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A Swede in Germany

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“Good Omens” / Follow-up: Undue alterations of fictional characters

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In the meantime, I have had the time to watch the remaining five episodes of “Good Omens” (cf. [1]).

The series does not quite reach my memory* of the book, but it comes close and is very good in its own right, bordering on a “must see”. Moreover, it remains unusually close to the source, with most of what I remember left in**, not that much added, and changes in other regards that were mostly non-distorting. This even for the too convoluted, unsatisfying, and overly convenient*** culmination/confrontation (which forms the “true” end of the book and series, the remainder being more of an epilogue)—something that leaves me with mixed feelings: on the one hand, I usually strongly dislike distortions of the original; on the other, this would have been a golden opportunity to remedy the book’s greatest weakness.

*But (here and elsewhere) remember that my last reading was years ago, which means that my memory could be off.

**If often shortened, which might be a necessary evil due to run-time. For instance, in the book, Adam and his gang had a greater exposure and more time to build sympathies and an image of their individual characters, and a rival gang was cut out entirely in the series.

***While neither a deus ex machina, nor a “and then I woke up” applies, we have the same type of convenience.

In a bigger picture, and with hindsight, [1] likely aimed at a too narrow target: While “Good Omens” does a good job (excepting PC issues), many other works have been exposed to changes that go beyond both the individual characters and the issue of (specifically) PC alterations. (The recurring reader will likely understand why I jumped the gun a little.) Super-hero movies based on comics tend to be particularly bad—to the point that it might be outright misleading to speak of an adaption of the comic (let alone an individual story) and that the movies simply cannot be considered canonical. Most often, they are something in the lines of an alternate-reality canon or a “based on characters”. Then we have issues like a movie version being made the one year and an incompatible movie reboot taking place a few years later (examples include the Fantastic Four and, twice!, Spiderman—even when just looking at live-action and a reasonably “modern” era). The several examples of gender-benders and “black-washing” that I gave with regard to Marvel movies are misleading, in as far as Marvel’s problem goes well beyond sex and race.

When switching mediums, I admit, some degree of compromise is hard to avoid. For instance, when going from book to movie, we have concerns like run-time, how to (and whether to) bring over inner monologue, how to handle narration when no explicit narrator was present, the addition of features not present in a book (notably, a score), the degree to which the actors chosen actually match the descriptions in the book, … With comics, the often decades long history of individual characters and usually highly troublesome canonicity situation in the comic, it self, makes the task of making a movie unusually hard. Changes and compromises can be a necessary evil in order to make a quality adaption possible. The problem is that far too many works are brought over in a manner that sees the original version as just a rough guide-line or even just an inspiration. (To boot, I do not see it as a given that a successful book/comic/whatnot should automatically be turned into a movie/TV-series/whatnot, or vice versa.)

Revisiting what I said about “Good Omens” in [1], problematic sex and color choices continued through-out, including handing the part of the archangel* Michael to an actress. Not only is this a male name (my own name, in fact), but this is the second Michael gender-bender in a comparatively short period of time. Prior to this, I had only ever heard of a single (real or fictional) woman carrying that name—actress Michael Learned, who was often billed with an explicit “miss” to avoid miss-, sorry, mis-understandings.

*In all fairness, angels have often been depicted in an asexual or ambiguous manner in art in the past, and I might have given the series a pass, had it not been for the God issue—as I did with the movie “Constantine” and the archangel Gabriel (played by Tilda Swinton). More generally, there is a gray area when it comes to such non-human entities, and whether they should be seen as men/women or somethings that has just taken male/female guises. (I do not recall whether Michael was ever referred to by a pronoun.)

A related distortion is how Pepper (a child) showed strong signs of blindly believing in Gender-Feminist nonsense like the “Patriarchy”—and even accusing another woman* of being sexist towards her… My recollections of the “book Pepper” are of someone with a head of her own, who would be unlikely to blindly spout what her mother** (?) had told her.

*Or entity-played-by-an-actress. (Specifically, War, who was actually a woman, or using a female guise, in the book too.)

**Who might have been in the hippie and/or mother-goddess crowds.

The use of God (irrespective of sex) as a narrator found yet another area of problems when the character Metatron appeared and presented himself as the “voice of the Almighty”… As stressed, this was to be seen more as a metaphor (implying spokesman or similar), leaving God with her own more physical voice; however, the result is still absurd. Here it would have made more sense to make Metatron the narrator or to cut the character entirely. (To my recollection, he was only in one brief scene of the series, and had a considerably greater impact on the book.)

In a twist, the series (and the book) contains several points of which typical members of the PC crowd (and Feminists, Leftists, whatnot) might take heed. Note e.g. the complications caused by assuming that someone is “good” or “evil” based on group membership, rather than on the individual and actual actions. (Examples include the division into angels vs. demons, witches vs. witch-finders, decent people vs. Jezebels, and possibly a few more. In the book, Adam’s gang vs. the rival gang is likely an example.) Or consider the destructiveness of attempting to force people into a set of behaviors or opinions against their own will, most notably Adam vs. his gang. In the overlap between these two areas, the day was saved because Crowley, Aziraphale, and Adam ignored what they were “supposed” to do.

The recurring reader might recall my various delivery issues earlier this year. The deliveries in both book and series had a very different pattern, including several deliveries ordered hundreds of years in advance that arrived at the correct place at the correct time, and a delivery man so dedicated to performing his deliveries that he was prepared to (and did) give up his own life to do so.

Excursion on exceptional switches of medium:
In some cases, a switch of medium can be associated with changes that clearly improve upon the original. If additionally, the original is not yet widely known, the changes might be acceptable as per Oscar Wilde’s tulip analogy. For instance, two of my favorite TV series are based on inferior predecessors: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was preceded by a movie that was nowhere near as good—a complete* re-vamp (pun intended) made for a much better product. “Dexter” was preceded** by a book series that was vastly inferior—at least partially because of changes made, including Dexter no longer (literally) being possessed by a demon…

*However, some events from the movie, set before the TV series, have been validated in canonicity through later references.

**In my understanding, the book and TV series ran parallel with a highly diverging continuity, but the first book or books preceded the TV series. I have read two of the books and am in no hurry to add to my tally.

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Written by michaeleriksson

June 1, 2019 at 9:45 pm

Undue alterations of fictional characters

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I have long thought highly of both Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, and have read their collaboration “Good Omens” at least four times (albeit not within the last ten or so years). Correspondingly, it was with great interest that I took note of the television version of this work.

While the first episode is promising, it repeated the deplorable PC-ification of characters that plagues much of today’s TV and movies: in the first few minutes, we have the introduction of a female* God, a black** Adam and Eve, and a potentially gay*** Aziraphale. The rest of the episode contains several choices that might not be outlandish but did not match my natural expectation, including an Indian looking “Pepper”—would a British girl by the real name “Pippin Galadriel Moonchild” be likely to have non-White parents? On the positive side, the character Dog was not turned into a cat… Other recent examples include a female Doctor (“Doctor Who”), a female Mar-Well and a black Nick Fury**** (“Captain Marvel”), and a black Buffy (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” reboot, still on rumor stage). Marvel Comics is indeed a repeating sinner, with other alterations including a black Kingpin and a black Heimdal (movies) and a female Thor***** (comics). To boot, there are problems with characters being altered in other ways, even when uncalled for and unnecessary, and even when allowing for a switch of medium (cf. a discussion of changes to Blyton’s works, where there is not even a medium switch).

