Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Guest Post (1): Pat Pinsent on City of Ember

Reading this I am struck by the way in which Pat has used the term "suspension of disbelief"--I'll try to explain what I mean later today.

Responses to Farah’s criticisms

I feel that the points made are all, in themselves, valid, but seem almost perversely to be reading the book as if it were a work of realism rather than fantasy. There is no ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ which might allow implausible situations to be accepted for the sake of what they add to the story, or to an aspect which is very important in this book, its symbolic effect (which largely works implicitly, with I hope the young reader not being explicitly conscious of it). Remember that no work of fiction, even an ostensibly realistic one supposedly set in ‘our’ world is in fact so located- all are constructs which therefore obey the rules imposed by their creator, and if this means there is no atomic clock, or gas doesn’t explode in tunnels, then these are presumably the conditions in that world. At the same time, the created world has to be close enough to ‘ours’ for the reader to relate, and I think DuPrau achieves this. Thus, plausibility is an irrelevant criterion for deciding on the book’s merit. Therefore many of the points in the category ‘Things that just annoyed me’ don ‘t really demand discussion. The only point on which I would agree with the criticism is the lack of a mythology for the missing information- an opportunity missed by DuPrau.
Among the things I like about the book:
• I am fascinated by seeing the children’ learn and grasp solutions in the context of what we, the implied reader, can connect up with the world we know.
• The book seems to be to some extent a reflection on the danger of stifling childhood abilities by ‘assigning’, and the potential that individuals have for rising out of such a ‘dark’ system. While it’s not an allegory as such, it certainly makes good use of the symbolism, especially of light and dark, and I think the arrival into a ‘light’ world at the end, which we recognise is like ‘our’ world, is a very moving moment.
• The idea of the community being founded by elderly people and babies may not be plausible but it’s a fascinating hypothetical situation.
• We need the conept of ‘blindness’, the lack of ingenuity of the inhabitants, to make us appreciate the quality of the vision of those who get out of there.
Amanda Craig, in The Times of Jan 15th, compares the notion to Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’ which also describes ‘a society turned in on itself’. She goes on to talk of how the protagonists have ‘defied the increasingly corrupt and dicatatorial authorities,’ and how the book ‘asks moral questions: what if the world as we know it came to an end, and only a few could survive? Who would be chosen? What kind of society would we create, and how? At its heart City of Ember is about the imagination and passions that artists and scientists bring to their society, and how it is their visions which are our salvation. Its engaging young heroine and hero have adults to give them good advice, but it is their own courage, energy and ingenuity which cracks the mysterious instructions and brings the novel to what is at once a satisfying conclusion and a terrific cliffhanger...’
I think this sums up my feelings quite well, certainly in the context of the youth of the protagonists and how this relates to the implied young reader.
Pat Pinsent

5 Comments:

Blogger Cheryl said...

Time for a referral back to Tolkien's original article here. Suspension of disbelief is not about accepting whatever nonsense the author happens to write into the book, it is about the author making the reader believe that the world of the book is real. It is a contract between author and reader, not an abject surrender on the part of the reader.

Now having said that there are clearly varying levels at which the reader is prepared to enter that contract. And adult hard SF reader will have vastly different criteria for believability than a child with little interest in science. But even so we should never allow ourselves to get away with the argument that it is "just fantasy" so the reader should be prepared to believe anything.

6:23 AM  
Blogger Farah said...

The issue might be what it is we are willing to suspend disbelief about. I'll see what the survey's say about this eventually, but it's a common enough belief that sf readers will accept much weaker characterization that readers of lit fic, or at least, a very different idea of what character is about. Generally, I'd say we tend to regard "puzzle solving" character as more realistic, and care a lot less about "emotional intelligence".

But this is a guess.

9:48 AM  
Blogger sturgeonslawyer said...

Some years ago, at Westercon XL, I someone - it may have been Gardner Dozois - remarked that "Disbelief is meant to be suspended, not hanged by the neck until dead."

Now, I haven't read the book in question so I can only speak in generalizations here.

But.

The suspension of disbelief is possible only so long as the reader remains confident that the world-of-discourse has its own internal, coherent logic - that is, "I may not know the rules, but I feel confident that there _are_ rules, and that the weird things taking place make sense _under_ those rules."

If the reader is unable to maintain that sense, then what we have is no longer fantasy, but nonsense or absurdism. These are both legitimate modes of writing, but not ones in which disbelief is effectively suspended; the reader winks and goes along for the ride, smiling (in nonsense) or smirking (in absurdism) at how impossible it all is.

1:14 PM  
Blogger gabe said...

If we look at even Carroll's ALICE IN WONDERLAND, which may be the most fantastic of fantasies, we are able to obtain the 'suspension of disbelief' only because Carroll's fantasy is diametricly related to the ground rules that we know to be true. There is an internal consistency to his inconsistencies -- and that is what gives rise to the suspension of disbelief. Even the most absurd has to have a foundation based upon some 'rules' that are being subverted.

Making rules up willy-nilly does not fit the criteria needed for the suspension of disbelief. The whole idea of suspension of disbelief comes from our willingness to accept that SOME rules are different. But without internal logic, that belief is strained to the breaking point when haphazard garbage is presented, because as readers we *know* that pure chaos is unacceptable -- even if pure chaos is a reflection of reality.

Ummmmm... ramble over.

2:41 PM  
Blogger Farah said...

Fascinated to see that two of you mentioned "rules".

Teaching creative writing for two years, I've realised that this is an sf/fantasy understanding to begin with. It's easier to understand if I move back a step in perspective and talk about "bibles".

Sf and Fantasy writers know that they have to write a "bible" for their world (even if they don't actually write it down) in which the rules are laid out and fit together.

Listening to my students, it's quite clear that they have never thought of the mimetic world in these terms--as one big, shared bible. Actually, that's not true: the black and asian students tend to know exactly what I mean, because their own personal bible sits at an angle to the hegemonic bible. But the effect is that they don't think in terms of a world of "rules" because they've never actually thought of a world as "built". When an sf reader talks about breaking the rules, it seems artificial, because instead of rules of which one is conscious there is "character" which "just is".

10:24 AM  

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