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Thursday, October 14, 2010

 

The Gizz principle

The other day I sat down with my baby and read to him. Sometimes I read him stuff that I happened to be reading at the time, by way of entertaining us both - Alison Bechdel, P.G. Wodehouse and Satan's Silence have all made the list lately - figuring that as he doesn't speak English, one book is much like another to him, that the interest is mostly in hearing my voice and grammar in action, so I might as well pick something I'm enjoying anyway. But it occurred to me that he might also enjoy hearing rhythm and rhyme, so I got my Dr Seuss books down off the shelf. And as I read them, I remembered why I'd always loved them ... and how, in their way, they express something important about fantastical fiction.

Here's an extract from Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?:

And oh! Just suppose
you were poor Harry Haddow.
Try as he will
he can't make any shadow!

He thinks that, perhaps, something's wrong with his Gizz.
And I think that, by golly, there probably is.

That little couplet has delighted me for a long time. I think the best word for it is insouciance - and it's something that writers of non-realistic fiction will have some kind of position on.

Like Twain's humourous frog, dissecting insouciance tends to kill it, but since I'm basing a post on it, I should explain what I love so much about that vignette. It's the word 'Gizz'.

When it comes to Dr Seuss, we're in a world of wild, improvised fantasy. Strange creatures abound, situations bloom out of nowhere, bizarre moments come and go - and they come and go without explanation. There may be a wocket in your pocket, but except for a cheery illustration, he has no interest in defining what a wocket is. It's just there: the narrator seems familiar with it, so he presents it to us and carries on talking. Harry's Gizz affects his shadow somehow, but exactly how? We don't know, and the narrative rattles on without explaining, because it doesn't really matter.

And to me, that's how it should be. After all, there's no such thing as a shadowless person. No explanation, however well drawn-out, will cover it. Because, you see - and I hate to say it of a revered children's author, but truth will out - Dr Seuss is lying. There is no Harry Haddow; there are no people who can't make any shadows. It's all invented. So presenting the Gizz as the explanation, without explaining what a Gizz is, is a bold and charming solution ... and in fact, it's even the most logical one. No explanation will account for a phenomenon that doesn't and can't exist, so not even trying is, as well as the wittiest solution, the most honest.

When it comes to putting something non-realistic in a story, there's always going to have to be some suspension of disbelief. The question is, how much explaining away do you need to do before you can consider disbelief reasonably suspended? Different authors answer the question differently, and different readers make different demands.

Now, the demands are partly a matter of taste, and also partly a matter of habit. A friend of mine, for instance, has a friend who complained that he didn't like The Time Traveler's Wife because it made no sense: if somebody disappeared and came back later in time, he ought to land in a different country because the earth would have rotated in the meantime. Now, from a writer's point of view, that's an idea that might yield some interesting results if you wanted to go that way, but I can't help feeling that it's not an entirely reasonable reason to reject an entire novel. There's a perfectly good explanation why Audrey Niffenegger didn't bother with the rotation of the earth. First, unless you make it a central concern of the story, having your time traveller pop up all over the map, and possibly underwater or in the middle of a mountain somewhere, every time he comes back in time would be a massive plot inconvenience. But the second is more important: it isn't that kind of book. While I haven't read it, I understand it to be more a love story than anything else - which is to say, the central concern of the story is the relationship between the characters. The mechanics of time travel aren't relevant to that. You just have to suspend your disbelief.

And the thing is, why shouldn't you? Time travel isn't real. It's a magical trope intended to help the story along; magic is always a narrative fait accompli. The person objecting that Niffenegger had got the mechanics of time travel wrong did not, it seemed, particularly notice that the concept of time travel itself violates the laws of physics; time travel is a familiar trope, and so was acceptable because it had the weight of habit behind it. But in fact, if you're doing something magical, any explanation of its mechanics is going to be as false as any other, or as simply ignoring them. Why doesn't Niffenegger's time traveller get inconvenienced by the turning of the earth? Because his Gizz relocates him.

This isn't to say that fiction shouldn't be internally consistent. It should, unless it'd be better if it isn't. But internally consistent doesn't have to mean fully explained. However much you explain, eventually you're going to hit a Gizz.

The question becomes, how do you get readers to accept the Gizz? There are two methods, and writers often combine the two. The first is sleight of hand: the writer entertains the reader enough, holds their attention enough, that they don't particularly notice it. The second is the brass neck method: plonk a Gizz in front of them, don't explain it, and say 'Take it or leave it'. If done with enough style, many a reader will take it, knowing that it's a ticket to a fun ride. Sometimes showing the Gizz early is the stylish thing to do.

