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!
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.