Last week one of my stories (Abnormality #2) received a curious comment in the mobileread.com forum where I’d promoted it, calling the story “souless in the extreme”. There was no further elaboration so I’m pretty much in the dark as to the commenter’s context or overall meaning, but I’m assuming it referred to a lack of sufficient “human interest” – there’s no pathos or emotional back story or any of that. The Abnormality stories are intended to be snaptales in the mold of a Sherlock Holmes story or Doctor Who episode – fairly nonsensical plots that gradually build up certain characters, one story at a time. At least that’s the idea. But it did get me to thinking … I try to appreciate criticisms and make something of them. In this case, it sharpened in my mind a bit the concept of Big Data, around which the stories revolve (the protagonist is billed as a Big-Data Detective, a sort of human database with unusual access to the world’s information and a strange sort of mental capacity to query it, to map/reduce disparate facts and come up with a distilled resolution to a ridiculous proposition, sort of poking fun at Freakonomics in this way). There is not a lot of “human interest” in big data. The forces at work collecting and processing all of our individual personal information are not turning it into soap operas. Quite the contrary, they are mainly interested in selling us shit. They are map/reducing us into more narrowly targeted consumers (if not terror suspects!). Big Data is the opposite of Soul.
Yet how we crave that stuff! I’m in the process of reading the book “Orange is the New Black”, after having watched (and enjoyed) the television series based upon it. It’s very striking how different the two formats are. The book is quite full of human interest, but the TV show turned the smallest details into massively emotional soap opera dramas. Apparently prison life is not gripping enough as it really is. It’s no secret that movies and TV have, over the past several generations, ratcheted up our cravings to such an extent that no extremity can be enough anymore. For a bad guy, a sneer and a black hat used to cause sufficient tension, but now he must serially rape and mutilate hordes of angelic children and FedEx their heads in a box. We seem to need more and more of this crap all the time, but that’s not the end of it. The drug must deliver a hero, and that hero must reflect us, and that hero’s value is in direct proportion to the amount of suffering endured, not only by the hero but by multitides of others.
We love a Katniss but that love is measured in the number of children killing other children and the vastness of populations undergoing misery. How many Orcs had to be slaughtered so we could worry about Bilbo even more? We love our dragon-tattooed girl, but only to the extent that she is tormented, threatened and tortured, and the quantity and quality of others’ misery and pain. Dystopias, which rule the day, require the entire human world to undergo a punishment that will validate and raise our self-love-identification-with-the-special-one to the maximum. Everything must become bleak and bad and worthless (True Detective much?) enough so that any dim ray of light can be taken for a sun. I guess it’s really hard out there for an audience raised on emotion-controlling soundtracks and limitless special effects.