I was thinking about this the other day when David Lynch's Dune was shown on television. I was vaguely aware that the movie was not a critical success, to put it mildly, and indeed as I watched it I could completely understand why. Characters stride from scene to scene declaiming gibberish with a sense of mythic urgency; most of what I could hear in the dialogue seemed to be cries of 'I am the fantiple wekazork!' or 'I shall teach you the ways of the nafbargese momtuggers!' or something similarly incomprehensible; having read the book many years ago I had a vague idea of what they were talking about, but the fact remained that in two hours I seemed to be watching about ten years pass in which the zimfrangers fought the mafnabbis over the crucial issue of penwalladddding, and they all took it really, really seriously, for reasons that nobody was going to explain.

So I watched it, undergoing the sensation of watching a truly terrible film. And then, five minutes after it finished, I discovered I rather loved it.

I mean, I could see why it wasn't a success. Mostly, it was a question of the wrong man for the wrong project: David Lynch is an artist who delights in taking the familiar and rendering it strange. Science fiction like Dune is set in a world that's utterly strange to the viewer, and conventionally is best handled by someone who can take the strange and render it familiar, or if not familiar, at least coherent. Putting a lover of strange style in charge of a film about a strange place meant the artistic equivalent of listening to a speech in a foreign language: foreignness overwhelmed everything to the point of deep confusion.

And yet in that confusing babble, there were so many wild leaps of imagination, so many visual excesses, so much stuff that was just new and interesting, that the incoherence didn't seem to matter. There was more imagination there than in ten ordinary science fiction films that made sense; asking for clarity was missing what was there.

Which is to say, I was eventually charmed enough that I started hearing the whirr of the Gizz. Why was Kyle MacLachlan the leader of a new movement? There was something special about his Gizz. What were all these weird religions? They invoked the power of Gizz. Why did those people appear to live in massive boxes? They needed them to protect their Gizzes. And why not? Any science fiction film is going to show you a world which doesn't exist and demand you accept certain falsehoods anyway; why not just enjoy Lynch's grubby brilliance and shrug everything else off?

This is very much a matter of taste. Science fiction, not unnaturally, attracts a certain proportion of reader-viewers who are interested in science, and a scientific mind is one that's interested in explanations. For such people, presumably, an intricate explanation is a pleasing object in itself even if it's not actually true.

I'm much more at the other end of the scale; a phrase from David Sedaris's Me Talk Pretty One Day occurs: Ask my mother how the radio worked and her answer was simple: "Turn it on and pull out the goddamn antenna." It's notable that if you try to explain an abstract principle to me, my brain goes to screensaver extremely quickly even if I'm trying to concentrate - but on the other hand, if you give me a concrete example, I can infer the abstract principle behind it immediately. And the art of fiction, or at least fiction I like, is nothing if not the creation of examples to convey concepts: that's what all those writing teachers mean when they say 'Show don't tell.' A teacher of mine, for instance, used to give the example that 'Jane was obsessive about hygiene' is much less interesting than 'Jane flossed her teeth until her gums bled': the former is the abstract expression of that side of her character, the latter a concrete situation that conveys the principle by example.

Which is why, I think, I get the Gizz. To me, ideas are expressed in concrete forms, be they examples or metaphors. A Gizz is an example of a non-existent principle - but because I infer principles from examples, I can infer what the non-existent principle is, or at least its broad general outlines, by having a look at whatever Gizz was plonked down in front of me. To me, that's what fiction is: being presented with a set of not-actually-true incidents that illustrate - and thus create - a particular mood, time and place.

The thing about a Gizz is this: it has the structure of an explanation without the content. But it hints at content - usually by echoing things that we know are real. Harry Haddow isn't real, but we do know that if something's wrong with an organ of your body, it can cause physical incapacities. You can't turn from a beautiful young queen into a withered old apple-seller by drinking a magic potion, but medicines can have drastic effects on real people. Gizzes don't necessarily echo real-world things exactly, but they often have enough family resemblance that they seem real-ish, if not actually real. Gizzes can, in effect, game our experience of reality.

At the same time, presenting a Gizz without explanation is a tacit acknowledgement that it's not real, that it can't be explained - and if it's presented boldly, the narrative is playing with that unreality, making an obscure joke or a poetic leap with it.

The effect is to set up a tension between the sense of reality and unreality that creates an intricate reaction, not in explanations on the page but in the mind of the reader ... and because the mind is more intricate than anything it can create, often the result is a more intricate interplay than any explanation a writer could come up with. It's just that the intricacy is implicit, there but not acknowledged, to be intuited rather than directly observed.

