Friday, May 29, 2015

Scale versus Magnitude

Saving the world. It is not often that we find a science fiction story that does not threaten our single home among the stars. Yet most of the time an alien invasion or catastrophic natural phenomenon will simply leave us bored and uninterested. It became cliché decades ago, yet second-rate writers continue to believe that their story will succeed if they rely on the threat of global extinction. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, famous for its use of intellectual satire, there is a moment when the main character moans, “my planet was just destroyed,” to which his companions cry out in exasperation, “Get over it already!” The author, Douglas Adams, trivialized explicitly what sci-fi writers have been, for far too long, trivializing unwittingly.

On the other hand, a story where a single isolated village is threatened can claim our riveted attention. It is not necessarily the case that a planet yields a better story than a city, a galaxy yields a better story than a planet, and the whole universe yields a better story than a galaxy. To some, this seems the common sense way of things. But as we will see, this is simply not the case.

The force behind smaller scale stories being more impactful than larger is what I call the paradox of familiarity. We are attached to what we know, and are more or less indifferent to what lies outside of our realm of understanding. When watching Naruto, I am emotionally invested whenever the Village Hidden in the Leaves is threatened, because the author of the manga from which the anime was derived painstakingly made sure that the viewers get attached to the place. On the other hand, when reading the aforementioned The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy pentalogy, when the main character says “I have to save the universe,” I find myself asking, “What’s so great about the universe?” Even following one person who is afraid to die through a dangerous moment can be more intense than watching Superman battle General Zod over the fate of the earth. Dead may be dead, but when the size of the threat extends past our bubble of familiarity, it ceases to gain magnitude.

So is there a way to resolve this paradox? The answer is yes . . . partially. The trick is to start small and gradually expand the bubble of familiarity. You might wonder how we can start small and end up at galactic level if we are only slowly increasing in size. We can do this, however, because humans tend to think logarithmically. This means that each step can be proportionally bigger than the one before. As an example, it would take a long time to count to one million (1,000,000) by ones. But if we instead count by doubling (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, …), we can break a million after only 21 counts. Humans think more naturally in the second sense. Take sound volume as an example. A human will report a sound as twice as loud as another when the actual measured intensity is ten times that of the other. So instead of building up our range of familiarity one village at a time, we can start by adding one village, then a city, then a nation, then the whole planet, etc. The trick is to balance the increase with the time spent on each step.

Stargate does this very well, so I will use it as an example. First, it establishes earth as the earth, the one we all live on and know. Or at least it establishes the late twentieth century United States of America. This is a crucial first step that most series skip over. Then Stargate adds one other planet. Then it adds a handful more. Then it adds a few thousand more, and builds up a galactic political system. At this stage, it is imperative that what is added stays added, that is to say, if a certain interstellar empire exists, it will have historical, political, and direct ripple effects throughout the whole galaxy, and the writers must take these into account. Stargate did a fabulous job of keeping things consistent. After it had built up the Milky Way galaxy, it branched off and explored one other galaxy. Then finally it branched out to a small number of galaxies far away from home. Stargate is forever cemented as one of my favorite fictional franchises, and it hit the nail on the head when it came to expanding the bubble of familiarity.

Now remember I claimed that this only partially resolves the paradox. The catch arises when we hit a ceiling, which I call the All of Everything. The All of Everything occurs whenever a story makes it feel like there is nothing left that is unknown. Regardless of the magnitude this ceiling may have, it rarely fails to leave the readers asking “wait, is that all there is?” One instance of this is when a world is built up over the course of the story, and then it is revealed that this world’s creation and history were merely a cosmic plan, perhaps an experiment. Another equally valid example is if it is discovered that the universe began x years ago and operates by law y alone, and that is that. It is not so much what the ultimate answer is, but that the ultimate answer is known. Once a story has reached maximum magnitude, there is nowhere left to go, and everything ceases to be interesting. Thus the paradox resurges; the threat of universal destruction does not impress on us ultimate magnitude, regardless of whether it has been built up to or not.

So how can we avoid the familiarity paradox? The answer is to make sure the readers know that the universe is always at least a little bit bigger, whether it is obvious or merely hinted at. For every answer we provide, we present a new question. We keep the story within a space only slightly bigger than what is known, using it to expand the sphere of knowledge when necessary. We as the writers develop structure an order of magnitude above what we have revealed in the story in order to avoid the All of Everything, and so that we always have the ability to expand the zone of familiarity if the story necessitates it. We must never forget that a story that takes place in an isolated farmhouse can be as engaging as a story that takes place across four planets, or an entire galaxy. Ultimately it is not the scale at which it takes place which gives the story a feeling of grandeur, but the gradual expansion of understanding, proportional in magnitude with the familiar.

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