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Why 'Rational Fiction' is inherently problematic

Discussion in 'Fiction Discussion' started by Jemnite, Dec 21, 2016.

  1. keios

    keios very normal

    Location:
    US
    I still think this is a lazy way of arguing with what the ratfic people have put forth. OliWhail made a comment about how they write that everyone then jumped on saying, "As a writer, I would never do that!" instead of trying to address what I feel is a valid point they're making.

    I think for the most part ratficcers are talking about how they experience the book as readers. I know characters don't exist first-hand, but when I lose myself in fiction, I experience them as existing first-hand. "WTF" moments with characterization happen all the time, and I think it's valid to complain that the author didn't do enough work to fix the problem. It's not that they think all fiction should be written by coding up a bunch of computer rules and running a simulation: it's that they want to sometimes read works that feel that way. This is a fair demand. I personally like mysteries which feel to me like the detective didn't just stumble upon the answer. Sometimes you want fiction where the villain gloats at an inopportune time (for them) because that makes the hero winning feel so good and sometimes you want fiction where the villain doesn't because they're normally more practical than that and you're just rolling your eyes here. How the author sets about writing it is really a distraction. (Although, granted, I realize a lot of ratfic is written by authors who do actually think about their works as following from first-principles or whatever.)
     
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  2. Havocfett

    Havocfett Support Gaza Moderator

    The point isn't 'I wouldn't do that' the point is 'they're lying to themselves about what they're doing as a writer'.

    While the simulation analogy does work for readers it is not remotely what is being argued here. The simulation argument was proposed as an explanation about the writing end. While your argument is, fundamentally, inoffensive it has little to do with what you have quoted.
     
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  3. I'm glad to hear you know more about the inside of my head than I do. Tell me, o wise one, do I really love her, or is this just infatuation?
     
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  4. keios

    keios very normal

    Location:
    US
    Nah, like, look... you're butting in on a conversation. So am I, cuz yay forums! Here's a rough play-by-play of the lead up.
    There is direct line of logic here that leads right to my counter. OliWhail specifically says that they think that in the context of ratfic things are written as simulations with the rules set up front. Everyone else objects to this. Then OliWhail points to their own work as a quest writer, and everyone objects to that. Of course in putting pen to paper (fingers to keyboard), an author literally decides what to do? But a more generous reading of the original argument seems to indicate that the dominos are a guiding principle. Work from where you start, instead of working towards where you want to end up. If that doesn't work, adjust where you started instead of breaking the "rules".
     
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  5. foamy

    foamy Lying liar who lies. Executive Director

    I've read some Vogt (e.g. Rogue Ship and Weapon Shops), but neither of those.

    Why?

    You're not following my objection. I'm aware that once something has been spooged about with "rationalist" jargon it becomes acceptable, but my point is that someone doing exactly the same thing without aforesaid spooge is assumed to not be thinking, just doing so as a bag of instincts/cultural conditioning/luck/whatever we're dismissing this week.


    A writer is a 4th dimensional entity, capable of altering anything and everything about a story at any point in it to suit their goals. An exclusively simulationist approach denies you one of the most powerful tools you have to produce a story that is both satisfying and self-consistent. You can start with the ending and work backwards, something that is often done when creating detective stories (which are basically the holy grail the "rationalist" people are aiming for). For example, Larry Niven explictly says, in the Long Arm of Gil Hamilton collection, that the ending of the first short story came to him first and he created the entire backstory, job, etc, of Gil Hamilton and the circumstances of the mystery in order to bring it about. It even governed why the UN's law enforcement agencies are called the ARM, and it's agents ARMs... Niven rearranged his universe in order to make a pun.

    The restrictions imposed on this tool by serial fiction, or more broadly by working with already created material in general (yours or, in the case of fanfic, others) is why such things struggle so much more with consistency (of cruft, of characters, of theme, etc).

