I’m a little surprised that I haven’t seen more fabulists writing about “Amina”. From a political standpoint, I certainly understand not wanting to give Tom MacMaster more airtime. From the standpoint of being part of a community of professional consensual hoaxsters, however, I think it’s an interesting case study in both the creating of an alternate reality and the consequences of duping your readers without their consent.
Sometimes when I’m reading anthologies, I get a few pages into each story and then I ask myself why I care about the characters and what they’re doing and what happens to them. The answer, almost always, is that I care because I go in wanting to care. I start out credulous. I’d rather go into every story wanting and hoping to buy in than skeptically hanging back and waiting to see whether it convinces me of its worth. Wanting to believe is, I think, a necessary quality in a spec fic reader. It is less desirable when one is reading political blogs, but probably not less common. We are raised from the cradle to believe what we read, to trust that writers are telling us the truth. More than that, we want to care. MacMaster made it very easy for us to care as he carefully invented a world that was just dangerous enough–but not too dangerous–for his plucky heroine.
Credulity only failed when her pluck and luck ran out. Perhaps, as lifelong readers, somewhere deep inside we understood where that story arc was leading; every sympathy-thief I’ve ever seen has been unmasked not when their readers stopped caring but when their readers cared too much. And après ça, le déluge of outrage and pain. We were told to believe, and we believed, and then it turned out we were believing lies! Where does that leave us? What is real, anymore? How can we know or trust anything at all?
I will go out on a limb and say that fans of a certain variety of speculative fiction–slipstream, interstitial fiction, magical realism, and the like–are perhaps better equipped than most to weather these moments when everything abruptly turns 90 degrees from what we thought was true. We have often visited these places where reality is uncertain (or is it? sometimes even the uncertainty is uncertain) and we’ve found ways to be comfortable there. We have exercised the readerly muscles that let us simultaneously accept and doubt what the author is telling us. Does that mean we’re less likely to be taken in by skilled hoaxsters? Probably not. But in the aftermath, we are in a peculiar way on familiar ground. We’re used to rugs being pulled out from under us. Where others are easily bruised, we have calluses. It still hurts, but we know this pain and we know it ebbs, and we know that eventually we can move on to the next story and the next potentially unreliable narrator.
There is a choice here, of course. I choose to be credulous. I choose to set aside my cynicism and sarcasm (when I can). I understand that this means coping with disappointment and betrayal from time to time. Others may make different choices. I mostly wanted to note that for those who continue along the path of frequent belief and occasional pain, reading fiction that centers on uncertainty can help to bolster us against those days when we are so rudely, shockingly reminded of how uncertain reality is, and how much we risk for the joy and privilege of believing what we read.
(A tip of the hat to Aishwarya S. for the link to Chally’s piece, which in turn led to Ben’s piece.)