The Space-Time Continuum: You got science in my fantasy!

As I write this, I’m about to fly off to the World Fantasy Convention in San Diego, where I’ve been assigned to moderate a panel entitled “You’ve Got Science in My Fantasy!,” featuring fellow writers Gregory Benford, Yves Meynard, Brent Weeks and L.E. Modesitt.

The panel is described this way:In Operation Chaos, Poul Anderson’s shapeshifters’ abilities were limited by the law of conservation of mass. Do such considerations enhance the narrative?”

It’s such an interesting question to me I thought that, with your indulgence, I’d use this column to work out my thoughts pre-panel.

You’ve undoubtedly heard the phrase “willing suspension of disbelief.” It comes from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1817 book Biographia literaria or biographical sketches of my literary life and opinions. The full quote runs like this:

“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.”

The willing suspension of disbelief (although I kind of wish the term “poetic faith” had caught on instead) is essential for the enjoyment of any work of fiction or drama. We know we’re watching an actor or reading a made-up story, but we pretend that what we are seeing is real or what we are reading really happened.

However, “willing suspension of disbelief” is easier in some cases than in others. A story set here and now in which nothing happens that could not happen in the world as we know it requires little suspension of disbelief. Fantasy stories, using, say, Coleridge’s “persons or characters supernatural,” or featuring powerful wizards, require a Golden Gate Bridge’s level of suspension.

Some people find that they cannot suspend their disbelief that much, and so spurn on all tales of fantasy, horror or science fiction, muttering, “That could never happen.”

Even those of us whose disbelief is usually suspended as easily as a soap bubble on spider silk can be thrown out of a story when something violates our own internal sense of what is and isn’t believable.

A case in point for me: the giant floating island in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. I loved the book, but that one sequence caused my suspended soap bubble of disbelief to wobble severely. Up until then the book, for all its unlikely occurrences, seemed thoroughly rooted in the real world: at that point, because I knew such islands do not exist, I was plunged into a realm of fantasy, and since I did not think I was reading fantasy until I encountered that island, I was discombobulated.

The argument, then, in favour of getting “science into fantasy” is that a brief nod of the authorial head to scientific law, even when magic is involved, makes suspension of disbelief a little bit easier.

In my new fantasy novel Magebane (written as Lee Arthur Chane), for example, the energy for magic comes from heat: the MageLords in their palace actually have a giant coal furnace whose energy they draw on as required for major works of magic. (Smaller spells can draw energy from the air itself, which turns ice-cold as a result.)

To me, that little bit of grounding of the story in the laws of physics enhances the tale in two ways: it helps readers suspend disbelief, and it also places interesting restrictions on what the characters can do with magic–and just as grapes stressed by lack of water and high temperatures make the best wine, so do struggling characters make the best stories.

But when I posted some of these same thoughts online, one commentator said that when she reads of someone mixing science and fantasy, she figures the writer “could not grasp that something might exist, even in fiction, that didn’t reduce to hard principles, something that tapped into poetry and imagery instead, something that could be implied instead of explicated,” and feared it was a sign that “I am facing yet another book in which all the magic has been leached out of ‘magic’.”

Similarly, in a recent interview in New York Magazine, bestselling author George R.R. Martin said that, “When treating with magic in fantasy, you have to keep it magical. Many fantasy writers work out these detailed systems, and rules, and I think that’s a mistake.

“For magic to be effective in a literary sense, it has to be unknowable and strange and dangerous, with forces that can’t be predicted or controlled…It functions as a symbol or metaphor of all the forces in the universe we don’t understand and maybe never will.”

So, does mixing a scientific understanding of the world with magic strengthen or fatally weaken a tale of fantasy?

It promises to be a lively discussion in San Diego—and I promise to report back.

UPDATE: Not much to report, actually. I think I covered all the bases we discussed in my original column–and as moderator I was too busy to take notes and of course I didn’t think until afterward that I could have recorded the entire panel on my iPhone. D’oh! But I had lots of compliments on the quality of the panel, so we must have done something right!

(Photo: The Town & Country Convention Centre in San Diego where World Fantasy was held this year.)


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