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Inaccuracies in fiction: when is reshaping fact appropriate?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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How many untrue 'facts' have I unconsciously picked up from reading collections like this one?

Stories have the power to take us to other worlds, and no genre more so than science fiction and fantasy. But even the wildest fantasy novel has to have some basis in reality; otherwise, most readers become discouraged. (I mean, have you read the Silmarillion?)

Science fiction constantly toes the line between fact and fiction to create worlds that are plausible yet twisted. Readers easily accept premises that are obviously false, as long as they follow some set of predictable rules. But stories set in a more realistic time and place demand more of the reader: to decide for herself what makes sense and whether her disbelief can stay suspended.

My last repost about the wonders of science fiction was republished at Geekosystem last year and a commenter blew off the entire genre for being unresearched and inaccurate and, thus, unworthy of his time. My friend, one Erinrose, retorted:

Instead of finding fault in science fiction, I encourage you to reevaluate what it means to be entertained while intellectually engaged. If entertainment — to you — means reading a wholly accurate, meticulously researched text that asks of its reader to suspend her disbelief but not so much as to forget whether the heart produces blood, then you must think little of the imagination.

I agree with this sentiment. Writers should expect a certain intelligence in their audience, and readers need to be willing to meet the challenges presented by the writer. But I’m not going to lie to you: when I find scientific inaccuracies in movies and books, I react viscerally: a cringe, a wince, and, frequently, a vocalized correction. I can’t help it! I’m a very fact-oriented person, although it rarely results in an inability to reimmerse myself in astory.

But, until recently, I hadn’t really thought seriously about a different angle: what if I didn’t know enough to pinpoint these errors, and instead carried them with me throughout my life as fact?

This thought came to me as I picked through writer Salman Rushdie’s essay collection Imaginary Homelands last week. One of his essays, a mere four pages, deals with the very problem of errata in fiction. He begins by recounting several stories told by the narrator of his novel Midnight’s Children, which won the Booker Prize in 1981. The narrator, Saleem Sinai, explains Hindu mythology to the reader, details of the Bangladesh War, architectural detail in Bombay, and train lines through India.

The clincher: all of these facts are incorrect. But not by the mistake of the author. Rushdie intentionally introduced these inaccuracies after the fact.

I went through some trouble to get things wrong. Originally error-free passages had the taint of inaccuracy introduced. Unintentional mistakes were, on being discovered, not expunged from the text but, rather, emphasized, given more prominence in the story.

My audible gasp as I reread this passage drew looks from sittersby during my lunch break. Rage welled up within me, even as I tried to quell my discomfort. Rushdie is a writer, I consoled myself: he’s free to do what he wants and I have no right to tell him what to do.

The real reason for my discomfort was that these are exactly the kinds of facts that I would ponder over, or retell at parties without remembering the source. I can see it: “I can’t remember where I read it, but I definitely read it somewhere,” I would say. How much of what I think I know is actually tainted by errors introduced by writers, on purpose or otherwise?

I’m not alone. Rushdie addresses those like me in the essay: “Many readers wanted it to be the history, even the guidebook, which it was never meant to be… These variously disappointed readers were judging the book, not as a novel, but as some sort of inadequate reference book or encyclopaedia.” I get it, okay? I should confirm all my facts (which I try to do) and should certainly not believe everything I read. But then whom do I trust? Even non-fiction introduces elements of fiction and storytelling; how can I differentiate between truth and artistic flourish?

The point of Rushdie’s essay is to explain why exactly he got things wrong intentionally. His desire was to make his character as human as possible and, thus, he did his best to reproduce the frailty of human memory and experience.

He [Saleem] is also remembering, of course, and one of the simplest truths about any set of memories is that many of them will be false. I myself have a clear memory of having been in India during the China War… I also know that I could not possibly have been in India at that time. I was interested to find that even after I found out that my memory was playing tricks my brain simply refused to unscramble itself. It clung to the false memory, preferring it to more literal happenstance. I thought that was an important lesson to learn.

Reading it explained, I love Rushdie’s sentiment. I personally have many memories that I know I fabricated unintentionally. Greg Boustead, science writer and editorial producer of the World Science Festival, wrote about the distortion of September 11th memories just last month. And this is the process Rushdie emulated. To tell the real truth about people, he had to distort the facts of history and tradition — and we read fiction, not for fact, but for those human truths.

But my frustration continues; the two sides of my brain continue in their battle. But it’s only because it points out my own failures. If I read Midnight’s Children, I know I’m the type to retell those errata as fact. And I would remember them incorrectly as coming from an accurate source.

I guess, for writers of fiction, the question is not whether it’s permissible to fudge facts, but when it’s appropriate. Misrepresenting fact because the research seems too hefty is not acceptable to me; but purposefully altering fact for the sake of character development, or to bring the reader to another world, feels acceptable. Because there are different kinds of truth, and not all are based in fact.

Nonetheless, I will continue to cringe, if I know enough to cringe. But, if the writing is worth it, I will reshape my face to normalcy and read on.

Image: via Flicker use Chris Drumm under Creative Commons

Hannah Waters About the Author: Hannah Waters writes about natural history and the way people think about nature. She lives and works in Philadelphia, PA, but really on the internet. Follow on Twitter @hannahjwaters.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. ktkeith 1:48 pm 10/4/2011

    I sympathize with both sides of this issue. Of course fiction is . . . “fictionalized”! But I read so widely and indiscriminately that much of my knowledge has been picked up piecemeal, from sources I can no longer identify, including fiction – and the danger in that is that some of what I think I know is false. I have sometimes intentionally avoided reading a work of historical fiction because I knew it would mold falsehoods into my head about a subject I didn’t have enough confirmed knowledge on to be able to filter them.

