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Culturing Science

Culturing Science

Biology as relevant to us earthly beings

Inaccuracies in fiction: when is reshaping fact appropriate?

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

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

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