In Praise of the Implausible

Going back to last week’s post about that jaded feeling that’s crept into both SF and fantasy, I wonder whether part of the problem is that many authors and publishers are too focused on the believable and the plausible.

I’ve been reading Fish Eats Lion, an anthology of Singaporean speculative fiction edited by Jason Erik Lundberg. American and English reviewers tend to describe SF/F from other countries as “fresh”, which is sort of the new “exotic”, but what it really means is that these authors are not bound by the increasingly restrictive notions of what will get white Western readers to suspend their disbelief. For example, in Ng Yi-Sheng’s story “Agnes Joaquim, Bioterrorist”, orchids foment populist revolution:

For indeed, not only was [Queen Victoria] in peril: the very building she had been housed within had been taken prisoner by an explosive growth of giant purple orchids. These vegetable horrors penetrated every storey of the edifice with an excrescence of creeping tendrils. Guardsmen openly wept as they attempted to penetrate the foliage, hacking with their parangs at the greenery.

…The Hamidian massacres had ended, for Sultan Abdul Hamid II had been found dead in his palace. Officials claimed he had choked on a fishbone, but the people knew better. They said he had collapsed across his chamberpot, mysteriously asphyxiated by a creeper that had slowly grown throughout the interior of his body, a sprig of purple blossoms sprouting from his mouth.

There is a certain sort of reader who will encounter such notions and start muttering things about rates of plant growth and photosynthesis and of course the Sultan would have felt something awry and gone to a doctor, the sort of reader whose disbelief is weighty and anchored. I think these readers are in the minority, and yet the Anglo-American SF/F canon is increasingly geared toward their demands for plausibility. We make fun of epic fantasy where you can “hear the dice rolling”, but the point of rolling dice is to emulate the real world, where certain things are more likely than other things. It makes fantasy more plausible. Compare your average dungeon crawl to, say, Bob Leman’s “Instructions”, which is entirely implausible and also one of the best and scariest stories I’ve ever read.

Ng’s orchids are implausible. They’re also beautiful. I think we need more startling beauty in our speculative fiction, more giggling, more wonder. And plausibility is in the eye of the beholder, too; after visiting lush, tropical Singapore, where enormous plants really do grow practically overnight, I find Ng’s imagery only a step or two removed from reality, whereas if I’d never left the northeastern U.S. I would struggle much more with the idea. As Western SF/F publishers become more aware of their diverse audiences, they also need to realize that catering to one culture’s idea of “plausible” is just as restrictive as saying that protagonists need to be white English-speaking men.

Diversity of attitudes in SF/F readers is also very obvious in what’s selling. Steampunk and paranormal romance are hotter than Singapore’s sidewalks, and notably unfettered by realism. How does your dirigible work? It just does!

Verne: You can't just "make things up"! Wells: Why not? Mine works just as well as yours!

I’m with Wells. Credit: Kate Beaton, Hark! A Vagrant. (Click the image for a larger version.)

I don’t actually think blueprints are boring. I’m also reading Peter F. Hamilton’s Great North Road right now, and near-future murder mysteries are about as fact-heavy as SF gets; in that context, it works. But I think genre gatekeepers need to stop catering to readers who insist on all speculative fiction being plausible, because after a while that starts to mean predictable and stale. The New Weird is a big step in the direction of gleeful fabulism, but we need more. No more rolling dice. Bring back Things from Beyond. To hell with the square-cube law. I’d love to see more science fantasy, for that matter. Ray guns! Why not? It’s a big genre with lots of room; there’s no reason to crowd ourselves into one tiny corner of it. If we want to revitalize speculative fiction, we can’t just speculate–we need to have dreams and nightmares and random flights of fancy too. Some readers love doing the heavy lifting of disbelief-suspending; it feels good, like pumping iron, and while big credulity muscles may be out of fashion in this cynical age, I say that what surprises me makes me stronger. So go ahead. Just make it up.