    A simulationist approach is certainly part of writing; thinking through, given the current circumstances you've created, how your characters would interact with each other, their environment, and their goals. But: if you dislike the answer or it writes you into a corner, you can be perfectly free to discard it and change things so that things work the way you wish. And, ultimately, an author, as God, needs to keep in mind the point of the story.

    There's a term for pointless stories; it's called a "shaggy dog" story. A story is not simply telling someone about a series of things that happened, like a three-year-old's endless "and then..."s. You're telling a story to communicate: to inspire emotions or get across ideas or thoughts, to say something.
     
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  6. Havocfett

    Havocfett Support Gaza Moderator

    Adjusting where you started is deciding the outcome. You are greatly widening the apparent nature of OliWhail's argument to try and salvage a non-functional argument.

    The simulation thing works on the reading level if you go with 'it's a simulation someone else made'. But on the writing level the analogy fundamentally doesn't work. Yeah, you've got these dominos, but if you don't like where they go you just move them around until you get the results you want before showing them to someone else. And that's before we get to the fact that you can start with a set of facts and rules and characterizations and get multiple valid results with wildly varying outcomes and part of what you do as a writer is pick one of them. Even in rationalist fiction. The amount of mangling you need to do to make the analogy begin to work puts the lie to it.

    Fundamentally, writing is about effect. It is about effect on the reader. Yeah, the Methods Fandom likes certain effects and aims for those in their writing but that doesn't actually change what they're doing while writing. "These things are happening because that's what would happen, not because I decreed it" is an illusion, a trick of writing, an effect on the reader, and one that the Fandom clearly values when reading. But claiming that the illusion is the truth, what actually goes on in the writing process, is completely absurd and none of the rationalists in the thread have actually made a coherent argument in favor of it beyond 'I feel that it is so'. Even if you're a discovery writer you have to pick which, valid, branches to pursue and which to drop and ignore.
     
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  7. keios

    keios very normal

    Location:
    US
    Honestly, I think the bold is all they are saying. They believe there is such a thing as "where [the dominos] go", and they'd either like the dominos to die miserably in the middle of an arc where there's a faulty connection, or they'd like authors to move the dominos around to eliminate the gap in the middle of the chain. As for the (infinitely many) multiple valid results, I imagine this is actually why they approve of randomization?

    Look, I agree with you. I just think your insistence on reading their words literally is a little... literal? If their approach to writing is genuinely simulationist (setting aside whether or not this produces good art), it may not be technically true that what happens on the page is what would happen in real life, but they're doing something genuinely different from figuring out the ending and working backwards. The theme/message/effect of ratfic is this simulation-ish approach, and that's why, as I've said before, I think it makes for problematic art. But in this thread, ratfic readers have (1) backed off a prescriptive definition of ratfic in favor of a purely descriptive one; (2) backed off the use of the word "rational", preferring to say instead "believably competent to us" or something of the like; (3) at times backed off the claim of realistic to use idealized instead; (4) vigorously disclaimed BigYud; and (5) explained multiple times that they don't believe ratfic is better art or even good art. I have some doubts about how sincerely they mean (2), (3) or (5), but there is literally nothing else to argue about besides scoring points off internet strangers because it feels good.
     
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  8. I don't actually remember the first of those well (asides from it featuring Van Vogt's odd belief that polygamy was the ultimate evil), but the second had not one but two "superman" characters of very different types, so might be relevant to the discussion.
     
  9. There's actually an interesting detour. In a review of Deus Ex Human Revolution, Rock Paper Shotgun used the term "Immersive Sims" for the sort of game where gameplay arose not from a scripted series of interactions, but an open-ended engagement with the player and the level conceptualized as a dynamic system, permitting multiple approaches that arise naturally from the rules of the engine. That sounds to me like it captures something similar to the sort of thing that people enjoy in rational stories, with a similar comparison - when the game forces you into a cutscene, and disables your powers, to prevent a situation in which you could derail the plot by using your skills freely. Think every game where the main character spies on the villains, instead of just shooting them. For a counterexample, consider Deus Ex, in which you can literally snipe a villain character from a building across the street, cutting an extensive subplot abruptly short. The best games in this lineage are not afraid to let the player engage with their content in the way the player decides. This makes the storyteller's job harder, but certainly not impossible.