*While a case can be made for God being a woman, the book (I checked) uses formulations like “he” and “his” in the introductory monologue that the TV version has turned into “I” (and whatnot) by a female speaker. Worse, the way this is handled raises the suspicion that the show’s makers went for a (failed) shock value, expecting a lulled into “he”-ness audience to be moved out of its comfort zone. Seeing that the frequency of female Gods in fiction has been quite high, this borders on the hackneyed. (For two off-the-top-of-my-head examples, see the movie “Dogma” and Phil’s claims on “Modern Family”.) Moreover, there are risks involved with making God the narrator, regardless of sex, e.g. in that a too high burden on infallibility arises or in that parts of the narration becomes odd—both exemplified by how the narrator speaks of what might have happened to the surplus baby.

**This could be seen as the realistic outcome of trying to combine Biblical creation stories with what science says about human evolution. However, I would be highly surprised if the original authors and readers of the Bible did not assume a “Semitic” look. (Also note the Shem/Ham/Japheth split of humanity at at much later stage.) Moreover, looking at the evolutionary record and e.g. the first use of fire and clothes, the more ape-like look of e.g. a Homo Erectus would have been a more appropriate result of such a combination.

***In all fairness, this might be over-interpretation by me and is not entirely incompatible with my recollection of the book.

****Repeating an error from a number of earlier movies—the more so, because Samuel L. Jackson just seems wrong for the part, even color aside.

*****According to claims from a few years back. As I have not followed the comics for twenty-something years, I am uncertain what eventually happened. The mere idea, however, of replacing a well-established character, with a mythological background to boot, borders on the soap-opera level.

(This counting only examples of a pre-existing character being altered and only some that occur to me at the time of writing—the list would be much longer if I had kept record; and not to mention the definitely disproportionate number of homosexuals and various trans-this-and-that, and what subjectively feels like a disproportionate number of black characters and female leads. Indeed, I have reached the point where I am almost surprised when there is not at least one homosexual in a TV series and where even erotic interactions have ceased to surprise me.)

In many cases, these alterations (or, more generally, character choices) seem pointless, unless a politically correct agenda (or an attempt to cater to those with such an agenda) is assumed. The odd one here-or-there might be acceptable for reasons like a certain actor happening to be the best choice for a certain part in all regards except for e.g. skin-color or sex, or the wish to reduce the dramatis personae*. With the current amount of change, such explanations do not suffice. Often, they are entirely unnecessary or even silly (Viking god Heimdal being black, e.g.)—there is no benefit from the female God of “Good Omens” and if a TV show about a female Time Lord was wanted, why not just make a show about a female Time Lord?** Equally, for a show about a black vampire-slayer, just go with another slayer—not the already established-as-white Buffy. In an interesting contrast, any casting of white people into naturally non-white parts*** is met with cries of “white washing” or “appropriation”, and extremists go to the barricades even for e.g. casting an NT in an aspie part****.

*A border-line example is the Peter Jackson version of “The Fellowship of the Ring”, where the male character Glorfindel is removed and his part of the story is taken over by the (also present-in-the-books) female character Arwen. Better examples are bound to exist. (And, no, I was not enthusiastic about this or a number of other deviations by Jackson either—but I can at least see the point of the change.)

**Note that the Doctor is not the one and only Time Lord in existence, and that female Time Lords have a long history on the show. (If Susan is counted, going back to the very first episode.)

***A notable example is the somewhat recent “Gods of Egypt”. While I grant that the result was a little odd, we have to factor in the likely lack of sufficiently many Egyptian-looking and English-speaking quality casting choices, that the equally great error of using English went without criticism, and that no-one prevented the Egyptians from making the movie first—but that they did not. (To boot, I have the suspicion that a casting with Egyptian looking actors would have been similarly attacked by believers in the discredited black-Egyptians hypothesis.) With older productions, e.g. the “Jesus of Nazareth” mini-series, questions of demographics would have made a “truer” casting quite hard.

****Note e.g. criticism against the TV series “Atypical”. Being a likely aspie myself, I find the criticism idiotic.

TV and movie makers, authors, comic artists, whatnots: Please stop this pointless, annoying, or even outright destructive nonsense.

Excursion on skin color vs. hair color:
Why would a change of e.g. skin color be worse than e.g. a change of hair color? First off, I dislike any type of such change that is not hard to avoid*—and this extends to hair color. However: a change of hair color could be explained by a dye job; skin color is more noticeable; skin color often has great implications in terms of character background; and e.g. comic artists are very likely to vary other** aspects of the character but will typically*** not mess with skin color, making it a fix aspect.

*Getting all the details right when e.g. moving from a comic to a (live-action) movie is hard, because finding a sufficiently look-alike actor would usually involve great compromises in terms of acting ability . Hair color is easy, in as far as someone with the wrong hair can wear a wig, shave or dye the hair, or whatever is appropriate.

**Which, frankly, annoys me too. I understand that not every artist will make carbon copies of the style of others, but some take so large liberties that I have had problems with identifying known characters before they were explicitly named or I saw them in the right context (e.g. in the right super-hero costume).

***There is the incredible Hulk…

Excursion on “Doctor Who” and my viewing choices:
When the casting of a female Doctor was first reached my ears, I wrote about the possibility of ceasing to watch the show. For now, this has indeed been my choice, motivated by the combination of the politically correct miscasting*, the preceding drop in quality over several years, and the many other alternative uses of my time (including, but not limited to, many other TV shows). I reserve the right to revise this decision at a later date.

*A claim that should not seen as a statement about the actress or her abilities, which I cannot judge, but only about the distortion of the character caused and, most importantly, the motivations behind it.

Written by michaeleriksson

May 31, 2019 at 10:13 pm

A few comments after re-watching “Breaking Bad”

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After mentioning “Breaking Bad” a few weeks ago, I was motivated to re-watch the series—especially, the last season, which I had only seen once in the past.

Among the differences of the last season compared to my recollections was the relative innocence of Walter in the death of his brother-in-law (Hank), and in this the prior text was unfair. Walter and his dealings did cause Hank’s death, but very much against Walter’s will: He called in an attack unaware that one of the three intended victims was Hank, immediately (but unsuccessfully…) called it off as soon as he noticed Hank, and he later (again, unsuccessfully) tried to bargain his entire fortune for Hank’s life. This to some degree lessens my criticism of Walter. (And gives another example of the weakness of human memory. In my recollection, Hank’s death had resulted through a personal altercation between the two, possibly influenced by a prior physical, but non-lethal, altercation that did take place.)

On the down-side, Walter’s behavior in other regards was more psycho-/sociopathic or otherwise disturbed than I had remembered, which is cause for increased criticism, and his concern for human life seems to have dropped very rapidly outside his inner circle. Then again, some instances might go back to Walter simply playing a part, as he did with the phone-call placed to his wife in order to mislead the police (that he correctly assumed to be listening in). That instance was quite obvious, but there might have been non-obvious instances in the past. Of course, Walter was never as bad as the character Todd, who seemed to give human life no more value than that of an ant. Comparing him to Dexter of “Dexter”, a radical difference is that Dexter was very well aware of what he was, while Walter often seemed blind.

