Monday, April 06, 2009

Facts in fiction

I'm reading a book in which I found two factual errors in five pages. The author has a short scene happen in a chem lab in which the laws of chemistry don't apply, then a scene in a gym wherein a character uses a nonexistent machine (a "biceps press machine", with a weight stack that goes to 400 pounds). This kind of factual authorial error has always bothered me; it's outside the realm of normal suspension of disbelief. I'll accept that a character can turn invisible and still see clearly, even though light is passing through their eyes (and the rest of their body) without stopping; I'm fine with a matter teleporter that works in opposition to the normal laws of physics; I'll grant the existence of vampires. This stuff moves the story forward, and it's part of the world the author establishes. They're deliberate choices an author makes. But once an author establishes his world, he has to stick with it and live with its rules. If a fictional cab makes it from Brooklyn to the Bronx in ten minutes, that's an author error. If a golfer hits a hole-in-one with his twelve iron, that's an error two ways -- no such club, and even if there were, it'd be the wrong one for distance. If a character hops on a Harley, he had better not stomp the accelerator; the throttle's on the grip. An author getting his facts wrong kicks me out of the story.

And today, it finally occurred to me why it bothers me when authors get facts wrong. When I read about a subject I'm not familiar with, I like getting the feeling that I'm learning while I read -- that what I'm reading is True, even if I know I'm reading fiction. When I read a suspense novel set in an airport, I feel like I'm getting to see the back-end operation of an airport; when I read a story set in Scotland, I want to believe I'm seeing Scotland, that the buildings and customs are authentic. And information I pick up in fiction becomes part of my background working knowledge. So when an author makes factual errors that I can catch, it throws into doubt all of their other "facts" -- the story no longer seems True. And I have to be almost consciously aware that a lot of the "facts" I'm reading might be complete inventions, so they don't slip into my pool of background knowledge about the subject. It's distracting.

I feel a bit foolish, admitting I (at least unconsciously) try to pick up actual facts by reading fiction. But this is somewhat mollified by the knowledge that a large chunk of Americans pick up their political news from comedians....

3 comments:

David said...

This is why I can't watch action movies with Meredith (or at least why she doesn't like to watch them with me). Whenever I see something obviously wrong, I can't help pointing it out, and she always tells me to relax and enjoy the mindless entertainment. But again, it's only to do with things that are presented in the context of the "real-world" portion of the movie universe. I have no problem with stuff that's completely beyond the realm of reality, like in superhero movies, but I couldn't get to the end of Spider Man 2 without several derogatory comments because the Impending Disaster was based on an out-of-control nuclear fusion reaction -- the kind that would just stop of its own accord if the reactor stopped working. If they just made something up about a fictonal chemical or physical process, no problem. It's the insistence on grounding the story in something "real" and then getting it wrong that really irritates me. And not just in sci-fi.

Jeff Mountjoy said...

Yeah, I have much the same problem with action movies. Even Die Hard bothered me, when he fell a story in an air duct, and managed to catch himself by his fingertips on another duct. Worse was Wanted, which we saw last summer. I'm giving them curving bullets and leaping between buildings; that's part of the movie. But there were so many moments in that movie that made me say, "hey -- you can't do that!" that it was distracting. They had too many physics violations with cars and trains, for one thing. And, it's impressive how poorly this squad of "expert assassins" (the guys who shoot the wings off flies) could aim when the plot demanded it....

NerfSmuggler said...

That is annoying when reading, and does throw you out of the story. On the other hand, I think that pairing a 'fact memory' with a 'reliable source' rating is an important skill. When certain people tell me things, I know to treat it as hearsay at most. I have a friend who is very intelligent, but she will create a prejudice or general rule about people or situations based on two data points. She's interpreting the data correctly, but her statistical universe isn't an accurate representation. If she tells me something, I have to consider how reliable this 'fact' is.