6 thoughts on “In Praise of the Implausible

  1. Charles Tan

    I think partly it also has to do with the focus on Anglo-American literature as well; lots of exciting fiction going on right now: amazed at the weirdness and eccentricity of Karin Tidbeck’s Jagganath for example; there’s also the new publication, Phantom Drift: A Journal of New Fabulism, which I think will cater to your sensibilities.

    1. Rose Fox Post author

      There’s definitely lots of awesome small-press and non-U.S./U.K. stuff happening. I just want to see a house like Tor or Orbit publish something like At the Mouth of the River of Bees or Wonders of the Invisible World or The Future is Japanese or Jagannath.

  2. lisa

    You should check out some of the works published by Omnidawn. Mostly a poetry press, but Paravisions was a great collection of speculative fiction that is not standard sci fi/fantasy. Lost of beautiful writing and off-the-beaten-track stories. They just did a chapbook contest for spec fic. People are already doing what you suggest.

    L

  3. Steve Davidson

    I think the jaded/death of SF feelings that are creeping around are more a function of the regular “Booms and Bust” the field suffers from than anything else. This theory, put forth first by Lester Del Rey (I think) tracks the actual field, through the magazines, pretty well and can be extended to the entirety of the genre. In one fashion or another, interest in SF (and all the activity surrounding that interest) will ultimately peak at a new high.

    In the meantime: I’m one of those pedantic SF readers who does get hung up on plausibility, continuity, logical extrapolation, etc. (I even get hung up on a story when a character performs seemingly impossible physical actions, speaks in ways that don’t seem to match origin or personality).

    In large measure my sensitivity is heavily influence by the author’s initial presentation: the lack of scientific rigor in Harrison’s “Bloater Drive” does not bother me when reading Bill, The Galactic Hero for example.

    But I also do feel that many works being presented as “Science Fiction” these days belongs in a slightly different category – either promoted to the loftier levels of “Speculative Fiction” (aka Atwood) or demoted to the lower levels of “Science Fantasy” (according to some, just about anything not labelled as “Hard SF”, and according to still others, even most Hard SF, those works not written by working scientists and/or vetted by other working scientists, or only those works that can be largely represented by mathematical equations on a blackboard (and are by their many fans).

    The reach of the genre has definitely expanded mightily since the late 80s, which necessarily means that those with specific tastes are going to feel as if many of its works don’t apply to their definition. In a larger sense though, this has also meant that the genre has become accessible in one fashion or another to a much wider audience. And maybe that’s a good thing.

  4. Laer Carroll

    Kincaid: “The overwhelming sense one gets, working through so many stories that are presented as the very best that science fiction and fantasy have to offer, is exhaustion. … it is as though the genres of the fantastic themselves have reached a state of exhaustion.”

    The ENTIRE FIELD of SF/F? Or Just reviewer Kincaid?

    It’s an interesting premise, but I don’t see it. Certainly not in the halls of the Los Angeles SF/F Society. Every week at our meetings I hear plenty of voices excited about some new writer or writing or direction. Every November at our LosCon convention I see and hear fans old and young who almost bubble with excitement.

    The exhaustion, I suspect, is of one or a few individuals. This happens to everyone in any field of endeavor, from SF/F to high fashion to the visual and aural arts. Especially to those of us who inhabit it daily. But the yearly sales reports of new titles of SF/F being published shows a continuing upward trend.

    Tempest ….

  5. David Campbell

    I was recently reading Lord Dunsany and his writing strikes me as an example of “old school” wonder in fantasy fiction, unconstrained by scientific drivers and explanations. Lovecraft might also fall into this school up to a point, as his whole philosophy seems to stress the notion that human science–humanity’s very existence–is a mere blip in a vast universe that is beyond our ken and our ability to measure or define it with our pipsqueak scientific notions. So in Lovecraft’s case, I think the suspension of disbelief is part of his literary agenda. Having said that, I like fiction fosters at least the illusion that the wondrous happenings in the story are backed up by plausibility, but that plausibility itself can be fictional, if you follow. I’m thinking of Herbert’s Dune books. They seem totally plausible, at least to me, yet the scientific and religious structures in those books are total fiction. Anyway, just my two cents!

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