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Lie to Me

July 14, 2010

Notable News from a Year Ago, July 14, 2009: Nothing of consequence… but maybe you shouldn’t believe me?  Maybe I’m not telling the truth.

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This is a bunch a BS, Marty, and you know it!

One of the consequences of writing a novel, particularly one like The Twin Paradox, in which I speculate on scientific principles like special relativity, is that I encounter a paradoxical relationship between fact and fiction. What’s true, what’s believable, what ruins the experience — that’s ultimately what I, a storyteller, concern myself with.  And as I see it, the relationship isn’t a concern merely of novelists, but of all things.  But since I’m talking today specifically of writing, this is where we’ll draw the line.

So, in the world of words on paper, or more recently, illuminated screens, this is how I see it: A real person buys a novel and inevitably wants to be transported to another world.  This world isn’t real, but for all practical purposes, it’s real enough to suspend disbelief.  There’s nothing wrong here because I’m a reader; I understand this.

But I’m also a writer, so I know the way to creating such a world — a fake, suspend-able belief one —  is often treacherous.  More often than not, you run the risk in the story of running afoul of a person’s threshold for believability.  This is tricky, because the threshold isn’t uniform across all people, and, for the most part, it appears to be a factor of personal experience and nothing else.  One man’s truth is another man’s absurdity.  But some people are born critics and, as I understand it, will argue the distinction between blue and sky blue when describing the colors of the rainbow.

Suffice it to say that as I write The Twin Paradox, I’m acutely aware of the possibility — no, the likelihood — that when it is published, and if it gains only a modicum of success, I expect a scientific backlash about my treatment of dear old Einstein and quantum physics.  From the rest, possibly, the believability of a nerdish black man eight years married at age twenty-five will come into question.  Is such a character possible in modern fiction, or desirable?  The consumer market, they say, only speaks the truth…

But I can do relatively little about the last belief (and considering what I just saw in Transformer 2: Revenge of the Fallen, perhaps it’s a fight that isn’t even worth lacing up the gloves for).  As for the scientific inconsistencies, the most apropos response is something Ebenezer Scrooge said: Bah humbug.  One of my favorite movies as a child, Back to the Future, was filled with nonsensical technology.  Any scientist will tell you, and probably with a condescending smirk on his face, that the flux capacitor is the biggest piece of scientific bullshit since the perpetual motion machine.  The number eighty-eight, besides looking like the sign for infinity standing on its end and doubled, has as much to do with time travel as using a stainless steel DeLorean to dissipate heat.

But the thing about it?  In the context of the story, I absolutely could care less about the lack of logical and fact-based rigidity.  It’s hard to say how ambivalent I would be today now that I have an engineering background and have researched special relativity; but when I was little I didn’t care.  The flux capacitor needed to be infused with 1.21 gigawatts of power at eighty-eight miles an hour, and high jinks ensued to make sure it happened before space-time collapsed upon itself.  Not, strictly speaking, the way Einstein would’ve written it, but in the world of Back to the Future, that was all that mattered.

This, in case you haven’t noticed, is something I think about often when I’m plotting for The Twin Paradox, or any story for that matter — my role as a storyteller.  When I watch movies and read books, I find myself analyzing the parts of the story that are coherent and, inevitably, the parts the reader/viewer is asked to overlook and, in some cases, willingly does so.  Because something’s always swept under the rug — like, in Batman Returns, that Bat-bike or whatever it was would’ve never made it off of an engineer’s drawing board, at least not an engineer from Georgia Tech; and in the book, Kiss the Girls by James Patterson, how did Dr. Alex Cross survive being thrown from a speeding car with only minor scrapes and bruises?; and, please, don’t even get me started about Transformers 2.

What I’ve come to discover through all this writing, reading, and critiquing is that my job as a novelist isn’t to spoon feed you facts, because facts (unless you’re Michael Crichton) are boring.  If you wanted facts you’d be in the non-fiction section of the bookstore.  No, my job is to offer you irresistible lies in a bowl, and then watch you shovel it greedily down your throat because you can’t help yourself.  That some stomach-aching truth should come out of the experience is open to debate, but for me the lying and making you believe it is where it begins.

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