A few random observations on other topics:

References were often made to percentages (notably, purity of meth), e.g. comparing numbers like (possibly) 70, 90, 95, and 99 percent. These comparisons seemed to be made from a perspective of “99 percent is ten percent better than 90 percent”* (with variations). However, there are many instances when a reverse perspective gives a better impression of a difference—“1 percent short of the full 100 is ninety percent better than 10 percent short of the full 100”. Which perspective is more appropriate specifically for meth, I leave unstated; however, I would strongly recommend being aware of the reversed perspective in general. For instance, is a bowler who hits a strike 90 percent of the time roughly as good as a 80-percenter, or is he roughly twice as a good?

*Ten percent of 90 percent is 9 percent of the original measure, respectively 9 percentage points. Unfortunately, the dual use of percent can lead to some confusion here. I try to lessen it by keeping the percentages-of-percentages in letters and the “plain” percentages in digits.

During the later stages of the series, I found myself thinking of Walter as a man with a barrel—and immediately associated him with Diogenes*. While some similarities between the two can be argued, there might have been more opposites, including Walter’s barrel containing millions of dollars (and his low living standard being forced upon him), while Diogenes spurned riches for a life in poverty.

*Although his commonly mentioned barrel was actual a wine jar (or similar).

As mentioned in another text, the fifth season had been fraudulently split in Germany, into a fifth season and a last season, each covering roughly half of the true fifth season. Looking at the actual DVDs, I find that the “last” season carried the absurd title “die finale Season”, instead of the expected “die letzte Staffel”. Not only is the use of both “finale”* and “Season”** non-standard and likely taken over from English for the sake of sounding English, cool, or whatnot, but the use of “Season” implies a renewed and entirely unnecessary borrowing of a word that already exists as “Saison” (albeit from French). Thus, if this road had been taken, it really should have been “die finale Saison”, which, while stilted and unnatural, at least could pass for (poor) German. Unfortunately, such excesses, where existing and established German words are arbitrarily replaced, are quite common, as e.g. with buying “ein Ticket an der Counter” instead of “eine Karte an dem Schalter” (cf. a more generic discussion).

*Off the top of my head, I can recall no use of “finale” to imply “last” outside of DVDs. Use of “Finale” (as a noun) to imply e.g. the final game of a knock-out tournament is relatively common, but more “native” solutions are usually preferred, e.g. “Endspiel”.

**The correspondent of “[TV] season” is without exception “[Fernseh-]Staffel”. References to spring/summer/autumn/winter are preferably “Jahreszeit”. Other cases, like “bathing season” and “opera season”, can be translated with “Saison”, but are probably solved differently in most cases e.g. as “Zeit” (time, time period) or “Spielzeit” (opera/theater/whatnot season).

Written by michaeleriksson

May 29, 2019 at 12:33 am

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TV, ethics, crime, and the portrayal of men

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My recent watching of a part* of the third season of “Santa Clarita Diet” brings two major problems with television** to my mind—-problems shared by much of society:

*The developments brought my interest to a halt: Neither do I wish such unnecessary annoyances in my life, nor do I wish to support series with such problems.

**At least over the last two decades of the U.S. dominated main-stream television. It might or might not be/have been better in the past, in other countries, or outside the main stream.

  1. There is a lack of ethical and moral reflection, a too strong belief in “we are the good guys”, an abundance of the-end-justifies-the-means thinking, excuse finding for harmful behavior, denial of the rights of others, double standards, and similar.

    For instance, the protagonists of “Santa Clarita Diet”, the zombie Sheila and her (human) family murder people to satisfy Sheila’s need for human flesh—and do so with little reflection, in an always-sunny world of smiles and laughter… They might not like doing what they do, but when push-comes-to-shove the sole life of Sheila and the well-being of the family is prioritized over the lives of many others. That, e.g., it might be best if Sheila died and the others lived, is not truly considered. Consider, analogously, if someone in need of a transplant killed a potential donor to get his organs—and did so again and again, every few weeks, for a life-time.

    To the degree possible, they try to limit themselves to “bad guys”, but their standard is odd and there is no awareness of the “Who decides?”* problem. Unlike the eponymous protagonist of “Dexter”**, they do not limit themselves to murderers, or even just hardened criminals. One of their main sources had been a local group of Nazis, who were effectively eaten for having the wrong opinions. Notably, none of the Nazis had killed Jews or invaded Poland. To the best of my recollection (but I might be wrong), they had not even committed any crimes that the protagonists knew off. Their last intended victim was an allegedly abusive husband, who was picked without clear evidence, without a chance to tell his side of the story, and based on a “her side” that left me skeptical. Again, contrast this with Dexter, who tries to make absolutely certain before he kills someone—and who was deeply distraught when he once screwed up and put a non-murderer under the knife.

    *“Who decides?” is one of the most useful questions to ask before e.g. pushing for the death penalty, condemning opinions as evil (as opposed to factually wrong), enforcing a certain way of life, etc. All too often, people who are absolutely unqualified take it upon themselves to make such decisions—be they ignorant, stupid, ideological fanatics, … Even those of much greater intellectual development should tread very carefully in such areas.

    **“Dexter” has somewhat similar problems in principle, and I contemplated giving it as another example. However, the attitude of Dexter is very different, he is much more aware of his actions and the moral issues around them, he is much more conscientious, etc. Indeed, he does not just focus on murderers—but on murderers who slipped through the cracks of the justice system and might well have been executed, had they not. (As Lord Montague put it: His fault concludes but what the law should end, / The life of Tybalt. [1].) From that point-of-view, the main issue with Dexter is not necessarily murder but vigilantism. Similarly, the tone of the show is much darker and is much more likely to leave the viewer with incentives to think about right and wrong, means vs. ends, etc.

    Cop shows provide a great many examples, including investigations that use illegal methods or unwarranted and disproportionate violence (the paradoxically-named Temperance of “Bones” is a good example). Interrogation techniques are often grossly unethical, as e.g. in many scenes of “Castle”.

    Supernatural shows, notably “Buffy”, often have a very blanket division into “us humans” (good) and “the non-humans” (evil, feel free to kill at sight). For instance, a major plot-point in the Buffy–Faith relationship and Faith’s development is the killing of a minion of evil who turned out to be a human (rather than the vampire of Faith’s assumption).

    Two shows particularly worthy of mention are “Breaking Bad” and “The Americans”: While both do give some attempts at thinking of ethics, they are not that thorough; and they both give good examples of how trying to achieve (what the protagonist considers) good brings a lot of evil.

    “Breaking Bad” shows a man in a somewhat similar situation to Sheila: Walter suffers from cancer and tries to earn sufficient money to secure his family and/or save his own life through cooking meth—and as things get out of hand, he ends up with death after death on his tally*. The victims eventually include his own brother in law, a DEA agent and family man. While I understand both why he, as low-earning chemistry teacher, was moved to cook meth and how he lost perspective over time, my sympathies grew smaller and smaller through-out the show: a better man would at some point had sat down and realized that the consequences were too severe for too many people to justify his actions. Even his family would likely have been better off, had his early suicide attempt succeeded (gun that jammed? safety on?).**

    *As in: he killed them, ordered them killed, assisted in their killing, … As opposed to: the more indirect deaths that might have resulted through meth abuse.

    **It is, however, conceivable that the world as a whole benefited through the conflicts and disturbances on the drug market. Because these arose as side-effects, I do not give him credit on his karma account.

