Fiction, the Exploration of Possiblity

Fiction narratives are often defined as being false, untrue, invented, or said another way, narratives not based on reality. I purpose the difference between fiction and reality narrative is more tenuous than most people believe. In suggesting this it is pertinent to purpose that reality and truth are not synonymic. Rather, reality and fiction narratives are degrees of truth. Reality is defined by human majorities from their standardized belief system, not an external unknowable truth (I am not denying truth’s possible existence, just our direct access to it.) For instance, the phrase “beyond a doubt” is problematic, for if a thing be beyond a doubt, then it is beyond our understanding because humans can choose to doubt anything. Rather, what is intended is to declare that the individual speaker’s belief is resolute. Fiction narratives’ definition thus expands to being creative constructions of a majority’s disbelief, however I understand fictions to be human creative explorations of possibility and belief.

Human beliefs and ideas transmogrify eternally. Belief, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing.” The word ‘trust’ evokes a sense of self preservation, which is a vital survival instinct. A belief, whether based in reality or fiction, is therefore an preservative and/or potentially destructive act one chooses and not a innate quality of something real or true. The New Yorker staff writer James Wood claims that the choice of religious disbelief is condemned, and therefore it is not much of a choice. Contrarily he suggests that fiction holds a freedom of belief because “even when one is believing fiction, one is ‘not quite’ believing, one is believing as if”(xxi). I find Wood’s logic sound, but he misses the crux. Of course there is a low-risk freedom in READING fiction, which is wonderful, but it is because other humans are not directly involved. That is to say this low risk freedom is not the quality of fiction itself, versus a religious text which assert its reality or nonfiction, but any text adopted as belief including fiction looses that low-risk freedom to an extent. For example, some fiction narratives develop fandoms that will condemn you in the same way a religion will if you diverge from the groups ideals and beliefs anchored in the fiction. Again in other words, if you read the Book of Mormon or Koran or Torah and accept what you will, then you could still as Wood says about fiction, “close the book, go outside and kick a stone” (xxi). The bottom line I am getting at here is that narratives whether fictive or real are used to create, preserve, transmogrify, and or potentially destroy belief systems, thus affecting individuals and groups.

Recognizing this potential in narratives I find a question posed by Lisa Zunshine, a University of Kentucky professor, quite interesting: “Why in principle, should readers feel so angry about realizing that a story about a person whom they have never met is really a story about a person whom nobody has ever met, especially since it contains so much otherwise true and useful information?”(70) A simple answer would be a skewed sense self preservation. What I mean by this is that I believe somehow the human mind adopts that on some level all lies are dangerous, after experience with lies resulting in pain and aguish. Humans thus feel initially threaten by most lies which creates anger as a defense mechanism. So, despite the good within a fiction people have a survival auto response that says a fiction isn’t safe, isn’t trust worthy.  Yet contrarily in the same breath what Brian Boyd, a University of Auckland professor, suggests is erudite concerning human trust and belief in fiction versus nonfiction: “Evolution will favor belief in a falsehood if it motivates adaptive behavior better than belief in a truth”(205).  I agree with Boyd and would add that humanity will favor a fiction if it is accommodative to pleasure also, which in all seriousness does not always result in positive human evolution. (Yes, humans are gluttonous and shortsighted. Shocker !) Desire for pleasure, or desire to avoid pain, can include vices, but it can also motivate great advances for humanity, if long-term prosperous pleasure is kept in mind and all human individuals considered of great worth. To think that fiction and nonfiction narratives can promote positive evolution is exciting.

Narratives, fiction and nonfiction, are powerful in the same ways to affect society, but it is the degree and way in which they do this that is different. Fiction can create any character and situation to affect readers: to please, to shock, to anger. Besides eliciting emotions, which establish beliefs and motivate actions, fiction narratives allow readers to liken themselves to stories. Zunshine discusses the pleasure or “cognitive rewards” of doing such through shifting mindsets, pretend role play, and critical thinking promoted by fiction (17). I believe this possible pleasure comes from enjoying the same tension Owen Barfield, noted philosopher, critic and author, describes within metaphor creation and comprehension. It is a complex, curious, paradoxical “tension between that part of ourselves which experiences the incompatible as a mysterious unity and that part which remains well able to appreciate their duality and their incompatibility” (33). Something about carving from the mysterious unity quasi concrete forms of ideas, places, and things. Creation always has it’s pleasures, whether crafting, recollecting or likening stories there is a pleasure in creative expansive thought.

