Monday, March 1, 2010

An Unwilling Suspension of Disbelief

Spoiler alert! If you haven't finished reading any of the following titles, you may want to skip reading this posting (on the other hand, this might be a good way for you to catch up on some recent fiction you missed): The Time Traveler's Wife, The Lovely Bones, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

I recently finished reading Audrey Niffenegger's second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry. (I know, I know -- my lukewarm feelings towards her first book should probably have steered me clear. But it was 50% off at Barnes and Noble, and I was in need of reading material. I get anxious when I don't have something to read before bed!) I actually really loved the way the book was written; the descriptions of London and the Highgate Cemetery were captivating and made me wish I could take another trip across the pond to see it all.

However...I was once again underwhelmed by the plot, and I'm worried that I'm starting to seem like someone who hates science fiction. Time travel? Body swapping? It makes me go cold. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that my problem is with writers who use science fiction or fantasy plot devices outside the context of a sci-fi/fantasy world.

Here's the deal: in the book The Lovely Bones, I was completely willing to buy into the premise. Girl dies, but can still see and almost interact with her family from the "beyond"? Fine, no problem. But then she somehow inserts her otherworldly spirit into the physical body of a still-living person while that person's spirit moves into her place in limbo, or wherever she's supposed to be? It comes out of left field. We aren't given any warning that this is part of what we're in for in the world Sebold has constructed.

The Time Traveler's Wife is another example. The premise of the book is that Henry cannot do anything in his time travels that has any profound effect on the outcome of his life. Okay, fine. But then why can he travel into the future to find out winning lottery numbers in order to go back and then use those numbers to win? And if he can do this, why isn't he able to do anything about that terrible night in the parking garage, like go to the future and leave himself a blanket or clothes?

I've never read the book, but the 3rd Harry Potter film frustrated me in the same way. Obviously we suspend our disbelief to immerse ourselves in the world of Hogwart's. But suddenly Harry, Hermione, and Ron find themselves in a pickle they can't solve...and suddenly they are able to travel through time. Poof! Crisis averted!

My issue with all of these is the use of sci-fi/fantasy tropes in order to bring about a plot resolution, whether large or small, in such a way that it feels like the author is playing a trick on readers. I don't mind being whisked out of my reality and into a world where things work differently than they do here -- but I do mind when I feel like Dorothy talking to the man behind the curtain. The cards need to be on the table from the beginning. When the rug is pulled out from under me while I'm reading, I can no longer trust the author, and then my willing suspension of disbelief suddenly becomes coercion.

In a true science fiction or fantasy novel, though, the author is not a magician, and there are no tricks hidden in his sleeves. (That's the last trite metaphor, I promise.) The constructs of the world inside the book are as vital as the plot. To suddenly change those constructs in order to bring about a desirable event would be to admit defeat as a writer -- to have not planned well enough or thought everything through carefully enough.

My conclusion? I should probably give in and start reading some Heinlein. It certainly can't be any worse!

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