Tuesday, December 21, 2004

No difference between fact and fiction

I finished reading Micheal Crichton's "Eaters of the Dead" last week. Good book (good movie too). He wrote it in the mid 70s (1976 was when it was first published) on a dare from a friend. His friend was of the opinion that the classics had become unreadable by most people. Crichton disagreed so his buddy challenged him to prove it. So Crichton wrote this book in order to demonstrate that "Beowulf" could be an entertaining story.

It's written as if it was a scholarly search for a manuscript written by one Ahmad ibn Fadlan who journeyed to Scandanavia in 922. The intro and assorted notes throughout the story give you the distinct impression of a historical but well written text. In 1992 (I presume after the movie was made) he added an afterword where he talked about the exercise and the aftermath. One of the most interesting things he said was about a disturbing trend (he found it so and I agree) from which some scholars seem to maintain that there is no difference between fact and fiction. Both depend greatly upon the reader's viewpoint and other factors which vary from person to person.

As an engineer I find this unsettling to say the least. Most of our work is based upon certain things which we *know* to be true in virtually all circumstances. Gravity, physics and the like. If I push this computer's monitor off the desk then I'm fairly certain that it will fall toward the center of the Earth and stop when it reaches the floor.

He found it disturbing because at one point he found himself in the library searching fruitlessly for references he'd used in the story. It had been so long since he wrote it and the line between truth and the fiction he created to establish the story's atmosphere was so fine that he forgot which references were factual and which he'd made up (one author he attributes to was named the Latin term for 'fanciful').

And while we assume (at least I do) that anything we see on TV is false if not patently absurb (especially on the Evening News), to see this basic assumption creep into academia can only be a Bad Thing(tm).

However the book (and the film) are great fun. Give it a try.


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