The only thing that I’d do

Sometimes I wonder if you could write a story using predictive text, and if it would make any sense at all. Probably not. For one thing, in order to have a truly rich vocabulary, you’d have to write a lot, first, and then, why? Why bother with something so nonsensical and simplistic? Writing stories is about so much more than simply putting words on paper.

I’m at LibertyCon this weekend, but this isn’t a con report. I may not write an AAR this year. I’m having a bittersweet experience at the con. Friday, the first official day of the con (although in recent years so many people arrive a day early it seems that is the real start), I meant to make it to panels, but… I managed opening ceremonies. Only because James Young was willing to take me under his wing so I could tolerate the mass of people. My ability to handle crowds gets worse, not better, it seems. Panels are no problem. Finding the time to get in them, on the other hand…

The First Reader, when he woke up momentarily as I was struggling with writing something, anything, suggested I write on miscommunications. We had some epic ones yesterday. Some affected my family directly – we have two teens with us at the con, and while they are old enough to free range, I am mom enough to never fully relax when they are out of my sight. Some were tangential to us, but I have a tendency to volunteer myself (and the minions) when I see help is needed. So through that, I wound up not eating until very late evening when it was eat or fall on my face. So when the First Reader suggested the topic…

Writing a story, even one with a seething cast of characters, it’s hard to capture the level of miscommunications possible in a large group of people. All those characters live in one head, after all. You can probably imagine that one character talking to another might have trouble getting their point across because the first is half deaf and they are in a place full of noise like a myriad of people talking loudly. And you could think to add in that hunger and fatigue might make the first character even less likely to catch the communicated message. But when you start to add in layers and layers of…

We live in an era of unprecedented ability to communicate. I very much remember the world pre-cellphone. My children do not. Letting them roam at the con is much simpler because they each have a magic box in their hand so I may, in theory, reach them at any given second. Or vice versa. The reality? Even science fiction present abilities don’t prevent serious miscommunications. Gathering the knowledge you need to make decisions is only as good as the back-and-forth between people. Sending messages that go unanswered, trying to find out even who you can ask a question and get more than ‘I don’t know’ isn’t something you can google.

Humans will not, I am firmly convinced, change much for the foreseeable future. Where there are more than just a handful of folks, you will have miscommunications. Even if there’s only two! Any of us who have been in a relationship know that the best intentions can still lead to crossed wires from time to time. When you get a few hundred people in one place and try to coordinate anything? Chaos! The mere fact that we can still manage to get anything done is nothing short of miraculous. I can watch the underlying workings of the con and be amazed such a short staff could manage anything of this magnitude.

Even in writing science fiction, you can still add the element of confusion and the game of telephone into your plotting. Long after no one remembers what a telephone was.

18 thoughts on “The only thing that I’d do

  1. I am currently working on a group of Fantasy stories that are set in a world with 1960s technology. Telephones are landlines, and not everyone has one. There are police radios, for some principalities. The handheld units are big and clumsy, with short range, and while the ones in the cars are better, all of them can only talk to their particular base station.

    I was born in 1963, and I remember working on the road as a locksmith in the 1980s, when cell phones were an expensive luxury. Writing these stories has helped me get back into the mindset of planning ahead to stay in communication.

    You call in when you get somewhere. You call in when you leave and let dispatch know where you are headed next. You have a map in your head of the payphones in your service area. My character is on call at night, he calls dispatch to let them know where he can be reached if he is going out.

    And I’ve been wondering if younger readers will find that mindset hard to grasp. Not the lack of cellphones so much as the ingrained habit of making sure that you can be reached and that somebody knows where you are all times. It’s not a skill that someone raised with cellphones has ever needed to acquire.

    1. Not to mention the concept of a world where you don’t have a virtual library in your pocket! When I tell my kids about trekking to a big building full of dead-tree books and making notes on index cards, they roll their eyes and say, “Yeah, and you had to walk uphill in the snow both ways, didn’t you?”

      1. And doing record searches manually, without computers. That’s something that I have to keep reminding myself–when my protagonist wants information he has to call the records department and someone has to take his number and then go to a room full of file cabinets and physically look through the paper files, and then call him back.

        1. You know, for about ten years after cell phones became ubiquitous, mystery/thriller writers were still plotting in the pre-cell phone world. You could tell because in order to keep the protagonists incommunicado for plot purposes, the writer always inserted an explanation that they’d forgotten to charge the phone.

          1. There’s a scene in Dan Simmons’ “Summer Of Night” where one of the characters gets a significant message on his answering machine–only the book is set in 1960, and answering machines didn’t exist then.

            So Simmons inserts this paragraph about how this character (who is in junior high, as I recall) hooked up a tape recorder to his phone to record messages and wired a light to blink if there was a message.

            It was so obviously a mistake on the part of the author–I can imagine the conversation with his editor.

            “Uh, you know answering machines weren’t invented in 1960, right? You need to rewrite this part.”

            “Ah, screw it. He invented one. I’m not going to take the time to figure out a different way to get the information to the kid.”

  2. my magic boxes’ magic unit that tells it my location has been acting wonky today, i might have to finally move over to my roomate’s old phone.

  3. Of course, there can be stories where one of the characters deliberately says something that can be misunderstood. 😈

      1. How about “so I can annoy the idiot I’m talking to and possibly send him off on a false trail?”

        1. Or “I need to ditch this idiot and find someone worth talking to.” Which can lead one of them into danger that the other has to rescue him or who thinks the other is in danger and gets in trouble . . .

      2. I’m thinking more the reader “knows something is wrong” but the other characters don’t know what’s wrong. 😉

    1. It can be even more twisty if the character doesn’t even realize he *is* misleading the protagonist. Remember the true story behind the Japanese woman who died in Fargo? The sheriff there claimed she was looking for the treasure from the movie “Fargo,” and everyone ran with it. But, in a story in the London Telegraph, producers for a documentary about “The Treasure Hunter” went to talk to him. The sheriff told them that the woman didn’t speak English, and he didn’t speak Japanese. So they asked,

      “Then how did you know she was looking for the treasure from the movie?”

      *Blank stare*. He didn’t know. He just assumed. She was looking for her ex-boyfriend, as it turned out, and that’s why she was pointing to a map. It’s surprising how often things like that happen, where people have assumptions that they pass along as fact. Assumptions they genuinely believe to be true, but are based on scant reason.

  4. While I was in Poland and the Czech Republic, I encountered some interesting mis-translations. A few were attempts to make English verbs fit Polish verb patterns – for example, the Poles consistently said and wrote that “the river flew past the city,” instead of “flowed.” Others were literal translations that led to great confusion. A museum sign read “entrance for visitors from across the building.” What they wanted to say was that the entrance was around the building. An exhibit referred to “ultrasound airplanes” instead of supersonic.

    Almost but not quite is amusing, until it becomes dangerous. What happens when you attempt to translate equipment instructions, or information about a weapon, into another language? Add in other cultural complications (like Middle Eastern ideas about control of vital information, including maintenance instructions) and miscommunications shifts from amusing to potentially lethal. And completely believable for anyone who has dealt with “Engrish” or “Dutschlish.”

    1. i had a bit of this problem when i was writing for the computer enthusiast site i used to write for- a couple times they had me actually work with the German translators and their re-phrasings, at least what they said the translation was, was changing the intent.

  5. When you get a few hundred people in one place and try to coordinate anything? Chaos!

    This is exactly why I love watching symphonies and choruses (chori?). It’s amazing to watch that many people coordinating so well. Some of the YouTubed flash mobs are like that, too.

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