Bryan Caplan  

What Is Emotional Truth?

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As a rule, I don't care for "hard sci-fi."  In fact, artistically speaking, I normally dislike true stories of any kind.  And I barely care about continuity errors.  When I read novels or watch movies, I crave what I call "emotional truth."  This recently prompted Robin Hanson to tweet:

I don't have a full answer today, but I'd start by quoting this passage from Being John Malkovich:
Well, Maxine, I'm not sure exactly. Perhaps it's the idea of becoming someone else for a little while. Being inside another skin. Moving differently, thinking differently, feeling differently.
Why can't hard sci-fi or true stories fulfill this ideal?  In principle, they could.  But when creators spend a lot of mental energy on the accuracy of their physics or the historical sequence of events, they tend to lose sight of their characters' inner lives.  A well-told story is designed to maximize the audiences' identification with the characters - to bridge the Problem of Other Minds via art.  And you know a creator has succeeded when you temporarily lose yourself in the story.

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COMMENTS (15 to date)
Thomas writes:

I don't know about "emotional truth." I do know about "escape," which is why I prefer fiction to biography and other "true" stories about real people.

Luke Perrin writes:

That's strange. I would have given almost the same explanation for why I find continuity errors so annoying. They stop me from putting myself in the shoes of the protagonist because they make it unclear as to what the situation of the protagonist actually is.

I suppose that it depends on the nature of the plot hole. For example I'm fine with The Matrix. The thermodynamic impossibility of using humans as batteries isn't really relevant to the goals of the characters; they would be trying to defeat the machines no matter what the purpose of the matrix was. But I get really annoyed that the Harry Potter books give no information about how spells are created, because it seems to me like that's critical information that Harry needs to know. I find it hard to emphasise with the choices that Harry is making, because I haven't been told what all his options are.

Arthur writes:

Perhaps, like porn, you know it when you see it.

Or a take on the golden rule (aluminum?): Feeling for another as you would feel for yourself.

Garrett M writes:

As I've matured I've enjoyed fiction less and less. More recently my focus has been on living out my own story and managing what kind of character I am in the stories of others.

Lawrence D'Anna writes:

Doesn't that awful battery scene just obliterate "the idea of becoming someone else for a little while" for you? Doesn't the sheer idiocy of the concept just rip you out of the experience and make you suddenly aware that "I am watching a movie, and the movie is stupid".

Don't get me wrong, I love the matrix. It's brilliant in many ways. But the battery thing is a jarring, suspension-of-disbeleive destroying flaw, and it would have been a much better movie artistically without it.

John Hall writes:

There's some good hard sci-fi out there. But there's also a lot that I'm not sure why they have won so many awards.

Mark Bahner writes:

Some of my likes, with emphasis on recent ones, with reasons:

1) Arrival - Good movie about communication and the human mind. If we ever get an arrival, we're toast if the military ever gets involved.

2) Interstellar - Shows it's hard to find a new planet. So we'd better not mess up the one we have too much.

3) Looper - I like time travel. Good ending. Joseph-Gordon Levitt is always good.

...skipping way back, because there are too many others...

4) Terminator - More time travel. Some excellent lines. T2 was excellent too, except for the annoying kid. T3 was good, too. People who don't have any qualms at all about the near-future of computers/robots smarter than humans really need to think about the likely reality behind those movies, as embodied in one of the all-time great lines:

It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop... ever, until you are dead!

5) Andromeda Strain - Possibly the first sci-fi movie I went to in a theater. Pretty hard science fiction, I'd say. But that reminds me...Michael Chrichton: Andromeda Strain, Westworld and Jurassic Park. Three pretty good films. Jurassic Park is sort of the ultimate summer blockbuster.

Peter Gerdes writes:

Why assume that when you lose yourself in it emotional truth has been conveyed rather than thinking you've been successfully conned/deceived?

Personally, I've observed that while it seems like the characters are emotionally accurate when I get engrossed in a story it is often more that they are identifiable (likable or detestable in a sympathetic way) which means there is a compelling emotional story about why they do what they do that I can identify with.

However, real life is often filled with people who do things simply because that's how they grew up or out of simple inertia/stubbornness. Characters like that often seem unmotivated. In real life people are often motivated by simple bias/dislike of others but the racist character who is simply an unlikable fellow and will never change his ways is off-putting. Heck, even being fairly simply selfish (as most people are) rather than being driven by deep wounds, ideals or moral convictions makes for an uninspiring character.

I could go on but the point is that it seems quite likely that what makes for a good story isn't psychological accuracy but portraying characters to they have a compelling emotional story/motivation.

MikeW writes:

It drives me crazy that movies about "true stories" essentially never are. Unlike the tradition in books to do scrupulous research and get your facts right, the tradition in movies is to manipulate your emotions with fake facts.

MikeW writes:

I agree with Lawrence D'Anna. The Matrix is a good movie, and I liked it, but the ending with the human batteries is just stupid and detracts from the movie. Bryan is right that it's not really important to the story -- but why not expend a little more effort and come up with an ending that makes sense?

Ashwin V writes:

Alan Moore. His quote on the difference between fiction and lies.

Edan Maor writes:

I generally agree that the best sci-fi touches on "emotional truth". But to me, the *reason* to use a sci-fi setting to explore issues of emotional truth is so that you can pose hypothetical questions using imagined technologies, to both explore questions of humanity, but also to explore human behavior.

This means that it's less a question of hard vs soft sci-fi for me, unless you by "hard sci-fi" you necessarily only include works that focus *only* on the science. Stories by e.g. Greg Egan or Ted Chiang are the kind of hard sci-fi I love - taking a real look at scientific possibilities, but using it to explore what it means to be human.

john hare writes:

I care quite a lot about accuracy in stories, especially hard SF. An author that postulates one impossible thing and controls the story withing those limits is quite entertaining. I have also noted that those that strive for technical accuracy often have emotional accuracy.

When anything goes, it's not hard SF, it's fantasy, which is okay if that is your preference. I prefer characters have reasons for the things they do that make sense within the limits of the story line. Pet peeve, good guy does something shady and it's okay because he's the good guy, but if a bad guy does the same thing he's evil.

Shane L writes:

British film critic Mark Kermode has sometimes observed that when he notices odd continuity errors, or that a character is wearing a wig, or that a character's accent is not quite right, it suggests the film overall is not doing its job. In a better film, he would not notice - or would swiftly forgive - these problems because the overall thrust of the movie was so engaging.

Mark Paskowitz writes:

I generally agree that connecting with the characters is key, but I find poor attempts at explanation really jarring. Warp drive? No problem. Humans as batteries? Ridiculous. The Force? Cool. Midichlorians? Absurd.

I really like when the scientific realism of hard sci-fi becomes a key plot element, e.g. The Martian, but that's probably attributable to "emotional realism" for the engineer in me.

None of which adds up to a positive opinion of The Matrix!

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