Fuzzy Maps, Reality and Writing
by Claude Needham Ph.D.
Ordinarily one would like to think that we live within a consensus reality sharing the same environment and basic experiences as others. With a little reflection it becomes apparent that this assumption is a crock -- or at least can't be entirely trusted.
Anyone that has studied any of the recent developments in cybernetics and neural-physiology can give testament that we don't have congruent reality maps.
I am here not to convince you that we don't actually share a consensus reality rather I am here to praise the existent overlap of shared experience -- however slight -- that allows fiction and nonfiction writers to communicate to their respective readers.
Even in the face of certain knowledge that what you are reading is not that which I am writing, I nevertheless intend without faltering to address the question of information transfer and fuzzy-mapping as it pertains to science fiction short stories.
What is a short story? A short story is the set of instructions left by an author that may be used by a reader to gain entrance into the writer's head space. [Quote from five or six famous SciFi writers]
Consider the following cryptic instructions: red wagon, green lawn, sidewalk, asphalt roadway, light summer breeze, sound of your name being called in the distance.
What image did the above cryptic phrases conjure? If you are like most people, the few bytes of information given were enough to generate megabytes and even gigabytes of pictorial/experiencial information.
Consider the situation that I am in as an author. As an author I may wish to convey to you the reader a mood and feeling of sitting in a red wagon atop a green hillside in the early spring contemplating a steep downhill run of about fifty yards into a waiting pond of an inch and a half of spring run off sitting on an acre of asphalt.
Does the above description generate an image? Did it evoke an experience within your inner world?
If one is not particularly rigid, the above method can yield many orders of magnitude of data compression. Just the phrase 'red wagon' can evoke a picture within the reader's inner world that would normally require two or three megabytes to reproduce on a CRT screen. But is the picture generated in response to the phrase 'red wagon' the same picture that I as author intended? Yes and no. That is the nature of fuzzy information transfer.
When one is sending data files over the InterNet one expects, or at least hopes, that the information content in the received file has an exact one to one relationship to the information content sent. A good file transfer protocol will guarantee that such is the case. The received file is measured and verified against the file as sent. A science fiction writer does not have this functionality available to him or her. When a story is included in Galaxy magazine, it is sent to thousands of individual that read the story and rarely actually have the opportunity to give feed back to the writer about what images and mood the story evoked in the reader's inner world.
Without feedback it is not possible know whether or not the scene invoked by a story matches that which the writer intended. In fuzzy information transfers the exact information content of material sent and the impressions evoked are allowed to be an indeterminate. Even so there are other elements that the writer hopes to control as a constant.
For example, if my intent as a writer is to form the opinion in the mind of the reader that a certain character is a "bad guy" deserving of death at the hands of the hero, it doesn't matter if the reader shares my exact experience of the "bad guy" just so long as we share the created evaluation that the "bad guy" is indeed "bad". Unless I as a writer am a total control freak I should allow the reader freedom to form the details of stage and setting as is his or her wont. This allowance of a fuzzy relationship with the reader can be used to the writer's advantage.
The writing process is a one to many mapping. One description is sent forth evoking many inner world experiences. This allows a story to form-fit to each reader's body of habits. If this was not the case I am sure that there would be even less in the way of successful fiction.
Consider the extreme disappointment that almost everyone experiences upon seeing The Hobbit. They don't look like that is the universal cry. Yes, we all agree that hobbits have hairy feet and that they are short. In fuzzy-mapping received impressions form a finite but indefinite set.
In reading Robert Sheckley's Options I assumed that the main character was six foot tall, white and generally a scientist type guy. My college roommate made the rather strange assumption that the main character was five foot five and one half inches, female and Asian. Go figure.
By the way, in spite of this rather large noncongurence of reality we both loved the book and it had a rather transforming effect upon our respective lives.