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Blog Archive May 2009

The Quantum State in Contemporary Crime Fiction

“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 certainty.”   

 

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/

Posted: 5/27/2009 2:44:52 AM 

 

The Brutality of Truth

Writers and boxers stand their ground and try their level best to win by a knock out. But it has always been easier to identify who wins a boxing match. With fiction, things aren’t so easy. Writers expose our inner most secrets. Readers stagger against the emotional ropes when realize what they believe as reality is little more than a tissue of selfishness, deception, hypocrisy, or irrationality.

 

Think of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-Four. The full power of the state is often complicit in the delusion manufacturing and distribution machinery that converts injustice and unfairness into its opposite. Thus books are banned, writers jailed, exiled or murdered. Schools become indoctrination centers. Teachers become the agents of official truth. A serious writer, like a boxer, must be able to take a punch, too. Most of the writers I know can.

 

But maybe many people don’t want to read that kind of book. Or that kind of writer doesn’t entertain and only disturbs them, making you question what they believe to be the proper ordering of your life and community. Upsetting a person’s myths about a nationality, religion, drugs, war, or the environment is lighting a short fuse.

 

There are loads of pleasant diversions. The Internet has opened a new place to hang out, dragging us into a fog, and permanently distracting our attention so that we are no longer able to focus on the kind of issues that have concerned writers for the last 500 years. Maybe that time is coming not to an end. Have we entered a phase transition to another state of consciousness? Or have our concerns about the human condition been lost somewhere as we endlessly try to absorb bits and pieces from mountains of data, information, opinions, and rants. We may have become so distracted that we’ve reached a point where (1) we no longer pay attention to what is going on around us or (2) we are aware of what is happening but we’ve lost our capacity to care, feel empathy or (3) we retreat into a world of satire and irony.

 

There is another possibility. We know that we have been conned by a system that is now broken and rather than face that prospect we flee into the maze of images and words that scream hundreds of messages at one time through our computer screen. We feel powerless to do anything about it. In that case why invest the time in a book that promises us what we have come to believe is impossible. We keep guessing which of the three shells has the coin underneath even though we know the game is rigged.

 

Without the hope of social and political change the fall back position is to seek diversion from the contradictions, the messiness of life. One way to read around the larger issues is to indulge in the equivalent of playing literary solitaire.

 

In other words, lose oneself in ‘Diversionary’ fiction. This kind of book isn’t even sparing (forget about boxing). The purpose of this kind of fiction is to reassure the reader that his or her cherished delusions can be reconciled. Looking at the kind of fiction makes the bestseller list, there is little question what the marketplace verdict is when it comes to buying books. Only a small number of readers want to get into the ring with someone like Orwell. He will leave you bloodied.

 

Orwell’s characters struggle against much larger problems—where everyone gets dirty, no one walks away without injury, and the safe ground is always giving way. That’s the secret world uncovered in the best kind of fiction. It’s not a division between fantasy and realism (Pullman creates a fantasy world) but the author’s intention to tell secrets in that world undermine our ability to keep believing in the delusions in our own world. Diversionary Fiction dishes up comic strip characters who occupy secret worlds in a fantasy universe disconnected from our own reality..

 

A tip to Sarah Wienman for a pointer to Rich Cohen article in the Los Angeles Times wrote:

 

“A writer should be judged by how honest and brutal he will be: by the quality of the secrets he tells, as well as by the panache with which he tells them. It's what Czeslaw Milosz meant when he said, ‘When a writer is born into a family, that family is finished.’”

 

In Britain, though, the courts through libel and defamation laws do their level best to take the hard punch out of books. Here’s a good explanation on how the British law on libel by shifting the burden of proof places any writer in the ring with the desire to back pedal, think hard before throwing a punch, and hope that somehow winning on points will be as highly regarded as a knockout.

 

“Critics of British defamation law say it chills free speech in several ways. Defendants have to prove that their published allegations were true, unlike in the United States, where plaintiffs must demonstrate that an author or publisher disseminated false information — and in cases brought by prominent figures, that this was done with serious doubts as to the truth of the reporting.”

 

Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/25/business/media/25iht-libel.html?ref=books

 

The Americans are seeking to put an end to this nonsense by passing legislation barring the enforcement of such judgments against American publishers and writers.

Posted: 5/26/2009 2:21:17 AM 

 

Trolling the deep waters in war zones

Two writers who set mysteries in foreign settings that you should read: James Church and Matt Beynon Rees.

