Shades of preference in storytelling

By Razib Khan | October 16, 2011 1:28 am

Humans seem to have a strong bias toward narratives. We like stories. This is obvious when you read sports columns. Most of the time there’s really no substantive value-add. If you want substance, just check box scores. But we want a story. So sports columnists give us a story. Usually something mildly counter-intuitive, general platitudes and conventional wisdom with just a twist. It doesn’t matter if you’re wrong, no one cares. How many people remember Bill Walton talking about how Shawn Bradley was a better basketball player than Shaquille O’Neil?

Much the same applies to political punditry. There was no point in speculating whether Rick Perry would, or wouldn’t, do well as an aspirant nominee of the Republican party for the presidency. We’d know sooner or later. I really got tired of Texas pundits like Eric Greider going on about how we shouldn’t underestimate him. Aside from the fact that he was smart enough to be an air force officer, everything else implies that he’s not too sharp, validated especially by his recent debate performances. But we wanted a story, so there was a demand for pundits from Texas talking Perry’s prospects up. Now we have pundits like Ross Douthat echoing the line that Mitt Romney is inevitable as the nominee. Great. But remember when Ross and Matt Yglesias simply couldn’t imagine a scenario in which Hillary Clinton wasn’t the nominee in December of 2007? I do.

So we love stories. That’s a human universal. As human beings we have particular cognitive orientations which are general across our species. Our facility for language for example. An appreciation of art and other cultural productions which don’t seem to have immediate utility. But there is also variation. Our tastes differ. But sometimes we forget that. I thought of that when reading this piece in Slate, For the Love of Science Fiction. The author begins “…I disdained science fiction for many years, considering it too short on humanity and too long on pointless technical specs.” There is definitely going to be a mention of Ursula K. Le Guin. The author concludes:

Perhaps the most important guidance Atwood offers on reading and loving science fiction is to respect the craft’s ability to explore unintended consequences but not to overstate its predictive qualities: “I carefully say a future rather than the future because the future is an unknown: from the moment now, an infinite number of roads lead away to ‘the future,’ each heading in a different direction,” she writes. I will cling to those words the next time I read a terrifying depiction of a technologically rich but morally bankrupt society in the years to come. Like the author who’s next up in my science fiction education: Neal Stephenson.

The first thing that came to mind is that the author has a background in liberal arts if they could throw out a line about “pointless technical specs.” Some people actually enjoy understanding technical specs! I mention Ursula K. Le Guin because in one of her essays she discusses her attitude toward science fiction and admitted her lack of interest in a lot of natural science, and her fascination with social science. Le Guin varies the parameters of sociology to generate her stories. In contrast, writers such as Greg Egan vary the laws of physics. Whether the former or latter is to your taste depends on your background and predispositions. In any case, the author of the above piece majored in “English with minors in business, media studies, and Latin.” If she had majored in engineering or physics I suspect that the technical sidebars and exposition which much of science fiction is larded with would seem less pointless, and much more illuminating. So this a matter of taste, not objective truth in terms of what is, and isn’t, good science fiction.

Somehow great literature is measured by psychological complexity rather than material complexity. “World building” is seen as a bonus, instead of essential context. But whether you see it as essential context or not is probably a matter of your own psychological orientation. And this exists on a continuum. Some readers of hard science fiction can not brook the fudges which are necessary in even this genre when it comes concepts such as faster-than-light travel. L. Sprague de Camp famously focused more on fantasy than hard science fiction because his background in engineering made it impossible for him to suspend disbelief even for the purpose of writing a story.

As I grow older I seem to be turning away from hard science fiction (when I have time to read fiction, which is not often). Does this mean that I am developing more refined taste? Perhaps. But I suspect that my brain is aging and changing, and so my preferences are as well. I’ve lived enough of a life that I have a requisite stock of social intelligence with which I can appreciate the subtlety in more psychologically oriented fiction, where characters have more texture and grayness. Additionally, my own technical interests in science have narrowed to the point where I get a lot less out of science fiction which is predicated on some knowledge of disciplines where my comprehension is thin. This is a case where the child is not the father of the man. Just as I have changed over time, so humans a a species have different aesthetic preferences, rather than superior and inferior ones. I wish that people would be a bit more self-aware about this.

