Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Joy of Nitpicking

So I'm reading for the Andre Norton award (and I'm not going to get them all read), and I'm on China Mieville's Railsea, and though I'm having no difficulty getting through the story I'm having a couple of problems with it. The relevant one at the moment is in buying into the premise, which is (roughly) a vast sea of intertwining railroad tracks "sailed" by trains fulfilling all the functions of ships - pirates, navy, merchants, and "molers," who hunt the gigantic burrowing animals that tunnel, hunt, and breach through the ground below the rails, which is qualitatively different in some undefined way from the "hardlands" on which people actually live. For the sake of the story I can deal with that, but it keeps bugging me that burrowing animals like the great southern moldywarp, apparently analogous to sperm whales (since one of them is standing in for Moby Dick) breach all over the place and leave molehills and have room to live and hunt without breaking the tracks.

So far the whole business of track maintenance is handwaved by references to "angels," mysterious trains that no one ever more than glimpses that fix tracks when no one is looking; but even if we grant that (and I am hoping that some information that makes it less handwavey comes along in the second half of the book), it should be common, in a great moldywarp hunt, for one to come up under the tracks and wreck them and the trains on them. They must come up very close to them, or the molers couldn't pursue them in their jollytrains, since the dirt itself is much too dangerous to get onto. Even if the moldywarp takes damage in the process, the tactic should be worthwhile, as breaking the track before the train can shunt (another point handwaved a lot), and in particular breaking a bunch of related tracks near their point of intersection, would cause the train to derail and turn the molers from hunters into prey.

This point alone is enough to keep me from voting for this book, especially in the stiffness of this year's competition.

Coincidentally, gaming group e-mail this morning contains a message, from my husband, discussing discrepancies in the description of a kind of magical construct we recently dealt with and the information describing how to construct it. We were going to sell the remnants as scrap metal, but with these discrepancies we have no idea how much of the scrap metal we have. The problem should be familiar to most gamers, "D&D economics" having plagued the simulationist end of the player spectrum since the infancy of role-playing games.

Hand-waving this sort of thing by saying "It's only a game/story" or "It's magic" or "Just roll with it" is common, but it is not adequate. Science fiction and fantasy, whatever the medium, attracts a large number of people who actively enjoy figuring out how things work - engineers, programmers, actual scientists. Not just at the physical end, either. Practitioners and enthusiasts of the soft sciences and the arts like to see linguistics and cultures that work. An artist who makes kinetic sculptures is as likely to be a nitpicker on a mechanical point as an engineer, because the jobs overlap.

Okay, there's a point of diminishing returns in worrying about fiddly details; but a lot of people give up long before that. And yes, a big chunk of the audience doesn't care. But those who do, care a lot. Disrespecting this more demanding segment of the audience seems counterproductive to me, as they are also the most loyal and dedicated audience one could ask for.

The most effective tactic, I have found, for the creator who doesn't have the expertise or patience to work out the details of how some essential part of his vision would work in the real world, is to subcontract the labor. A wise DM who has a geologist continually criticizing his dungeons will make talking to this person a routine part of his planning. "You know what would be cool? An obsidian dungeon with a big lake in the middle with a whole lost civilization of giant kobolds. But I don't know how that would come about, and wouldn't the tunnels be too slick to walk in?" Next thing you know, the player's drawing diagrams and talking about water tables and lava tubes and suddenly you have A Better Idea, and you put the dungeon together and instead of constantly having to interrupt the game to answer this guy's objections on the fly, he's eagerly pushing the rest of the party through a much more improbable scenario than you would ever have come up with on your own. Reduced labor and stress for you, increased fun for him, everybody wins.

Alternatively, for those of us working for larger audiences, identify the least plausible part of your vision, and attack it head on. Research the stuffings out of it and find a way to show it working, vividly and immediately. Make all the visible detail convincing enough, plausible enough, ordinary enough, and most of all consistent enough, and the audience will take the parts you don't show on faith, or work them out for themselves. Fandom is full of people producing starship schematics from hints collected throughout the lifetime of a series, resolving minor discrepancies, and having a blast doing it.

This advice is most applicable for fantasists, but it applies in the mainstream, too. How many TV shows have thrown you right out of the plot by their reliance on magical computers, inaccurate history, absurd biology, or impossible physics? If you like a genre or a show enough otherwise you'll willingly suspend your belief by its neck until it's dead, if necessary, but the creators need to make that as easy and fun as possible for you. If it's more work than fun to believe in a situation, the audience won't do it.

Besides, the Better Idea tends to lurk like a moldywarp under layers of lazy imagery. Digging down to them is well worthwhile.

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