Friday, October 05, 2007

Life Imitating Fiction

Last week, I heard about a murder in Belgium that paid homage to the manga/anime series Death Note. It reminded of how "assassins" Mark David Chapman and John Hinckley Jr. were influenced by Catcher in the Rye. But another idea also struck me. I was listening to Rick Kleffel's podcast on the Singularity Summit and one of the people he interviewed was Paul Saffo. As some of us might have heard, science fiction isn't supposed to be predictive--SF writers write either about the present or even the past. Yet how is it that many SF novels and short stories seem to be a precursor of future innovations? Saffo postulates that SF is a forecast of the future not necessarily because SF writers see that far, but rather because the present innovators were influenced by the books they read as a kid: atomic scientists on the Manhattan Project were inspired by H.G. Well's super bomb, the moon program crew grew up with Buck Rogers and space opera, and of course William Gibson gave us cyberspace. Courtney Brown even mentions how catastrophe theory is similar to a Seldon Crisis and who can forget Arthur C. Clarke and telecommunication satellites (the latter perhaps is the one of SF's truly predictive writers)?

Now innovation and propaganda obviously isn't exclusive to fiction or SF writers. Scientists have written papers, scholars essays and studies on various ideas, and columnists their own opinions on relevant issues. Yet fiction, in many ways, has proven to be more digestible and effective, and in the case of something like Death Note, actually mainstream. For me, it's because fiction gives us a context. Fiction is very unlike the current education system where knowledge is taught without understanding its practical applications. In Math for example, I find it peculiar that they present to us the formulas before the word and story problems. Or how torc and quadratic equations and calculus are so removed from their relevance (which is to say they are relevant yet many students don't understand that). Stories, on the other hand, give us that context. When George Orwell talks about the perils of communism, he gives us specifics in Animal Farm. When Ray Bradbury talks about losing interest in reading literature (or the more common interpretation, censorship), he gives us Fahrenheit 451. Fiction, so to speak, has a humanity and social aspect to it that is not evident in mere empirical theories as beautiful as they are (E=mc^2).

Of course that is not the only explanation. There are a dozen other reasons why fiction has that certain appeal and perhaps the beauty of it all is that each individual has their own set of motivations for reading fiction, whether it's for the beautiful prose, the writer's ideas, or simply for the sake of reading. At the end of the day however, I think fiction resonates within each individual, something that can't be answered by reality. What drives people to commit murder or create devices previously uninvented by man? We may never know the platonic ideal but fiction perhaps is a close second. It's the only other reality we have to compare after all.

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