Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Random Rants: Where does your suspension of disbelief end?

As fantasy, science fiction and horror fans, our realities, perhaps, stretch a little farther than the average earthling. I know people who are unable to watch most science fiction movies because they innately pick them apart and drive the people around them crazy. One of those people, oddly, is also a huge "Doctor Who" fan, who has no problem with an immortal time traveler using his time machine to drag the Earth through space, so go figure.

Anyway, most of us who hold the speculative genres dear have accepted that there are some things we just have to accept in order to enjoy our chosen genres. If you spend all of your time picking apart what's not possible or whether or not the science the author/screenwriter used is sound, that doesn't leave you time to get lost in the story.

What brings this to mind is a recent article about the science of Star Wars that I saw. In the discussion of it, there was a lot of back and forth from people who seemed unable to enjoy the movies because of George Lucas' lack of scientific grounding. One commenter, in particular, went on at length about the Death Star and the destruction of Alderaan, and all of the problems with the scene.

First off, Star Wars is not hard science fiction, it's space opera, and as such, doesn't concern itself all that much with the scientific side of things. More importantly, though, when I go into a fantasy, science fiction or horror piece, I'm not generally put off by things like that because I've accepted going in that there will be impossible science, magic, or other things that don't make sense in the real world. It doesn't break my suspension of disbelief that the Death Star could generate a laser powerful enough to destroy a planet or that it could escape the consequences of destroying said planet. I've accepted up front that I'm going to encounter things like that, and I intend to go along and enjoy the ride. It's part of the deal.

I remember one of the first critiques of my own writing that I received as a teenager. My mother knew a writer who had published several children's books, and I had written a children's story. She arranged for the writer to look at my work and give me thoughts on it. One of the notes that sticks out in my mind from the critique was about the protagonist's home. "In this time period, people would have lived in one-room huts, not actual houses," I was told. I remember thinking, "OK, which particular historic time period were there dragons, goblins and magic?" She had no problem with the talking dragon or the goblin hordes, but we can't have people living in a house with rooms. It's a fantasy world. There's no historical basis. It's the same with Star Wars. It's a fantasy world with no scientific basis.

Now, that's not to say that I can't be thrown off by magical or science elements in a story. I recently read a book that gave the hero such an overpowered artifact that I couldn't get past it. (I'll try to protect the authors and books with anonymity here, but if you read my reviews or the books, you'll likely figure it out.) He had a sword that opened up the skies and called down stars on his enemies with no consideration as to what stars actually are or the consequences of calling one through a portal to your planet. With a little thought, though, I even got past that. I said what if they're not actual stars, but meteorites. That's doable, right? Or maybe they're not celestial at all, but magical constructs that look like stars. OK, now I'm cooking again.

But that brought me to the next break in my disbelief. The point of the story was that the protagonist was trying to recruit a difficult group of knights to aid him in defending a nearby city from monsters. With an artifact that powerful, why bother? Why not just take it and handle the problem yourself. To the author's credit, another character in the book asked that question, but I was not convinced or satisfied by the hero's answer.

And that's where my suspension of disbelief ends. It's never with the outlandish things that might happen, like the destruction of planets or magical swords that call down stars on your enemies. It's always with the actions and motivations of the characters in the story. I can take all kinds of crazy occurrences, but let that character do something obviously stupid, and I'm out of the story.

A great example comes in another book that I read late last year. I'd enjoyed the book quite a bit, but late in the story there was a scene that just left me stunned and completely out of the thread. Our character, who is a fairly intelligent protagonist, is faced with a situation that's an obvious trap. I mean, there might as well be a big, flashing neon sign that says "TRAP!" and a life-sized picture of Admiral Ackbar on the door that she's about to walk through. Still, she goes in anyway, not with the knowledge that it's likely a trap and prepared to deal with that, but seemingly oblivious to what the rest of us could see coming pages before it happened. In the end, I still enjoyed the book, but perhaps not as much as I would have had that not happened.

I know that we fantasy fans love our magic and monsters, but I've often thought that, beyond all those trappings, we're mostly drawn to the human side of the story, the compelling characters and emotions that drive them. In that regard, I think fantasy often connects deeper with its readers than other genres. As a quick example (and I'll name this one), I recently finished Jim Butcher's first book of The Cinder Spires, and it was not the fantastic airships or what basically amounts to sky pirates that drew me in. It was a character -- Bridget Tagwynn -- who took me from being moderately interested to immersed in the tale. I could tell you the same for every story that I love -- the character may be a dragon, a wizard or even a dog (I'm looking at you, Oberon), but it's almost always a character.

So, I guess that's why my suspension of disbelief tends to be tested more by the actions of the characters than anything magical, scientific or otherwise. I suspect the same can be said of most fantasy fans, so I'm curious, where does your suspension of disbelief end?

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