The willing suspension of disbelief is required to enjoy many forms of fiction, especially science fiction. On the other hand, at what point does ignoring reality ruin a story?
Some readers and moviegoers are willing to accept anything the story asks of them. If the story moves along quickly and is exciting, most readers aren’t going to stop and ask questions. Other readers will slow, pause, or even stop reading when they hit a logical speedbump.
Yesterday I read “Glitch” by Alex Irvine. I hope the author won’t mind me using his story as a lecture about the overuse of the suspension of disbelief. It’s up for the Asimov’s Science Fiction 36th Annual Readers Award. You can read it here. It’s a fun story based on a neat idea. Several people in our short story group rated it highly, with one member giving it five stars out of five.
I liked “Glitch,” but I hit several speedbumps where I couldn’t suspend my disbelief.
The story begins with Kyle Brooks waking up in a hospital room wondering how he got there. We quickly learn that Kyle was killed in a terrorist attack by a white supremacist. His mind had been backed up and he had a new body without scars, tattoos, or piercings. That implied to me it was a clone.
Where did Kyle’s new body come from? Since the doctor examines Shari’s wounds and gives her a prescription it’s implied that it’s right after the bombing. Did they grow a clone body in hours? Did they have one in storage? No one else in our group asked about this.
Obviously, Irvine wants to ignore this, so I will too. Mind uploading is a very popular topic in science fiction right now, although it’s been around for decades. I fondly remember Mindswap by Robert Sheckley from 1966 and less fondly I Will Fear No Evil by Robert A. Heinlein from 1970. I don’t believe mind swapping will ever be possible but I’m willing to suspend my disbelief for stories about this theme. It is a fun concept.
We quickly learn that Kyle isn’t alone in his new body. For some reason, Brian, the terrorist bomber is sharing Kyle’s mind. This is much harder to believe. Kyle is at a special hospital for restoring minds. Evidently, it’s quite a regulated business. How in the world could two people be in one mind? Irvine does some hand waving that is completely unsatisfactory to me.
Great Idea #1
However, this is a very cool plot twist so once again I’m willing to suspend my disbelief. The possibility of a liberal who is about to marry a person of color coexisting with a white supremacist is a great fictional situation. Again, I let my suspension of disbelief go. I love the possibility of a bad guy walking a mile in the shoes of a good guy.
The police show up at Kyle’s house the next day. They have evidence that suggests the terrorist bomber is inside Kyle’s mind, but Kyle tells them no, even though he knows Brian is there. The cops even tell Kyle that if he’s lying, he can be prosecuted as a conspirer for Brian’s crime. This is the hardest part of the story for me to buy. Kyle should have immediately told the cops that Brian was in his mind. Kyle obviously doesn’t want him there, and he has no resources to remove him, why wouldn’t he ask for help from people who did have the resources?
I know why Irvine made this plot choice. He wanted Kyle to become the action hero of the story. Personally, I always find stories where an ordinary person becomes an action hero to be completely unbelievable. I really don’t want to suspend my disbelief on this point, but I’ve got to buy into it because I want to know how Kyle rids himself of Brian.
This is why I’ve stopped watching thrillers and action movies because movies have made everything with this kind of comic book logic. Comic book logic is the most extreme version of suspension of disbelief. Anything is possible. All a writer must do is say it’s so. They expect the reader to accept that whatever is suggested is real. No critical thinking is assumed as standard.
Alex Irvine does write for comics and I’m afraid “Glitch” descends into full comic book logic from here on out. As the plot speeds up, so does the frequency in which Irvine asks us to suspend our disbelief. Irvine isn’t alone in doing this. It’s become a common practice in science fiction stories that involve action.
Science fiction books used to be more realistic. Movies and television shows have always leaned towards comic book logic. Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon started out as comic strips in the newspapers. In modern times, as comic book movies have dominated box office sales, comic book logic has infected all genres of movies based on action. I think this has inspired science fiction writers to use it more and more in their books and short stories.
The result of this is that readers don’t just suspend their disbelief at basic conceptual science fiction ideas, they have turned it off for any kind of characterization or plotting. We’re asked to accept the absurd, the impossible, the unbelievable, the illogical, the inane, actions people would never do, to move the plot forward, usually at a breakneck speed.
When I point this out most people tell me, “It’s just a story – chill out.” And I suppose that would be okay if we were all five years old and still believed in Santa Claus. But if you look at our society, comic book logic has corrupted all ages in all levels of society. The world is filling up with gullible people who expect reality to be like comic books and movies. They expect anything is possible, they want anything they believe to be true. Is this because of the fiction we consume? Has the suspension of disbelief needed for fiction transferred to how we live our lives?
One of the early critics of science fiction suggested that good science fiction should only have one suspension of disbelief per story. That after the fantastic concept everything else should be realistic. This is true for two other stories I’ve read recently, “Fire Watch” by Connie Willis and “Speech Sounds” by Octavia Butler. The first gives the ability to time travel to historians, and the second has a plague that destroys speech. After those starting points, we’re not asked to suspend our disbelief again. Both short stories are classics of science fiction.
