Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Factive Fiction and Fictive Fact

Two weekend book looks:

A Necessary End by Sarah Pinborough and F. Paul Wilson

Yet another apocalypse? Bookstores and cinemaplexes are rife with them. Are authors and readers/viewers everywhere sensing something in the air? As that may be, this one is a little different. We’ve seen civilization brought to its knees in apocalyptic fiction by plagues, asteroids, zombies, nuclear war, alien invasion, and a myriad other causes. How about flies? This one has flies. A mutated species of fly is infesting the world. It doesn’t spread disease in the usual sense. There is no bacterium or virus. Illness isn’t spread person to person. Instead, the fly’s saliva provokes a fatal autoimmune response in humans and only in humans. The fly then lays eggs in the corpse it has provided for itself: all in all a plausible life cycle. Only a handful of people are immune. The flies have spread so fast that societies are overwhelmed by demands on health care and basic services.

Unusually for catastrophe-fiction, which tends to be action-adventure, A Necessary End is character driven. The central characters Nigel and Abby, who had marital problems even before the arrival of the flies, face their fates with very different philosophies. Nigel is a firm rationalist determined to find physical causes and scientific solutions while Abby relies on her faith. Other characters react with anger, superstition, resolve, generosity, or violence according to their nature and circumstances. Who lives or dies is less important to the story than how they do.

A collaboration between Sarah Pinborough and F. Paul Wilson, both talented authors of horror tales (among other works), A Necessary End is a quick read and is as pleasurable as any story with this premise can be. If you’re in the back seat on a modestly lengthy road trip and have had enough both of scenery and your iPhone, this should keep you occupied for the duration.


Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

There is a 1991 episode of Star Trek Next Generation titled “Darmok” in which the Enterprise has a rendezvous with an alien species called Tamarians whose speech is impenetrable. (The “universal translator” wasn’t ever mentioned in the Next Generation, but it turns up in the later Star Trek prequel series Enterprise and back-explains the oddity that everyone in the galaxy seems to speak English; they really don’t, but a miniature wearable device translates in real time; it evidently fails with the Tamarians.) When the Tamarians speak, the Enterprise crew can understand all of their words but none of their sentences. They say things like "Mirab, his sails unfurled" and "Sokath - his eyes uncovered." Finally Counselor Troi perceives the blindingly obvious. “Imagery is everything to the Tamarians,” she says. “It embodies their emotional states, their very thought processes. It's how they communicate, and it's how they think.”

It is my suspicion that this episode was inspired by a book that made a splash in 1980 entitled Metaphors We Live By. On my reading list for the past 35 years, I got around to it last week. We are Tamarians. Civilizations don’t have knees, books don’t normally splash unless you throw them in a pond, and for that matter we are not Tamarians, but I assume the reader understands those images when I use them. Metaphors are our dominant way of expressing ourselves. Most often we aren’t even aware they are metaphors. For example, most of us would not consider the phrase “inflation is rising” to be a metaphor, but it is. Inflation is not an object that rises up or lowers down (“up” and “down” themselves being directions related to our human experience); it is an abstraction to which we give a numerical value based on a particular set of data. Yet we understand “inflation rises.” We understand “moral fiber,” “falling in love,” "blindingly obvious," "food for thought," “packaging your ideas,” an “ugly side to his personality,” and “a solution to her problems.” Chemistry and math both work for that last one: take your pick. Yet, if we spoke to an alien species about the “foundations of friendship” (friendship as a building with foundations) or "foundations of a theory" they might well be utterly baffled.

Lakoff and Johnson argue that metaphor is the way humans experience reality. It's how we communicate, and it's how we think. The nature of our biological and social existence forms the basis of our metaphors. The biggest challenge of ever getting a computer to think like a human is precisely that computers don’t experience the world in the same way we do. Our metaphors in turn shape our views and actions. Consider the (often unspoken) metaphor that debate is a battle in which one attacks an opponent’s positions, defends one’s own, and either wins or loses. How would a debate differ if instead of a battle metaphor we viewed it as a dance? The authors also discuss the limitations of both objectivism and subjectivism as philosophical systems. They make their point that human understanding is experiential and that new ideas are built upon those experiences, which is to say they are almost inevitably metaphorical. This is fine, they say, but it is “important to realize that the way we have been brought up to perceive our world is not the only way and that it is possible to see beyond the ‘truths’ of our culture.”

You won’t finish this book in the back seat on that road trip. But if you’re inside on a rainy weekend, the book is worth the time it takes to read.

Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart


  1. Sometimes I listen to a PBS radio show called A Way With Words: http://www.waywordradio.org/ You can listen to their podcast as well. But it's about origins of words or phrases. Sometimes I'm mystified by them as well. Eskimos have words for 40 varieties of snow. Americans use the word dog for that pet, while other cultures have other words they say to refer to that animal. Then we have the written language, which are symbols that also convey meaning. It sort of boggles the mind.

    I never thought about that aspect of Star Trek and the language, but it's sort of along the same path as why most of the species on Trek are symmetrical and human-like as well as being carbon based. I'm not sure why it's modeled that way, but maybe due to the constraints of a television budget.

    A Necessary End sounded interesting. One of the books on my reading list is Micheal Crichton's book Prey. I guess you might say it paints an apocalyptic story. Hard to steer clear of those metaphors. :)

    1. Something about being a medical doctor seems conducive to writing good fiction: Robin Cook, Michael Crichton, F. Paul Wilson, and others. Crichton's books are uniformly well-informed and exciting reads. Not all the movie adaptations have worked -- "Congo" was sappy and pretty bad -- but the novels shouldn't be prejudged by those -- the book "Congo" was pretty good. I liked "Prey," inspired by Drexler's warning about nanotechnology and grey goo.

      The writers for the series "Enterprise" evidently were Star Trek fans who were irked by some of the logical problems of the Star Trek universe as presented up until then. They came up with a few fixes.

  2. "A Necessary End" reminds me of a Lovecraft short story where an explorer finds this African fly that can kill you with its bite and then your soul transfers into the fly. So he decides to have his revenge on others that mocked him... and use the fly! It's all very pulpy but fun enough. I think it is called "Winged Death". Fly apocalypse might have appealed to Lovecraft. ;)

    "Darmok" was a real intriguing episode I saw it for the first time a few years ago and really got pulled into it. Might need to revisit it.

    1. I missed (or possibly don't remember) that Lovecraft tale. I'm trying to imagine a soulful fly.