Archive for June, 2018

Suspending Disbelief

If you read much fiction, especially science fiction or fantasy, you may have heard of the phrase “the willing suspension of disbelief.”  It’s used to indicate a willingness on the part of a reader to accept as real the descriptions, the materiality, the phenomena and/or the validity of a world which does not exist in this universe, and in some cases, could not exist under any circumstances.  You do it probably a lot more than you think.  In some stories, for example, the novel To Kill A Mockingbird, many things in the novel could be real, even though the characters aren’t.  We know that Atticus Finch, Scout, Jem, Boo Radley, Tom Robinson, and all the others don’t exist and have never lived, but everything about the town of Maycomb does seem real and could really be true.  The lynching of a black man is real.  It has happened.  And it takes place in Alabama, a real state.  But when we read the book or watch the movie, we are willing to put ourselves in that town in that era and accept what’s happening.  It becomes real to us, if only for a short time.

On the other hand, what in the TV series Star Trek seems real?  Only a few things, such as San Francisco, where Star Fleet headquarters is located, and some of the humanoid characters—James Kirk, Captain Picard, etc.  But everything else in this series is so unlikely and non-real, especially a space vehicle that is capable of traveling many times faster than the speed of light.  It’s so far out of touch with current concepts of space travel that it seems ridiculous just to think about.  Yet we watch.  We suspend our disbelief to a much greater degree than with Atticus Finch, but suspend it we do, and we enjoy the show.

The term “willing suspension of disbelief” was apparently coined by the British author and poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1815.  He used it to refer to the fiction of his day, which didn’t include science fiction, though there were some elements of fantasy in some works prior to that time.  (For example, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.)  After all, the first real science fiction novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, didn’t appear until January, 1818, and Jules Verne, who published his groundbreaking sci-fi in the latter half of the 19th Century, hadn’t gotten started yet either.  I doubt that Coleridge ever had any idea how far his phrase would be taken in the 20th and 21st Centuries.

But while the term refers to the acceptance of a fictional universe, it refers to what is, I believe, essentially a passive action.  We simply let ourselves go and accept what the author has to offer.  But I submit that there is really an active process in which we are engaged when reading science fiction.  Especially good science fiction which fleshes out a non-real or fantastical world in so much detail we can actually see ourselves living there.  Or at least visiting.  A reader has to actively submit to the author’s world and allow him/herself to be transported there.  We see and smell and taste and touch and hear things the author has not even suggested or described because we are so intensely embedded in that world we instinctively know more about it than the description has suggested.  This is a much more active process than just accepting the non-real world for the duration of the novel or the movie.  For example, can’t you just feel the heat and humidity of an Alabama summer without air-conditioning?

As a science fiction author, I became aware of this requirement of a sci-fi novel only slowly over a period of many years.  (Too many years to list here.)  To keep a reader’s attention, the world has to be believable, and well to the end of the novel.  I’ve tried to set up the fictional worlds and characters in my novels to seem real, to draw the reader in and keep him/her there, but time will tell whether readers agree.

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All Those Humanoids Out There

With all the advances in astronomy over the past quarter century, we’ve learned a lot about the universe, especially about out own galaxy, the Milky Way, and even more about the area within a few hundred light years of own home planet.  We’ve learned that there are planets orbiting other stars, stars relatively nearby in our little corner of this galaxy, and that some of them are, potentially anyway, havens for life because they could have liquid water on their surface.  If there is life out there, what does it look like?  In all probability it won’t look like us.

But if you watch science fiction shows and movies, and read science fiction books, the largest majority of aliens are humanoid in appearance, i.e., they look like us.  It’s as though we’re stuck giving aliens human characteristics and foregoing the expense and difficulty of designing aliens in other forms.  We like our aliens to look like us.  As I wrote once in a blog post on this blogsite, if I see an alien that looks like a human but just slightly modified, (like, for example, the alien that was supposed to have landed near Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947) I always know it’s a fake and isn’t likely to be real.  Real life from another planet will almost certainly not look like us.  Yet we continue to portray extra-terrestrial life as humanoid.   Why is this?

I’ve come up with three reasons I believe aliens are so frequently portrayed as humanoid.  First, and this is true in movies and TV, it’s easier to dress up an actor in a humanoid costume and have him/her play a role.  Getting an actor into a non-humanoid costume would be much more expensive and time-consuming.  Easier to have it with two arms and two legs and a head with most of the sensory organs built in.  (The evolutionary process of sensory organs settling in an anterior head is known as cephalization.)  The cantina scene in the 1977 movie Star Wars: A New Hope, is a classic example.  Most of the patrons of the bar were generally humanoid.  Some were shaped a little differently, some had more hair than humans generally do, one had green, scaly skin (I think his name was Greedo, and he got blasted) and the bartender would look right at home on the streets of USA.  A bit gruff, perhaps, and annoyingly unfriendly, but he wouldn’t stand out as unusual.  Not to mention Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Obi-Wan Kenobi . . . the list goes on.

Second, I believe it’s easier for us as readers and viewers of science fiction books and visual displays to accept an alien as humanoid.  We’re so used to humans that an alien is automatically more acceptable to us if he’s only a little bit different.  Green, perhaps, or arms that reach to the alien’s knees with fingers as long as our forearm, but generally like us.  We’ve come to accept these creatures because we’ve seen them so often.

Third, it’s easier for us science fiction writers to invent an alien that is near to human in appearance because it takes less to describe it, and we know our readers will immediately accept it.  The reader doesn’t have to work too hard to visualize it.  I have to admit that most of the aliens in my (as yet unpublished) novels and stories are humanoid, probably because it’s easier to work with them.  And if they’re human in appearance, I suspect we feel that they will be human in action and demeanor.  The more human they look, the more human they will act.  All of this simplifies writing and description.  I have submitted a novelette (around 24,000 words) for publication that uses aliens that are distinctly non-humanoid, but still they have two arms and two legs, though they haven’t gone through the process of cephalization to obtain a head filled with sensory organs.  I’m not sure how this will go over with the publisher, but it represents my attempt to break with humanoid characters, and do something different.

So, we appear to be stuck.  Aliens are humanoid much more in fictional stories on Earth than they would ever likely be in outer space.  I would like to see more distinctly non-humanoid characters in movies and books and stories.  How do you feel?

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