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Stuff [Jul. 11th, 2010|10:21 pm]
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As I mentioned in my last entry, I've been watching Babylon 5 lately. It's not a perfect show, but it has one big advantage: it's consistent and believable.

Contrast this with Doctor Who. Doctor Who is fun to watch, but if you think about it for more than two seconds you notice it's full of plot holes and contradictions. Things that cause time travel paradoxes that threaten to destroy the universe one episode go without a hitch the next. And the TARDIS, the sonic screwdriver, and the Doctor's biology gain completely different powers no one's ever alluded to depending on the situation. The aliens are hysterically unlikely, often without motives or believable science, the characters will do any old insane thing when it makes the plot slightly more interesting, and everything has either a self-destruct button or an easily findable secret weakness that it takes no efforts to defend against.

But I guess I'm not complaining. If the show was believable, the Doctor would have gotten killed the first time he decided to take on a massive superadvanced alien invasion force by walking right up to them openly with no weapons and no plan. And then they would have had to cancel the show, and then I would lose my chance to look at the pretty actress who plays Amy Pond.

So Doctor Who is not a complete loss. But then there are some shows that go completely beyond the pale of enjoyability, until they become nothing more than overwritten collections of tropes impossible to watch without groaning.

I think the worst offender here is the History Channel and all their programs on the so-called "World War II".

Let's start with the bad guys. Battalions of stormtroopers dressed in all black, check. Secret police, check. Determination to brutally kill everyone who doesn't look like them, check. Leader with a tiny villain mustache and a tendency to go into apopleptic rage when he doesn't get his way, check. All this from a country that was ordinary, believable, and dare I say it sometimes even sympathetic in previous seasons.

I wouldn't even mind the lack of originality if they weren't so heavy-handed about it. Apparently we're supposed to believe that in the middle of the war the Germans attacked their allies the Russians, starting an unwinnable conflict on two fronts, just to show how sneaky and untrustworthy they could be? And that they diverted all their resources to use in making ever bigger and scarier death camps, even in the middle of a huge war? Real people just aren't that evil. And that's not even counting the part where as soon as the plot requires it, they instantly forget about all the racism nonsense and become best buddies with the definitely non-Aryan Japanese.

Not that the good guys are much better. Their leader, Churchill, appeared in a grand total of one episode before, where he was a bumbling general who suffered an embarrassing defeat to the Ottomans of all people in the Battle of Gallipoli. Now, all of a sudden, he's not only Prime Minister, he's not only a brilliant military commander, he's not only the greatest orator of the twentieth century who can convince the British to keep going against all odds, he's also a natural wit who is able to pull out hilarious one-liners practically on demand. I know he's supposed to be the hero, but it's not realistic unless you keep the guy at least vaguely human.

So it's pretty standard "shining amazing good guys who can do no wrong" versus "evil legions of darkness bent on torture and genocide" stuff, totally ignoring the nuances and realities of politics. The actual strategy of the war is barely any better. Just to give one example, in the Battle of the Bulge, a vastly larger force of Germans surround a small Allied battalion and demand they surrender or be killed. The Allied general sends back a single-word reply: "Nuts!". The Germans attack, and, miraculously, the tiny Allied force holds them off long enough for reinforcements to arrive and turn the tide of battle. Whoever wrote this episode obviously had never been within a thousand miles of an actual military.

Probably the worst part was the ending. The British/German story arc gets boring, so they tie it up quickly, have the villain kill himself (on Walpurgisnacht of all days, not exactly subtle) and then totally switch gears to a battle between the Americans and the Japanese in the Pacific. Pretty much the same dichotomy - the Japanese kill, torture, perform medical experiments on prisoners, and frickin' play football with the heads of murdered children, and the Americans are led by a kindly old man in a wheelchair.

Anyway, they spend the whole season building up how the Japanese home islands are a fortress, and the Japanese will never surrender, and there's no way to take the Japanese home islands because they're invincible...and then they realize they totally can't have the Americans take the Japanese home islands so they have no way to wrap up the season.

