Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The anthropic principle of fiction

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The next time someone tells you that one of your stories is implausible, you might want to remind them of how implausible they are. Setting aside the point that life in this galaxy, despite what our rational minds may tell us, seems to be extraordinarily rare, the fact that our universe can sustain life at all is almost beyond belief. If the value of even one of a handful of fundamental constants were even slightly different, there couldn’t be any complex structures, like stars; and if the age of the universe didn’t happen to fall, for the moment, into a certain narrow range, there wouldn’t be any planets. This is the anthropic principle, which states, very broadly, that the current habitable state of the universe is predicated on a series of massive coincidences—but if it weren’t, we wouldn’t be here to observe it. Since we wouldn’t exist otherwise, it’s hard to appreciate how unlikely this really is. The universe’s strangeness is an inseparable precondition of the fact that we’re here to tell stories about it. As a result, we tend to take it for granted.

This also turns out to be a remarkably useful principle for writing fiction. If the reader is going to suspend disbelief, it helps if the plot takes place in a setting—which can be as large as the universe or as small as a single person’s mind—that has been invisibly tuned, from the very first line, to make the story possible. My own story “Ernesto,” which appeared in the March 2012 issue of Analog, provides a convenient illustration. I wanted to write a story—and there are some spoilers ahead—in which people suffering from cancer were cured by going to a holy shrine that exposed them to erysipelas bacteria, with the resulting infection driving the cancer away. Needless to say, this is a fairly farfetched premise that poses a number of storytelling problems: an erysipelas infection would be obvious to any doctor in a modern hospital, and I wanted to save this revelation for the end to preserve the mystery. The solution, I concluded, was to set the story in the past, perhaps during wartime, when doctors were stretched thin. When I decided that the most suitable shrine for my purposes was that of St. John of the Cross, who died of erysipelas and is buried in Segovia in Spain, it seemed clear that the best setting for the story was the Spanish Civil War. And if I was going to do all that, well, obviously my hero had to be Hemingway.

And the funny thing about “Ernesto” is that if I’ve done my job correctly, this line of reasoning shouldn’t be obvious: it should look like I set out to write about Hemingway himself, when in fact the largest elements of the story—character, setting, theme—were actually a consequence, derived retroactively, of what seem like minor details. Ideally, then, when I arrive at my solution, it seems inevitable, an organic result of the story I’ve written, when in fact it was anything but. A similar process is visible in my novelette “Kawataro,” in which I ended up writing a story set in a fishing community of the deaf in modern Japan by reasoning backward from a tiny scientific detail. Like “Ernesto,” “Kawataro” could have been set anywhere (it was originally inspired by an article about deaf Bedouins), but when it comes to preparing the reader for the final twist, some settings are better than others. This leads me to what I see as a very powerful rule for writing this kind of fiction: the largest elements of the story should be determined by its least plausible details. If I’d started with a setting I liked, and then tried to shoehorn in the twist, the reader would object at once. But in this case, by the time the twist arrives, it seems relatively logical, but only because the story has been structured around it.

This is the anthropic principle of fiction. Readers will happily accept almost any premise when it’s introduced in the first few pages, but as the story continues, they’ll grow increasingly skeptical of any plot element that doesn’t seem to follow from that initial set of rules—so you’d better make sure that the world in which the story takes place has been fine-tuned to allow whatever implausibilities you later decide to include. I recently went through this process yet again, while writing a novelette that I hope to submit to Analog soon. It’s set during the Vietnam War, in the days leading up to the Tet Offensive, but only because this seemed like the best setting for the story I wanted to tell, which revolves around a stranded whale. I could have put the whale in California or Greenland—both of which I seriously considered—but because of its whale cult, as well as a few other reasons I won’t mention yet, Vietnam seemed best. The result is a story that is emphatically about Vietnam, with all the thematic weight that implies, but I never would have arrived there if I hadn’t reasoned backward to find the time and place best suited for the surprises I had in mind. Whether or not a story works is another matter. But it’s always best to start it with a bit of intelligent design.

Written by nevalalee

September 26, 2012 at 8:57 am

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