 

Sarah Weinman is one of the most thoughtful and insightful crime fiction critics, and if you’re not reading her Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind you are missing a gem of a website. Recently Sarah interviewed James Church who writes a series set in North Korea with features police inspector O. I’ve read A Corpse in the Koryo and highly recommend it. Only someone with first hand information about North Korea could hope to produce a book with such splendid details about the functioning of the bureaucracy and working relationship among the North Koreans living in a totalitarian state.  Church is direct about what he sees as the keys involved in understanding the country: “North Korea is a bureaucracy, it is Asian, and it is a totalitarian state inhabited by human beings.”

 

Church, who was prior to his retirement in the intelligence game (James Church isn’t his real name) said in an interview with Sarah Weinman, “Not to mince words, Western media treatment of North Korea has generally been pathetic. “Lazy” and “intellectually bankrupt” also come to mind. Too many reporters and editors love to fall back on “it was a dark and stormy night” journalism when it comes to writing about the country. If one cannot figure out what to say, spill some ink talking about how the North is a mysterious place, a black hole of absurd behavior, a Stalinist Disneyland.”

 

I recommend that you read Sarah’s interview with James Church: http://www.sarahweinman.com/

 

Matt Beynon Rees is another author who knows the territory, the people, and the nature of the personal conflicts that separate them. Matt’s turf is Palestine, and his novels are brim with people caught in the vice of poverty, tribal and clan conflict, and facing the constant possibility of violence. He brings Palestine to life. And that is no easy thing.

Matt Rees writes one of my favourite mystery series starring, Omar Yussef, a 57-year-old history teacher, who lives and works in Palestine. The best fiction demystifies the political and social turmoil of a region in conflict.

One of Matt’s Omar Yussef mysteries does more to take a person into the day-to-day reality of the lives of people in Gaza than a library of newspaper and magazine analysis of Middle East politics. Ultimately understanding countries like the Palestine and North Korea are tied to their history, language, enemies, and traditions. The reality of such a country becomes understandable through emotional lens of the people who live there.  Matt channels the sensibility of Graham Greene in this series, building a picture of a time and place that stays with you long after you finish the book.

Posted: 5/25/2009 6:43:52 AM 

 

CRIME FICTION WRITERS BANGKOK

Recently Colin Cotterill and Timothy Hallinan were in Bangkok.

Tim as a thriller set in Bangkok that will be published in New York in August 2009. Breathing Water is getting a lot of advance rave reviews.  Tim’s earlier two novels set in Bangkok have received a great amount of attention; deservedly so as his Bangkok series shows how a master can take menace to a new level. Colin’s publisher Soho Crime is also releasing in August The Merry Misogynist. Dr. Siri Paiboun, the aged and antic national coroner of mid-1970s Laos, continues this internationally prize winning series to bring in thousands of around the world.

 

Here’s a photo of the three of us at Pan Pan’s restaurant on Soi 33, Sukhumvit Road.


Timothy Hallinan, Christopher G. Moore, and Colin Cotterill

Posted: 5/13/2009 1:01:35 AM 

 

J.G. BALLARD: Shaping Creative Memory in the East

Martin Amis’s article in the Guardian explores the life and writing of J.G. Ballard.

This observation caught my eye:

 

“His [J.G. Ballard’s]imagination was formed by his wartime experience in Shanghai, where he was interned by the Japanese. He was 13 at the time and took to the life in the camp as he would ‘to a huge slum family’. But it wasn't just the camp that formed him - it was the very low value attached to human life, something he saw throughout his childhood. He told me that he'd seen coolies beaten to death at a distance of five yards from where he was standing, and every morning as he was driven to school in an American limousine there were always fresh bodies lying in the street. Then came the Japanese. He said "people in the social democracies have no idea of the daily brutality of parts of the east. No they don't, actually. And it's as well that they don't.’ ”

 

Link: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/apr/25/jg-ballard-martin-amis

 

For many long-term expat who live in Asia, while they have unlikely seen coolies beaten to death in the street, have witnessed events, incidents and situations that have fundamentally changed their outlook on life. Writing from inside Southeast Asia for the last twenty years, I can attest to seeing acts of brutality, cruelty, and injustice as well as one of absolute kindness and compassion. Social arrangements shape the way we think and feel about each other. That is a running theme throughout my books.

Posted: 5/3/2009 10:27:39 PM 

 

 

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