Monday, June 13, 2011

Book Thoughts: Suspension of Disbelief, featuring Huntress by Malinda Lo and Captain America

If you ever read books or watch movies outside of realistic contemporary fiction, you're familiar with the idea of the willing suspension of disbelief, even if you haven't heard the phrase before. It's how when we're faced with a story with fantastic settings or characters, if there's something "real" in there that connects these fantastic situations with the consumer, we're willing to suspend our disbelief - the instinct to roll our eyes and say something is impossible - in order to enjoy the story. Wikipedia is telling me the term was coined by philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was saying that if writers could add "human interest and a semblance of truth" to their stories, readers would be willing to go along with whatever else was thrown at them.

Today, reading the comments in another blog, I came across what is allegedly the contemporary rule for the suspension of disbelief:
The rule of suspension of disbelief is that if you have something have to make everything else as true-to-life as possible. If you have little things which takes you out of the believability, you find it less likely to believe the fantastic things.

In this case, the media in question is the new Captain America movie, where it appears some of the military units have been integrated, even though in reality, integration didn't happen until after WWII.

While reading this, in my head I heard the proverbial needle scratch across the record. Because in the book blogosphere, I think we just had this conversation, in a more specialized sense perhaps, inspired by Malinda Lo's blog post on taking the homophobia out of fantasy. Lo's point is that when authors are creating fantastic new worlds, even if those worlds are often based in some part on our own, we have the ability to remove something that is unfortunately common in our society, and truly imagine some place fantastic. We don't have to "make everything else as true-to-life as possible" - to use Lo's books as an example (and I'll be sure to review Lo's latest, Huntress, this week), just because we have fairies and magic doesn't mean we also have to have an oppressively patriarchal and homophobic society. Lo does an amazing job in Huntress of making love between women just another romantic possibility - there's some good-natured teasing about who likes whom, but it's never a joke because of gender.

So rto go back to Captain America, if we're already going to re-write history to say the Nazis have some bizarre Red Skull on their side, and the US develops a super soldier serum that turns a scrawny guy into Captain-freakin'-America, why would the straw that breaks the camel's back be a black man fighting alongside the personification of American ideals?

Suspension of disbelief is a good rule to keep in mind when creating a fantastic setting - to continue another comic book movie conversation I saw this weekend, will our disbelief be shattered in Iron Man 3 when Tony Stark doesn't call upon the other Avengers to fight the latest bad guy? It's also important we remember the less-than-perfect aspects of our history, and the real struggles real people went through in order to correct historic injustices, but I'm having a hard time seeing this particular argument as anything other than nerd!rage. Want to have a real conversation about re-writing history in a fantasy/sci-fi context? Check out Ta-Nehisi Coates' examination about the dearth of people of color in X-Men: First Class. In the meantime, I plan on enjoying Captain America's look at what WWII could have been like, unless something realy ridiculous pops up - still not sure I'm buying the CGI that makes Captain America's actor look like a 98-pound weakling...
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