Monday, October 16, 2006

An answer, out of time

   Rebecca, of In The Shadow Of The Iris, was gone walkabout for a while, and missed my Ask Me Anything entry. She has a question, and wonders if I might answer it, even though that game was so long ago.
   Of course I will, Rebecca. And to anyone else reading, know that you can ask me any question you like, at any time, and if it catches my fancy, I'll probably answer it. Maybe even here.
   Rebecca asks:
How is it that a devoted skeptic is also a fan of fantasy/science fiction literature? The two seem to contradict themselves in a most opposite way. I've always been to lead to believe that when reading, a person becomes one with the book, setting, characters. Doesn't the skeptic in you constantly get in the way of enjoying your books?
   That is actually a great question, Rebecca, because it touches on the nature of reality, the difference between the real world, and a world of fantasy, and the need for people to be able to tell the difference.
   The very short answer is, because it is fiction. The long answer is somewhat more complicated.
   When a fiction writer asks a reader to pick up his work, he is asking that reader to take an explicit action. He is asking for that reader to provide something called the "
willing suspension of disbelief." In all fiction, whether it be a story about a country whose name has been stolen by a powerful invading sorceror, or one chronicling a court case in which the District Attorney suspects he may have been set up to be an alibi for the murderer, some elements of every tale will, on occasion, challenge credibility. When the reader began the book, he made a tacit agreement with the writer. In exchange for entertainment, he agreed to willingly and knowingly overlook those elements. To a point.
   That agreement between a writer and a reader is a complex, imaginary document, with clauses multitudinous, that is in a constant state of flux. The level of disbelief suspension depends upon the genre (were a Sorceror to appear in the courtroom in a
Sandra Brown novel it would likely be stretched beyond the breaking point), the reader's general level of involvement (some readers can be thrown by a misplaced comma, while others will blissfully ignore even the most egregious violations of the fourth wall), and level of entertainment (Guy Gavriel Kay can get away with far more than, say, Robert Jordan).
   So, when Guy Gavriel Kay tells me that his Sorceror/Invading General character has cast a spell so powerful that it caused every person alive to become unable to hear, understand, or remember the name of one of the provinces in their country, I say, "OK. Tell me more." However, if someone in real life were to tell me that they could cast a spell that would cause every Canadian to become unable to hear, speak or think the name "Alberta," I would immediately suspect one of three possibilities: either they are joking, lying, or delusional. My willingness to suspend my disbelief does not extend outside of whatever novel I am reading at any time.
   Sadly, that is not the case with everyone. There is a rather large
community of people who believe that they were fantastic creatures - elves, fairies and others - in some imagined past life. A person who claims that they are the soul of Drow Elf - a creature that has only ever existed in fiction - trapped inside a human body, has lost contact with the line that separates fantasy from reality. Life is life, and books are books, and it is my ability to keep the two separate in my mind that allows me to question silly claims in real life, while enjoying fiction with fantastic elements without having to snort, "yeah, right!" every time some would-be prince binds a wandering wizard to his will with an ancient spoken charm.
   On top of all that, the speculative fiction we fondly refer to as Science Fiction and Fantasy comes from a long, and literary tradition. Glancing up at my bookshelf, I see a row of books I still have from a University course called Modes of Fantasy. Thomas More's Utopia, Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, and Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote are all great-grandparents of today's SF, and are as read for their stories as they are for their social commentary on their times. Fast forward several centuries, and the
novels of our very own blogfather, John Scalzi, are far more than just space opera shoot-em-ups.
   The Guy Gavriel Kay novel I have been referring to here,
Tigana, explores themes of memory, identity, and the effects of tyranny and oppresion on a people, and asks how far those people should be willing to go in opposition to said tyranny; in effect, do the ends justify the means? A serious exploration of those themes, and others, is worth overlooking the uncomfortable fact that people don't really get magical powers by cutting off two of their fingers.
   Don't you think?



justaname4me2 said...

Thank you for not answering, "Because it's fiction and I'm not a moron" (I already knew that)
I suppose the question was raised in my mind because I did envision you snorting at each spell casting moment, elves, fairies and such. I was wondering how well you kept the skeptic side of you from intruding in a writer created world that contradicts reality and all you stand for.
Your right, life is life, books are books and I'm glad your skeptic can be abated during the fictional escape books provide~

Thank you!
Rebecca Anne

plittle said...

"Because it's fiction and I'm not a moron"

Um, isn't that basically what I just said?

justaname4me2 said...

LOL well yes, but because of your delightful entry and elaborations, I now know what 'Otherkins' are. I wasted an hour of my time learning what Elven Princess Syndrome is all about and how Vampires feel about wolf, elf, fairy, etc wanna be's. So, if you hadn't added all the fluff, I would be still be in the dark that 'otherkins' walk down my streets. Perhaps I should have said, "Thank you for all the links, I now know a whole new brand of whacko"


ravenjuiced said...

I wonder, if you read a futuristic novel, let's say one of Asimov's, maybe The Foundation Trillogy where he dreams up "psychohistory" or one of the Robot novels where he dreams up the "positronic brain", does the skeptic in you refuse to believe that either of those would ever become fact? Or is there some room left over to dwell on it a second and say, "That's pretty cool, wonder if it'll ever be."? I love sci-fi, but I never believed that things such as the Star Trek communicators would ever be realized. Of course, cell phones look just like that now.


princesssaurora said...

Great answer... for the record... I understood your stance before the question was asked... if that makes sense.

be well,

acoverforty said...

Well written answer, I enjoyed finding out how you can be a sceptic and a lover of Sci-Fi Fantasy.  Great link also, thanks for the link to "willing suspension of disbelief." I've saved it to be used later.

simianfarmer said...


Nevermind; I'm'a gonna rustle me up a burger.


plittle said...

  Out here in the center of the universe - I mean Ontario - we simply refer to it as "West Saskatchewan."

rosas831 said...


cdittric77 said...

I find this entry a fabulous examination of not only why we read but what so many of us find within the pages of books. The enduring great reads of fiction, fantasy or otherwise, allow us the chance to not only suspend our belief but to also find in their themes that which resonates with our personal experiences; not to the point of losing ourselves to the secret inner Drow, but to help us make meaning with what is decidedly more real. Tolkein is a fabulous example of this sort - written without a particular allegory in mind, we are free to find our own meaning in its characters and plot.
Great post!

simianfarmer said...

"West Saskatchewan"??

Them's fighin' words, you upstart eastern... guy.  Just wait'll next month...


mavarin said...