We operate by symbols. Everything we think we see is, by the time we perceive it, converted from the light that enters our eyes into a collection of ideas, into symbols for objects and creatures we know – or, for those things we cannot readily categorize, into a vague description of form and color and behavior. Everything we think we hear is, as well, converted into discrete sounds and music, as best as we can wrap them with understanding. All this happened in our minds long before we ever came up with actual words to describe things: Only much later did we create verbal language to be another set of symbols, verbal symbols we could readily convert to and from these symbolic perceptions of objects and creatures in the world around us.
We navigate by analogy. That is, we have no contact with the world that isn’t mediated by our brain’s model of it, which is constructed out from symbols – we are in a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, manipulating our reality at one layer of removal, always.
These verbal languages are fairly effective at describing the things we can perceive with our senses, but struggle to describe more abstract and ambiguous concepts and systems – so we have other languages and methods to approach these. We created mathematics, a whole new language, to describe the abstract idea of multiple discrete identical objects and how these operate in relationship to each other – when, really, no such ideal differentiated objects actually exist. And, in the same vein, we created fiction to be a meta-language, a language made out of our verbal language, to describe the social, cultural, and technological systems that quietly control our lives.
I’m using fiction in a very broad sense, here. One thing I would include under this heading, for example, is history: The main difference between history and fiction is that the former purports to portray the reality of a thing that has happened. However, this claim to reality is one that anyone can make, and which many spuriously try to. Even when the historical facts are well known and established, the interpretation of those facts – that is, the portrayal of the underlying systems that generated that particular chain of events – is very much a product of the author. Even an author attempting in all good faith to avoid influencing their interpretation with preexisting biases cannot possibly manage to do so: Our assumptions run too deep. Nevertheless, no matter how much empty space the author fills in, no matter how questionable the systems implied by their interpretation, the history takes on the authority of indisputable fact, suitable only to be challenged by other equally authoritative historians.
At one step removed from history, we have fiction that is intended to be ‘realistic’. The underlying systems of reality that govern the fiction are presumed to be the same as the ones that govern our lives, with the only difference being that the characters and situations are invented. In other words, the system, the machine, is intended to be a replica of the original, while the data set it operates upon is wholly fabricated. At another layer of remove there are science-fiction and other alternate reality stories, where the system of the world departs from reality in major ways – though also, usually, remains the same in several vital ways. Humans, or something very much like them, generally still exist in these stories, and they have cultures and laws and societies like ours. They still need to eat and to breathe, they still like to play and to fuck.
How much people tend to enjoy these stories tends to rest a great deal on how plausible they find these systems – that is, once we discount the obviously and acknowledged fantastical elements (suspension of disbelief), how closely does the remainder mirror what we understand reality to be? By replacing elements of the systems of reality with obviously fantastical ones, we can examine the remaining systems more closely, a way of holding a magnifying glass up to some aspect of our world, a way of color-coding the gears of reality. If the rest of the system that drives the fiction is shoddy, though, or if it otherwise fails to be plausible, the reader will reject it. Of course, this is the same situation as the external tensions I mentioned last week: What’s plausible and what isn’t plausible depends as much on the reader as the content. For some people, all robots being sapient is plausible. For some others, all humans being sapient is not.
Every fiction, though, carries an implicit argument: The systems portrayed in this story would create the results portrayed in this story. Because of this implicit argument, all art presents an idea of what the world is, could be, or should be.