    Oh and of course, if you consider randomized system-based plot development as terrible storytelling, you're kind of implicitly saying that great stories cannot arise in, say, Dwarf Fortress...
     
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  10. Quantumsheep

    Quantumsheep Rank Amateur

    Location:
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    Randomly generated stories aren't inherently terrible. But randomized systems are an inherently terrible method to generate stories, because our current systems are such that any randomly generated plots are, basically by definition, going to incoherent to utterly mediocre a vast majority of the time. Dwarf Fortress producing interesting, engaging narratives of artistic merit happens, and it's often spectacular when it does, but those are the exception, not the rule.

    Also, I really have to point out that somebody else's re-telling of a series of events that took place in a game is not equivalent to the story that the game actually produced. The events are by and large the same, but that's only one part of the work, and not nearly as important as how those events are presented.
     
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  11. Okay, I don't think anyone is disagreeing with that? Of course presentation makes the story, but sometimes generation can break it or sour it for people even if the presentation is otherwise great. Some people care about generation apparently, or rather the sort of assurance that random/fair generation produces.

    (And note that simulation games are still in the early years of their genre; certainly compared to literature. Give them time, I'm sure the stories will get better...)

    [edit]

    I mean, the background here is as far as we can tell our world itself is random/fair. I don't want to proselytize for atheism here but I think even most educated religious people would agree there's no statistical evidence that we're in any sort of actively guided story. So stands to reason that if we were to extend the rationalist memeplex to stories, we'd want a similar kind of environment so the similar kinds of tools work in it.

    If I wanted a really uncharitable one-line definition for "rational fiction" I'd say it's rationality wish fulfillment, but I think that's unfair. If you have a rationality method that does not work in real life, and you write a story where it does not work for the same reason, I don't think people would count that against the story being rational. I guess some of it really is that we want the sort of environment where advancing the state of knowledge doesn't need six years of higher education plus a 120+ IQ plus natural skill? I certainly think rationalfic as it stands has a lot of that, but I don't know if it should be codified as a required attribute. But certainly there's an observational tendency towards solvable mysteries in a world where all the easy to medium mysteries have long since been snapped up. What do you do in an environment where all your heroes put in decades of hard work, and the problems have only gotten harder since? Probably enjoy reading about worlds where lowish-hanging gains-from-reason can still be realized.

    (That's why I'm sometimes miffed at the state of our opposition. There's so many good criticisms of rational fiction; why you gotta go for the uninformed emotional ones?)
     
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  12. Mila

    Mila Mysterious and magical cat

    But literature isn't a dynamic system and it can't be a dynamic system and I don't know why you're segueing into this talk about video games and randomly generated happenstance. It feels to me like rationalficcers are trying very hard to make literature be something it's not and are getting a little "emotional" when we give accurate criticism. Random/fair generation means nothing when it comes to telling a good story and as had been pointed out before, often leads to stories that are meandering, stuffed with pointless happenstance, and boring to read.

    Real life is random, yes. But that doesn't mean a damn thing when it comes to stories. Humans are by nature organizational creatures and our stories need that organization to be coherent and interesting--how good a story would Harry Potter be the protragonist is hit by a car on the way to Diagon Alley because it's a good random event? How good would Lord of the Rings be if Frodo fell off the Misty Mountains because of happenstance? Rationalfic is based entirely on the emotional satisfaction of being able to pat yourself on the back for following the explicitly written instructions provided for you by the story.

    But hey, maybe we're just uninformed and emotional.
     
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  13. elpachosan

    elpachosan

    Location:
    USA
    I can kind of see a connection between ratfic and Immersive Sims, in the sense that both ostensibly put extra care into having a consistent framework with which its actors interact, but I don't think that I would categorize them as being the same thing.

