A Tool Can Also Be a Weapon: How Stories Can Change Reality

“If you’re ever in Cody, Wyoming, just ask for Wild Bob!” –Slaughterhouse-Five

One of the critical function of stories is to enforce an order and structure on a random sampling of events, personalities, interactions, and coincidences. These can be factual stories—a journalist trying to put together a coherent picture from hours of interviews and follow-ups—or they can be fiction, wherein an author attempts to wrangle their erratic thoughts into something somebody might buy, or possibly even read.

There are a lot of different words for stories. One is “narrative.” We hear that word a lot these days. Who’s controlling the narrative? What’s influencing it? Is it like the Gulf Stream, a thoughtless phenomenon plowing through the atmosphere, something we cannot control, only witness? Or is it a story—an order being enforced on current events by a vast array of people, almost all of whom probably have an agenda in doing so?

Another is “optics.” Optics are just stories, much like the “narrative.” Is a guy who’s trying to fundraise for a non-profit driving a pretty fancy car? If so, whoo boy, those optics aren’t great—because they tell the story that this chump is taking a cut of the money that should be going to the needy. Never mind that it also tells the story that helping other people should be a punitive, self-flagellating experience, where you should never be paid a living wage or have any financial success. Never mind that it sends the message that helping the needy is a job reserved for the already-wealthy or brutally selfless. Because you just cannot fight the optics, you see.

Some good questions to ask are—who is telling these stories? They had to come from somewhere, after all. And why are they telling them? And how? And what does it say about them?

Because anything that can enforce order on randomness is a tool. A chisel and hammer enforce order on the random atoms of stones, creating images and function from crude matter. Stories do the same—but they do it to the human mind, reshaping one’s perception of the world. And when practiced efficiently, on a big enough scale, stories can act as a hammer and chisel to the broader social consciousness.

A hammer can also be a weapon. Any tool can be a weapon. Stories can be weapons. And when paired with newer tools—analytics, video generation, social media—they can be weapons of mass destruction.

Vigilance is a novella about an America in which some very powerful people figured out how to tell stories really, really well. The stories they tell are not truths, but in this America everybody has mostly stopped worrying about the truth. (This is another story they have decided to tell—that truth is just subjective, and should not be bothered with.) These people use extremely advanced technologies to tell these stories. And the stories they tell all have the same message.

You should be afraid.

And if someone asks, “Of what?” the answer is—everything. All the time. You should be worried all the time.

And you should be prepared.

Every story needs a focal point, an object or image that can anchor the importance of the story in the audience’s mind. And what object is more loaded with nuance, and meaning, and narrative weight than a gun? We’ve all seen the movies. We all know what they are and how they work. And we know that when someone has a gun, they are automatically a good guy or a bad guy. This is how the stories work, after all. This totem bestows a special significance to the characters who possess them. When you hold this tool, you become important.

So the inevitable next step is—why don’t we see you prove it? Why not show us that you are the good guy in this story? Let’s turn on the cameras and watch.

This is what Vigilance is. It is an enticing opportunity for the people in my story. They can win a whole lot of money. But people who take up the offer often forget—they are still players in a story, and they are not the ones telling it.

A gun can kill people. A story can make people pay for the opportunity to get killed by a gun.

The quote at the start of this piece from Slaughterhouse-Five is said over and over again by a colonel in the Second World War who has lost all of his men, has been captured by the Nazis, and is going to die in a matter of days from pneumonia. I think he is saying this because he is trying to tell a story about himself—to enforce a structure on his reality that is different from the reality that is actually taking place.

But that is the thing about stories. They are just stories. They can affect how people see reality, but they cannot actually change reality.

Eventually, inevitably, reality is going to bite you in the ass.

The question is, will people even realize it when it happens? Because people will tell stories about themselves until they die.

People will tell stories about themselves until they die.

Robert Jackson Bennett was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but grew up in Katy, Texas. He attended the University of Texas at Austin and, like a lot of its alumni, was unable to leave the charms of the city. He resides there currently with his wife and children. Vigilance publishes January 29th with Tor.com Publishing.

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