Caring and Research

So during my trip to Colorado for my brother’s graduation I ended up reading 4 books during the intervals where I wasn’t driving. This is pretty typical of me during travel, since it is pretty difficult to do much of anything else in a car (or plane), and my Kindle always has a backlog of books just waiting to be read. I’m not a slow reader by any means, and tend to binge read, so a stretch of several days can see me devour several books in quick succession without any problem at all.

Generally I find that most books I pick up have their good points. This isn’t to say I like everything I read. There are certainly books I pick up and feel ambivalent about as I work my way through them, but I’m generally able to understand what the book is and identify why it doesn’t work for me. Often this just comes down to such fickle things as voice, themes, and my mood at the time. People tend to be natural story tellers, we do it all the time, so in my experience telling an adequate story isn’t all that difficult (telling an exceptional one is another matter, however).

That said there are things I see occasionally that just bug me. It ends up showing that the author just didn’t care, and in every case comes down to a lack of research. This is something I’ve complained about before, though mostly in private, because it is the type of problem that is really easy to avoid. In many cases a simple Google search is all that is required.

I’m not going to name and shame here, because this isn’t a problem I’ve only seen in that book, however I am going to use examples from it to illustrate my point. Writing is quite difficult, I understand, but I feel that only makes it more important to avoid the simple mistakes.

Real Locations

Lack of research I typically notice comes down to failing to fact check details about real locations. This is doubly true when a story is set in a definite place in our existing world at a time where we know what the place is like. Obviously a writer is free to imagine how places might change in the future, or make-up details to fill in gaps about the far past. I’m also understanding when fictional locations are inserted into real locations, such as an imaginary bar placed in a city to serve as a hub for a story.

As a cautionary example I’m going to borrow from the story I read. In it the main character is climbing a mountain with a summit at about 14,000 feet above sea level in Colorado. So far so good. Colorado has several mountains that high. However, upon reaching the top the character looks down at the Colorado plains “14,000 feet below.”

Perhaps this is a result of misunderstanding how mountain height is measured, but it raises a real problem:

Well look at that.

Apparently the Colorado plains are (at best) more than 3,000 feet underground, but more likely closer to 7,000 feet underground. OK. Wow.

What really gets me is that checking this took me all of five seconds. I literally just hopped on Google, typed my question, and had the answer spat back out at me. The research was so simple, and the answer so readily available, there is no excuse for not having fact checked this detail. And worse still, fixing this error is really easy. Just change the description to talk about how the Colorado plains are “thousands of feet below,” or actually find the real elevation for the real location you are talking about and use that to find the difference instead.

Now I can see someone saying that most readers won’t notice or care about this type of issue. I cannot honestly say if that is the case or not, but for the sake of argument let’s assume that is correct and only 1 out of 10 (or 1 out of 20, or whatever) readers will notice the problem. Is it really such a big deal?

Personally I would say that yes, it is. First of all, even if most readers won’t notice the fix is amazingly easy to apply. This isn’t something that required an in-depth knowledge of geography for me to figure out. I just needed to look it up online. Even if we assume that only 10%, or 5%, or 1% or readers will notice the problem, the amount of work needed to get something like this right is so minuscule that failing to do so is a major problem. It indicates a fundamental lack of care about what you’ve written, and if you do not care why should the reader?

Beyond that, even if only a few readers notice these problems I believe they will tell others—especially if it is a persistent problem. Some fans may not care, but the opposite is also true. It’s true that there are certain things that, once noticed, cannot be unseen. I’d be worried about retroactively losing fans.
Unfortunately I cannot say that this was the only type of error in the book I read, which leads me to…

Incorrect Statements of Fact

One major plot point of the book dealt with immunity, and specifically loss of immunity. Because I got a degree in biology this was interesting to me. The idea of causing a biological attack by removing existing immunity from a population and not introducing a new pathogen is a really clever idea. The author of the book deserves a lot of credit for coming up with that concept because I (at least) have not seen it before. This was a great plot detail.

Unfortunately either the author misunderstood what is meant by “immunological memory” or simply didn’t bother to do any research at all. In contrast to the previous mistake, this one takes a bit more learning to fully understand, but since the entire plot of his book hinges on this detail it is absolutely critical to get this right. We know how the immune system works. You can’t just make something up and expect that to fly.

In the book, immunity was wiped out by a drug which caused temporary amnesia, which would then remove the person’s immunity by making their brain forget how to fight off infections. This bears absolutely no resemblance to how an immune system works. This concept is absolute nonsense, and it actually hurts me to think that someone is basing a story on such a misrepresentation of immunity. It hurts especially hard because I can think of perhaps three different methods of destroying immunity just off the top of my head (but I’ll spare everyone the details).

Now let me be clear, I am aware that science fiction often has to speculate about how future technology might work, and as such can date itself when its speculation is proves to be incorrect. That is fine. So long as the ideas presented seemed reasonable with the information available at the time I have no problem. I also don’t have a problem with bending or breaking particular facts to make sure that a story can actually take place (Star Trek can’t very well take place without Faster-Than-Light travel, for example).

Completely misrepresenting things that we already know, however, is just unforgivable. If the workings of a human immune system are central to your story, you had better learn how things really work. There are books that cover this topic. I’m sure that if you searched YouTube you could find a video. There are probably college professors who would be happy to answer your questions. And your story will be better for it! The ideas will be that much cooler because they are feasible. And when the expert in your story explains what is going on, he won’t sound like a blithering moron thereby completely destroying all his credibility.

I understand that it is possible to take this sort of thing too far, to start nit-picking extremely minor, inconsequential details to a story, but I’m not asking an author to be an expert on everything and avoid all factual errors in their writing. I’m merely asking for care to be taken when a writer makes a statement of fact. When you give a number, double-check that you give the right one. When your story revolves around a topic, actually learn about that topic.