    It’s a frustrating problem, but you can’t blame the authors. Fiction authors have the right to build their own worlds; they’re not held to non-fiction standards of veracity. The cure is not only to verify facts, but also to develop a wide enough knowledge base that you have something to balance the falsehoods you encounter, or at least warn you to look further.

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  2. 2. Jennifer Ouellette 2:38 pm 10/4/2011

    “Midnight’s Children” is one of my all-time favorite books (“Shame” is also a wonderful read). In all honesty, I struggle a bit less with this tension between fiction and non-fiction, perhaps because of my humanities background. I’m comfortable with made-up stuff, and Rushdie is absolutely correct that something can be “true” without necessarily being “factual” (and something factual might be “untrue”).

    Fiction is, well, fictional. I know people often confuse it with fact, but that’s not the fault of the creator, who clearly marked the work “fiction.” That said, story is a powerful thing. Poeple used to write letters to “Marcus Welby” asking for medical advice. Michael Crichton was asked to testify before Congress on various science policy issues, despite not being an actual scientist. Many people talk about characters on their favorite TV shows as if they were real.

    It’s a problem, but not with fiction itself — just with our own response and understanding of it.

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  3. 3. obscurantist 3:37 pm 10/4/2011

    Maybe this literary phenomenon is like irony. For irony to work, the reader has to be aware that the words mean something other than their surface appearance. A good writer may alert the reader through various techniques, exaggeration, a sense of being out of context, and so on. I’d really appreciate a similar red flag when an author is deliberately feeding me false information.

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  4. 4. PhilInYork 8:11 pm 10/4/2011

    In his best selling book Angels and Demons, Dan Brown awards the invention of the internet to CERN In Geneva. He even makes an effort to tell the world that everyone mistakenly thinks it was invented in America by DARPA, which of course it was. The first two IP addresses on the net are still there in California, and you can ping them.
    Brown is well known for playing loose with history, being called out time and time again on religious inaccuracies. However, this falsehood seems to have some underlying motive beyond driving his plot forward. I’m sure many people, especially in Europe, believe this pointed falsehood.

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  5. 5. lawhite 8:39 pm 10/4/2011

    There’s a sudden swerve in the middle of this post I’d like to point out (because I’m so helpful, doncha know). The post starts with a discussion of science fiction and fantasy, then swerves into mimetic fiction — okay, I’ve seen Midnight’s Children labeled as “magical realism”, but still that’s not the type of literature originally held up to scrutiny.

    The problem is that F&SF are held to different standards than mimetic fiction — SF often to higher standards where plausibility is concerned. True, there are a few conventions employed that are simply accepted for the sake of advancing the story, such as faster-than-light travel, but making a scientific or technological advance plausible is not only a point of pride among SF writers, it’s demanded by knowledgeable readers.

    F&SF writers are walking a tightrope as they try to haul up readers by the seat of their disbelief, so purposefully reshaping a fact *to be incorrect* had better have a darn good pay-off. Otherwise, writer, reader, and story could all come crashing down.

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  6. 6. hanjeanwat 11:18 pm 10/4/2011

    Thanks for your comments! You’ve given me lots more to think about. There certainly isn’t an answer, and there’s, arguably, no problem.

    @lawhite I’m thinking more along the lines of ‘fiction is fiction’ and we each have to decide how much scrutiny to hold it up to as a whole. I guess I don’t like the idea of holding certain subgenres up to more scrutiny than others; then again, I have no real reason for feeling that way.

    It’s interesting that you say sci-fi is held up to higher standards. I almost think it’s the opposite. People like to discuss the plausibility of science fiction, but plausibility and fact are very different. The foundation of the genre is that it is not real – it’s set in the future, or it’s set on another world, a different present with something tweaked, etc, setting off alarm bells that falsehoods are contained therein.

    On the other hand, straight fiction set in the here and now, and while it’s not assumed to be fact (and it shouldn’t be), I personally, at the least, am more likely to absorbed facts therein accidentally. This varies widely depending on the premise. I don’t think that this is necessarily a flaw in fiction, but it is something that I’m more aware of recently.

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  7. 7. dantevialetto 2:22 am 10/5/2011

    A big mistake of fiction is to ignore what really happens if one is going backward in time, because in this case also the light is going backward in time and instead to be emitted it will be absorbed. So the sun for instance would be black and one could see nothing!

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  8. 8. edrybicki 7:07 am 10/5/2011

    Interesting that our blogger should be outraged by what is clever fiction in a work of fiction…B-). I do the same thing sometimes in poor science fiction; there is, after all, such a thing as playing TOO fast and loose with the universe.

    However, a case can be made for fiction being a continuum from what is remembered, to what is completely synthesised: I have been embarrassed several times by discovering that my own memories are false or highly modified (in relation to films – so there is no argument as to what was fact). Thus, EVERYTHING is fictiion to some degree or another, and it is left to us to pick our way through it as best we can.

    Or create it so others can do it. Speaking of which: google “Womanspace” B-). I’d be interested to know how much of it others think is “true”.

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  9. 9. lawhite 4:56 pm 10/11/2011

    Hi. Me again. :-) Just to explain (or expound) on the “higher standards” bit–I think it’s *because* the alarm bells have been set off that SF needs to raise its game on the plausibility side.

    That’s just as regards the speculative element, though, I do admit. There’s lots of opportunity — especially in near-future, earth-based SF — for detail to be doctored.

    We have a saying in SF that probably extends to other genres and mimetic fiction as well: “The truth is no excuse.” Truth really can be stranger than fiction, so be careful about writing scenes based on that weird incident with your ex-boyfriend that happened when you decided out of the blue you needed to stop for orange juice (as an example). Sometimes the truth is not believable anyway.

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