So they invent a completely implausible superweapon that they've never mentioned until now. Apparently the Americans got some scientists together to invent it, only we never heard anything about it because it was "classified". In two years, the scientists manage to invent a weapon a thousand times more powerful than anything anyone's ever seen before - drawing from, of course, ancient mystical texts. Then they use the superweapon, blow up several Japanese cities easily, and the Japanese surrender. Convenient, isn't it?

...and then, in the entire rest of the show, over five or six different big wars, they never use the superweapon again. Seriously. They have this whole thing about a war in Vietnam that lasts decades and kills tens of thousands of people, and they never wonder if maybe they should consider using the frickin' unstoppable mystical superweapon that they won the last war with. At this point, you're starting to wonder if any of the show's writers have even watched the episodes the other writers made.

I'm not even going to get into the whole subplot about breaking a secret code (cleverly named "Enigma", because the writers couldn't spend more than two seconds thinking up a name for an enigmatic code), the giant superintelligent computer called Colossus (despite this being years before the transistor was even invented), the Soviet strongman whose name means "Man of Steel" in Russian (seriously, between calling the strongman "Man of Steel" and the Frenchman "de Gaulle", whoever came up with the names for this thing ought to be shot).

So yeah. Stay away from the History Channel. Unlike most of the other networks, they don't even try to make their stuff believable.

[User Picture]From: hal_obrien
2010-07-13 01:14 am (UTC)
For all that I can appreciate personal perturbations to your life (and my condolences -- as someone between jobs for a year-and-a-half, I almost always feel some anguish when hearing of someone's work situation becoming unstable)... still, you're basically saying a quasi-random event happened in a quasi-random set of circumstances. Or, to put my Taleb hat on, you're saying a black swan happened to you. The consequences may be regretted, but the event itself is... unsurprising. {shrug}
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[User Picture]From: xiphias
2010-07-13 01:20 am (UTC)
Why would a penguin wearing a fez riding a shark be any more surprising?
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[User Picture]From: hal_obrien
2010-07-13 02:47 am (UTC)
"Why would a penguin wearing a fez riding a shark be any more surprising?"

Mostly because of the fez. You'd both have to get a) a penguin willing to use a human artifact and b) a fez or, more likely, an Indonesian pitji hat (like Sukarno used to wear) south enough for a penguin to encounter it. Penguins and sharks overlap fairly readily; sharks and fezzes/pitji overlap. Fezzes and penguins? Not so much.

OTOH, having been born in Boston and remembering a number of reports of weather like you describe, I'd guesstimate any given point in the Boston area getting that kind of weather in a 30-50 year timeframe. That beats, "really, really unlikely ever," by a reasonable amount.

Edited at 2010-07-13 02:48 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: palmer_kun
2010-07-14 06:47 am (UTC)
I find the idea of a fez wearing penguin to be mundane, all told. There's a long history of humans making animals wear fezzes (and other articles of clothing) for their amusement.
The crossover of a penguin and a locale to supply the hats is not necessary. All it takes is one human bringing one hat into the penguin's habitat, which is hardly a stretch of the imagination.
Similarly, the same could be accomplished by bringing one penguin into an environment with fez-access. This has happened quite a lot over the course of history, with zoos and aquariums.

The shark riding bit... as you say, sharks and penguins co-habiting a locale is common. To be riding is a stretch... I suspect that a penguin merely being on shark-back for a moment, and thus appearing to be deliberately riding, would be sufficient for our purposes, and thus is plausible.

This is all irrelevant though. Under standard fiction guidelines, events that significantly affect the protagonist, yet are beyond his control require purpose...

Otherwise, such a phenomenon will be referred to as an ass-pull.

If a piece of fiction were to posit xiphias as the protagonist and had chronicled his journey in getting this job, then the freak storm would be considered an ass pull. It comes out of nowhere, serves no purpose but to frustrate the protag, and is meaningless in the greater narrative.

