The past two or three years, in my late twenties, I’ve almost exclusively read fiction. Call it escapism, call it the consequences of a creative writing college program, call it what you want — but after years of reading memoirs, business biographies and spiritual poetry, I’ve sunk my brainteeth into something else. I read fiction because I believe that is where the truth lies.
The author, or the voice, or narrator — whatever — through the guise of fiction is freer to speak.
As original hipster Sir Philip Sidney famously wrote:
“Now for the poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth. For, as I take it, to lie is to affirm that to be true which is false; so as the other artists, and especially the historian, affirming many things, can, in the cloudy knowledge of mankind, hardly escape from many lies. The poet, as I said before, never affirmeth… He citeth not authorities of other histories, but even for his entry calleth the sweet Muses to inspire into him a good invention; in troth, not laboring to tell you what is or is not, but what should or should not be. And therefore though he recount things not true, yet because he telleth them not for true he lieth not.”
-The Defense of Poesy (1595)
Kevin, why are you quoting poetry? You don’t even like poetry.
Because I’m about to quote a Jurassic Park book, and I want to seem smart before I do.
What Sidney is saying is that the poet (or the author) has more power to tell the truth than anyone else, because storytelling taps into something that arguments, facts, and heavy rhetoric cannot. It taps into the human experience, which, of course, is truth. The reader is not agreeing or liking characters, but absorbing and experiencing, seeking to understand and further enrich his or her life. We might not agree with Ahab, for instance, on his search for the white whale, and we’re certainly not rooting for Kurtz in the African jungle, but we understand their quests and motives, and it teaches us something about ourselves, even if it’s dark and ugly.
Whew. Okay, that took too much brain power.
A few months ago I read the sequel to Michael Crichton’s mega-famous novel, Jurassic Park, called The Lost World, and there was a passage in a stretch of dialogue that metaphorically punched me in the proverbial stomach.
Those who have read Crichton’s novels know the man was a genius. Agree or disagree with his logic, the guy had brains. As it turns out, the late science fiction author (that is, science with a sprinkle of fiction) of The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, Sphere, and a bunch of other fantastic tales, was also a passive-aggressive Internet prophet.
In Crichton’s 1995 novel, The Lost World, his protagonist — the chaos-theory-mathematician Ian Malcolm (played brilliantly by Jeff Goldblum in the movies) — aptly predicts our modern, ultra-aware, internet-addicted, hyper-connected population. His outlook, however, is bleak.
Our Lost World
“I think cyberspace means the end of our species.”
Say what now?
“Because it means the end of innovation,” Malcolm said. “This idea that the whole world is wired together is mass death.”
So you’re saying there’s a chance.
“Every biologist knows that small groups in isolation evolve fastest. … That’s the effect of mass media—it keeps anything from happening. Mass media swamps diversity. It makes every place the same. Bangkok or Tokyo or London: there’s a McDonald’s on one corner, a Benetton on another, a Gap across the street. Regional differences vanish. All differences vanish. In a mass-media world, there’s less of everything except the top ten books, records, movies, ideas.
Don’t take away my listicles, Crichton.
“So now we’re planning to put five billion people together in cyberspace. And it’ll freeze the entire species.”
Perhaps the Bible was misinterpreted: End of Days doesn’t come with a wall of fire, but a firewall.
Let me remind you: this was 1995. AOL was shipping Free Trial CDs to mailboxes, trying to convince Everyday Joe that what he or she needed was the Internet. Hardly anyone predicted that we would all be online, and that the world would look the way it does — in just 20 years. And of course, Crichton (through Malcolm) is being hyperbolic. I do not believe that he believed we would all die through the Internet. But you got to hand it to the guy for predicting Buzzfeed.
I needed the Internet. I was in the fifth grade, and all I wanted in the Whole Wide World was an AIM account. Thanks to me, the entire species is now at risk of extinction. (Sorry).
I’m not anti-Internet, and I’m certainly not anti-technology. I work for an IT firm, for God’s sakes. I have an iPhone and I love it.
But I do think there’s something to be said for the loss of humanity we are currently experiencing at the hands of uber-connectedness. I do often worry about mass groupthink; it’s one of the big reasons I don’t have a Facebook account. (I do, however, have a Facebook Page, so… Like it?). There’s this idea that what’s “trending” is important, and that if you’ve read the headline, then you’re informed. Further, what’s not trending is not important. You don’t get to choose anymore.
You are not allowed to disagree on Facebook, because if you do, you’re an asshole. And it’s not because one person is right and the other wrong, but because the medium doesn’t allow for the nuances of human communication, which of course makes our communication… human.
But you got to share your selfies somewhere, I know. I too am conflicted.
Either way, through the power of fiction, Crichton had started a conversation well before we knew we needed it, and I hope we now take it seriously. The biggest lie the devil ever told (I think) is that the world is small, and that we should manipulate it with the click of a button.
The poet never affirmeth, but sometimes he gets it exactly right.