Another element of this illusory structure is that it creates places into which, should you need them, explanations can later be inserted. When I write fantastical situations I don't map them out in detail: I settle on an impression, and the write whatever seems to fit in with it. The other day someone reading Bareback asked me a question about a detail that I hadn't addressed in the book (Bareback seems to attract such questions): well, I didn't have an answer ready, but I thought about it for a bit, felt out what would be consistent, and came up with a detailed answer. The question was asked through my husband, in fact; when I passed the answer back along, he said he loved that I'd got all this worked out - and I had to explain to him that actually I hadn't, I was improvising. But that's the thing about improvising on the Gizz principle: if the Gizz is properly placed at the beginning, even your spouse can't tell when you're pulling answers out of the air, because once they're out of the air and tucked properly in, they fit. A Gizz leaves adaptable spaces behind. And those spaces don't have to be filled: like the hollow in a guitar, they can create resonances that a fuller space wouldn't allow. But if you do want to fill them, they're flexible: a variety of explanations will do, as long as they're reasonably consistent with the structure you've established. Explanations can be pre-built formations, or they can be riffs on a theme - and in the latter case, you're probably looking at a Gizz principle somewhere in the foundations.

When you're writing something non-real, you can play with it - either humourously or seriously - by providing an ornamental explanation, or by mounting it strategically so as to obviate the need for an explanation. Either is valid - but the absence of an explanation doesn't mean the writer doesn't know what they're about. They're probably about a Gizz.

Comments:
Wow, I love this. You've defined the difference between "hard" and "soft" science fiction in the most eloquent and memorable way. If I ever manage to write something, it will be better because of this.

... and if you really want to be nitpicky, go and tell your friend's friend that Time Traveller would, in fact, pop up in space and that would be the end of him.
 
I love Lynch's Dune precisely because it's such a freaked out mess. The Sci-Fi channel did a mini-series of it a few years ago that was much more coherent but also almost completely lifeless.

And since I love a lot of genre TV shows and movies it bugs me when people can't groove with the Gizz and have to treat a fictional story like an article in a scientific journal. If it's well acted, and engaging, and the creator's heart is in the piece it works.

I don't care if it's odd the Aliens speak English and the Human characters can eat and drink the food of the planet without falling deathly ill. I don't even care about the medical impossibility of an alien and human having a child. Just set your Gizz down firm and true, this child is half human, half alien, and I'm along for the ride.

It's why I'm always charing the windmill of TV Tropes. It doesn't matter if it's impossible or if it's been told before. All that matters is if it's told well.
 
Oh, is that what hard and soft sci fi are? Well, guess now I know. :-)


It doesn't matter if it's impossible or if it's been told before.

Yeah, I'm not mad about TV Tropes. Partly this is because they lifted a quote from my blog without asking me, which I found impolite - I mean, my e-mail is right here on the website, and I always do give permission to quote when asked* - so I'm sulking at them. (Though it's not there any more.) But mostly I just find it rather pointless: it seems to slap 'trope' labels onto everything it can find, on the 'when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail' principle, which seems to turn art into a game of spot-the-trope rather than anything more interesting. Not my thing.


it bugs me when people can't groove with the Gizz and have to treat a fictional story like an article in a scientific journal

Do you know people like that in person? Would you say there was a common factor?



*I mean, if the BNP wants to quote me on their propaganda then I'm telling them to piss off. But that hasn't happened, so 'always' is an unbroken record so far.
 
"Do you know people like that in person? Would you say there was a common factor?"

I've seen it much more as an online thing. I think in person when you're talking about TV or movies you're going to have a few in your group who have no problem with Gizzes. And as such are going to try not to roll their eyes out of their heads at them for saying they had no use for the movie because not only is there no such things as dragons it would be impossible for them to breathe fire without killing themselves.

But online they can select to hang out with and so constantly talk about media with people who approach it in the exact same way as they do. This spills over to when there's a conversation online involving people who can accept Gizzes those who can't don't have to back down thanks to the anonymity of the web.

For the people I've known in person like this. I think it comes down to control. Not knowing the answer or seeing that sometimes things happen for no reason frightens them. To them a work of fiction, being fictional means the creator should cover all bases and explain everything down to the last atom because they have the power to do so. Failure to do so leaves a work as open and messy as the world that frightens this type of person so much. They want an explanation, and charts for what goes bump in the night.
 
In my experience whether or not someone will buy into something like that is much less to do with their personality then to do with how closely they work with the area concerned.

I know people who can't watch films where characters are able to brush off extreme violence, because from their experience it's just not possible.

Likewise I went to see ironman 2 with a group of physicists, who broke down in laughter when tony stark built a partical accelerator with a spiritlevel, and it was the spiritlevel detail they broke their suspension of disbeleif, they told me afterwards, not the hand-made partical accelerator which is a whole order of magnitude more unrealistic then getting something accuratly flat with a spirit level.

Neither of these groups would have any problems with what annoyed the other group- its not they that nit-pick everything, only their one or two areas of experience.

It's my gut feeling that the way the Gizz is invoked is the difference between Sci-Fi and Science Fiction. (I'm using Ursula le Guines two poles of spectulative fiction rather then 'hard' and 'soft' science fiction, because, for one, I have read soft science fiction that does the Gizz correctly, but mostly because I think her idea of the difference between sci-fi and science fiction needs to be talked about more.)
 
