Posts Tagged disbelief

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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