Pleasure also comes in progression, knowledge and social surety. Remarkably, “stories ensure that all know and that others know, the core values of the group,” which understanding of the group if you so choose can assure survival (Boyd 196). In other words fiction narrative can teach social standards and how to act and react. Boyd’s quote infers also that narrative fiction can be created to persuade and educate a group positively or negatively and even alter the defined values and beliefs. The altering of social standards can be provoked by drawing attention to the flaws in social standards evident in the narrative and reality. Provoking change through narratives is not a new concept. Boyd mentions how religions throughout history use narrative to create social cohesion (Boyd 199).  It is interesting to point out that religions even crossbreed their stories with the stories of other social groups to encourage outreaching interest.

The appeal and practicality of the concept of there being power in numbers encourages groups, religious or otherwise, to expand shared beliefs and value systems through narratives. The appeal of “numbers” is not simply power though. It appeals to the social nature of humans, an innate desire towards interdependency. To elucidate, even a newborn is an interdependent being, in at least one aspect. It may seem illogical since a newborn is dependent upon its progenitor (or relative guardian) for survival at first. However, a progenitor is dependent upon the newborn also, to continue the species. Humans as a species not only propagate physically but intellectually also. Intellectually humans propagate ideas, beliefs, and values through the following generation. Intrinsic interdependency becomes more apparent in this desire for intellectual propagation.

Humans reach a point where they feed themselves and acquire motor skills and begin to glean progenitor proffered intellectual information consciously and unconsciously. Technically humans reach a rather important level of independence early.  As this level of independence grows, so grows the necessity of interdependence to allow intellectual propagation. In other words an interdependent relationship must exist for particular beliefs, values, and ideas to propagate. Both now being relatively independent beings, the progenitor generation depends on the offspring generation to receive the intellectual information and the offspring generation is dependent upon the progenitor generation to supply said information consciously or unconsciously sending a part of the progenitor generation’s intellectual identity into the future. In simpler words children learn from adults taking with them aspects of those adults who shaped them and this historically in part is done through narrative.

Even though this intrinsic interdependent pattern exists, society as a whole, and subsequently individuals, have yet to adopt by choice an interdependent nature into their daily lives and seem condemned to erroneous malcontent. Curative interdependence will mean diligent work and play, for self and others’ benefit, and an information system securing individual knowledge and organization of societal needs and appropriate desires at local to global levels. Acknowledging what is suggested is an immense undertaking, if considered and constructed first in the realms of fiction, the possibilities could be explored, refuted, and reformed. If the ingenuity of storytellers can conceive of fictional worlds in which the majority of individuals adopt interdependent natures, then perhaps a mutually beneficial society of interdependence would be possible. It sounds trite to suggest what people call utopia, and striving for it may seem nigh impossible, but the offspring generation is known for doing things the past progenitor generations deemed impossible. 

Fiction narratives, which are labeled impossible and unreal, in actuality are explorations of possibility. I wish to address three concepts within the exploration of possibility fiction affords society. First, foreshadowing and advancing current human abilities through technology. Second, the foreshadowing of man’s transmogrification. Third, the human creative capacity. Occasionally use two stories as examples one ancient, Daedalus and Icarus, and one modern, Avatar: the Last Air Bender. 

Foreshadowing and Advancing Current Human Abilities Through Technology

Many fictional inventions have become reality. Flight, for example, through determination is now a useful form of transportation, but once considered by-and-large impossible. Throughout history though there are stories of flight. Some flew transformed into animals, some given wings, some simply flew inexplicably, and others by invention, like Daedalus and Icarus. Inventors coveted and schemed of inventions to enable human flight through out history far more than I believe we have record of. The artist/scientist Leonardo da Vinci once wrote in his Codice Atlantico, “A bird is an instrument working according to mathematical law, which instrument it is within the capacity of man to reproduce with all its movements …”(Of the Bird’s Movement). Now, Leonardo believed this, but couldn’t work out powering and proper materials and therefore failed at creating a fully functioning model. He believed that with enough studied knowledge, power and proper materials flight could be attained. Turns out hundreds of years later it was figured out.

Flight as Leonardo figured was possible from studying animals which did just that. Perhaps the logic went, if one living thing could mange it why not humans. The urge to soar the skies was evident through ancient stories. Urges like flight that span hundreds if not thousands of years are difficult to ignore. Indeed should not be ignored for they inspire man to create great technology to achieve what majority disbelieve possible.

