Wednesday, January 19, 2005

A Perverse Form of Reality and the Suspension of Disbelief.

I asked Pat to respond to my comments on City of Ember because of my increasing conviction that there is such as thing as an "sf-inclined" mind. I don't want to go any further than that statement as far as categories are concerned however.

Pat's response was illuminating.

I feel that the points made ... seem almost perversely to be reading the book as if it were a work of realism rather than fantasy.

Does anyone else feel a light going off? For those of us who are fans, sf is a work of realism. The reading protocols of sf demand that we take things literally. To probably mis-summarize many critics, if we live in a world were someone can "give" me their hand, then what we are suspending, is not a faith in realism but faith in metaphor.

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).

Again, a little light bulb...this is where we get into the issue of escapism, although Pat never mentions the word so this isn't strictly a comment on her words: to an sf reader, "implausibility" doesn't mean quite the same thing. Cheryl and Sturgeonslayer use standard sf understandings of this. You can't have anything that has been proved to be impossible unless you can come up with a reason why it might be. You can't ignore current knowledge. Pat Pinsent doesn't have any problem with this: "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." If this were true tho', it almost immediately moves City of Ember into the category of other world fantasy. This makes it not sf at all. Which was part of what I was saying in my initial rant.

Two other points Pat made struck me:

Among the things I like about the book:
• 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.

• 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.

Both of these are metaphorical issues, and I have already (tentatively) suggested that sf tends to ask for a supsension of faith in metaphor. They are not issues that count for and of themselves. This is purely personal, but there is to me something problematic about ignoring the idea of genre or form as a rhetorical strategy, as in the continual assumption (again not a comment about Pat) that I see in a lot of children's literature criticism, that fantasy and sf are metaphorical projects. I think we can't dismiss it as an element, but I don't think this is what attracts children to read it.
I'm currently reaching the end of my other project. I expect to complete the book on Diana Wynne Jones that I have been working on for the past eighteen months sometime tomorrow. When I've done that, I am going to blog on two books: Ben Bova's Exiles of Earth and The Radio Boys by Alan Chapman. Between them they say an awful lot about City of Ember. Exiles of Earth has almost the same plot. The differences between the two are, I think, where some of the disputes about the suspension of disbelef lie.


Blogger Cheryl said...

While what I said might be a standard SF interpretation of "suspension of disbelief", it is also what Tolkien meant by the term. That's very clear from his essay. I can't comment on what Coleridge meant when he invented the term, but it is clearly not just an SF coinage. Tolkien, and most of those who follow him (for good or ill) want their words to be "believable" as well.

Now clearly there are many fantasy books whose worlds are not believable, but equally they are generally not intended to be believable and it is not necessary for the reader to believe them to enjoy the book.

I suspect that the real problem with reading styles here is that many non-SF&F readers are incapable of suspending disbelief in even the best described imaginary worlds, and consequently assume that people who do read SF&F are prepared to accept any old nonsense as "real". It is rather like someone who is tone deaf complaining that Mozart and Motorhead are equally awful noisy crap.

4:32 AM  

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