Therein lies the key. It serves no purpose.
It frustrates the protag, but it is not conflict. Merely "sucks to be you".

It is, in the end, bad storytelling.
Hence fiction "having to make sense".
Good fiction has to tell a good story.
Reality does not.
Therefore, random meaningless disasters like that flood make for bad stories.

This is acceptable for the news, but not for professional fiction.
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[User Picture]From: palmer_kun
2010-07-14 08:32 pm (UTC)
Also, distinguishing "literary" fiction is both silly and wrong. "Literary" means "pertaining to or of the nature of books and writings". All writings are literary. Any other usage is arbitrary redefinition of a word to promote elitism. This is held up by the fact that nobody can clearly and unambiguously define the term as it's used.

What's even more interesting in your claim of "literary vs genre" is that Watchmen has classed as literary fiction by many... even though it is also clearly genre fiction and a graphic novel to boot.

Finally, your "angles" on the reporting are human interest stories, not news reporting. There is a distinct difference between human interest and factual reporting.
To have unbiased reporting (something held up as a value), you can't add a human interest spin, as that's an inherent bias.


Look. News story. There's no "story arc" here, just a recitation of facts.
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[User Picture]From: sinspired
2010-07-26 02:52 pm (UTC)
I can't help but wonder - has this part of the discussion yet jumped the fez-penguin-wearing shark?
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[User Picture]From: marycatelli
2010-07-16 07:55 pm (UTC)

you omitted a necessary step

Again, respectfully, that's true for genre fiction (sf, mystery, romance), but not so true for literary fiction. If anything, one of the reasons literary types look down upon genre fiction is because of the focus on "good stories.

Where's the step wherein you prove that any of this literary fiction is any good?

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[User Picture]From: marycatelli
2010-07-17 01:50 am (UTC)

Re: you omitted a necessary step

1. No, we're talking about art.

2. The Golden Rule in this case is: argumentum ad misericordiam is a logical fallacy, and therefore should not be invoked, just as you would not want it invoked on you.
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From: (Anonymous)
2011-07-01 03:27 pm (UTC)


Wonderful explanaiton of facts available here.
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[User Picture]From: hal_obrien
2010-07-14 07:41 am (UTC)
"There's a long history of humans making animals wear fezzes (and other articles of clothing) for their amusement."

Right. I'm reminded of Asimov telling about Campbell's skepticism over SF mysteries (quoted here):

"[John] Campbell had often said that a science fiction mystery story was a contradiction in terms; that advances in technology could be used to get detectives out of their difficulties unfairly, and that the readers would therefore be cheated. I sat down to write a story that would be a classic mystery and that would not cheat the reader — and yet would be a true science-fiction story. The result was The Caves of Steel."

In a similar way, having an animal obey human training isn't terribly "strange" -- it's just a way "to get (subjects) out of their difficulties unfairly." To be "strange," it'd presumably have to happen spontaneously in the wild.

If one could plausibly get penguins up north enough to be in reach of one of the oceanic garbage patches, that'd be one thing. But, alas...

It still remains that fiction is always stranger than truth. "Strangeness" is a human artifact, as is fiction, and both are derived from human expectations and imagination. The rest of the universe simply doesn't give a damn.
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[User Picture]From: sjrspike
2010-07-14 01:09 pm (UTC)
Actually RL has provided the answer to that ... apparently, penguins use water temp to navigate -- in one current till they hit the hit another current with a different temp. Well, a bunch of penguins have been bypassing that turn-back point and swimming all the way to Brazil, near the equator. ( http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/10/02/AR2008100204225.html ) So really, how much machination would it take to get a penguin to a garbage patch, or north enough to run into a [GASP!] Previously-Unknown-Garbage-Patch [/GASP!] The real difficulty, it seems, would be the penguin still having the strength to hold onto the shark to ride it, since some haven't had the strength to breathe.
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[User Picture]From: hal_obrien
2010-07-14 07:56 pm (UTC)
Now you're sliding into Brin's Dogma of Otherness territory. Being contrary for the sake of being contrary.
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[User Picture]From: sjrspike
2010-07-15 04:45 pm (UTC)
Now you're sliding into Brin's Dogma of Otherness territory. Being contrary for the sake of being contrary.