    “The Americans” deals with two Soviet agents, deep under-cover in the U.S., who fight actively in the cold war. They take any human life, even that of an ally, when it is needed to support the cause or to protect the safety of the family. There were some points when it seemed that they might leave off their ways, but, ultimately, they did not. The husband was somewhat prepared to question his own behavior, but the wife was a fanatic till the end. (With reservations for late events: I stopped watching early in the last or late in the penultimate season.)

    As an aside, the number of shows dealing with criminal protagonists in the recent one or two decades would likely have been unthinkable in earlier eras of television. To me, the potential value of the different perspectives and scenarios is sufficiently large that I will not object on the “criminal” factor alone; however, when combined with weak ethical thinking in the series, it could contribute to lack of ethics in the overall population: I need money—I’ll cook meth! That guy is a problem for me—I’ll murder him! Etc.

  2. Men, the men’s rights movement,* and similar are often portrayed in a manner that deviates extremely from reality, shows great prejudice and ignorance, and might sometimes even raise suspicions of deliberate attempts to manipulate opinion.

    *To avoid misunderstandings, I stress that while I have great sympathies for at least parts of the MRA movement and their goals, I do not consider myself one of them. However, as an intelligent, well-informed critical thinker and a proponent of reason, I do identify as anti-Feminist.

    Consider the last episode of “Santa Clarita Diet” that I saw (at least a portion of—I switched off mid-episode):

    Sheila and her husband lured the aforementioned allegedly abusive husband to a fake “men’s rights” meeting, lead with questions like “How have you been hurt by women?”, implied that the (fictive) other members have restraining orders, pointed to squeaky voices as a reason why women would be disliked, and the victim then went off on something like “I try to tell my wife that she is wrong all the time, but is she grateful?”—all of which have nothing do to with the men’s rights movement and displays more common prejudice about men than about women.

    The connection between men’s rights and dislike of women, being abusive, and whatnot is not only misleading—it is outright offensive. A much better and much more realistic take would have been to let the protagonists spout their prejudice and then have the victim reveal himself as quite contrary to that prejudice.

    For those who actually look at the facts and numbers (not at Feminist propaganda) there are very real issues* for men in today’s society that are constantly bagatellized. More or less any of the females issues is given significant weight, including some that only exist in Feminist propaganda.** Indeed, there are issues where men are the disadvantaged party and Feminists still paint women as the disadvantaged…*** As with any movement (especially an ostracized one), there are some nut-cases and extremists among the MRAs; however, by and large, MRAs try to be the voice of reason in the debate about men, women, and equal rights, to bring in a different perspective, to look at facts instead of prejudice and propaganda, … Still, ever again, those who attempt to be the voice of reason are ridiculed as the voice from the loony bin…

    *The below implicitly contains some examples. For many others, please read up.

    **Including alleged and/or misinterpreted income disparities, the Swedish hate-rhetoric of “men’s violence towards women”, the invented U.S. college rape epidemic, “rape culture”, and whatnot.

    ***Including domestic abuse (cf. below), allegations that rape or rape victims are not taken seriously enough (while the rights of the, often innocently, accused suffer), that women are treated more harshly in court (while family courts favour them massively and they routinely receive much more lenient punishments in criminal trials), etc.

    Worse: Looking at a larger time frame of the series, we now have MRAs as the possible replacement source for Nazis, effectively putting the two groups on comparable levels of “evil”.

    Of course, the meme of the abusive husband is it self a common misrepresentation. On TV, domestic abuse is usually a one-sided affair of husband abusing wife, and the proportion of victims and perpetrators is ridiculously large, In real life, few men are abusers, about half of all domestic violence is reciprocal, and men are the victims and women the perpetrators slightly more often than vice versa.

    Similarly, the proportion of men on TV, who, e.g. as bosses, are unfair towards women because they are women is extremely out of proportion with what I have seen in real life—it is as if someone was trying to imprint the existence of “discrimination”, “Patriarchy”, and whatnot through TV to over-come its absence from real life… A particularly absurd example is an early scene of “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”, where an absolute caricature, a Feminist masturbatory fantasy, of a male Patriarch talks down to Sabrina over an alleged* sexual harassment incident. I turned the (otherwise also unimpressive) show off then and there. I have not kept record**, but I have a suspicion that some TV shows try to build up a female protagonist as a “strong woman” through pitting her against such straw-men and giving her an opportunity to stand up. Usually, it fails, because either the male character or his behavior is too exaggerated or unusual, which makes the makers of the show look bad (instead of the female protagonist good) or it forces the female character to make assumptions that could equally be the result of her own prejudice—in which case she looks bad e.g. through jumping to conclusions or being unduly belligerent. (And potentially sets a negative example for real-life women, making them too jump to the conclusion of “sexism” instead of e.g. “greed”, “general ass-holery”, “misunderstanding”, whatnot.)

    *The scene was also unfortunate in another regard—it provided a perfect opportunity to push issues like the need to talk to both parties of a conflict, to not automatically believe friends over non-friends, the need for the presumption of innocence, and similar: Sabrina’s friend complained about one or several sport’s team members having (IIRC) looked up her skirt in Sabrina’s absence—and Sabrina promptly rushed to the principal’s office and demanded that the entire sport’s team be interrogated. In contrast, she did not, e.g., go talk with the team members to hear their story or to limit the number of suspects. Instead of having the principal giving her a kind talk, pointing out how to proceed better, the show makers presented the aforementioned caricature, who ridiculed her, suggested that she might want to leave school, and failed to mention the legitimate concerns about e.g. presumption of innocence. Similar missed opportunities are, unfortunately, quite common on TV.

    **Among the many somewhat similar (but none so extreme) scenes that I have seen over the years, the first (?) respective episode of “Stargate SG-1” and “Fringe” springs to mind.

Excursion on other portrayals:
Unrealistic, exaggerated, or whatnot portrayals are obviously common in general*, which can be a more general problem when people draw too much on TV (or other fiction) rather than own experiences, science, whatnot. In some cases, e.g. concerning very rich people, fiction might be the dominant source of information (or “information” ) that most of us encounter. My own field (IT, software development) is distorted in a ridiculous manner on most occasions, and might leave outsiders with extremely naive opinions.

*Including of women, nerds, jocks, scientists, … as groups; and e.g. of the frequency of murder and love-at-first-sight as events.

In some cases, such portrayals can have a degree of justification to get the plot moving, for comic effect, whatnot. However, care should be taken, especially when deviating from reality (as with e.g. domestic abuse): it is one thing e.g. to exaggerate a stereotype that broadly matches reality—an entirely other to push a stereotype which does not match reality. (As a special case: Pushing a false stereotype to fit an agenda is obviously inexcusable.) Similarly, using exaggerations that are recognizable as exaggerations and stereotypes that are recognizable as not-necessarily-true can be a legitimate way to achieve a comedic effect. For instance, “Modern Family” drew many laughs on obvious exaggeration—and did so over the entire line of characters, including men and women, heteros and homos, adults and children, U.S. citizens and immigrants, book worms and party people, … Even here, however, there must be sufficient truth in the (pre-exaggeration/-generalization) core that the core is recognized (or the humor will not be funny) and that the truth is not turned on its head (or ethical issues arise).*

*However, room must be left for individual weirdness, e.g. in that having a single specimen from a certain group displaying a certain behavior can be funny without reference to stereotypes and without being harmful. Doing so with two or more people on the same show is different because it would imply a norm for the group. (Ditto if the same behavior is displayed by several group members on different shows.) For instance, Doc Brown (of the “Back to the Future” franchise) works well as a stand-alone character—he is a scientist and a screwball. However, if one or two other scientist, behaving the same, had been added to the movies, this would have risked the imposition of a norm for scientists—he is a screwball because he is a scientist.

