Abstract Made Literal
December 16, 2021 5:08 AM   Subscribe

What are some short stories, TV shows, or novels where something abstract is made literal, normally to prove a point? For example, Mother Tongues is a short story about a Chinese-American selling their Chinese ability to put their daughter through school. And here's flash fiction about people abandoning their consciouses at one lady's house.

I'd love to have more examples (and a name, if this technique has one).
posted by Trifling to Society & Culture (22 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
The movie of Airplane! uses literal applications of abstract concepts all throughout for humor: the smoking ticket, Ted's drinking problem, in dialogue ("A hospital? What is it?" "It's a big building with patients.")
posted by vitout at 5:44 AM on December 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

Colson Whitehead's novel The Underground Railroad immediately comes to mind (which has also been adapted into a TV miniseries by Barry Jenkins).
posted by Special Agent Dale Cooper at 6:14 AM on December 16, 2021 [4 favorites]

In Julia Armfield's "The Great Awake" everyone's sleep steps outside their bodies and hangs around, annoying them. I'd probably call your examples magic realism--the link has a good list of characteristics--or magic realist fables which could include something like Jess Zimmerman's "Never Quiet Again" where a sense of social/political disquiet has (without being named as such) become literal noise.

Further afield, there are allegories like Vanessa Fogg's "Taiya," where the ghost literalizes the main character's depression but only symbolically, or stuff like Herman's Head or Inside Out where the literalization of interior personas / emotions works more like a morality play, but maybe the examples help with finding a term on TVTropes.
posted by Wobbuffet at 6:19 AM on December 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Yoko Ogawa's The Memory Police reifies memory as something that can be confiscated. ("Reification" is probably the word you want.)

Karen Russell's novella Sleep Donation makes sleep a donatable commodity, that might also fit the bill?
posted by babelfish at 6:48 AM on December 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Some commercials have done this well...
ESPN - My knowledge - 1, 2
posted by Mchelly at 7:22 AM on December 16, 2021

Two SF/fantasy examples that spring to mind (although I feel like this is a very common trope in SF):
- the daemons in His Dark Materials series are essentially the souls or spirits of the human characters, but with a physical life of their own
- there's a Gene Wolfe short story called Westwind where wrist communicators are the way you talk to God (Wolfe said something like "I wanted to show what God could have done if He'd had the technology")
posted by crocomancer at 7:25 AM on December 16, 2021

Can it be explicit as a metaphor? If so, this is your brain on drugs is probably the most famous example in popular culture of the 1990s. "Any questions?"
posted by nantucket at 7:28 AM on December 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

It's not completely abstract, but this made me think of N.K. Jemisin's The City We Became, featuring characters becoming the personifications of the boroughs of New York, and other cities.
posted by mubba at 8:00 AM on December 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

Do check out The Awkward Yeti and his comics about the Heart and Brain.

Also, the movie Fantasia has portions where they illustrate the classical music with real things (dinosaurs, hippos, etc.).
posted by Melismata at 8:16 AM on December 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

In Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life and Others" (it contains the story the movie Arrival was based on), there's a story called "Hell is the Absence of God," where angels are real and tangible beings who manifest like natural disasters on earth (not in a feel-good 'Touched by an Angel' sort of way).
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 8:52 AM on December 16, 2021

Jeff Noon's Vurt series is sort of like this. Dreams, mythology, fantasies, etc. have become real in an alternate reality that people can access with a drug. (I am vastly oversimplifying here.)
posted by sevenless at 8:58 AM on December 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: China Mieville's Embassytown features a species whose language is literal, and when they need a lasting new simile/metaphor they will sometimes stage an event so that they can describe it in the future. As such, one character became "the girl who was hurt in the dark and ate what was given to her." There are a number of other examples in the book, as well as what happens to that society and its realities when it begins to flirt with the idea of untruths.
posted by Occula at 9:44 AM on December 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Further, this is less useful because I can't lay my hands on the title and author right now, but I once read in a collection of zombie-related short stories a story in which the 'zombies' were a silent manifestation of someone's sin or crime, that just followed that person around. Some people had lots of them. The story is really about the main character and what he discovers about the nature of the one that begins to follow him, why it's there, and ... it's absolutely heartbreaking, is what it is.
posted by Occula at 9:49 AM on December 16, 2021

Best answer: If I've understood your question, I think that Laura Chow Reeve's 1,000 year old Ghosts (link to podcast) does this.

The idea is that the protagonists grandmother teaches her grandaughter to deal with bad memories by pickling them in jars.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 10:06 AM on December 16, 2021

Best answer: Inside Out is entirely this, in a smart, and consistent, and totally lovely way: emotions are personified; memories and interests and personality appear as infrastructure; you watch the “control room” inside the brain get bigger as the kid develops; etc. There's even a great visual gag (spoilers) involving the realm of abstract thought itself. Most of my other suggestions are sf/f books:

In Sanjena Sathian's Gold Diggers, ambition and attainment become actual literal gold, which can then be hoarded, stolen, etc. (I found this a neat economic metaphor and posted an Ask for other similar works; some of the suggestions there may interest you too.)

In China Miéville’s The City and the City, the kinds of metaphorical boundaries people maintain around themselves in order to live in dense urban settings become actual geopolitical borders.

In Daryl Gregory’s Pandemonium, Jungian archetypes manifest in the world as sort of superheroes.

Edwin Abbott’s Flatland and Rudy Rucker’s White Light literalize abstract mathematical concepts--geometry and infinity, respectively. (Note: they also include lots of non-abstract sexism.)

Memories and the accumulated knowledge and social attainment of forebears become physical implants, sort of, in Arkady Martine’s Memory Called Empire and Aliette de Bodard’s Xuya universe stories.
posted by miles per flower at 11:16 AM on December 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

Another NK Jemisin contribution is the short story On the Banks of the River Lex which features Death as the main character, with supporting character Sleep.
posted by oxisos at 11:24 AM on December 16, 2021

Best answer: A lot of Yoon Ha Lee's science fiction revolves around abstract concepts which are made material. For example, in Ninefox Gambit and the other books in the Machineries of Empire series, adherence to calendars in different areas of space changes the laws of physics, enabling or disabling different advanced technologies depending on which calendar gains the upper hand. The technologies themselves are often literal manifestations of abstract mathematical concepts.

Many of Lee's short stories are freely available online, including The Battle of Candle Arc, which is set earlier in the same universe and is a good representative sample.
posted by confluency at 4:54 PM on December 16, 2021

Carmen Maria Machado’s story “Eight Bites” is a great example of this. Sorry for being vague; best to just read it.
posted by ejs at 6:21 PM on December 16, 2021

Niel Gaiman’s “American Gods” could fit this.
posted by alchemist at 8:16 PM on December 16, 2021

The Endless?
posted by MollyRealized at 2:28 AM on December 19, 2021

Also, something obscure: an early Star Trek Next Generation novel, really quite wonderful, featured a Earth colony world where fiction was outlawed, and so to preserve works of art, the characters literally lived their lives and chose to embody characters of classic fiction. Gulliver's Fugitives.
posted by MollyRealized at 3:26 AM on December 19, 2021

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