I first heard the expression “a willing suspension of disbelief” at a science fiction convention. I was in my twenties. I didn’t get it. The words rolled around in my head but I couldn’t parse them. It took me awhile to figure it out, which says something sad about me, because I read and write fantasy and science fiction, and that’s all about suspending disbelief.
Disbelief, or skepticism, is a healthy survival skill. It’s that little voice that makes you go “Nyah-uh,” when the guy at the flea market says, “Yes, they are Jimmy Choos! And for you, only forty dollars.”
When we pick up a novel or sit down to watch a movie, we turn the skepticism switch in our heads to Off. That’s the “willing suspension” part. You’re not being tricked or fooled. You’re a partner in the make-believe, and you prepare for that.
Sometimes you don’t. Sometimes, you turn off the switch, and something happens that trip the switch to On.
In the past couple of weeks I’ve had two encounters with disbelief arising while I was reading/watching something. My reactions were completely different in each case. I’m trying to figure out why.
The first struggle with the willing suspension came while I was watching District 9. I’m not spoiling anything when I say the movie’s about aliens. Fairly early on, some information about the aliens and their technology came to light. Suddenly I wasn’t following this smarmy bureaucrat around a strange and frightening alien slum, I was sitting in theater thinking, “Nyah-huh!” Then I said to myself, mentally, “Let it go. It doesn’t matter.”
And that’s what I did. I was right. That glitch in the fictional reality didn’t matter when I watched the whole story. That’s the conscious, willing suspension of disbelief. The reaction I had is great for a discussion after the movie, but it didn’t ruin the movie for me.
So why, then, when I read Mainspring, Jay Lake’s steampunk-fantasy hybrid, couldn’t I will myself to do the same thing with his clockwork universe?
In Mainspring and its sequel Escapement, Lake has taken an old Victorian poetical metaphor, “God the Watchmaker,” and made it literal. Earth and the other planets rotate around the sun on brass orbital tracks, powered, like pocket watches, by springs. In Mainspring, an angel appears to our sixteen-year-old hero, Hethor, to tell him the mainspring needs tightening and he’s the only one who can do it.
It’s the early 1900s in Hethor’s universe, where North America never fought a war of independence and two great empires, the Victorian English and the Chinese, vie for dominion of the northern hemisphere. At the equator, a wall runs up into the sky, topped by the immense brass teeth of the planet’s gear ring. This is where the earth connects with its orbital track. At certain times of the year, from certain places on the planet, you can see the orbital track in the sky.
This is probably ingenious and clever. My problem is that I can’t picture it. And when I think I am picturing it, I start asking myself all kinds of picky, stupid questions, like, how do they know the celestial orbital track is brass? Brass is an alloy; why did God have to invent an alloy? Why didn’t God just invent some celestial metal? And how does the thing actually work, anyway? The mainspring is at the south pole—how does the energy pushed by the spring get to the gear-ring?
Then I started thinking: They’ve had clockwork since the early Roman times, with no explanation of how they developed the metals or the tools. Did they have an industrial revolution? What did it look like? When was it? What did the Enlightenment look like? What did other cultures, such as the ancient Greeks or the Egyptians, make of the orbital tracks?
The part of my mind that was nagging me with these kinds of questions was taking energy away from reading the words on the page, something a novelist never wants to happen.
And by the way, none of that matters. This is a quest. Hethor has to go somewhere he’s never been, find something he’s never seen, and use it when he doesn’t know how to. Like most good quests, the thing he needs to find is closer than he expects, and the use is simpler, though more emotionally difficult, than he expects.
That’s a decent quest. Saving the world is always a good thing too. Why, then, was I never able to convince myself to just let the details go, and enjoy the story?
This is an important question. Some fantasy/horror/thriller stories grab us and hang onto us until the end. We say later, “I knew that part didn’t work, but I didn’t care. I was so caught up.” This never happened in Mainspring.
One reason might be Lake’s prose. Generally speaking, it’s good, but the false notes jarred me out of the story. “Brass” is a false note. He probably doesn’t mean the orbital track is made of brass. He wants the reader to think of a brass track when she visualizes it. He wants to evoke brass. Is there another way to do this? Yes—something like, “the orbital track gleamed like polished brass in the bright blue sky.”
Another problem could be characterization. Hethor does not become a character, for me, until about page 200 of a 324 page book. Up until then the story has been travelogue about this strange world. And maybe that’s the other problem. People have been able to see the track in the sky since before recorded history in Hethor’s world, yet religion and science developed pretty much as it did here. There is a Christ (the “Brass Christ”), a Protestant-based Christianity, and a Christian bible, although some of the words are different. The Lord’s Prayer is slightly different. The Chinese empire has developed pretty much as our Chinese empire did. This different universe, clearly visible overhead, did not create any different human response, not in philosophy, art, religion or mythology. The two warring Christian parties are Spiritualists and Rational Humanists, not even as disparate as Catholicism and Protestantism.
Believe it or not, this is not meant as a critique of Mainspring. These are writer questions. How much detail of a fantasy world is enough to make it believable without making it boring? What makes a reader do what I did while watching District 9, to say, “I’m invested for the duration and I can accept a glitch or two,” instead of throwing the book across the room, or just putting it down and moving on to something else?
Where is that threshold? How do you keep your reader feeling like a partner, and not like the rube at the carnival?
I still don’t know the answer.