Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Coleridge and Sci-Fi, Part II

In my previous post, I cited an excerpt from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and hinted that I think there is a connection between his words and why I enjoy watching/reading sci-fi/fantasy movies/tv/books.

Here is the first part of the quotation:
In this idea originated the plan of the 'Lyrical Ballads'; in which it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. (Samuel Taylor Coleridge 1817. Biographia Literaria ch. 14 p314 in Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. by H.J. Jackson, Oxford, 1985)
What I would like to focus on is Coleridge's statement concerning a "willing suspension of disbelief." In order to fully participate in a work of fiction, an audience must be willing to suspend their disbelief, to accept the story on the story's terms.  If a story is told well, this suspension of disbelief is usually easy, but this also depends on genre.  In a typical television drama, say a medical or crime drama, the threshold for willing suspension of disbelief is low.  These shows do not stretch reality all that much, and therefore, the audience does not have to suspend much disbelief.  In a sci-fi or fantasy show, the threshold of willing suspension of disbelief is high.  The audience is asked to accept a reality that is far beyond the confines of our own reality.  Yet, anyone going into a sci-fi movie or television show already knows this (usually) and they are prepared to suspend their disbelief.

For example, it is no great stretch for the creators of Battlestar Galactica to introduce robots that are indistinguishable from humans in every way, down to their anatomy and physiology.  It is a sci-fi show, and therefore the audience is expecting strange things.  Likewise, in the Matrix, it is not a stretch that in the virtual world, Neo can move faster than a bullet, or that one can jump across impossible distances from rooftop to rooftop.  The audience expects this kind of un-reality reality.  And this is the kicker, because the threshold of willing suspension of disbelief is already so high, these shows can stretch reality in other ways, especially on the religious and philosophical boundaries of what moderns call reality.

Because the audience is already willing to suspend disbelief to such a great degree, these shows can also treat other issues that lie at the boundaries of reality.  [Spoiler Alert Lost] For example, given the strangeness of the island in Lost, is it such a great stretch to imagine a semi-divine figure such as Jacob, one who stands at the crossroads of predestination and free will.  [Spoiler Alert Battlestar Galactica] Is it so hard for the audience believe in Battlestar Galactica in the death and resurrection of Kara Thrace, and perhaps the possibility that she is an angel?  Is it so hard to believe in an "oracle" who knows what people will do before they do it in the Matrix? No, these elements are seamlessly woven into the narrative and are unobtrusive, because the audience has already suspended so much of their disbelief.

Therefore, the sci-fi and fantasy genres are able to deal with mystery, with the boundaries of reality, in ways that would be nearly impossible in other genres.  In a crime drama, a divine figure like Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation would be simply unbelievable and absurd.  Yet, the questions that a character like Q, or like Jacob from Lost, prompt, are dealt with easily in the sci-fi and fantasy genres.   These genres can embody these mysteries, usually reserved for discussions of religion or philosophy, in compelling stories, and they can do so unobtrusively.  Therefore, I think that the best literary discussions of these questions of mystery, or metaphysics, take place in these genres with a high threshold of willing suspension of disbelief.  And, imho, these stories often do a better job at grappling with these mysteries than do religion or philosophy proper.  These mysteries are better dealt with embodied in a story than they are in abstract religious or philosophical concepts.  These mysteries are communicated more powerfully in story than they ever could be in propositional language.

No comments:

Post a Comment