An insightful post that leaves me with a strange desire to read Dr. Seuss's Dune.
 
For the people I've known in person like this. I think it comes down to control. Not knowing the answer or seeing that sometimes things happen for no reason frightens them. To them a work of fiction, being fictional means the creator should cover all bases and explain everything down to the last atom because they have the power to do so.

I wonder if there's also an element of control issues with the author. Again this is something you mostly see online - or at least, that I mostly see online - but at the more extreme end (which is to say, the extreme end of a personality, because I'm sure not everyone who enjoys a good imaginary explanation has such a personality) some people seem to get uncomfortable with the fact that a book can influence their emotions but they can't influence the book, and react by wanting to control or boss around the author.

Accepting a Gizz means ceding control to the author, because a Gizz is basically a 'because I say so'. Demanding an explanation can be a demand that the author justify themselves to you. If someone's uncomfortable with the idea that the author has one-way influence over them, possibly a Gizz feels too vulnerable.

But like I say, this is unreasonable people rather than all people who like explanations. I suspect most people who like explanations just think they're fun.
 
In my experience whether or not someone will buy into something like that is much less to do with their personality then to do with how closely they work with the area concerned.

It's an interesting point.

On the other hand, a genuine Gizz is quite hard to nitpick because there's nothing to get hold of, so I'm not sure it's quite the same.

I haven't seen Iron Man 2, so I don't know the scene, but it seems to me that a spirit level might function either as a Gizz or as a not-very-good explanation, depending on how it's presented. If you present it like it's genuinely how you'd built a particle accelerator, yep, not convincing. On the other hand, if the phrase 'particle accelerator' actually translates to 'magic machine', then you might have you hero build it using a spirit level, tin tacks and sellotape, as a way of saying to the audience, 'Look, this machine does something that couldn't possibly happen. How realistic do you expect it to be?'

Gizzes minimise the need for explanation, but if you're going to explain something, you ought to get it right. And if you mess it up, you might pretend it was a Gizz to excuse yourself, but that's cheating.

I'd put psychological realism in a different category, though. When I'm talking about Gizzes, they're usually explanations of things rather than behaviours. I've talked about this before -

http://kitwhitfield.blogspot.com/2008/09/plausibility-and-fantasy.html

- but I think that physical and psychological realism occupy different spaces.

And I don't think you can Gizz psychological unrealism. 'Because I say so' can be a reasonable justification for having flying pigs in the story, but it won't do for unlikely behaviour. An unreal thing can be Gizzed because there's nothing in the real world a reader can point to and say, 'Look, you're wrong!', but a reader can always point to real people: you can't throw a boot over a fence without hitting human behaviour. (And possibly a human as well, who will then display some behaviour.) You can't Gizz something real and observable. It wouldn't look stylish and imaginative, it would look stupid and unobservant.

You can justify different degrees of psychological unrealism, but as I say in the post above, it's mostly by creating a style and a backdrop against which the behaviour seems consistent. Unrealistic behaviour flies in an unrealistic world - but it has to be unrealistic in its style rather than its content. A stylised world will support unrealistic behaviour even if it contains nothing non-real; a naturalistic world won't support it no matter how many Gizzes or explained things it contains.

If you were more mathematically inclined than me you could probably plot this on some kind of chart, with 'Gizz versus explanation' on one axis, 'stylised versus naturalistic' on another, and 'does/doesn't contain things that don't exist' on another. And where your story ended up on that chart would indicate how much psychological unrealism you could get away with.

Except in the cases where it didn't apply, of course, and disproving rules is something original-minded writers do all the time...
 
"I was thinking about this the other day when David Lynch's Dune was shown on television. I was vaguely aware that the movie was not a critical success, to put it mildly, and indeed as I watched it I could completely understand why. Characters stride from scene to scene declaiming gibberish with a sense of mythic urgency; most of what I could hear in the dialogue seemed to be cries of 'I am the fantiple wekazork!' or 'I shall teach you the ways of the nafbargese momtuggers!' or something similarly incomprehensible; having read the book many years ago I had a vague idea of what they were talking about, but the fact remained that in two hours I seemed to be watching about ten years pass in which the zimfrangers fought the mafnabbis over the crucial issue of penwalladddding, and they all took it really, really seriously, for reasons that nobody was going to explain."

LOLOLOL!!!
 
It's notable that if you try to explain an abstract principle to me, my brain goes to screensaver extremely quickly even if I'm trying to concentrate - but on the other hand, if you give me a concrete example, I can infer the abstract principle behind it immediately.

Me too. I knew there was a reason I've read your blog all the way back to here after just discovering it yesterday.

/houseboatonstyx here. I guess I am a robot. /
 
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