Isaac Asimov’s Take on Social Distancing

As more people come down with the coronavirus, the concept of social distancing has been put forward as a way to slow the spread. This reminded me of a story I read a long time ago by Isaac Asimov called “The Naked Sun” where social distancing is taken to the extreme.

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“The Naked Sun” takes place on a planet where everyone is isolated from one another. They use holographic projections to communicate and robots to do their bidding. Wanting to actually view someone in the flesh is considered ‘dirty’. As you can imagine, sexual intimacy is scarce.

So when someone is murdered, imagine the shock and confusion. A human couldn’t do it because they don’t interact with one another. It had to be a robot, but they are programmed with laws to prevent them from harming humans.

I always thought this was an interesting, but unlikely scenario used primarily to set up a fascinating who dunnit situation. Except now I see people calling sick from work, changing from shaking hands to Vulcan greetings or elbow bumps, a jump in home grocery deliveries, working from home, studying/taking tests from home, cancellations of large events, and I think perhaps it isn’t all that unlikely after all if given the right circumstances.

Clearly we aren’t at this level of isolation, but I can imagine a society which became used to cleanliness in space, low population density, and robots to do all the work. Perhaps they experienced contagions before they fled and colonized the new planet.

Could society give up something as fundamental as touch, cuddles, and kisses? I doubt it, but this is an interesting read anyway, not only for the society world building but also for the murder mystery.

By the way, I’m doing fine so far even though Kirkland is a five minute drive from my house. My heart goes out to everyone who has friends or family coming down with this new flu. Let’s hope the warmer weather nips it in the bud.

Storytelling in Movies

In November, I posted a blog about storytelling in games, specifically World of Warcraft. After this season’s ending of Game of Thrones, I immediately knew I wanted to blog about telling stories on screen vs books.

Whether you enjoyed the last season of GoT or not, you have to admit the visual spectacle was impressive (just ignore the failed military tactics). This showcases what movies do best. The actor looks straight at you with a look on their face coupled with the right supporting music and you can feel anything from triumph, to anger, to crushing despair. No need for words at all. Same with battles. It’s so easy to show a huge battle and what everyone is doing on screen. That same scene can get confusing in text format. I recall reading the Helm’s Deep battle in LoTR and it never had the same impact as hearing the characters speak their rousing speeches or seeing Gandalf charge the slope to save the day.

I definitely wish stuff like that was even half as easy to write in books. It takes a whole lot of the right words and some past character development to evoke the same emotion. However, if the author gets it right, I wind up spending two days savoring that book when it ends. I love finding stories like that. I definitely want to write stories like that!

On the flip side, books can go into a whole lot of detail that can’t possibly be included in a movie. A movie is limited in length, so it has to use every possible shortcut to get from start to finish and still contain the essence of the book. This is probably the biggest reason why people complain about movies based on books. There’s always going to be something cut from the book to squeeze it into the movie, and the books will always have more background detail. In the GoT case, they tried to jam too much into too short a time and people felt the disparity between the level of detail in early seasons vs the broad brushstrokes taken in the later seasons. While they’d never be able to include everything from the books, the last two seasons would have been better served by adding a bit more.

Another thing books do really well is reveal your favorite characters’ inner thoughts. This issue came up in a Facebook group when people began discussing the Wheel of Time series which is coming out soon. Many of the characters in those books have internal dialog. But how do you translate that to screen? You can try voiceover narration like Blade Runner, but it winds up feeling awkward and forced. I did enjoy the pop up images in Ally McBeal where she showed her thoughts, but that is probably better suited to comedy than epic fantasy. I think the best thing they could do is have a character around to listen as the main character vocalizes their thoughts. Or maybe they’ll skip this and try to show thoughts as actions. Whatever they choose to do, I can’t wait to see WoT on the screen!

My takeaway from all this rumination is that movies are great for visuals and evoking deep emotion at a glance, helped along by those tear jerker soundtracks. Books are great at getting into the headspace of the character and for giving you way more details than a movie could ever have. And it’s a great joy to have both, even if you prefer one over the other.