Sunday, August 12, 2012

Aiming for Accuracy

As an author, one of the things I try above all to avoid is an inaccuracy seeping into one of my stories. If you've ever written, you know this is far easier said than done. Especially for the sort of stuff I write, in many cases I can't fall back on my own personal experience; I've never been to space or the moon, because do you know what they charge to bring even one carry-on item? For things you're not personally familiar with, it's easy to trip into inaccuracies without realizing it because you're basing your speculations on something else which itself is incorrect.

I ran obliquely into this with my first story, The Platinum Desolation, though I didn't realize it for a while afterward, and when it came to how I described things I came off lucky. The climax of the story takes place in a craggy, broken lunar cave, my mental image of which was drawn almost entirely from the Tintin book Explorers on the Moon. The only problem is that the book predates the lunar landings and the knowledge they brought back, which is how the gang got there ahead of Neil Armstrong. A cave like that can be explained away as a partially collapsed lava tube, but while I was writing the thing, the facts of how caves form wasn't anywhere in my mind. I just needed a cave for the character to be in.

That sort of process is, I imagine, rather common in writing. Events unfold in a certain way, and writers build the world in such a way that the path is an interesting one. The problem is that depending on the writer, accuracy can suffer when it's put in competition with what the plot requires. It's a common temptation to go the easy or convenient or exciting route rather than the correct one, but it's a problem that compounds itself.

Writing a thing doesn't make it so.

It's a problem because people are notoriously easy to influence through cultural media, especially when you're talking about things that the average person doesn't have any direct experience with. For a minor one, take the idea of sound in space. It's among the simplest and most common of errors, but it's absolutely ubiquitous. While the production staff may know that there's no sound in space--since there's no medium for the sound to propagate through--we continue to see visual media use sound in space scenes because that's what the expectation has become. As I recall, there was no course in my high school dedicated to teaching people about such common errors.

Not all such inaccuracies are as far removed from the average person's daily life than the propogation of sound in a vacuum, though. You can find some right here on Earth. Take the apparent ease of knocking someone unconscious, something you'll find across TV, movies, and literature. Some unlucky person gets knocked on the head and is down for the count for hours at a time. In reality, if they're out for more than a moment or two that unlucky person is the lucky recipient of a traumatic brain injury, and depending on how hard they were hit they may never be able to operate a fork again.

Nevertheless, because it's so convenient for stories--hero gets a hard punch upside the head, hero is knocked out, hero gets moved to villain's hideaway and wakes up in a death trap, hero escapes and proceeds to wreck stuff up, and that's just one potential iteration--it gets used again and again. It gets used, and people think that because it's used it's true, just like the way forensic shows have colored the opinions of juries. As a recent Cracked article discussed, we get a lot of what we know from cultural properties, and we subconsciously assume that they're true. Hell, it wasn't until I was in my 20s that I understood that the way the starship Enterprise flew around didn't match what it would be like in reality.

As authors, we think we're just telling stories--but stories are more influential than that. People have always learned from them, and as such, I feel that authors have an obligation to ensure accuracy wherever possible. To do otherwise is to do a disservice to the reader.

No comments:

Post a Comment