Unfortunately, not all these groups* of portrayals are harmless. Looking at the case of a wife-beating husband, e.g., we have a harmful stereotype that does not match reality and which is taken at face value by most viewers—it helps with creating or cementing a misguided world-view. (While, in contrast, the stereotype of a man who forgets his wife’s birthday, while not necessarily more truthful, is neither very harmful nor taken at face value in the same manner.)

*Looking at any given individual portrayal as a stand-alone choice, it might be beyond reproach, e.g. because there are men who beat their wives (even non-reciprocally), which would make a ban on such portrayals unfairly limiting. However, when the same show has an undue frequency of such portrayals (e.g. when the topic of wife-beating arise with multiple men throughout the run) or when the overall media repeats such portrayals again and again in undue proportions (e.g. in that wife-beating husbands outnumber husband-beating wives ten-to-one or that the frequency exceeds the real-life frequency in an undue manner), then we do have a problem. This applies in particular when the portrayed character belongs to a group rarely featured. (Contrast e.g. the effect of having an individual gay character being a child molester today vs. forty years ago: today, it would be seen as an individual flaw; back then, it might have been seen as a gay flaw.) Also cf. the previous footnote.

Written by michaeleriksson

May 11, 2019 at 10:39 pm

Multiple ideas vs. focused texts

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I have repeatedly encountered claims by authors* that their stories only truly work, come to life, whatnot, when they are based on two or more separate ideas. I have made the same, but more ambivalent, observation regarding my own (non-fiction) texts: The texts that I really have a drive to write, that are the most fun to write, that develop my own thoughts the most, …, tend to be the ones combining two or more ideas. The way of writing described in an older text also almost forces the inclusion of multiple ideas, even when the original drive was not rooted in more than one idea. On the downside, these texts are also the least focused, might give the readers less value for their time, and would be most likely to be torn to pieces if submitted to e.g. a college course on essay writing.**

*Including Stephen R. Donaldson with regard to his “Gap” and “The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant” series. As for the others, I have to pass, seeing that I only took superficial note at the time, and that these encounters stretch back over decades.

**However, I state for the protocol that I simply do not agree with much of the standard writing advice and that my deviations are more often rooted in disagreement with than ignorance of such advice. This includes, outside of very formal types of writing, keeping a tight focus on a single topic, or focusing on a single side of an issue. (The latter might be more convincing, but should a good essay aim at convincing or at giving insight and attempting to get at the truth?) It also includes “avoid the passive”, which I consider one of the worst pieces of advice a writer can get.

Consider, for a comparatively simple example, a few thoughts around the 2018 Chess World Championships and the fact that all the regular games ended in draws:*

*I originally intended to write a separate text on that matter. Since I sketch the material here, and have an ever-growing back-log, I will forego that text.

On the one hand, I have long observed that as a sport matures and as we look at higher levels within a sport, (a) players/teams tends to grow stronger defensively at a higher rate than they do offensively and/or that differences in scores tend to grow smaller, (b) the nature of the sport often changes.*

*Consider for (a) the chance of in soccer finding a five-goal victory margin or an overall of ten goals for a single game between national teams today vs. fifty years ago, between men’s teams vs. between women’s teams, or between Bundesliga teams vs. between local amateur teams. (With great reservations for temporary fluctuations, the presence of a truly exceptional team, unusually large mismatches in level, and similar.) Consider for (b) how a low level bowler aims to knock down as many pins as possible, hoping for a strike every now and then, while the pro is set on failing to get strikes as rarely as possible.

On the other hand, partially overlapping, it seems to me that chess is being crippled by too many draws. Notably, at increasingly higher levels of play, it becomes rarer and rarer for Black to win, implying that the “job” of Black is to get a draw. In contrast, the “job” of White is to win. However, even White’s win percentage is often so low that draw orgies result. Looking specifically at the 2018 World Championships, we also have another negative: The defending champion and eventual winner, Carlsen, was known to be stronger at speed chess than his opponent, Caruana—and in case of a tie after twelve regular games, the match would be determined by a speed-chess tie-breaker. Considering this, Carlsen had a strong incentive to play risk-free games, knowing that a tie was close to a victory and that draws in the individual games favored him. Going by the account on Wikipedia, this almost certainly affected the 12th game.* After twelve consecutive draws, the tie-break came, and Carlsen now won three games out of three… Similarly, even without a favorable tie-breaker, a player who got an early win might then just go for safety draws in order to keep that one-point advantage until the end.

*Going by the other game accounts, there were no strong signs of such caution. (I have not attempted to analyze the games myself, and I might even lack the ability to judge what is “safety first” play on this level.) However, another player in his shoes might well have played with an eye mainly at forcing a tie-break, and have viewed a victory within the regular portion as a mere bonus.

Looking more in detail, my plans did not advance so far that I can say with certainty what I would have written, except that it would have included a potential rule change to e.g. give Black more points than White in case of a victory and/or to make the split of points uneven (in favor of Black) in case of a draw. This would have had the intention of giving Black incentives to play harder for a win and/or to make White dissatisfied with a draw, and some discussion of how such rule changes could turn out to be contra-productive would have followed. For the latter, an intended parallel example was the off-side rule in soccer: Abolishing it would lead to more goals if the teams play as they do today and it could give incentives to play more aggressively through putting forwards higher in the field to await a pass; however, it could also lead to more defensive play through keeping defenders back even when attacking, in case the ball is lost and a quick counter-attack follows.

*For some value of exciting: I usually find watching soccer to be quite boring.

Here we also have an illustration of one of the problems with more focused texts: If I were to try to divide the above into two (or more) texts, they would each be missing something or be forced to partially duplicate discussions. It could be done. There might even be contexts when it should be done. However, this would entail more work than writing a single text, the result would be lesser in my eyes, and I would, myself, prefer to read the joint text.

The illustration would have been better, had I been further along in my planing. However, consider e.g. how a discussion of the off-side rule in the chess text would have been weakened without a discussion of the more general phenomenon and the context of the comparatively low number of goals in soccer (if in doubt, when compared to e.g. basket-ball or ice-hockey). Goals in soccer, in turn, would be a fairly uninteresting and loose special case without having an eye on the wider issue of (a) above. Or consider just discussing the “drawiness” of top-level chess without mention of (b) in general. Etc. For a good example of a text actually written, see [1]: Here a discussion of a specific PED-related controversy is combined with a general discussion of some sub-topics, and then transitions into a questioning of how reasonable the current take on PEDs is. (Could have been two or even three texts, had “focus” been a priority, but, to my taste, the actual text works better.)

Excursion on fiction and multiple ideas:
The above-mentioned claims by authors are likely mostly relating to fairly abstract ideas or broad themes that do not automatically point the way;* however, in my experiences as a consumer of fiction, the better works often have a number of ideas or concepts of a more concrete kind that combine to make them that much greater. For instance, “Star Wars” without light-sabers would still be “Star Wars”, but it would not have been quite the same. Similarly, “Star Wars” without the Force would still have worked, but … Or consider “Star Trek” and the individual series with and without holodecks. Clearly, the holodeck is not needed, but it adds so many great additional possibilities. It would certainly be possible to make a reasonably good “high concept” series around the holodeck alone. Similarly, “Chuck” basically combines two different TV series—comic spy adventures and the absurdities of a fictional electronics store. Taking just the latter and combining it with the family-life of Chuck would have made for a reasonable comedy series. Taking just the former in combination with family-life would have made for a very good action-comedy series. Having both in one series made it truly great entertainment.

