Poetry exemplifies how the meaning of a string of words depends not only upon the sum of the meaning of the words, or on the order in which they are placed, but also upon something we call “context”. Context is essentially the concept that single word (or idea) has a different meaning depending on its surroundings. These surroundings could be linguistic–the language we are assuming the word to belong to, for example, environmental–say it’s cold out and I say “It’s sooooooo hot.”, or in light of recent events: “The Mets suck” means something very different if they’ve just won a game than if they’ve just lost one.
Poetry is the art of manipulating the various possible contexts to get across a deeper or more complex meaning than the bare string of words itself could convey. The layers of meaning are infinitely deep, and in fact in any form of creative writing, it is demonstrably impossible for every single human to understand all of them. I say poetry is the “art” of such manipulation because it is most often the least subtle about engaging in it. All language acts manipulate context. Just using a simple pronoun is manipulating context to express meaning.
And we don’t decode this manipulation separate from decoding the bare language. It happens as a sort of infinite feedback loop, working on all the different layers of an utterance at once. The ability to both manipulate concepts infinitely and understand our own infinite manipulations might be considered the litmus test for what is considered “intelligent” life.
Returning to the three words in our title, I’ve discussed everything but AI. The difficulty in creating AGI, or artificial general intelligence lies in the fact that nature had millions or billions of years to sketch out and color in the complex organic machine that grants humans this power of manipulation. Whereas humans have had maybe 100? In a classic chicken and egg problem, it’s quite difficult to have either the concept web or the system that utilizes it without the other part. If the system creates the web, how do you know how to code the system without knowing the structure of the web? And if the web comes first, how can you manipulate it without the complete system?
You might have noticed a perfect example of how context affects meaning in that previous paragraph. One that was not intentional, but that I noticed as I went along. “Chicken and egg problem”. You can’t possibly know what I meant by that phrase without having previously been exposed to the philosophical question of which came first, the chicken that laid the egg, or the egg the chicken hatched from. But once you do know about the debate, it’s pretty easy to figure out what I meant by “chicken and egg problem”, even though in theory you have infinite possible meanings.
How in the world are you going to account for every single one of those situations when writing an AI program? You can’t. You have to have a system based on very general principles that can deduce that connection from first principles.
Although I am a speculative fiction blogger, I am still a fiction blogger. So how do this post relate to fiction? When writing fiction you are engaging in the sort of context manipulation I’ve discussed above as such an intractable problem for AI programmers. Because you are an intelligent being, you can instinctually engage in it when writing, but unless you are a rare genius, you are more likely needing to engage in it explicitly. Really powerful writing comes from knowing exactly what context an event is occurring in in the story and taking advantage of that for emotional impact.
The death of a main character is more moving because you have the context of the emotional investment in that character from the reader. An unreliable narrator is a useful tool in a story because the truth is more surprising either when the character knew it and purposefully didn’t tell the reader, or neither of them knew it, but it was reasonable given the information both had. Whereas if the truth is staring the reader in the face but the character is clutching the idiot ball to advance the plot, a readers reaction is less likely to be shock or epiphany and more likely to be “well,duh, you idiot!”
Of course, context can always go a layer deeper. If there are multiple perspectives in the story, the same situation can lead to a great deal of tension because the reader knows the truth, but also knows there was no way this particular character could. But you can also fuck that up and be accused of artificially manipulating events for melodrama, like if a simple phone call could have cleared up the misunderstanding but you went to unbelievable lengths to prevent it even though both characters had cell phones and each others’ numbers.
If the only conceivable reason the call didn’t take place was because the author stuck their nose in to prevent it, you haven’t properly used or constructed the context for the story. On the other hand, perhaps there was an unavoidable reason one character lost their phone earlier in the story, which had sufficient connection to other important plot events to be not just an excuse to avoid the plot-killing phone-call.
The point being that as I said before, the possible contexts for language or events are infinite. The secret to good writing lies in being able to judge which contexts are most relevant and making sure that your story functions reasonably within those contexts. A really, super-out-of-the-way solution to a problem being ignored is obviously a lot more acceptable than ignoring the one staring you in the face. Sure your character might be able to send a morse-code warning message by hacking the electrical grid and blinking the power to New York repeatedly. But I suspect your readers would be more likely to call you out for solving the communication difficulty that way than for not solving it with the characters’ easily reachable cell phone.
I mention the phone thing because currently, due to rapid technological progress, contexts are shifting far more rapidly than they did in the past. Plot structures honed for centuries based on a lack of easy long-range communication are much less serviceable as archetypes now that we have cell phones. An author who grew up before the age of ubiquitous smart-phones for your seven-year-old is going to have a lot more trouble writing a believable contemporary YA romance than someone who is turning twenty-two in the next three months. But even then, there’s a lack of context-verified, time-tested plot structures to base such a story on than a similar story set in the 50s. Just imagine how different Romeo and Juliet would have been if they could have just sent a few quick texts.
In the past, the ability of the characters to communicate at all was a strong driver of plots. These days, it’s far more likely that trustworthiness of communication will be a central plot point. In the past, the possible speed of travel dictated the pacing of many events. That’s far less of an issue nowadays. More likely, it’s a question of if you missed your flight. Although… the increased speed of communication might make some plots more unlikely, but it does counteract to some extent the changes in travel speed. It might be valuable for your own understanding and ability to manipulate context to look at some works in older settings and some works in newer ones and compare how the authors understanding of context increased or decreased the impact and suspension of disbelief for the story.
Everybody has some context for your 50s love story because they’ve been exposed to past media depicting it. And a reader is less likely to criticize shoddy contextualizing in when they lack any firm context of their own. Whereas of course an expert on horses is far more likely to find and be irritated by mistakes in your grooming and saddling scenes than a kid born 16 years ago is to criticize a baby-boomer’s portrayal of the 60s.
I’m going to end this post with a wish for more stories–both SpecFic and YA–more strongly contextualized in the world of the last 15 years. There’s so little of it, if you’re gonna go by my high standards.