MORE ABOUT: Science Fiction
  • S.J. Esposito

    I think you hit the nail on the head. I know that for me, personally, this has been an issue with which I’ve had to grapple with. I always loved things like video games, science fiction and, most of all, comic books; however, now, I can’t enjoy sitting down and playing a video game for more than 10 minutes and when I have the time to read fiction — which is not all that much — I tend to read much darker and more cerebral types of stories. Over the past year or so, I’ve had to deal with this as I felt melancholy about what I thought was me losing interest in a lot of things that I once loved to do, but I came to the realization that it was simply a maturation of my preferences and there wasn’t much I could do about it. I realized that as my interest in fiction went down — in terms of the number of books or graphic novels I was reading per month — my interest in non-fiction was rising exponentially. So, I guess there’s got to be some sort of balance, and in the end, it’s all relative and very personal.

    It’s funny that you mentioned sports news. I can’t speak for the sports pages, because I don’t care for any sports, but I am growing increasingly tired of getting a “story” when I read the news. Most of the time I want a quick, pithy update about what’s going on in the world, and to that end, I’m becoming a little disenchanted by trudging through long stories that don’t seem to really “grab” me. It could be that I find it extremely difficult to find a general news website that I like, or it could be me being curmudgeonly; even more likely is that it has a lot to do with the fast-paced time we are all living in and my acclimation to it. Everything today is done with a text or a tweet, and I think I’m starting to crave that shortness psychological for things that I don’t view as totally important. So, aside from it all being very personal, there’s an obvious generational divide and I can’t help but feel — nay, I know — that the “social media” driven world we’re living in now is driving us toward a swifter and more informal tomorrow.

  • Polynices

    I have to link for anyone who doesn’t read xkcd. Very relevant to your sports comments.

    I want to make a comment about Atwood and Le Guin barely being science fiction at all, but that would probably just mark me as an SF snob without really contributing anything. Even Stephenson, though a wonderful writer, doesn’t fit very comfortably into “science fiction”.

  • Razib Khan

    #2, if your measure of science fiction is ‘hard science fiction’ then they are barely science fiction. the issue is that the science fiction authors which the mainstream extols as literary virtuosos are non-representative authors in terms of their preferences, concerns, and narratives. it’s probably true that these authors create more three dimensional characters, but it’s also true that there’s little working out of a scientific superstructure in these works. the latter doesn’t count against them. why? well, because people are bored by “technical specs.”

  • TGGP

    Like Esposito, I also found myself reading less fiction. I used to have a bunch of abandonware games on my computer but then came to see completing them as a chore and gave up. When I was very young I looked down on non-fiction as boring, and now it’s all I read. Since I’m still in my early twenties I don’t know how much more growing up there is to do in this area.

  • juan

    I think scifi as a genre is largely wish fulfillment for smart young boys.

    We like reading about the govt assembling the team of experts to unlock the secrets of the alien artifact because we imagine having that high-status world’s leading expert on X position when we grow up.

    As adults we lose interest in scifi because
    a) we realize most of scifi is only slightly more plausible than a world with dragons and wizards – and
    b) we realize that even if the govt assembles that team of experts — they won’t be calling us.

    So a young boy reading about super-genius heroes saving the world from aliens and killer robots is pretty much the same thing as a young girl reading stories about the prettiest girl in the land becoming a princess.

    It’s fun, as a child, to imagine growing up to be extremely high status.

  • ackbark

    It’s not wish fulfillment, it’s rehearsal.

    Reading fiction, like other art experience, is a rehearsal of your interest and motivations, but a rehearsal will only get you so far.

    And as you get older you need less of it and you need more in the way of material fact as you come to have something to do with it.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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