I’ve recently finished reading “The Architect’s Apprentice” by Elif Shafak, which made me think about the difference between the kind of fiction enjoyed by computer geeks like myself, versus the kind of fiction enjoyed by other people. It’s remarkable how different the two groups are – When I meet a computer programmer, or some other person who seems clearly versed in the world of computer geeks, there is a striking amount of books I can be sure they read (or are at least strongly aware of), movies they watched, ideas they know, vocabulary they will understand. And most or all of those things tend to be completely foreign to anyone else. What is it that makes some stories appeal to this particular group? This book made me think about a possible answer.
The book is very well written – in many ways, her writing style is exactly the kind of writing style I would want to use if I ever write fiction. Focused, dynamic, chaotic. But there is one important difference between this book and the kind of books that get put into a geek’s reading list – her characters are, without exception, motivated by emotions. This combines into a theory that’s been developing in my mind about what makes computer geeks into such a defined subculture – geeks read about people motivated by goals, ideas and ideologies. Non-geeks read about people motivated by feelings.
(Note: Some spoilers ahead for The Architect’s Apprentice and for Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. I’ll try to keep them as vague as possible)
I really started realizing this at the end of the book, where it turns into a kind of detective story, making me draw some parallels to what I consider to be the best detective story I’ve ever read – The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. While The Architect’s Apprentice (unlike The Name of the Rose) does not start as a detective story, the final act in both books is quite similar. And that is where the difference comes to play.
Umberto Eco’s William of Baskerville is a quintessential geek’s protagonist. He is an outside observer – he has no emotional investment in his investigation. He is rational to the point of exaggeration, avoiding any part of his personal life being put into the story. We know very little about him not because he hides anything, but because it’s not important. He does not want the story to be about him; he wants it to be about the investigation. Adso of Melk is slightly less rational than him, but not for lack of trying. He clearly looks up to William as the proper model for how to behave. And most importantly, this is not true only for heroes, but also for villains – the story is full of ideological debates, and the final act reveals the ideological debate behind the entire mystery. I believe that was not too much of a spoiler, because a geek would not expect otherwise – of course a murder mystery would be about ideology, why else would you have a great story?
Compare this with the final act of The Architect’s Apprentice, so similar in style – the protagonist learns the truth, connects the dots and confronts the antagonist to learn the whole story. But that story is based on completely different motivations. Jahan does not seem to believe in anything. He does not care about the world around him, other than his love or admiration for some people, his hatred or fear towards others (love, admiration, hatred, fear – in other words, emotions). He does the work he is ordered to do, and tries to get better at it – though any inspiration he feels towards the professional learning of architecture seems secondary to his admiration towards his master, which gives him the real motivation to advance. When he discovers the conspiracy in the final act, he does not want to fight it to protect the empire, or to destroy the empire, or to make some change in the world; he wants to uncover the conspiracy out of anger (again, an emotion) at the wrongs done to him and his loved ones. It’s not that he lacks empathy or desire to help others, but he does it in a fundamentally emotional way – he wants to help people after seeing their suffering. Several times in the book he encounters a suffering character and tries to help them; Once the sufferer is out of sight, the issue is over. In the final act, we also get to learn the antagonists’ motives: again, emotions. Every single one of them. Anger, love, revenge; Every action of the antagonists is motivated by the desire to hurt someone they are personally angry at, for a personal issue between them.
These two are only representative examples of this difference. Let’s consider some other works of fiction that are considered part of the “geek bookshelf”, so to speak: Frodo Baggins‘s main emotion is fear, and his story is all about conquering it to act for the greater good, to which he is directed by a stream of stoic, rational people who rarely express any emotion at all – Aragorn, Gandalf, Elrond, etc. His antagonist is basically pure evil – Sauron does not seem to be insulted, or angry, or greedy: He is simply pure evil, and acts as if it is a force of nature with no emotions. Emotions do exist in their story, but as secondary phenomena that can be enjoyed where possible, or must be conquered when necessary – the successful character growth for each of the younger characters is being able to control their emotions. Frodo his fear, Pippin his hastiness, Boromir his pride.
Eddard Stark is fully motivated by maintaining the traditional justice of his kingdom, and even his duty to his family does not take precedence over it. Stannis Baratheon, Daenaris Targaryen and their followers all do the same, though for different traditions. Of those who don’t act to preserve traditional power, many act to overthrow it in the name of some moral worldview – Varys, Beric, Mance. The few characters who are working for pure personal gain either try to hide it, or are seen as mindless pawns in other people’s stories. How about Neo? His choice of “red pill versus blue pill” became a universal symbol for choosing the greater good over the personal gain, but in reality that greater good meant abandoning everything and everyone he knew (and loved, and hated, and felt any emotion towards); Yet it is obviously the right choice, for the geeky audience. Sarah Connor certainly has no time emotional decisions as she’s running for her life, much like countless other rational heroes.
Meanwhile, who do non-geeks watch? James Bond is just as preoccupied with saving the world as Neo or Frodo, but he has no need to conquer his emotions; To the contrary, he
celebrates them. He is loved for being so powerful, that he does not even need to fight his weaknesses and personal interests. Superman has little trouble in interrupting his attempts to save the world to do something for the woman he loves, and Spiderman is much more famous for his emotional breakdowns than for anything he did for the world. This goes a long way back in time: Achilles makes his decisions regarding the life or death of countless others, based on his anger towards Agamemnon or his love towards Patroclus. This would make him a ridiculous (or possibly tragic) side character in a rational story, but is celebrated in an emotional story.
And these are just the rare examples of emotional heroes going to save the world. Saving the world is an extremely common motivation in geeky works of fiction, but extremely rare in others. Because saving the world requires strength and sacrifice; those come at the expense of indulging one’s emotions. It’s not only loving relationships that suffer – indeed, John Sheridan‘s love for Delenn or Benjamin Sisko‘s love for his son must be put at second place as they risk their lives to save the universe; But other emotions can be equally tempting – Indulging in one’s depression, anxiety, envy: while these don’t sound like “pleasurable” things to do, they are easier choices than taking responsibility. The emotional protagonist will not go to save the world because saving the world means they cannot stop at any point and complain of how unfair their situation is; they cannot be angry at their commanding officer and decide not to work with them anymore. When they fail, they must accept it and move on; no time to doubt themselves and punish themselves for their failures. When they need help, they must try to solve their own problems if possible; If not possible, they’d swallow their pride and ask help from others, rather than (as an emotional character would do) stubbornly stay alone and suffer. The emotional hero will have none of that, and is celebrated for it: sacrificing the world for their love, wallowing in angst over their difficulties, maintaining grudges against others, and refusing to ask for help even when it is clearly the right thing to do – all of these are integral parts of the behaviour of the emotional hero, and often described and praised as “human” reactions, unlike the “robotic” reactions of the rational hero.
It’s not that emotions don’t exists in rational fiction, or that rationality does not exist in emotional fiction; the difference is in what the characters aspire to. In a rational story, a
character’s story arc will be about them conquering their emotions to achieve their goals. In an emotional story, the story arc would have them indulging in their emotions; sometimes while achieving their goals, sometimes while failing, sometimes without having a goal at all – because for these stories, the emotions are the center, and people are the center. For geeks – it’s about the bigger picture. More often than not, it’s about saving the world, no matter the personal cost.