My current pet peeve in reviews, essays and articles is when something in fiction is described as ‘a character in its own right’.
The city, the weather, the food, the magical system, the planet, the ship are so effective, so vivid, so forceful that they are characters in their own right.
(When I read articles that start ‘why is everyone doing this annoying thing’ I often think ‘What? Are they?’ And what the article writer thinks is a tedious worldwide trend turns out to be a combination of selection bias and having awful mates. So pre-emptively – this is only a small pet peeve, maybe the size of a hamster. And this post is not about People Doing it Wrong, but about working out why it irked me.)
It’s intended as a compliment – this fiction has raised an object (a city/cheese/smell) to the level of the human (it’s so memorable, influential, characterful!). But for me, the compliment feels backhanded – what it grants to one author, it takes away from fiction as a whole. It underestimates the things that can be memorable, influential, characterful, and over-estimates the importance of human characters. Cities and weather and architecture have their own powerful influence on lives, and fiction at its best can show that influence in fascinating nuanced ways.
This tendency to humanise reminds me of conspiracy theories. One theory as to the popularity of such theories is that humans find complexity daunting. My life is at the mercy of vast systems I can only partially grasp, so I’m daunted.
If, instead, there was a sinister cabal of people out to get me – well, on the one hand, that’s terrifying.
On the other hand, it’s incredibly reassuring. There’s a human intelligence out there, and it’s in charge! If things are going badly for me, then it’s because of them – it’s me against them, mano-a-mano. This puffs my ego, and massively hampers my understanding.
(I’m not saying that reviewers are conspiracy theorists, or that there’s anything sinister about their personification of things they’ve found effective in books. It just raised a parallel in my brain, about the importance of the individual human – see also the Great Man theory of history.)
My geek chum added another dimension for me: in computer games, there isn’t an intrinsic distinction between characters and objects. They’re both just nuggets of code – a set of properties, limits, and responses to stimuli.
To take two games as examples: In Grand Theft Auto, when you do crime, someone calls the police. In Watch_Dogs (by Ubisoft, out this week) the city itself notices you on CCTV and sends police (it’s set in a smart/semi-sentient Chicago, with public transport and surveillance and so forth tied into a giant single operating system.) But the underlying mechanisms are the same.
Usually, games disguise the objects with a skin of humanity – for Watch_Dogs they’re (as my chum notes) hanging a hat on what’s happening anyway. A dystopian Orwellian smart-hat.
Which brought me full circle: to thinking that as people and things in computer games are both bundles of code, so people and things in fiction are both bundles of words, animated by the reader’s understanding and imagination. So why not mess with boundaries? Why not give your cities sentience and your trees empathy, and work the pathetic fallacy for all it’s worth? Particularly in speculative fiction.
So now I feel less irked and more optimistic.