Books written by Ray Sullivan

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Keep Fiction Truthful - Maybe

I've got one of those memories that allows me to recall the most trivial point from a long time ago - perhaps in another life I was a woman!  Of course, in this life I'm a man, so I struggle to remember anything I did a day ago.

One such lasting memory is from my first or second year in secondary school aged 11 or 12, during maths.  The maths teacher was teaching us Pythagoras' Theorem, you know, the one about right angled triangles with a hypotenuse.  The teacher spun a story about how, according to him, Pythagoras was stood in a typical Greek garden one day, which was paved with square slabs.  We'd call that a patio today, but back then we had grass or concrete, so he had to describe the setup to us.  Anyway, the teacher reckoned that Pythagoras was pacing up and down the slabs and realised the relationship between the square of the sides and the square of the sloping part and Voila (did I mention Pythagoras was good at languages?) he worked out the now famous theorem.

Now, if you've studied the history of mathematics, as I subsequently did many years later as part of my mathematics degree, you'd be sceptical about this story (and probably a little chuffed with the irony as the Skeptics were a separate Greek philosophical group to Pythagoras's).  For those of you who didn't study the history of maths, the theorem attributed to the great man was known in Greece for several hundred years before his time.  It's OK, I don't think he ever got any royalties.

The point is, the teacher used a very effective method to put his point across, he drew a mental image that was so believable I ended up believing it well into my adult life.  In one of my many career roles, as a technical trainer, I've used mental imagery extensively and I sometimes wonder if there are former students, now senior members of the Royal Air Force who are merrily regurgitating 'facts' that I created to help them understand aircraft hydraulics.

The story about Pythagoras and the nonsense I saw fit to illustrate my teaching points with pale into insignificance when compared to Hollywood, though.  I think every film I've seen that has featured aircraft has had at least one piece of nonsense in it, usually several pieces.  I accept that it is often necessary to bend the truth to keep the story moving, but in reality I suspect that most of the silly mistakes are done in full knowledge, at least after the technical consultants have advised on the script, and are left in there because it creates a convenient storyline.

To be fair, I find that in almost any subject I know something about, films get wrong.  So I suspect that they're not picking on me, that would be as believable as my maths teacher's story, so I guess all you gas fitters, newspaper editors, Members of Parliament, housewives, truck drivers etc. spot similar nonsense around your areas of expertise too.  I think that one of the most outrageous myths used in Hollywood as a convenient storyline is the one about sprinkler systems.

In the films, sprinklers are often used as a distraction.  Generally someone, sometimes the hero, sometimes the bad guy, needs to get people moving so that they can disappear from whoever is following them.  An illegal and unwise method would be to set off the building fire alarm, but I guess the film makers know that's way too mundane for a film - so much sound, almost as much apathy in the general population.  So they have the hero (or villain) set of the sprinklers by hitting the fire alarm call point - cue slo-mo camera, all sprinklers in the building go off, scantilly clad ladies in tee shirts and no underwear running towards the camera.  Very entertaining, has probably worn out their fair share of video playback heads (remember them - videos, this is turning inot a real retro blog) and absolutely nonsense.

For those who don't know how sprinklers work, and from my experience (another career change) most of you will be in this group, they don't normally operate when somebody sets off the alarm.  Generally they have glass bulbs that break when the temperature around it increases, releasing water over a predetermined area.  In a fire situation, the fire should set off one, two at the most, sprinklers, leaving the scantilly clad ladies free to stand and watch the firefighters stamp out the residual smouldering fire with their boots, their strapless vests rippling in the breeze.  And when I say strapless vests, I'm talking about the ladies, of course, the firefighters tend to keep their shirts on when responding to a callout, apparently.  Just don't tell Holllywood.

In books, such licence with reality is much less tolerated.  I'm not suggesting that books are bullshit free, they're not, but I think that authors stick to reality more closely.  Where authors stray, in my certain knowledge, is around those old favourites such as aircraft.  Helicopters get a lot of rubbish written, probably because they are familiar devices that everyone knows are complex mechanical devices.  So authors, who may have sat in a helicopter and have an appreciation of the controls involved, may feel a need to fill in the gaps.  Often hilariously to those of us who have a basic understanding of the subject.  I would suggest resist!  Those of you who followed 'Da Dan Brown Code' or have read 'The Last Simple' will recall I made a helicopter do stupid gyrations as a homage to the rubbish that is put in print.  For example, if you've ever read Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code you'll probably realise that Mr Brown has never got too close to the blast from a jet engine that is being pushed at its minimum setting - there's no way anyone would taxi a business jet around inside a hangar. Other authors I have read have fudged the controls the pilots operate in fixed wing and rotary wing (helicopters) aircraft due to not understanding what they do.  At least we have Wikipedia at our disposal, now.

So are my, predominantly Sci Fi, books bullshit free?  Of course not.  Sci Fi, by definition, is exploring concepts that may be true, but are certainly not proven.  It also includes stuff that isn't known to be true, but possibly may be.  It also, as a genre, includes pure bullshit that the author hopes you, the reader, will swallow because it's convenient.  I hope I don't stray into that area too often - it's a matter of judgement in many cases.  In DLF, or Digital Life Form as I've reluctantly retitled it, I do play a little fast and loose with technology but that book was written with my tongue pushing against my cheek.  Quite hard at times.

Keeping fiction truthful is an unlikely aim - fiction is about exploring events that haven't happened, maybe cannot happen - but let's try to avoid going down the Hollywood route, let's keep the BS out of fiction.

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