Yes, I know it is ridiculous of me to think that anyone who reads this blog doesn’t also read John Scalzi. However, you may not pay close attention to everything that Scalzi posts, especially if he posts it on a Sunday, and yesterday he was talking about something that interests me a lot, so here I am commenting on it.
John’s story begins with some fanboy neepery on the subject of the lava in Mount Doom in the Return of the King movie. Apparently if you fall into a pool of lava you should float, not sink as Gollum does. Who knew? Not me, certainly, and I do have a science degree.
There’s a whole lot of discussion as to whether it is reasonable to assume that lava in a magical mountain in a fantasy world should behave in the same way as lava in our world, and indeed whether what we are seeing is lava at all, but the essence of the debate is the question of what throws you out of the story, what clips the fragile thread by which your suspension of disbelief is hanging and sends in plunging into the flaming fires of skepticism.
John illustrates this by recounting the story of how his wife, Krissy, when reading a kid’s book about an enchanted snowman, was quite happy to have it walking around, and even eating hot soup, but could not accept the idea of a snowman flying. John therefore suggests adopting the term “Flying Snowman” for something that throws you out of the story.
The comments are also full of ideas as to why a flying snowman should be a problem when other things about him are not, most of which flounder on the question, “then why is it OK that Superman can fly?” But again the key issue is not a general issue about flying snowmen, but one about individuals. For Krissy flying snowmen are a problem; for others they are not.
The reason I am highlighting all of this is that it is a key issue that you have to confront when writing reviews, particularly of speculative literature. Many people have Flying Snowman triggers. Mine tend to be the economics of the fantasy world. Farah Mendlesohn’s are issues to do with the author’s understanding of how history works. Everyone has their own specific areas of expertise, and their own triggers. The mistake that a lot of reviews make (and I know I used to do this) is to assume that their own triggers apply to everyone else, so if they find a book unbelievable, everyone else will do so as well, and consequently the book is a bad book. That’s by no means necessarily so.
I devoted a whole column to talking about this sort of thing in Salon Futura #6. I highlighted three books that caused me suspension of belief problems, and one that avoided anything fantastical that might cause such issues. But the problems I had were in two cases a matter of characterization and in the third it was with something that was a long way from the most fantastical thing in the book.
It is a strange and fragile thing, the contract that we, as readers, have with an author. But if writing books, and reviewing them, were easy then they wouldn’t be worth doing. I don’t know about you, but I love science fiction and fantasy because they give me so much to think about. That includes thinking about why a book doesn’t work for me, and whether the same issues would trouble others.