Thinking about the strange sci-fi convention of filling readers in on social, political, technological, even geological developments that are obviously counter-factual, in reportage or encyclopedia style, when of course if they’d happened readers could be expected to know about them. Somehow these blatant lies, which seem like they ought to disrupt the willing suspension of disbelief, if done well reinforce it. How does that work? Whence the convention? And how does it relate to the idea of “lethetic” fiction that Clayton Koelb discusses in his 1984 monograph, The Incredulous Reader? (Koelb argues that there is a class of fictions which cannot be understood by means of the conventional notion of the reader’s “willing suspension of disbelief.” This class of fictions, which he calls lethetic, is defined first of all by the fact that such works actively “solicit the reader’s disbelief.”)
It’s something I’ve wondered about often before, in part because it’s so hard to do well, and most sci-fi fails at it; we just accept it as one of the necessary evils of the genre, like the sexual prowess of so many genre fiction heroes. (More necessary than that one, actually.)
Just now in thinking about it I associated it with the more widespread novelistic aim of introducing us to new worlds, and particularly the work of some nineteenth century novelists to introduce middle class readers to exotic settings and peoples, whether the urban proletariat or the new colonial conquests or the various subcultures that contribute to the appeal of so much detective fiction. The rhetorical mode—a kind of travel writing-cum-journalism with various possible overtones (outrage, humor, salaciousness, etc.)—had been developed to deal with ostensibly real settings, and then was turned to account for the purposes of creating unreal ones from whole cloth. From the idea that we were being taken on a tour of some (physically, temporally, socially) distant but real environment, it was a relatively easy step to the reader’s complicity in creating an imaginary one. Of course, I’m not familiar enough with the history of the novel, of literature in general, to know just how artificial this neat chronology is. Utopia comes to mind, as does Rabelais; I also wonder how much of a wink and a nod was mixed in to the ostensibly real settings of early novels like Tom Jones or Pamela. It occurs to me that this might be the subject for a kind of Anti-Mimesis, a mirror image of Auerbach’s history. (Looking over Koelb’s bio just now, I’m wondering if his 1988 Inventions of Reading, on the relation between rhetoric and narrative, might have some of what I’m talking about.)
As for how it works, it seems that some of us, at least, are just prone to believe anything we’re told, if it’s done with sufficient élan and confidence, adequate detail, and a compelling narrative. Plus it’s fun, that world-making.