Another ability that may seem improbable is the manipulation of the elements as portrayed by the element benders of the Avatar series (Note: Manipulation of matter is an ancient story as well. Creation myths act as the ultimate stories of matter manipulation.) Impossible as this mythic ability may seem, in some form humans through technology do manipulate the elements, harnessing the four elements to produce power via turbines, combustion, etc. Additionally humans manipulate the elements to create everything they create. To clarify something for any who may object that humans use animal based products to create things and they are not air, earth, water or fire, early cultures held that living things were a combination of the basic elements. Their logic is sound, indeed all matter is composed of much of the same things just arranged differently at the molecular level. I admit that there is a difference between the manipulation found in technology versus the manipulation portrayed in Avatar, but the urge to manipulate matter is present and thus promotes the technology. The process is the same as the urge portrayed by Icarus and other flying characters pondered by Leonardo and achieved by the Wright Brothers and their fellows.

Foreshadowing of Man’s Transmogrification

Returning to the manipulation of the elements, many early cultural stories attribute manipulation of the elements to beings greater the humans. Gods, Goddesses, and simply beings with wondrous abilities in every shape, size and color imaginable. Through these beings fiction explores an infinite number of abilities, some of which inspire technology as thus described and others serve to represent human consciousness and subconsciousness. Somewhere in the human mind rest abilities repeated in fiction through out history. For instance, thought level communication surpassing current communication abilities, and in these situations fiction tries to elude to something beyond the words that it is made of. Whether it be communication, matter manipulation, flight or any other ability, certain abilities are repeated again and again.

These abilities portrayed in fiction and the human determination to find and break new limits innately persevere through history. Humans show an obsession with abilities and limitations. I propose the reason for this obsession is the deep collective subconscious knowledge that humans are more limitless than limited, and that what is understood as human life is only a larval stage of man’s transmogrification, death and decay a pupate period, and our limitless minds can only imagine the next. Perhaps transmogrified humans will have the ability of flight or matter manipulation without technology. A caterpillar transmogrifies from round pudgy eight legs to a coffin like cocoon and then to six spindly legs and wings. Admittedly the comparison of human and butterfly is extreme. Also a transmogrification of humans would be extreme and until reality empirically experiences such an event, it would be considered fiction, outside reality or at least outside the majority’s beliefs. Yet to reiterate if billions of people throughout history create fiction defying the larval state of humanity and create technology to expand current abilities, then perhaps with so much drive to be limitless humans will one day literally defy their current reality and limited abilities. 

Human Creative Capacity

Authors of fiction create limitlessly. Many mythologic stories and others, such as modern day Avatar: the Last Air Bender, create humans, worlds and creatures with fictive abilities and characteristics, like sky bisons from Avatar and minotaurs from Daedalus and Icarus. Creation is a crucial part of human life. the word create is most commonly used to describe the arts and procreation, but humans also create relationships, create ideas, create objects, create spreadsheets, and so much of what humans do could be considered creation. Again the shear amount of creative endeavors in the form of fiction suggest that transmogrified humans are meant to create worlds and not just stories of worlds. Authors are practicing the theory of world creation before creation itself is their ability. 

In conclusion, all the abilities fiction explores may not be established technologically and transmogrified humans may not possess all the abilities fiction explores, but some abilities fiction explores will in some manner come to fruition in reality. Fiction, the majority’s disbelief, explores possibility and not simply impossibility. As a final point allow me to alter Leonardo’s quote I used earlier: “[Fiction] is an instrument working according to [created laws mingled heavily with reality’s laws], which instrument it is within the capacity of man to reproduce with all its movements …”(Of the Bird’s Movement). I reiterate this in this way because, just as Leonardo did not have the ability to provide proper power and materials to his inventions of flight, neither do humans always have the ability to realistically fabricate their fictions, but like Leonardo’s Codice Atlantico fiction should be considered studies of possibility rather than impossibility.

Work Cited

Barfield, Owen. “Dream, Myth, and Philosophical Double Vision.” The Rediscovery ofMeaning and Other Essays. SanRafael: Barfield, 1977. 

Boyd, Brian. “Fiction as Adaptation.” On The Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction. London: Belknap-Harvard UP, 2009.

“Of the Bird’s Movement” Codice Atlantico 161 r.a. Leonardo da Vinci’s Notebooks. Trans. E. MacCurdy,  1.153 (1906). “Leonardo da Vinci – 21 – Science Quotes – Dictionary of Science Quotations and Scientist Quotes” Today in Science History, nd. Web. 10 Oct. 2011.

Wood, James. “Introduction: The Freedom of Not Quite.” The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief. New York: Random House, 2010.

Zunshine, Lisa. Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel. Columbus: The Ohio State UP, 2006.


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