Beyond Refrigerators IV: The Matrix is a GOOD Movie
Fiction tells us the stories that never happened to people who don’t exist.
All fiction may begin solely in the mind of the author, but good fiction resonates well enough in the minds of others that it approaches truth. At its best fiction can shatter the assumptions that rule our thinking or rearrange the hard edges of the world into kinder, softer patterns. Even at its most basic level, a fictional story takes us outside ourselves and challenges us to live where others dwell. It expects us to pay attention. It asks us to work.
One of the greatest charms of sci-fi and fantasy fiction in particular is the freedom the author possesses to custom-build a suitable world to host their story. However, the author remains a product of the real world. The audience they are speaking to are also a product of the real world. Therefore, all created worlds are related to our world through the humanity of the mind behind the story. We can’t imagine life as aliens, only as humans-pretending-to-be-aliens, because we are in fact humans and not aliens, tawdry tautology be damned.
The construction of a fictional world exposes the author’s understanding of the real world. An author who pays attention to the lives of real people will be far more able to create characters that ring true and set them in a world which is socially but also emotionally coherent. A conscientious author will also put a lot of time and energy into the behind-the-scenes logistics of their imagined world, since readers can usually tell when they have not. However, to build an entire world from scratch would take more than one lifetime, so for the background details many authors will simply take real-world cultures and social institutions, tweak them to various degrees and get back to the juicy business of story-telling. What an author chooses to create themselves and what they choose to import unexamined from our world will directly impact the enjoyment real people gain from their fiction, most especially if the author and reader do not share privileges, as the reader will experience the story in ways the author did not intend.
Intent is… tricky. Since language is clumsy and imperfect, we end up using the same word-symbols to represent different meanings. There is no way to control for every variable in either language or human experience. You may find a word benign while another person finds it harmful. The fact that both may be equally valid readings of the word’s meaning doesn’t make it any less damaging to the other person. That said, the number of inherently hurtful or contentious words is relatively small, and putting in the work to understand why they are hurtful to others will affect what they mean to you, making it easier to stop using them if you truly do not intend harm. This also goes for ideas, and is why reflexive self-examination of your privileges and assumptions is a really useful life skill. But I digress.
Say an author does tell a compelling enough story that it becomes a beloved fiction. Suddenly, fans will spend a great deal of time and energy engaging with these fictional characters, which, as it is work born out of love and enthusiasm, is delightful to witness. An enthusiastic, creative fandom will enhance and support the text, even when challenging and critiquing it, through such participatory activities as fanart, fanfiction and cosplay. Yet at root this requires us to unsuspend our belief and attend to these fictional people as if they were real.
Again, this is not a bad thing, as enthusiasm and love are always worthy of work. Any unease this work inspires arises from the wider context in which this activity is taking place.
Y’see, we may spend hours talking and thinking about the inner lives of people who don’t exist, but then we turn around and treat actual real people as if they were fictional. We accept without question whatever story we are fed about them, if we even notice their existence. Those who speak out against their invisibility are punished for attention-seeking, for distracting us from what “really matters”, or told to wait their turn, despite their suffering occurring in real time with real consequences.
Even if we do turn our focus to real people, those who occupy the Default still demand our full attention. The more complicated Other is treated as an extra – or worse, a prop – with the validity of their inner lives erased. Just like with fictional people, it takes work to connect to a real person and discover how the world looks from behind their eyes. In the absence of that attention, we fall back on stereotypes, assumptions and received narratives. We don’t put in the work to meet them where they live. Instead we judge the real person against some mythological ideal version of themselves, and any imperfection in their performance is then met with scorn. On a personal level this is rude; on a societal level, it can kill.
The inability of fiction to encompass reality is most damaging when we assume that the “non-fictional” stories we tell about real people are true. We assume that non-fiction is based in reality and therefore must be true. Truth approximates reality (as it existed at a given moment in time from a limited point of view), but it is still only a description of reality and not reality itself.
Let’s be clear.
All stories are more or less fictional, because all stories leave things out. The most comprehensive news report ever compiled is still going to fail to capture the impassive reality of what happened. Instead the facts will be arranged into a form that we as narrative creatures may recognise.
This is necessary because reality is unspeakably massive. We can’t even begin to comprehend its complexity. Reality is bigger than us, beyond us. It sprawls over the edges of the stories we map them onto, details spilling away. Something, always, is lost in the translation.
We too are real. We can’t even fathom our own complexity. Every story we dream up about reality is shaped by the human lens it passes through, but our existence is bigger than stories. Again, something gets lost in translation.
We zoom in, rummaging through the tiny details, any one of which may send our chaotic butterfly minds a-flutter. We zoom out to the stars, mapping our lives from high orbit, future’s shadow casting unknown shapes, the past trailing ghosts across our vision. We do neither. We do both.
We are narrative creatures, but we are not our stories.
We are more than stories.