*Donaldson speaks e.g. of a combination of leprosy and unbelief for “The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant”—the road from those ideas to the actual books is quite long and very different books would have been equally possible.

And, no, this is not limited to modern screen entertainment: Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, e.g., is not just a tragedy or love story—but both. It also has more comedy in it than most modern rom-com movies… Then there are life lessons to be drawn, some remarkable poetry, and whatnot. At least the filmatisations by Zeffirelli (outstanding!) and Luhrman show the room for action scenes.*

*I am uncertain how this could have come across in an Elizabethan theater: On the one hand, the means would have been more limited; on the other, the standard of comparison was necessarily much lower. (Both movies also make remarkable use of music; however, that is independent of the underlying play.)

Written by michaeleriksson

November 29, 2018 at 6:59 pm

A few thoughts around prose

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What makes good or aesthetic prose and good (writing) style has been on my mind lately. A few particular issues:

  1. I am not convinced that these matters are that important: Language is mostly a vehicle for something else*. By analogy, whether someone watches the same movie in VGA and mono or Ultra-HD and surround sound can make a difference—but it is far more important what movie is watched. If someone can get the point across with mediocre writing—is that not enough?

    *Exactly what depends on the work. Examples include a set of facts, a line of reasoning, a character portrait, a realistic depiction of life, a series of action scenes, a feeling of horror, …

    Some* authors have such an ability to write beautiful prose that it enhances the enjoyment of the text; however, they are a small minority and most best-selling** authors are fairly weak in this regard.

    *I can e.g. recall being highly impressed by some of Goethe’s and Thomas Mann’s works. Unsurprisingly, such authors often have a background heavy in poetry; surprisingly, they have often been German, possibly because the apparent unwieldiness of the German language has led to a compensating increase in skill. Shakespeare is an obvious English example, to the degree that his plays are considered prose.

    **This could partially be explained by the typically commercial and/or “low brow” character of best-selling material. However, (a) the basic principle of language as a vehicle applies even to “high literature”, (b) there are plenty of examples of high literature in unremarkable or even poor prose. (The German of Kafka, e.g., is in parts horrendous, yet he remains in high esteem.) The success of great literature when translated into other languages is a further argument, seeing that now the skills of the translator and the many obstacles to translation are of similar importance to the (prose) skills of the actual author.

    In terms of style, some limits* must be set, especially regarding clarity and (to some degree) conciseness. However, the limits needed for a reasonable vehicle are not all that high (assuming that grammatical correctness has been reached), and any intelligent college graduate should already have the skills to exceed them.

    *There are many writers, including a disturbing proportion of bloggers, journalists, and Wikipedia editors, who are so awful that they should better not write at all.

  2. Verbosity* is a tricky issue. (And, in as far as it is negative, I am unusually poorly suited to throw the first stone.)

    *Here this word should be taken in a very wide sense, covering not just “needless words”, but also e.g. the inclusion of details of little importance, roundabout descriptions, unnecessary dialogue, … (No better generic term occurs to me.) Indeed, my focus below largely leaves the topics of prose and style, to focus on something more general.

    On the negative side, works like Pride and Prejudice show how verbosity can be taken too far, e.g. through turning the joy of reading into boredom or unduly increasing the time needed to read a work. Generally, text that does not serve a clear purpose, e.g. moving the story forward or giving nuance to a character, is often a negative and amounts to unnecessary filler. A good analogy is the low tempo and low content shown in many independent, low-budget, whatnot, movies—including those that begin with someone driving a car in silence for several minutes, then parking in silence, then walking to something in silence, with the first significant words uttered/events happening after five or more minutes. It would be better to condense the little information present* to a fraction of the time and just make the movie a little shorter—boring and artistic are not the same thing. Another analogy and partial example is the use of unnecessary adjectives and blurb in advertising language, as discussed in an older text on idiocies of ad writing (to which I might added the blanket advice to cut out any and all adjectives from an advertising text).

    *E.g. that a strategically placed photograph hints that the driver is married with two children, without the need to explicitly mention the fact—something that takes seconds, not minutes, to bring across. If worst comes to worst, doing a “Star Wars”-style introduction and skipping the car ride entirely would be the lesser evil… (Notably, if these car rides and whatnot are intended to serve another purpose, e.g. building atmosphere or tension, they usually fail equally badly at that. If they could pull it off, by all means—but it appears that they cannot.)

    On the positive side, it is often the small additional details that add charm to a work, that prevent it from being just a string of events, that give a marginal character that extra dash of individuality, etc. I have made some minor experiments with cutting out everything (apparently) non-essential from a text, and the result is so sterile and uninteresting that it makes a TV manuscript* a good read in comparison. The lesson is that, while any individual item that appears non-essential might actually be non-essential, removing too much kills the work.** While there is a point of “too much”, most amateurs are likely to fail clearly on the side of too little.*** There are even cases when something with no apparent major bearing on the overall plot/theme/whatnot cannot be cut without damaging the whole—consider e.g. “The Lord of the Rings” and the many detours and side-adventures. (Sometimes the road is more important than the apparent destination.) As a counter-point, I have usually found Stephen King more interesting as a short-story writer than as a novelist: While his ability to paint interesting portraits, give color to situations, find interesting developments, whatnot, might be his greatest strength, he often pushes it too far in his novels—and cutting another**** ten or twenty percent would be beneficial. Quality over quantity.

    *A TV manuscript, like most plays, is not intended to be read for entertainment—it is an instruction on how to create the entertainment. The difference might be less extreme than between a recipe and the finished food, but it goes somewhat in the same direction.

    **Also similar to a recipe: This-or-that ingredient might be foregoable entirely, another might only be needed in half the stated proportion, whatnot—individually. Remove/reduce all of them at once…

    ***My contacts with the works of amateurs have been very limited since I left school, but these contacts, my recollections from my school years, and my own preliminary dabblings with fiction all point in this direction. Indeed, it could be argued that this is the failure of the aforementioned independent movies, e.g. in that the car ride could have remained, had it been sufficiently filled with something interesting (and preferably relevant to plot, characters, whatnot).

    ****According to “On Writing”, he tries to cut ten percent from the first to the second draft.

    From another positive point of view, reality has details, and fiction with too little detail is unlikely to be realistic: Go for a walk in the forest and there will not just be trees around—there might not be a pack of wolves, but a squirrel, a few birds, and any number of insects is par for the course. (And a tree is not just a tall brown thing with small green things on it.) Take a train-ride and there will almost certainly be some unexpected event, even be it something as trivial as being asked for the time or someone falling over. Etc. Sometimes such details do more harm than good; sometimes they are exactly what is needed. (Do not ask me when: I am very far from having developed the detail judgment.)

    The trick is likely a mixture of finding the right middle ground and gaining a feel for which “extras” are merely unnecessary filler and which actually bring value to the text—add color, but do not lose tempo. Chances are that the drives for detail and relevance can be combined, e.g. in that an event written just for color is re-written to actually tell us something about the character(s).

