We all have preferences, but what I’ve come to realize is how blind we are to those preferences. We know we prefer certain things, but we often make the mistaken assumption that we prefer them because they’re superior choices, rather than products of our own unique outlooks and expectations. Life is asymmetrical, and to really appreciate it, understanding the beauty and importance of asymmetry is vital.
It seems to be a human desire to rank and order everything. And I do mean everything. In recent years, I’ve grown annoyed with Best Of lists and Top 10 whatevers. It’s all so arbitrary and diminishing. How can we honestly compare an animated musical fantasy like Frozen to a live-action blood soaked western like Django. You can’t. Other than to try and judge them by their own efforts. Yet we continue to do so. We literally have an award called Best Picture which takes all the great (and wildly different) films of the year and crowns one of them The Best. Even in the years when there are nominees I’m interested in, I still find it absolutely bizarre.
The Academy Awards (and, honestly, all awards in the entertainment industry) are just so much advertising and self-congratulatory nonsense, and yet, the average person can be just as invested as the people in the industry. As a novelologist, I’d love to win a Nebula or Hugo because it would open doors of recognition and commercial success. I would even appreciate the award. But to think of anything I wrote (or anything anyone wrote) as a singular accomplishment among the thousands of fantasy books written in a given year would be impossible for me to take seriously. I’d be reluctant to dismiss other great books as not as good simply because someone had to get an award and that someone happened to be me.
A misunderstanding of asymmetry is why (among other reasons) a lot of people don’t understand natural selection. Rather than viewing the ecosystem as a complex web, we tend to think of it as a ladder, and we put ourselves at the top of the ladder. But natural selection is a massive multiplayer battle where winning isn’t about how smart you are or how many bombs you can build. Bacteria and invertebrates didn’t end up where they are by accident. Well, they sort of did, but they continue to thrive because they found a niche and made it work for them. We should respect that more and not just in nature.
It’s why I always have a hard time dismissing often maligned works like Twilight. I see a thriving creation that has entered the collective imagination and spoken to a hell of a lot of people. It’s not anything I’d write or ever want to write, and I might even argue that it’s romance for teens and people with arrested development. That’s a criticism, but it’s not a dismissal. There’s a niche there, and it’s been filled with resounding success.
A lot of video games and board games are built on asymmetry. League of Legends has dozens upon dozens of characters to play, each with their own unique flavor. RPGs, both online and off, are founded upon the idea of a disparate group of individuals, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, banding together to form a stronger team. But what is most interesting to me about this is how so many people dislike this notion. They want the characters to fit onto a ranking list, and by some astounding coincidence, the character types they like are the best ones while the ones they don’t like are either too weak or overpowered.
We all have our preferences, but by assuming those preferences are superior, we run the risk of missing out on things we might otherwise not notice and dismissing the preferences of others unduly. It doesn’t mean we can’t discuss those preferences critically. I stand by my assessment that Man of Steel is a pretty rotten interpretation of Superman, but I also acknowledge that for a lot of folks, it’s the interpretation they were waiting for. And though I am a tabletop game fan, I have never particularly enjoyed Settlers of Cataan or Ticket to Ride, both staples of the gaming hobby for most other people I know. I know as a write my novels that not everyone is going to like them or even get past their preferences to give the books an honest shot. But to complain about that would open the discussion to the truth that some people are going to like my books for equally arbitrary reasons.
Asymmetry isn’t pretty, but acknowledging that the world isn’t a nice little compilation of Top 10 lists is eye opening. It allows us to see the world as the messy, incomprehensible collection of stuff that it is. It might be frustrating at times, but like an H.P. Lovecraft protagonist, it’s necessary to get to the truths that lay in waiting in the greater universe. I can practically guarantee you won’t go mad from the revelations that it brings.
(Guarantee void in the lost city of Carcosa and the Plateau of Leng.)
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,