    For example, sometimes in games you make a major mistake, and then due to good fortune prevail anyway, because it'll inevitably happen eventually in a system with a substantial luck component. This is fine; performance in such games is usually measured over a sufficient timescale that the luck balances out. In ratfic, though, that's less acceptable. Bad luck can cause problems, calculated risks can pay off, but whichever direction fortune is flowing, it shouldn't conclude the conflict then and there.

    I'd like to address "Rationalfic is based entirely on the emotional satisfaction of being able to pat yourself on the back for following the explicitly written instructions provided for you by the story", but honestly I'm not sure what it means. Ratfic doesn't generally stick an instruction manual in the front cover for how to read it, right? If there's some other meaning I'm missing there, let me know.
     
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  14. Mila

    Mila Mysterious and magical cat

    It's been repeated multiple times in this thread that people reading ratfic should be able to follow along and come to exactly the same conclusions on choices of action as the protagonists of their stories.
     
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  15. My list of associated characteristics are not necessarily all present in all parts of all r/rational fiction, as explicitly stated.
     
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  16. elpachosan

    elpachosan

    Location:
    USA
    Got it, that does clarify your take of the issue.

    It is true that there's some level of emotional satisfaction from a character taking a course of action that you yourself would think of in their shoes. This satisfaction is in contrast to, as somebody earlier in the thread said, frustration with stories where a character doesn't take some obvious line of action, despite them being previously competent and having had more in-universe time to plan than the reader has had time to read. I don't think it's fair to say that that satisfaction is the entire basis of the category, though.
     
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  17. dwibby

    dwibby Totally Not a Spy for Orochimort

    Location:
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    I spent a lot of time writing about whether or not Lily Potter's love for Harry being seemingly more powerful than any other parent's love for their child means that J.K. Rowling is a bad writer ('cause that's what I'm getting from the inconsistency is bad writing/editing discussion), and instead came up with a list of themes that are I think are indicative of ratfic.

    Specifically, ratfic has the themes that
    1. "success requires effort,"
    2. "the world is understandable"
    3. "everyone has agency," and
    4. "everyone has their reasons."
    Ratsfic has the additional theme that
    • "Less Wrong-style thinking increases the success rate of your effort".
    Am I missing any? Are there any that aren't really ratfic? Are they even themes? Does ratfic even have themes? (How horrible of a person am I for misunderstanding everyone's points about writing/editing?:V)

    edit: reordered and numbered the list. This is tentatively what I think the hierarchy is. (I'm probably wrong :V)
     
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  18. Oh! Here! I can help! This isn't a list of themes but a list of characteristics, which might help! Perhaps you can derive some themes from this.

    Of course the best place to derive themes from is actual r/rational works, not our grasping attempts to list characteristics of said works. Also I am not 100% on a couple of your themes:

    "everyone has agency," -- this is not always true. there are helpless characters and hopeless moments in r/rational fiction. In The Metropolitan Man in particular, I think that there's a big theme of "sometimes things are beyond your control"

    "the world is understandable" -- this idea is more common, but I think it's more common that the world is understandable to the reader. Also, this is often more of an underlying assumption than a theme. Like, to an extent, a work embodies, demonstrates, or reminds us of a theme in some kind of fitting way. There's a certain emphasis on it. And although this is often something that passes through the minds of the readers, and is therefore a theme, some r/rational works lack this emphasis. For example, the top upvoted link on r/rational is A Rationalist in the Zombie Apocalypse, a work making fun of zombie apocalypse tropes. This is by far the most popular link, but it's also not about understanding the world, but reacting to it in an organized fashion. Obviously this means the world is "understandable" in some sense but you get the idea.
     