I believe the science fiction norm has changed over time so that writers seek to cram in as many speculative ideas as possible because it keeps their readers constantly thrilled. The side-effect of this paradigm shift is that we’re asked to suspend our disbelief over and over.
If “Glitch” had only expected me to believe that mind swapping will be happening after the mid-21st century, and two minds could occupy one body, I would have been happy to let the story unfold. In fact, I was looking forward to several possibilities playing out. I’ll call these Expectations.
I wanted Irvine to work out how two minds in one body would function. The old saying about walking a mile in my shoes has come true, so I wanted to see what would happen. How much of our personality is determined by our body and how much is determined by our experiences? Would Brian, the white supremacist, change because he was in a new environment?
Irvine didn’t go in that direction. Irvine spent the rest of the story having Kyle do everything possible to rid himself of Brian. Now that’s logical, but since we’re in a story about two people in one body, I wanted to imagine how that would work. Basically, it works just enough to maintain an action-oriented plot where Kyle would become a hero. I can accept that, but I also expected Kyle’s actions to save himself would be realistic from now on in the story. I also expected Kyle to grow from this experience, gain insights, or have an epiphany. Nobody grows in this story.
To save himself and prove to the police he’s not guilty of cooperation under the habeas mentis law, Kyle figures he needs to find the bad guys, stop the next bomb, and prove himself the hero. This has become such a cliché plot point that I groaned at having to read it. In science fiction, there is a suspension of disbelief over fantastic ideas, but in storytelling in general, there’s also a suspension of disbelief in basic plotting. This plot motivation is so tired that I usually stop reading or watching. Still, I wanted to find out how Kyle rids himself of Brian.
Kyle decides he needs help and remembers a programmer from work named Abdi. The magical hacker is the new fairy godmother in fiction. Abdi can quickly solve all of Kyle’s problems with his band of fellow hackers and cog swappers.
Irvine introduces us to cog swapping. Kyle needed a hospital to put a copy of his mind back into his body, but Abdi and his merry band can swap minds and stream real-time brain backups with tiny nifty gadgets. Think magic wands. This is when the story got downright stupid. I no longer could suspend disbelief at all. It was now moving a comic book panel speed.
Great Idea #2
When Kyle reaches the hideout of the bomb makers he is attacked by Brian in his body. It turns out the Brian in Kyle’s head is a copy, and the Brian with a body has no need of him. Kyle’s Brian is furious at being betrayed. This is a fantastic plotting idea. If Great Idea #1 is having the bad guy in the good guy’s head, walking a mile in his shoes, then Great Idea #2 is having the bad guy see himself. This reminds me of Bob Dylan’s song “Positively 4th Street.”
I wish that for just one time You could stand inside my shoes And just for that one moment I could be you Yes, I wish that for just one time You could stand inside my shoes You’d know what a drag it is To see you
If we could travel back in time one week and spend that week with ourselves, would we like each other? When the real Brian showed up in “Glitch” I was thrilled. This was a new plot twist. This was something different. And it inspired my hopes that the story would turn around.
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is an old saying that should have applied here. My first expectation was internal Brian to change because of walking a mile in Kyle’s shoes. My second expectation was that the internal Brian would side with Kyle to fight external Brian. I saw this as a great symbolic solution to the story. Internal Brian would change, help Kyle catch external Brian, and then fade away inside of Kyle as Brian’s evil personality was overwritten by Kyle’s goodness. That’s what the doctors told Kyle would happen at the beginning of the story.
This would be deeply positive symbolism. By the story’s logic, we should blow up all white supremacists. That’s its solution to racism. But that’s not a practical solution in the real world. We need to overwrite racism with positive personality traits. We need racists to see that they are wrong. Simple fiction has simple bad guys with simple solutions – kill the bad guys. That’s Old Testament thinking. New Testament thinking involves conversions and salvation.
Simple fiction needs bad guys to kill without remorse. Terrorists are the safe one-dimensional bad guy to use in fiction. I wanted “Glitch” to go deeper.
But this story didn’t follow my expectation.
Speedbump #7 and #8
Kyle kills external Brian by setting off the bomb. This was clearly foreshadowed early in the story. Kyle awakes in the same hospital that he did at the beginning of the story. He is free of internal Brian. How? Abdi’s magic of course. If it was that easy, why didn’t the hospital erase Brian at the beginning of the story? And Kyle has another new body. Where the hell does all these clones of Kyle keep coming from?
“Glitch” was fun to read. I tripped over one speedbump after another. I’m old, so I’m probably too judgmental and cranky. I thought Irvine has a great idea for a novel. The story unfolds much too fast. It should have been longer with subplots and proper pacing. It needs depth and subtlety. Even with the existing plot, it would probably make a lot of readers happy. I wouldn’t want to read it though, not as is. However, if it was fixed without all the speedbumps I might.
It would be entirely unfair for me to expect Irvine to write a story other than the one he wrote. I have to wonder if other readers aren’t like me and as they read react to stories with ups and downs, or with hopes that the tale will go in different directions and explore the territory the story inspires in our minds?
James Wallace Harris, 4/1/22
2 thoughts on “Does Too Much Suspension of Disbelief Ruin a Story?”
Good essay, Jim—spot on the money about the story and wider quality issues in film and fiction.
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