Some thoughts on how we shove real-world ambiguity into an artificial story structure

Photo by Kevin Erdvig on Unsplash

I've been thinking a bit about the nature of reality lately. Not fabric of spacetime or the meaning of existence, but something more along the lines of how we inject reality into stories, and what the purpose of a story that inhabits a more realistic world might be.

Two things remined me of this over the weekend. The first was a Tweet from someone observing that of all the Apollo missions, the biggest blockbuster film that came out of that era was Apollo 13, the one mission that didn't actually make it to the lunar surface. The other was the general reaction to a new true crime podcast from Serial, The Coldest Case in Laramie, which seems to have had some polarizing reactions. In both cases, I thought that they were good reminders that storytelling is an artificial construct, and that real-life events often don't conform neatly to the way that we want stories delivered to us.

Let's take the first instance: "Ironic that the Apollo program is probably the most amazing things humans have ever done and the big movie to come out of it was Apollo 13 -- which was the only lunar mission that failed/didn't make it to the moon."

I've read and studied a lot about human spaceflight over the years, and it's all undeniably astounding, especially the things that came before Apollo, when we were just figuring out how to actually get up into space (the Mercury program) and then live and operate there (the Gemini program). We've had films about some of these programs: HBO released an intriguing miniseries called From the Earth to the Moon back in 1998 that covers a broad swath of that time. There's The Right Stuff, a blockbuster in its own right about the Mercury 7, and more recently, the 2018 film First Man, about Neil Armstrong.

There's a lot of material to look at in the Apollo program: certainly the first landing on the Moon, the adventures and scientific exploration of Apollos 15, 16, and 17, and so forth. I recently read and loved Earl Swift's history of the Lunar Rover, Across the Airless Wilds: The Lunar Rover and the Triumph of the Final Moon Landings, which took a methodical and exciting trip through the development of the vehicle and the work it had accomplished. There's nothing in there that would play out well in a 2 1/2 hour film: he plays out a story that builds as engineers learn to break down their most basic assumptions about mechanical locomotion, bid for the work (there were some crazy experimental vehicles at that point), then actually building the thing, deploying it, and driving it around. Swift takes us through the entire story point by point, eventually delivering us to a wonderful finale as the last two Apollo astronauts on the moon, Eugene Cernan and Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, discover some incredible rocks, fix some enormous problems, and return home safely.

That story wouldn't work without that buildup: it's complicated, and the peak of the arc relies on the reader to know and understand all the work that lead up to that moment.

Apollo 13, however, is a rare instance where you have a dramatic situation play out that fits neatly into a package that can be filmed: Astronauts go on what appears to be a routine mission to Moon, run into incredible danger, have to work together to figure out how to survive and return home, and then splash down safely. The narrative arc follows their path to the Moon and back, and coupled with James Horner's incredible soundtrack and acting from an incredible cast, you have a heartwarming, heroic film.

I like to contrast Apollo 13 with First Man, because they're so different. First Man follows Neil Armstrong's journey to train for the Moon, and the hardships that it brings with it. Where Apollo 13 soars, First Man is kind of a bummer. I watched it in theaters and came away somewhat depressed, and I agree with the conclusions A.O. Scott came to in his review: "It gets almost everything right, but it’s also strangely underwhelming. It reminds you of an extraordinary feat and acquaints you with an interesting, enigmatic man. But there is a further leap beyond technical accomplishment — into meaning, history, metaphysics or the wilder zones of the imagination — that the film is too careful, too earthbound, to attempt."

It was a film that didn't really come to any conclusions about Armstrong or the space race, and I think a big part of that is that the most exciting part of Apollo 11 (other than, you know, the actual first steps) was that they had to search for a parking spot, a hair-raising couple of extra seconds that spelled the difference between them landing and crashing. That would make a fine film in and of itself, but compared to Apollo 13, it might come off a bit underwhelming. Stories about unqualified successes are harder to crack, because what you're essentially doing is watching qualified people succeed. It's why we don't necessarily remember Apollos 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17, other than some of the goofier moments like Alan Shepard playing golf on the Moon. That's a shame!

But while there are some excellent stories there, they're ones that require more setup for a finale that is no less triumphant, but which is less dramatic: the triumph comes from the building.

Meanwhile, The Coldest Case in Laramie dropped a couple of days ago, and it's an interesting listen: in 1985, a woman named Shelli Wiley was killed in Laramie, Wyoming, and to date, nobody has been convicted. The case was bounced around for years until 2016, when police arrested a former deputy named Fred Lamb. He had seemed like a likely suspect, but after closer scrutiny, the state opted to drop the charges against him, and at this point, it seems like nobody will ever be called to account for the incident.

Something I've appreciated about Serial's work is how it has a tendency to showcase the frustratingly ambiguous nature of the world we live in, as well as the irony of a multi-part story that builds and builds to a finale that ... doesn't really come to anything, despite following along a narrative arc that seems to promise closure. It's a little ironic, given how media has trained us to expect a story wrapped up in a neat package, beginning, middle, and end. I've listened to Serial and the studio's various side projects, and that seems to be a through line: the world is messy, and all we can do is put together what we have, and see how that plays out.

I think we as a storytelling species have a hard time with ambiguity, and I think this is a good lesson for us to internalize. If we're looking to stories to embody some moral lesson or showcase some important part about the world, we're at the same time forcing this constraint upon the stories we're consuming: expecting them to fit this artificial structure that naturally leads to a satisfying conclusion where we have closure.

