Limits of Reality

I gather the weather is pretty bad all over the US today. In Florida it is just overcast and windy, so not much lounging by the pool will get done today, I suspect. Fortunately there is plenty going on indoors. Indeed, the papers on offer have been interesting enough to drag me out of bed to attend an 8:30am panel. This is deeply uncivilized, and I apologize to the panelists for eating my breakfast while they were holding forth.

Well, actually I apologize to Scott Bakker, because he was the person talking while I was eating. His paper was highly entertaining, and was based on his experiences of critical reactions to his Prince of Nothing series. Like all of the best books, it was shot at by both sides. On the one hand there were the fan reviews that used terms like “crap” and (more honestly) “pretentious crap” as convenient short hand for, “I didn’t understand all of the philosophical stuff in the story.” On the other hand there were Bakker’s fellow literature professors who used equally succinct terms such as “fantasy crap” as a shorthand for, “I am terrified of anything that diverges from my understanding of mundane reality, not to mention of anything that might smack of genre literature.”

Scott’s point, I think, was that the fans were at least being fairly honest in that they couldn’t understand what he was going on about, but the literature professors were being hypocrites because they are always talking about wanting to discuss great themes in literature but, presented with a series that did just that, they rejected it because it was couched in a style that reached out to a readership beyond academia.

I’ve always been of the opinion that literary critics hate SF and fantasy because they suffer from a failure of suspension of disbelief. They are incapable of immersing themselves in any book that doesn’t conform to their understanding of reality. But while I was listening to Scott I suddenly understood why so many literature professors write novels about academics with unhappy marriages. They do it because that is the only reality they know. A story set outside academia would require as much suspension of disbelief for them as one set in Middle Earth or on a ringworld.