Flying Snowmen

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.

This entry was posted in Reviewing. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Flying Snowmen

  1. Daniel Spector says:


    I have the economics feasibility issue, too!

    This is why I couldn’t enjoy Firefly/Serenity despite the great elements- the economic function of that universe just… can’t.

  2. twilight2000 says:

    I’m guessing I’m not alone in that what throws me out of a book fastest isn’t the “fantastical elements” as such, but inconsistencies and factual errors.

    That is – if you set up a world, stick with your rules or give me a believable reason for the exception. True for both world rules and characters. If you’re going to break your rules (or your character), give us a *reason* for that change.

    And what’ll kill a book for me fastest? Known functional or historical facts screwed up.* If the author writes in an area I know well enough to know when they get it wrong, it’s really hard for me to stay in the moment. Though as you point out, just because it doesn’t work for me, doesn’t mean others will have issues :>

    *Amusingly, Alt History is some of my fave spec fic :>

    • Cheryl says:

      Facts are tricksy, especially facts about places. I note that many mainstream writers set their books in imagined locations that are simply a “typical Northern town” or a “typical West Country village” to avoid having to get an actual setting just right. Equally urban fantasy writers can put a lot of effort into getting their city locations perfect, despite the fact that they fill them with vampires, werewolves and demons.

      • twilight2000 says:

        Both of those amuse me greatly – it’s the simple sword play that couldn’t happen that way in that armour kinds of issues that irritate me :>

  3. James Davis Nicoll says:

    But isn’t it intuitively obvious lava is denser than (mostly water) flesh? Am I the only one here whose great-parents frolicked in erupting volcanoes?

      • James Davis Nicoll says:

        Context can be found here (locked but you should be able to see it)

        The intuitively obvious once I ran the numbers thing I encountered a few years ago was the perfectly obvious point that the sun cannot appear starlike unless it is at starlike distances and thus it must be reasonably bright from Pluto, Pluto being merely tens of AU away instead of tens of thousands. But “the sun was a faint starlike point” is the sort of thing that comes in various SF works.

    • Dylan Fox says:

      The intuitive thing for me is that solids sink in liquids. Gollum is a solid, the lava is a liquid.

      Besides, if we’re going to get really picky, he falls into magma, not lava…

  4. Petréa Mitchell says:

    Your opening assumption isn’t ridiculous at all. I don’t read Scalzi’s blog.

    I wasn’t actually too bothered by Gollum sinking in lava… I was already annoyed that he hadn’t been burnt to a crisp immediately.

    • James Davis Nicoll says:

      It was the Leidenfrost effect! See, Gollum was sweating thanks to his fight with Frodo and the evaporating swear carried off the heat.

      Someone (Possibly Jules Verne) used that to explain how his hero escaped being blinded when the bad guy ordered a hot poker to be used on his eyes. At just the crucial moment, the (heroic Cossack? Did Verne do Cossacks?) remembered his dear, white-haired mother, causing his eyes to fill with tears and allowing the Leidenfrost effect to save his eyes.

  5. Dylan Fox says:

    So, hang on, wait… the T-1000 falling into the lead at the end of T2… that’s still cool, right? Right?

Comments are closed.