I think this is an important thing to pay attention to, both as storytellers and as creators. We're living at a time when conspiracy theories are not only everywhere, they have the real potential to cause real-world harm. A couple of years ago, I came across an interesting piece about someone musing about how their parents (I think, it's been a while, and I can't find the piece now) got sucked into conspiratorial thinking in a roundabout way because they were huge fans of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and its sequels: books that are all about finding clues hidden in plain sight that lead to much deeper conspiracies that are secretly steering the direction of the world.

I don't think it's nearly as simple as Da Vinci Code leads directly to January 6th, but I think that the books are a good representative example at how willing we are to look for structure in a chaotic world. We're biologically equipped to do this, even if we're absolutely terrible at it. It's a good reminder that stories are powerful because they give us meaning and structure to the world, but as storytellers, it's good to recognize that the real world doesn't quite operate that way: it's the unearthing of those smaller stories in a much larger pool that really helps make them stand out.

And, of course, a good explanation for when a reader complains that something is too implausible.

Image: Andrew Liptak

Currently reading

I've found myself in a reading rut lately: it's been hard to concentrate on finishing a handful of books, even with help from audiobooks. Currently on the list:

Fight, Magic, Items: The History of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the Rise of Japanese Rpgs in the West by Aidan Moher

I've been picking away at this little by little: it's not a topic that I know much about, but Aidan's a friend and exceptionally knowledgeable about this corner of nerd lore. I'm enjoying the journey here quite a bit.  

The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz

I've always enjoyed Annalee's books (their nonfiction and fiction alike), and this is hitting a lot of buttons for me. They're playing with some big ideas about terraforming, space colonies, and environmentalism, and I'm eager to see where this one goes.

The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe by Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry

This is another that I've been picking away at for a little while: I've been trying to read a chapter or so before bed, and it's an area that I don't know a ton about, but it's been interesting to learn a bit more.

The Black Joke: The True Story of One Ship's Battle Against the Slave Trade by A. E. Rooks

I started this as a judge for a literary prize. It's a fascinating, well-written history about the slave trade and one ship in particular that went from carrying captives across the Atlantic, to playing a role in stopping it.

Teaching White Supremacy: America's Democratic Ordeal and the Forging of Our National Identity by Donald Yacovone

This was a book I picked up recently after seeing that it was a book club selection for another museum. I've read/been reading a handful of books about American history in recent years – Jill Lepore's These Truths: A History of the United States, and Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America by Pekka Hämäläinen, and this seems like an interesting study to complement them.

The Icarus Plot by Timothy Zahn

Timothy Zahn's The Icarus Hunt has long been a favorite novel of mine: I was excited when he had a new entry in this world, and it's one that I really need to buckle down and get back into.

Further reading to sell ebooks. Publishers Weekly reports that indie online bookseller will begin selling ebooks soon, along with its own book, Our Strangers by Lydia Davis later this year. It sounds like they're starting with reading books in a web browser (ugh), before launching a dedicated app. It'll be good to see Amazon get some more competition, and it'll be good if Bookshop can dig into that market share a little, although it's got a steep hill to climb.

Cara Dune's fate. The folks at Deadline have an interview with Mandalorian creators ahead of the show's return tomorrow, in which they spoke a bit about the character Cara Dune and actress Gina Carano, who was let go from the series after a series of controversial remarks. It's been a weird topic (I spoke with some cosplayers about their reactions after the fact), and a lot of folks have wondered what would happen to the character. It sounds like they might have an explanation in the upcoming season about what her fate ultimately is. I really liked the character: hopefully she won't be axed off-screen.

Actions have consequences
Fuck around and find out

The comprehensive staff roster for Dewey, Cheatham & Howe. If you've ever listened to NPR's Car Talk, you'll know about their love of wordplay and terrible puns. I present to you the full list of staff that they've added to their company over the years.

Stephenson on the Metaverse. Financial Times has a good interview with Neal Stephenson, of Snowcrash fame, in which he talks a bit about the metaverse and his thoughts on its development as of late. As a bonus, Sotherby's has a bunch of Snowcrash items up for auction. Want a manuscript, jacket, or sword?

Here's a rundown on some of the shorter daily posts for supporters:

Warner Bros. has struck a deal to release more Lord of the Rings films. It'll be interesting to see what this ends up being, given that there's a new IP holder.

More Middle-earth is on its way
Warner Bros. struck a deal to make even more Lord of the Rings films

The Smithonian's National Museum of African American History has a new exhibit coming about the history of Afrofuturism.

History of Afrofuturism exhibit
Mark your calendars

Clarkesworld Magazine (and others) have been inundated with AI-generated short stories.

Robot stories
Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld has noted a sharp increase in AI-generated submissions

The Vermont State College System has garnered a considerable amount of backlash with their plan to empty out their libraries in favor of a digital-only system. It's a stupid, shitty plan.

Emptying the shelves
The Vermont State College system wants to ditch their physical libraries in favor of an online one

N.K. Jemisin's The City We Became/World We Make has been optioned for an adaptation!

The city we’ll get to watch
More N.K. Jemisin adaptations are in the works

P.W. Singer testified at a US House hearing about potential military readiness problems, and put together some FicInt storytelling to accompany his views.

Fic-Int in the House
The first time the US House has hosted military science fiction?

As always, these posts are short and to the point, and head out just about every day to supporting subscribers. I have fun writing them, and subscribing helps support the site.

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