I’d like to muse, if I could, on the concept of suspension of disbelief. Hopefully if you’re a fiction writing you know what this is, but in simplest terms its when you accept something preposterous for the sake of enjoyment. All fiction requires some level of suspension of disbelief.
Suspension of Disbelief, hereafter referred to as SoD, is a vital reader-skill we writers rely on. The more outrageous something is, the great SoD is required. We can graphy this, and it comes out as a pretty straight line: on the X axis we have Level of Absurdity, and on the Y axis SoD. The more absurd, the higher the SoD.
Assuming a story is well-written, it falls onto a perfect line on the graph. Failed material will create little spikes. The web-comic XKCD made an excellent example of this recently. In Star Wars, we were perfectly willing to accept light sabers and hyper drive, but are derailed by the simple fact that this universe should not contain falcons. The Harry Potter franchise is worse, creating a world where adults literally have magical powers and a third-grader’s understanding of the world. Rowling asks us to accept a vast hidden world of uneducated wizards, somehow hiding in plain sight, in the real world we live in today—if you add the HP universe to our theoretical graph, it jumps right the hell off the Y axis, asking you to provide about 20 times more SoD than the human race, as a whole, is capable of generating. (Ok, maybe I’m being a little hard on Mrs. Rowling, stay tuned for my article about “why Harry Potter is incredibly stupid but sort of OK anyway”. Don’t hold your breath, though.)
There was one incident in my writer’s club to which I often find myself referring. The author in question was writing essentially an HP-knockoff(which I am ok with) but somewhat less artfully done. Specifically, in one incident, she asked us to accept that there was a freaking wizard/witch airport concealed in Central Park. This airport included 747-sized airliners. I’m not really positive of the dimensions of Central Park or a 747, but I’m pretty sure you’d have an awful tough time just hiding the airplane in something you can walk across in a few minutes; let alone concealing the runway and enough space to get to altitude over the skyscrapers that line the park. It begged too much of my SoD, is what I’m saying.
I myself have been guilty of a few outrages. My title character, Hunter Jusenkyou, is frequently criticized(and rightly so) for being too fast, too strong, too resourceful, etc. In one particular incident, he just “happened to have” a pouch of fairy dust in his field kit. It was exactly what they needed at that moment. Now, fairy dust is far from standard issue, so it was reasonably absurd. In my defense, there is another story explaining exactly how he came by said dust, and honestly, if you had a bag of fairy dust, you’d carry it around with you everywhere you went, just in case.
The Course Books offer a very forgiving environment for me, since they are told in a non-linear fashion, I have the opportunity to go back and revise the storyline where needed. Currently, I’ve been explaining how a lot of Hunter’s more absurd actions are really not entirely his doing, and how to some degree he is just a puppet of the Gudersnipe Foundation.
Now all that aside, let’s look at something interesting further along the graph. Assuming a story is well-written and not filled with gigantic plot-holes, there comes a curious sort of uncanny valley, a point at which things become amazingly absurd, yet require comparatively little SoD. Further still, the SoD drops away almost to nil, but then quickly picks up again.
The “nil valley” as I have now dubbed it, comes in when the story is so absurd that your brain basically just says “screw it” and you are free to explore the pure ideas. To reach this valley, the story must be both extremely well-written and incredibly deep.
The example I would like to present for this is a book called The Cyberiad, by Stanislaw Lem. From page one, it is so ridiculously absurd, that you will laugh out loud. And yet, the story so compelling, the ideas so fascinating, the writing so exemplary, that you will continue reading.
The Cyerbiad shows us a world set in the distant future, where everyone is immortal robots, and the protagonists are “constructors” who can make or build anything. So basically they’re a robotic cyber-punk version of Jamie and Adam from Mythbusters®. And yet, from page one, even a casual fan of science fiction will have no trouble accepting this.
The very first story in the has one of the constructors building a machine that can make anything beginning with an N. It’s just a simple tale yet very engaging and entertaining. The back and fourth between the protagonists is also really enjoyable.
On the whole, the book is written such that the reader looks past the basic questions of how, and into the much deeper why. And science fiction really doesn’t have to be about how, when the why is the truly important part. Or, more accurately, why not?
Why does Trurl make an electronic poet the size of a large building? Why not? He’s a constructor, he did it because he can. This is the sort of rational that runs all through the Cyberiad, and never once will you question it, because how Trurl the Constructor built his electronic bard was far less important than why, and what happened when he did.
The Cyberiad is pure, free-form fiction, easily the equal of it’s namesake, Homer’s Iliad. It is deep, naked ideas, and thus defines the Nil Valley.