  3. The use of various connecting words and “preambles”* is an aspect of my own (non-fiction) writing that has long left me ambivalent: On the one hand, they do serve a deliberate, connecting purpose that enhances the text in some regards; on the other, I am often left with the feeling of a lack of “smoothness” and of too many words that only have an auxiliary character—or even the fear that I would be annoyed when encountering such an amount in texts by others.

    *E.g. “However, […]”, “To boot, […]”, “Notably, […]”, “On the other hand, […]”, etc.

    Looking at almost all texts that I read, including by successful fiction writers, such words are used far less often, and much more of the job of making connections is left to the reader (who, judging by myself, is only very rarely impeded). My background in software development (where the text given to the computer should leave as little room for ambiguity as possible) makes me loath to change my habit, but chances are that I do take it too far even in non-fiction context—and in a fiction context, this habit could be deadly.

  4. I am often troubled by (and some of the previous item goes back to) the limited mechanisms for formal clues concerning the syntactic/semantic/whatnot groupings and intentions of a text. A recurring sub-issue is the use of commata, the comma being used in a great number of roles* in writing, which often forces me to deliberately hold back on my use, lest my texts be littered with them.

    *Including e.g. as a list separator, as a separator of main and subordinate clause, as an indicator of parenthesis, … The situation is made worse in my case, because different languages have different rules, and I am underway in three different languages. (For instance, according to English rules, a text might correctly include “the horse that won”. According to German rules, this would be “the horse, that won”. Also note the contrast to the English “the horse, which won”, with a slightly different meaning.)

    For instance, if we consider a sentence like “the brown horse ran fast and won by a large margin” there is a considerable amount of “parsing” left to the reader—and parsing that largely hinges on knowing what various words mean/can mean in context*. Grouping the individual words by structure, we might end up with “(the (brown horse)) ((ran fast) and (won (by (a (large margin))))”—while a sentence like “the horse and the mule […]” would result in the very different “((the horse) and (the mule)) […]”, giving some indication of how tricky the interpretation is.** (And such a mere grouping is far from a complete analysis—in fact, I relied on previous analysis, e.g. the identification of “horse” as a noun and “won” as a verb, when performing it.)

    *Not all words have a unique interpretation. Consider e.g. garden-path sentences or absurdities like “Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo.”, which actually is a complete sentence with an intended meaning.

    **Humans rarely notice this, unless they are learning a new language or the sentence is unusually tricky, because these steps take place unconsciously.

    Fields like linguistics and computer science approach such problems through use of very different representations, notably tree structures, that are capable of removing related issues of ambiguity, needing* to know what every word means, etc., and I often wish that everyday language would use some similar type of representation. As is, I stretch the boundaries of what language allows to express my intention—to the point that often I catch myself using “e.g.” and “i.e.” more as interpunctuation (in an extended sense) than as formulation. (Which explains my arguable overuse: In my own mind, they register more like a comma or a semi-colon does, than like “for instance”.)

    *With some reservations for words recognizable in their role through various hints or context. The classic example in English is the “-ly” suffix as a (far from perfect) hint that a word is an adverb.

  5. As an interesting special case of the previous item, the use of commata and semi-colons is often contra-intuitive: If we view the comma (“,”), semi-colon (“;”), colon (”:”) and full-stop (“.”) as differently strong “stops”,* which is common and has some historical justification, then a sentence like “I found red, green, and yellow apples” simply does not make sense. We might argue that the separation of “red”, “green”, and “yellow” is warranted; however, at the same time we want them to be (individually or collectively) attached to both “I found” and “apples”—which is simply not the case if the commata are viewed as stops.**

    *Here we see another case of characters doing double duty: Among the multiple roles of quotation marks we have both the signification of a literal string and of something metaphorical or approximate. Different signs for these roles, the role as an actual quote, the “scare quote” role, and whatever else might apply, would be neat. (Then again, most people would likely be over-challenged with such a system, and it would degenerate back into something less differentiated—a problem that might kill quite a few potential improvements.)

    **But note that this problem disappears with appropriate grouping, like “I found (red, green, and yellow) apples.”, which would be one way out. A better way, disconnected from the interpretation as stops, is to see the sentence as an abbreviation of the cumbersome “I found read apples and I found green apples and I found yellow apples”.

    In some cases, the problem could be limited by the prior introduction of a stronger stop*; however, this would often lead to awkward results and/or be incompatible with established use. For instance, “examples of apple colors: red, green, yellow” would be OK (in a context where this is stylistically tolerable), but “examples of apples colors are: red, green, yellow” is extremely odd. This solution is similar awkward for the original example (“I found: red, green, and yellow apples”) and leaves the original problem unsolved—“I found” is now offset, but “apples” is not. We might get by with “I found: red, green, and yellow: apples”, but this would be entirely unprecedented, hard to combine with any current interpretation of “:”, and better solved (assuming that an extension is suggested) by use of one of the bracket types**.

    *Note that the examples provided are somewhat different when “:” is viewed as a stop and when viewed as a “list introductor” or similar.

    **For instance, the scripting language Bash uses “{}” for a similar effect: The command “echo 1{a,b,c}2” results in the output “1a2 1b2 1c2”. (However, “()”, “[]”, and “<>” would be equally conceivable. Other bracket types exist, but would be problematic with current keyboards.)

Excursion on “Catch-22”:
A draft extended the mention of Kafka with “Joseph Heller, whose ‘Catch-22’ I am currently reading, appears to be a similar English example”. If this book is considered “high literature”, it is indeed a good example; however, I am highly skeptical to this classification: Apart from a few good laughs and the eponymous “catch”, the first hundred-or-so pages has had very little to offer of anything—and give the impression that the author has just sat down by the keyboard, written down whatever occurred to him in the moment, and then sent the resulting draft to be published. There are, incidentally, some Kafkaesque setups, but I would recommend Kafka, himself, to those looking for the Kafkaesque. It might be that the book makes more sense to someone who has lived in a similar setting or it might be that the remainder is better; however, my current feel is that this is yet another book that has gained its reputation due to popularity—not literary quality.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 29, 2018 at 10:40 am

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Appointment with Death: Human memory and a major plot-twist

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I have just re-read Agatha Christie’s “Appointment with Death”, following a first reading some ten to fifteen years ago.

(spoiler alert)

While the book was as interesting and well-crafted as I remembered, my enjoyment was marred by the knowledge, from my first reading, that there actually had not been a murder—but a malicious suicide.

I read on, probably not paying as much attention to details as I should have, and saw Poirot, in his traditional final summary/round-up/interrogation, eliminate suspect after suspect, often explaining the inconsistencies in witness statements by a deliberate attempt to protect someone else (in turn based on the incorrect belief that this someone else was the murderer), leaving us with … a murder.

This leads me to two sub-topics:

Firstly, memory is a fickle thing. Incidents like these make me question how much of e.g. my own life that I (and others of theirs) might remember in a distorted manner, especially with an eye on the occasional inclusion in my writings. They also raise serious concerns about e.g. the reliability of witnesses*, and strengthen my opinions concerning topics like statutes of limitations.

*Professionals have raised such concerns for a long time. For that matter, Christie has been known to use unreliable witnesses, including an easily manipulated old lady in this book.