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  19. keios

    keios very normal

    Location:
    US
    @Blazinghand, how is WWZ regarded in ratfic communities? jw
     

  20. A Thread on WWZ:


    Some comments in a thread branched from the rationalist zombie work:
    A thread on a discussion of The Walking Dead (TWD):
     
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  21. dwibby

    dwibby Totally Not a Spy for Orochimort

    Location:
    United States
    I did! I was using your definition, the original four from r/rational and my own readings to come up with them. So, thanks for that! I was planning on doing a lot more quoting when it was part of a bigger HP post, but I scrapped those plans after writing a bit of my thoughts down and finding out I wanted to say something different that what I was thinking I was going to say. :D

    I almost think I should rank the themes, because I think this bit is explained in conjunction with "success requires effort" in that just because everyone has agency, not everyone is successful, due in part to not everyone being able to generate the same amounts of effort towards their goals. There's something to be said about people not in the main cast plausibly having goals and motivations, even if not directly handle by the work, but I haven't nailed that one down in my head.

    Again, this ties into the "success requires effort" theme, and that while the world can be understood (particularly for the reader who cares about that thing), it requires effort on the part of the people in the setting to understand it (it took how many man-hours of natural philosophy and science to get the smartphone in our world?). The idea being that with work, the setting can be understood, and perhaps exploited.
     
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  22. keios

    keios very normal

    Location:
    US
    Haha, thanks! That's kind of what I suspected. I'd personally lean pretty hard towards calling it ratfic myself. But... it's also kind of an interesting counterpoint to most of the stuff we talked about in nailing down a def, right? It's a published work written by someone most likely not aware of the /r/rational community, and its main character is a guy who doesn't do anything besides interview people. No one has special powers (but there are supernatural things). It's got no focus on LW-ism/new rationalism, and it's got a lot of preachy (and distasteful) things to say about IR instead.

    On the other hand, it has an obvious antagonistic (if loving) relationship with classic zombie tropes. Its focus is on zombie subversion via "being realistic", and one of of the ways it succeeds is by fundamentally changing the way zombies operate to enable a true "hack" solution. And the stylistic voice is also pretty plain, even across the purportedly wide variety of characters. (I still think there should be some mention of stylistic similarities in a descriptive "definition" of ratfic).

    The 2upvotes complaint is particularly interesting because it outlines some of the ambivalence. (2upvoters complainer also seems to regard countries as needing to act rationally too within a ratfic... which is umm lol. Have they seen reality? Or is this about... idealized worlds? I think they're right that the IR is sloppy though.) For my part, I think the set-up of the zombies is a puzzle in itself, in which the "main character" is essentially the world trying to get it together enough to beat the zombies, and in that sense it qualifies as ratfic.
    The eventual winning comes from America (fuck yeahhh amurrricaa) finally figuring its military shit out after a lot of failures. That trial/error thing done over many countries might fill in for "not succeeding" easily.
     
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  23. Dark Lord Bob

    Dark Lord Bob Ambition

    No-one has to act rationally in a ratfic (maybe the protagonist should aspire to do so, under some definitions of ratfic), including countries. What has to happen is that actions follow plausibly from the internal state of the actor. If someone acts irrationally (or in any way, really) it should follow from something in their circumstances and nature (I believe this might be linked to the amount of attention paid to the fundamental attribution error in the rationalist community). 2 argues that there isn't a good justification for the countries' behaviour, from what we know of them.

    I guess one way of describing it would be that the world should behave in a way amenable to rational analysis, not that individual actors should always act towards their own best interests in a rational manner.

    Since I know little of WWZ, or of geopolitics, I can't comment on the argument itself.
     
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  24. Quantumsheep

    Quantumsheep Rank Amateur

    Location:
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    It strikes me as remarkably specious that ratfic would simultaneously call for the world to behave plausibly and in a predictably realistic manner while at the same time artificially expunging chance from any role of import. Wouldn't it be far more 'rational' to acknowledge and allow for the reality that chance will always result in a certain degree of unpredictability in life, no matter how clever and well-laid your plans?
     
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  25. Yes, I agree with you that sometimes the best laid plans of mice and men go awry. For good reasons often! Some r/rational fics demonstrate this.
     
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