Not really; just pointing out that with every solution comes additional opportunities to problem-solve.

The article outlined the exhaustion and other health issues the penguins had in swimming so far past their usual territory, so any writer with any skillz would know that to avoid the worst of the health problems, so the penguin can hold onto the shark for his ride, don't make him swim so far. Ergo, find a garbage patch closer to the penguin's normal habitat. Or if there isn't already a garbage patch where you need it, invent it -- invent a boat/ship that you put in the right place and invent a crewman dumping the ship's garbage overboard. Or get really creative and make the garbage patch out of the flotsam of the boat's sinking, or a plane's water crash-landing.
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[User Picture]From: micheinnz
2010-07-15 07:36 pm (UTC)
The real problem is finding a shark that's going to let a penguin ride it (or grab on, or whatever) without turning said penguin into a tasty snack.
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[User Picture]From: sjrspike
2010-07-16 03:01 am (UTC)
There's always whale sharks.
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[User Picture]From: palmer_kun
2010-07-14 08:44 pm (UTC)
Unfairly? Are you kidding me?
Using something that has been common and standard around the world for decades is "unfairly getting subjects out of their difficulties?"
And with mysteries? Are you saying that fingerprinting is unfair in detective fiction? Or telephones? These are all elements of a "classic mystery".
Meanwhile, training animals has been around for countless millenia, and dressing them up in human clothing has been around for well over a century.
So why is it that using thousand-year-old techniques is "unfair" but using 100 year old technology (fingerprint registries, telephones, automobiles) is not "unfair"? Especially considering that mysteries go back over a thousand years (see "The Three Apples" from 1001 Nights, dated to 9th century).

One does not need science fiction to be "unfair" in a mystery. The greeks came up with the deus ex, and it can be used in any setting in any time frame.

"Bob walked into the Starbucks. After waiting in line for 2 minutes, he ordered a Grande Americano. Taking his coffee, he left for work."

Pure fiction, not even remotely strange.
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[User Picture]From: hal_obrien
2010-07-14 09:23 pm (UTC)
"Unfairly? Are you kidding me?"

If I wasn't before, your use of "No, it isn't!" surely increases the temptation to.

But no... I wasn't kidding, then, or as I continue. (Other than a low-level humorousness that pervades much of my writing. But hey.)

In re your next points, no, using something "common and standard around the world for decades" isn't unfairly getting subjects out of their difficulties. Campbell's point, though, was that sf has the ability to use plot elements that do. The probability of knowing a suspect is lying is greatly enhanced if the questioner is a telepath, for example. Alfred Bester wrote The Demolished Man specifically to address that hypothetical.

The trick is, establishing something is "common and standard around the world for decades," and is therefore something a criminal can account for and counteract against -- that takes time in the narrative.

"Meanwhile, training animals has been around for countless millenia, and dressing them up in human clothing has been around for well over a century."

Yup. However, for most populations of animals, the probability any randomly encountered specimen is going to be one of the ones that's been trained is very small.

Did you know that the Russian composer Aram Khachaturian once described his "Sabre Dance" as no more than a button on the shirt on the body of his work? No? You're not alone. Suppose I mentioned a scenario that involved a shirt button, but I didn't tell you until later it was that metaphorical button. Would that be fair? Or likely? I mean, it's possible at all times, yes, because Khachaturian did mention such a thing.

But it's not the way to bet.

"Pure fiction, not even remotely strange."

Really? Then please cite an example of another species (of the millions available) constructing such a narrative.

Edited at 2010-07-14 09:27 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: xiphias
2010-07-13 01:29 am (UTC)
The more important question:

If something like that happened in fiction, would you think that the author was just being stupid?

In reality, we have no trouble accepting that things like that happen, even though they don't make sense. Because they happen.

