February. Massachusetts recognizes May 29 (John F. Kennedy’s birthday) as Presidents’ Day in honor of the four men from Massachusetts who have served as president thus far: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Calvin Coolidge, and JFK. New Mexico observes a Presidents’ Day to honor all who have served as President, but the holiday is designated as the Friday after Thanksgiving.

Most of the rest of the states recognize the third Monday in February as Washington’s Birthday. In Virginia the official name is George Washington Day. In Alabama, the official name is Washington and Jefferson Day, in honor of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. In Arkansas the official name is George Washington and Daisy Gatson Bates Day, to honor both Washington and Daisy Bates, a civil rights activist.

Currently, only three states officially recognize Lincoln’s Birthday as a holiday: Illinois, Connecticut, and Missouri. All three observe it on the 12th, no matter what day of the week that date falls on.

So the next time someone calls it Presidents’ Day, you’re prepared to set them straight.

Because neither Sheldon nor I can be everywhere.

Explaining my job using only the 1000 most commonly used English words

A few weeks back the xkcd web comic posted a cartoon illustrating how a rocket works using only the 1000 most commonly used words in English. This kicked off the Up Goer Five challenge: describe your job using only words from that list. It’s a lot harder than you might think:

I write and draw to explain hard-to-understand things like computers.

I talk to people who make the hard-to-understand things and figure out how to explain the things to people who have to use the things. I talk to people who have to use the things to find out how they use the things. I show the people who make the things how to make the things easier to understand and use.

I figure out how to write stuff and draw stuff once but use it in many places in a way that if we change it one place it changes at all the other places. I figure out how to make the stuff we write and draw once that appears in many places change in ways that make sense in each place it is used, but not change when it isn’t supposed to.

I figure out where the stuff we write and draw is seen. I figure out how to make the stuff we write and draw be in the places it should be without us doing it each time. I figure out where people who need the stuff we write and draw will look for it. I figure out how to make the stuff we write and draw be in the place people who need it will look for it. I figure out how to keep the stuff we write and draw that most people don’t need out of their way but still easy for the people who need it to find. If figure out how to put the stuff we write and draw where we can find it quickly when we need to change it.

I make the things that makes all the stuff we write and draw do all these things. I keep the things I make working. I fix the things I make when they don’t work. I figure out why other things made by other people but that we have to use are not working, and then figure out how to make them do what we want even though they were never meant to do that.

I do things with words most people don’t know that words can do. If I do it right, the people who use them don’t even realize the words are doing the things. My job is not to make the things I do be noticed. My job is to help people who use the hard-to-explain things know how to use them without knowing they are learning.

This was hard because what I do is extremely meta. The words “information,” “arrange,” “organize,” “design” can’t be used. Even the word “itself” is unavailable, so when I wanted to write that the things we write and draw change themselves depending on where they are being seen, I couldn’t. Oh, and “tool” isn’t allowed. Anyway,

You can try it yourself here.

Names, names, names

In the last two weeks I’ve gotten into at least three conversations with friends and acquaintances about names. Then a long-distance friend explained his names in response to a writing prompt, and I figured the universe was trying to tell me something.

I’ve had a bunch of different names, some given names, some nicknames, some family variants of names, and then there’s an interesting twist on the legal names. Probably best to start at the beginning.

Read More…

Head spaces, part 2

There’s a particular TV show that I like, but don’t watch often. There are certain lazy tendencies in the writing that rub me the wrong way, such as treating technology as magic whenever convenient for the plot. There are other aspects of the show I really enjoy, so I tend to let episodes accumulate on the TiVo, saving them for times when I’m in the mood for some mindless action and adventure.

There’s another show which also uses technology in improbable and impossible ways that I watch faithfully each time a new episode comes out. One of the diffences between the shows is that the second one states its premise upfront, and then tries to stay consistent with that. Yes, what they’re doing is impossible, but it’s the same impossible everytime, and the stories revolve around the question of how people might behave if computers happened to work this way. The first show just plays fast and loose without any thought about whether they’re contradicting something they did in a previous episode.

Neither show is packaged as science fiction. The first one definitely isn’t sci fi. It’s a cop/action show whose writers don’t understand or care about what computers and crime labs really can do and what they can’t.

I have seen discussions on science fictions forums where some fans have objected to the inclusion of the second in a list of sci fi shows currently airing, primarily because the show doesn’t claim to be set in the future, and acts as if all the things they’re doing are possible with our current technology. But the show postulates the existence of a computer that can do things currently impossible, and then it explores what might happen if that were so. That’s the epitome of science fiction.

I can only enjoy the first show if I’m in the right head space. I have to be in the kind of mood where I can give my inner critics the night off, kick back, and just watch a group of interesting characters run from one dangerous situation to another. I have to be in a “I don’t care if it’s wrong” head space.

The second show puts me into its head space. Regardless of whether this is wrong, what might things be like if it were?

That’s not just good science fiction. That’s good fiction. The goal of a story teller should be to draw people into the story. Make this imaginary situation or world so enticing that the reader has to step inside to see what it’s like.

The other kind of story is like mass produced snack food. If it’s there where we happen to be and when we’re hungry (or bored or at least not feeling too full to eat), we’ll pick it up and munch away. But later we may not even remember what it was we ate.

The other kind doesn’t just pull us away from whatever we were doing to check it out, but it leaves us thinking afterward. Like an extremely good meal, we want to linger in the head space of the story after it’s ended.

And that’s the best kind of head space.

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