Yesterday I was re-watching Arachnids in the UK, the fourth episode of the latest season of Doctor Who, and a somewhat goofy idea popped into my head about how to respond to the charge that sometimes stories are just ‘too improbable’ to enjoy — or to have happened at all.
That certainly is an accusation that seems to apply in many cases. In order for some story to have happened at all, certain events had to happen just so and in the right order. It’s easy to shake your head and think, “Yeah, right. As if that could actually ever happen.”
For many years I’ve had a generic response to that accusation, but yesterday I realized it can be justified mathematically!
Here’s something that caught my eye: Researchers at the University of Vermont, in the Computational Story Lab (!), did an interesting word content analysis on 1,700 stories downloaded from Gutenberg. Each story had been downloaded at least 150 times by readers.
The researchers used “sentiment analysis” that measures the positive or negative emotional impact of words. Using a sliding window they attempted to characterize the “emotional arcs” of each story. Their goal was to see if there were common patterns.
Turns out, there are!
The punchline is that I was suddenly struck by how modern fiction seems to have conditioned me to expect an apparent White Hat to secretly be a Black Hat. The question I find myself asking now is whether fiction has actually changed (and if so why) or is it just me? The more I think about it, the more I’m inclined to think modern fiction has changed.
If so, does that reflect a modern sensibility about people today? Does the rise of the modern anti-hero bring with it the idea of the betrayer? Do we expect so little of people anymore that our heroes need to be dirty and double-agents seem matter of course?
This all started with Diane Duane…