But in fiction, if something like that happens, there has to be a reason for it. There has to be A Gypsy Curse, or a terrorist action, or a Perversity Spirit, or something like that to explain why it happened.

In reality, we are totally aware that things like that happen for no particular reason. They happen because the job market has been odd for a bunch of years, and that I'm someone who really wants a particular kind of job, and because Vincent had a vision for a kind of bar that I would fit in with, and that there was a weird degree of rain, in an odd pattern, which flooded a bunch of areas of Kendall Square in Cambridge, which caused sewers to back up explosively and overrun the basement of 1 Kendall Square, Building 300.

There's no deeper meaning behind it. It just happened.

In fiction, you can't HAVE quasi-random events happening in quasi-random sets of circumstances. Everything has to happen for a reason -- to set up another situation, as a result of a previous situation. Stuff doesn't just "happen", unless the purpose of the story is to show how a particular group of people deal with something.
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[User Picture]From: hal_obrien
2010-07-13 01:40 am (UTC)
"(I)n fiction, if something like that happens, there has to be a reason for it."

I would say you're generally correct, as far as genre fiction goes.

I'd say the evidence is it hasn't been true in "literary" fiction since at least (and including) Tristan Tzara -- just about a century now.

Coming from the sf fannish community, I can see why you'd think some well-known editors' attitudes are universal. They're not; they may not even be in the majority among all editors.
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[User Picture]From: xiphias
2010-07-13 01:56 am (UTC)
You're using Dada as a counterexample?

The entire existence of Dada is based upon the idea that fiction must make sense, and then trying to deconstruct that idea, to try to come up with some sort of "meta-sense" that comes out of nonsense.

You know, there are a couple meanings of "the exception proves the rule." One of the ways that the phrase is used is to state that, "if something is created as an exception to something, that demonstrates that there exists some rule to which that IS an exception."

Dada was specifically created as an exception to the rule that things in fiction must serve identifiable purposes. Which demonstrates that there exists a rule, "things in fiction must serve identifiable purposes", to which Dada is an exception.

And even with that, the nonsensicality of Dada serves a purpose of forcing people to engage with the rule that "things in fiction must serve identifiable purposes." And to consider that, in contrast, "things in reality don't always serve identifiable purposes."

The fact that such a movement as Dada can exist demonstrates that, in the general case, "Truth is stranger than fiction; fiction has to make sense." Because Dada has to be specifically created to try to fight against that.

Yes, there is Dada, there are nonsense tales for the entertainment of children; there are stories written by children that don't follow normal narrative rules. Like Axe Cop.

But the thing that attracts us to those things is their very strangeness and difference. They don't follow the rules, and that can be fun, as an occasional treat.

But there exist rules that those works are not following. The joy in them is the subversion of being allowed to break rules. That's why children love nonsense tales, both listening to them and making them up -- they get a safe and approved way to break the rules.

But, unless the fiction is created specifically to break those rules, it follows those rules. People actually have to make effort to create fiction that doesn't follow those rules.
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[User Picture]From: hal_obrien
2010-07-13 02:14 am (UTC)
"You're using Dada as a counterexample?"

I'm using Dada as a time limiter. I could've said WWI, but hey.

I would use James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Toni Morrison, Jorge Luis Borges, David Foster Wallace, Naguib Mahfouz, Derek Walcott, Salman Rushdie, Thomas Pynchon, William Burroughs, Nevil Shute, and Peter Carey as counterexamples off the top of my head. (I suppose I could mention Derrida, just to get the French in here, but he's more of a trickster figure than a writer per se.)

The key word in my sentence was, "since." No doubt it's my fault as a writer that I didn't make that more clear.
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[User Picture]From: wight1984
2010-07-14 01:10 pm (UTC)
"If something like that happened in fiction, would you think that the author was just being stupid?"

Maybe not in a fictional circus.

I'd feel that it was more likely to see a Fez wearing penguin riding a shark in a fictional circus than a real one.
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