What Are Facts Without Fiction?

A librarian contemplates Louisa Hall’s “The Arisen.”

Cow parsnip and burning paper hovering over circular red and blue forms.
Lisa Larson-Walker

Acirema—I get it. A familiar country where everything has gone backward. It’s easy to recognize the feeling. Fake news, alternative facts—we’re out on a blasted heath where the comforting tracks have suddenly gone blurry and hard to see. There’s a mighty sense of cosmic irony here. We spent the last generation or so getting used to the notion of “postmodernity,” with its relativism and competing narratives. But the conventional criticism was that what we were talking about was a “theory” advanced by people detached from reality and huddling in one extreme of the imagined political spectrum. Irony, I say, when the “theory” proves to be an accurate empirical description of political and cultural realities and practices taken to the extreme of effectiveness by folk from a very different point on that spectrum, folk who pride themselves on their hardheaded realism. Nietzsche’s dead God must be turning over in his grave.

Yes, it’s true that there are no true stories. Human beings are story-making creatures, but no story can possibly be better that an edited, digested, spin-doctored version of events in we might still call the real world. The real story makers, the ones who give us our professed fictions, know that well and take full advantage of the techniques and the conveniences of their craft, the better to point us toward thoughts we would not come to so easily otherwise.

So it is with Louisa Hall’s “The Arisen,” where whispers and breaths of sexual tension and ambiguity make sure that we know from the outset we are in a space of disorientation. The story that unfolds can be simple and straightforward in one way, where the unsettlement can come from the context and prepare us for an ending that leaves us … turned backward.

And the story maker can imagine as much of her world as she likes, then use as much of the “real” world as it suits her. So we can believe—almost—in the dystopian world of relocated authority and find ourselves twisted around by facts seized and weaponized and held maddeningly out of reach. Let each reader make of the story what she will. But …

Of course there are facts. Mary Bradford’s diary is full of them. But we aren’t sure what they are—which things in her diary are facts and which are not. Yet it’s a fact that they’re all in her diary.

What I mean to say is that facts are what and how we make them. Human beings are fact-making animals, just as we are toolmakers. Facts are the tools of the brain, useful, destructive, creative, reliable, unreliable—all depending on the human beings who use them and what they use them for.

“The Arisen” is a fantasy riff on a possible world in which, perversely, human beings have become so enamored of facts-as-things that they have forgotten how to make them and how to use them. This story feels like a fragment in some epic science fiction construct like Dune or Foundation, but I’m not sure I need to read any more. It’s not going to end well. Facts will become brittle and useless, good for nothing but to be used as clubs to hurt other people with.

Libraries, now. Libraries are fact factories—among other things. Oh yes, they are also fantasy factories and inspiration factories and really good places—if furnished properly—to take a nap. I know a university library with a large reading room and large green leather overstuffed sofas and chairs in which the brightest minds of the past half-dozen generations have lost consciousness with amazing regularity and reliability.

But they are also fact factories. They are places where shrewd custodians keep watch on the constitution of knowledge by making sure that the right things, the good stuff, all come together and are findable—and are found. And people who care about facts come to make them for themselves. Find yourself in a library and look around at the least prepossessing people there—the nervous procrastinating students, the dozing and distracted community patrons. Even they know what a library is and what it’s for, and if they fail to use it for the best, their presence indicates still their respect. (One of the most remarkable things about libraries is how easy it is to keep order, even with the worst of patrons at the worst of times.)

“The Arisen” and its alternate university show us all these truths by showing us people made vulnerable by their struggle to find their footing in an environment that purports to be fact-made but in fact is destroying the capacity to make any facts at all. The contemporary—almost momentary—resonance of the story is obvious. The moral—well, it’s a familiar tale. Be careful what you ask for: You might get it.

Hang on to your libraries.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.