The Big Idea: Alexandra Rowland
Stories are in everything. If the human brain has been optimized for one purpose, it’s storytelling.
Well, okay, I’m being poetic. It’s pattern recognition, technically, if you want to be dreadfully literal about it. We look into the night sky and see a random scattering of stars, and we impose order on it, drawing constellations and filling up the void with patterns—stories. We see a piece of paper with green ink making pictures, and we impose a story on that too: Not just paper and green ink, but money, a dollar, and suddenly that same scrap of paper and ink has the arbitrary worth of approximately one candy bar.
Show someone a story, tempt them into giving one percent of their attention to it, and you can hack right into that part of their lizard brain that evolved to make educated guesses about the world around them, the better to keep them alive in a hostile wilderness. And once you’re in, once you have them by the throat, you can do all sorts of things to a person. You can lead them all sorts of places.
These days, the hostile wilderness is made of stories—it’s not just the effortless access we have to movies, TV shows, games, but also the battering tempest of the unending news cycle, the way social media amplifies the audience’s every scream of response. Someone realized once how irresistible patterns are to our brains and, because capitalism, monetized it and set it loose on an unsuspecting population. Half of the reason it feels so good to take a day or two away from Twitter is because your brain gets a rest from endlessly and reflexively sifting through clickbait and propaganda. There’s such a torrent of false positives that we survive by resisting the instincts of our lizard brains, armoring ourselves against the very stories that we’ve evolved to embrace. And it’s hard. We’re just not wired for that.
When I began writing A Conspiracy of Truths, it was only ever supposed to be for fun. It was supposed to be my procrastination project – a low-stress, low-stakes, low-pressure thing for me to screw around with, experimenting and tinkering and fucking up as freely as I pleased while I avoided the other book I was working on, the one I was Serious about. “I wonder how much worldbuilding I can cram into one novel without it getting annoying,” I thought to myself, blithely ignoring the other project I was allegedly committed to. “Let’s try it for the sake of science and see what happens. No gods, no masters, eh?”
But stories are in everything, and the human brain is optimized for them, and… things rather got away from me. Things seem to have, uh, really gotten away from me.
First, the damn thing disregarded all my intentions and grew its own plot – a story, initially just a framework to support the weight of the world I was constructing on top of it, but gradually taking up more of the space, more of the weight, more of my attention. And then, I suppose, either to spite me or to prove a point, it made its story about stories: About the power of the right lie whispered in the right ear, about the power of truth deployed strategically, about the ways we take strength from stories, what they do for us, how they change us.
The main character and snarky first-person narrator, Chant (a member of an order of wandering storytellers going back thousands of years) gets arrested, accused of witchcraft and espionage, and thrown in jail. He is looking at a very real possibility of being killed for crimes he didn’t commit, and he has nothing—no money for bribes, no friends in high places—just the clothes on his back, the words on his tongue, and a complete inability to give up and accept defeat.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem in the world looks like a nail: So, for the lack of any other tools at his disposal, Chant hammers stories at every ear he can reach. He knows he doesn’t need to change someone’s mind completely—all he needs, in most cases, is to plant a seed of doubt, to make them empathize with him for a split second, to make them pause, and wonder, and listen. He saves his sorry neck with stories.
I finished writing this book in mid-September of 2016, about six weeks before the election that brought us a painfully sharp reminder of the undeniable and overwhelming efficacy of propaganda. The book was only supposed to be an experiment in worldbuilding, but it became more about manipulating reality. The moral, if there is one, comes down to this: “It doesn’t matter if it happened that way in real life, as long as the story is good, as long as it’s truer than truth.”
Let me tell you the truth.