“The Heisenberg uncertainty principle states that certain pairs of physical
properties, like position and momentum, cannot both be known to arbitrary
precision. That is, the more precisely one property is known, the less precisely
the other can be known. It is impossible to measure simultaneously both position
and velocity of a microscopic particle with any degree of accuracy or
On the quantum level Heisenberg’s
principle of uncertainty explains the weirdness of the state of a particle. The
act of observation will fix the state. What does this have to do with writing or
reading fiction? China Miéville makes a case drawing upon
Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty. And in my view, there are some problems
with making such analogy.
In terms of fiction, the reader’s
brain may indeed process information at the quantum level. But assuming that is
the case, the reader’s feeling of satisfaction or disappointment in the book
does not rest on an application of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. It is
more useful to think of readers and writers as linked by the common desire to
attribute patterns to a series of events, circumstances or happenings. As much
of life is a random drift of unconnected events and happenings, our minds are
constantly trying to make sense of these perceptions by reading patterns into
it. Often the patterns are read onto random events, so that our minds can
substitute meaning for randomness. That isn’t just a little game that we all
play; it is the major league game that we as a species are forced into playing.
Pattern recognition was an essential survival technique. It defines how we exist
in the world.
We seem unable to not make patterns
from randomness. It is how our brains function on a neural level. China Miéville singles out crime
fiction as a narrative that inevitably is incomplete and disappointing once the
end comes into site. The letdown isn’t confined to crime fiction but fiction in
all categories where ultimately the author must show his or her hand by pulling
those patterns of conduct and circumstances together and attributing agency to
the underlying patterns.
Fiction provides two thinking tools
we bring to our daily making sense of randomness project. Novels are a pattern
creating and recognition enterprise. The skill and craft demands words and
images that allow the reader to construct and walk through a trail of vivid,
original patterns. Like any mountain climb, some trails are easier to climb than
others, some more beautiful, inspiring, and challenging. In crime fiction, the
patterns are found in the behavior of the characters whose lives meet at a
juncture where criminal activity has occurred or is about to occur. The reader
opening a book is looking for a particular kind of mountain climb. If what is
promised is different from what is delivered, and then disappointment is bound
to follow. Do you wish to climb Everest or Pike’s Peak?
The second thing that fiction must
do is to attribute agency to the patterns of behavior that is plausible but not
necessarily obvious. Let’s take a conventional or traditional mystery. The
pattern of conduct surrounding the murder suggests that the killer is the
husband because of a previously stormy argument, which a neighbor overheard the
night of the murder. We attribute the anger of the husband as the reason for the
murder. The narrative can build a good case showing a recurring pattern of
conduct that leads the reader to believe the husband is guilty. This is where
probability theory comes into play. It seems probable from what we’ve read to
draw the conclusion that the husband committed the murder. The author also shows
the neighbor as a good husband and father and employer and we rely on his
impressions to reinforce our view that the pattern of the husband’s behavior
points to him being the murdered. Stable, normal, good neighbors aren’t normally
thought of as killers. Then the reader comes to the ending, which exonerates the
husband and shows that it was the neighbor who killed the wife, he’d had an
affair with her and she was blackmailing him and he used the domestic fight as
cover for the murder.
There is no quantum state involved
in this tale. What is involved is the pattern making of the author, which leads
readers to recognize the pattern and attribute internationality or agency behind
the pattern. We often make mistakes in this mental process. It’s called the
false positive, false negative problem. We believe the husband is the killer
based on the patterns we’ve seen in the story. But all the circumstances
pointing to the husband’s guilt turn out to be a false positive. He didn’t do
it. We don’t suspect the neighbor because we misread the patterns that point in
that direction. That gives us a false negative. It is the false negative that leaves us
with a slightly bitter, foolish feeling. We pride ourselves in our ability to
read patterns without drawing irrational or wrong conclusions. Our brain tricks
us into jumping the internationality gun. It is likely in our genes.
Superstition, astrology, religion, the paranormal provide a failsafe platform if
no apparent internationality can be attributed. In other words, our mind is
structured to look for causality in all patterns and we don’t rest until the
agent is identified.
It was better to hear the rustle in
the elephant grass in an open field and run for our lives thinking it is a lion.
But it was only a breeze rushing through the grass. That is a false positive. We
feel slightly stupid in that case. But the person who hears the rustle and
assumes that pattern of noise fits the wind blowing may be in for a rude shock
when a hungry lion appears. That is the false negative. We roam the planet today
because our ancestors were more prone to make the false positive rather than the
false negative decision.
China Miéville says, “Crime novels
never end well.” That may be true. But the larger point in fiction is that all
endings come down to some hard choices about causation and internationality.
Either it is the wind or a lion causing the deep grass to rustle. But no matter
which one it is, some readers are going to be highly disappointed. In our minds,
we want our attribution to the cause to be vindicated. But it is the author who
makes the final call, and if she or he chooses an agency different from our
expectations, we say the book didn’t end well. And it may be that no novel ever
ends well for all readers because there is often no consensus on agency. We
don’t want to finish a book and learn that the events had no meaning, but were a
random dance in the universe. Your god may not work as a credible explanation
for the agency behind events (e.g., the creation of the universe or our
species). Your characters may fail for the same reason.
Tip of the hat to
Sarah Weinman for blogging about China
Miéville’s essay: http://www.sarahweinman.com/