My suspicion is that a suicide was my main hypothesis for most of the original reading, and that this hypothesis, through a larger exposure, remained in my memory, while the actual culprit faded away. Indeed, I have repeatedly had similar experiences in the past (although none so harmful to a re-reading), e.g. in that I had a clear childhood recollection of the brave and capable hero of “Leiningen Versus the Ants” ultimately succumbing to a swarm of his enemies; but found that he actually survived and defeated the ants, when I re-read the story as an adult. Indeed, during the re-reading, my faulty recollection had me contemplating an interpretation of the story as symbolic of the futility of human plans and efforts against something too powerful (e.g. nature, God, or a greater mass of people)—an interpretation that did not pan out… That misrecollection was similar in that most of Leiningen’s efforts through-out the story had been futile: He had repeatedly temporarily held off the ants with consecutive lines of defense, but each line was ultimately over-come, and the general tendency of failure dominates the story. To boot, the scene with his last desperate run, and the attacks during it, must have been very strong to a child, leaving a correspondingly strong impression.

Secondly, I am left with the feeling that Christie made an error of judgment in what is otherwise the best of her books that I have read.* Not only was this the perfect opportunity for the twist ending of twist endings,** but it would also have fit with both the character of the victim (Mrs Boynton) and the timing of events: Mrs Boynton was portrayed as an extremely malicious and tyrannical woman, who enjoyed keeping her family down. To boot, she was elderly and sickly, with her death not being truly unexpected. To boot, her grasp over the family was cracking, as she had under her thumb an own daughter, three step-children, and the wife of one of the step-sons—and the latter had declared her intention to leave (even at the cost of losing her husband), the husband was contemplating following her, another step-son was enticed to rebellion by a new romantic interest (Sarah), and he and the step-daughter had contemplated murder to free the family…***

*In a guesstimate about a dozen—which is still only a fraction of her overall works.

**In light of the good fit, I make a minor reservation that Christie might have deliberately tried to mislead the reader into thinking suicide, and using the reversal as the twist. With my second reading, I am faced with the problem that I might have failed to see such attempts, already being convinced of the suicide; while my first reading is too long gone by. Even should this be the case, however, I consider the suicide version to be better (with corresponding alterations to remove any too open hints at suicide.)

***Here the question of what Mrs Boynton knew is important, with this question partially hinging on when she died. For instance, she was aware of Sarah, but likely never understood how great her effect was: The step-son in question went to take a stand and break free on the very day of her murder, but she is, towards the end, revealed to have already been dead when he reached her. However, since he pretended towards the others that she was still alive, another interpretation is possible for most of the book, that he did tell her off and that she took this as an impulse to act. The situation with the other step-son is quite similar.

Consider now a scenario in which she has the knowledge that her death is not long due, she is faced with this collapse of her petty dominion, and she sees a final way to spite the family—commit suicide and make sure that one or several of the “steps” go down for murder. (This might also, depending on the wills and laws involved, have moved more of her late husbands fortune onto her biological daughter.)

I am uncertain whether this scenario would have fit well enough given the facts presented prior to the summary, but if not, little would have to be changed. The issues around the syringe(s) need not be a problem, assuming e.g. that she had herself stolen one and deliberately left it at the site of the crime (in order to draw attention to the unnatural death); while one of the family members had later removed it, in an attempt to protect another family member (consistent with behavior actually displayed). Contradictory claims of when she was alive and when she must have been dead might be resolvable through an alleged incident with Mrs Boynton’s watch, which had run out and then been rewound and reset by one of the step-sons—possibly, she deliberately let the watch run out in order to somehow trick him into noting the wrong time from some other source.

The actual culprit and the resolution are unsatisfactory, too sudden, and leave the reader in a position where he would be hard-pressed to reach the right conclusion*: Mrs Boynton had once been a wardress in a prison. The murderer, Lady Westholme, had once been an inmate at said prison, Mrs Boynton had recognized her, and was now intending or threatening to use this knowledge to destroy Lady Westholme’s reputation, political career, whatnot.** Poirot’s conclusion of this hinged on statements made by Mrs Boynton directed at Lady Westholme immediately after being given a speech by Sarah, who was not even aware of Lady Westholme’s presence. (Specifically, statements that she never forgot a face and whatnot.) Re-reading the corresponding passages, I can see Poirot’s point (e.g. direction of gaze, surprising formulation); however, resolving the oddity of the statements in context by assuming that they were directed towards a third party forces the introduction of a greater oddity—she must now have left a severe insult to her self-image go entirely unanswered.*** To boot, the formulation was merely surprising, not implausible, with e .g. “I will never forget you or your insults; and one of these days, I am going to get you” being a reasonable interpretation. (Certainly, the effect on Sarah was considerable, pointing to an odd-but-skillful threat.)

*Poirot’s repeated emphasis of the scene might have been clue enough, but (a) I, specifically, was not paying the attention that a Christie story requires, (b) readers, in general, should not have to rely on meta-information, e.g. what the detective’s suspicions are, in order to reach the right conclusion—the point of a good murder mystery is for the reader to try to find the culprit in competition with the detective, not to be led by him. (I have no recollection of whether I managed to get to the right conclusion during my first reading.)

**How seriously such threats were taken by Lady Westholme is further illustrated by there actually being a suicide in the book: Lady Westholme’s, as she realized that the game was up. Notably, Poirot repeatedly emphasizes that he could not necessarily prove anything, and a conviction was likely far from certain, making a “death before dishonor” scenario likelier than despair over a return to prison.

***Unless we assume that she deliberately directed the same set of statements towards two individuals simultaneously, which, while not entirely impossible, is a bit far-fetched. (Or, just possibly, that she deliberately ignored Sarah as a slight in its own right. If so, however, it failed entirely.)

Generally, to my taste, too many of Christie’s work involve various surprise connections from the past, people living under assumed identities, and similar. In one extreme case, I believe “A Murder is Announced”, there are actually two (!) long separated siblings independently using assumed identities. That these surprise connections are not necessarily the culprits, actually makes matters worse: With Lady Westholme, the surprise connection was the reason for the murder—in other cases, we have both a murder and an unrelated surprise connection. (Not to mention the additional coincidence that these murders take place in connection with Poirot or Miss Marple far more often than could be statistically expected. More generally, if a crime-fighter goes on vacation, it appears a fictional necessity that a crime takes place under his nose…)

A related criticism is how often the murderer is someone originally not among the obvious suspects: If the murderer is someone unexpected in a single story, this is not a problem—it might even be good. However, when it happens in story after story, the effect will be ruined by readers who learn to expect the unexpected. Do X, Y, and Z inherit a fortune after the murder? Then X, Y, and Z are likely innocent, so let us focus on A, B, and C instead.

(These criticisms notwithstanding, I consider Christie brilliant.)

Excursion on incongruities:
When looking at fictional detectives, small incongruities are often very important, in that when nine out of ten facts fit a hypothesis, the hypothesis will turn out to be wrong. Sherlock Holmes might have gained less relative the police from his deductive abilities than from his search for small details and insistence that all the details be explained by a single hypothesis. This well matches my experiences from other areas, e.g. in that a minor deviation in a database is often a sign of faulty code—and possibly code that will at some point cause a major deviation. Scientific theories are a great source of examples—if the theory does not explain all that it is supposed to explain, and have all its predictions come true, something needs to be fixed. (My experiences with real-life crime-fighting is extremely limited, but the same almost must hold there, except as far as coincidences need to be taken into account—that cigar ash might have been left by the burglar, but there is also some chance that the butler had taken liberties and failed to clean up the evidence in the excitement after the burglary was discovered.)

Written by michaeleriksson

October 16, 2018 at 12:24 am