It was, I think, Coleridge who coined the phrase ‘suspension of disbelief’. It stands for that contract the reader makes with the author when opening a work of fiction: in return for the entertainment provided by the work, we readers agree to suspend judgement on the absolute truth of what we are being told. We know that the fiction is, in some way, to some degree, a lie, but we willingly ignore the lie for the story.
But I don’t believe this is an absolute condition. We do not suspend disbelief in the face of absurdity, or laziness on the part of the author, or inconsistency, or the simply unbelievable. The job of the author is to do enough, to be convincing enough, that we feel suspending our disbelief is not too great a stretch. In other words, we suspend disbelief when we feel we are not too far from belief. We can accept the outrageous in a work when we feel that the world in which the outrageous occurs makes sense, or when we feel that those characters who seem closest to us respond to the outrageousness the way we might respond. But if there is something that triggers our disbelief, something in the condition of the story that does not make sense to us, then that contract is null and void. And it is null and void for the simple reason that we are unable in those circumstances to suspend our disbelief.
I make no absolutist claims here. There is no one thing guaranteed to trigger disbelief. In many cases it might well be knowledge particular to the reader such that what convinces everyone else does not convince her. It might be some aspect of the background or the situation that the reader likes to be just so, when everyone else is prepared things that are less precise, more cavalier.
When I say, therefore, that I was unable to suspend my disbelief when reading God’s War by Kameron Hurley, that in no way reflects on those whose judgements I respect who have praised this novel to the skies. Indeed, there are aspects of the novel that I can recognise are innovative, interesting and well done. If I were to concentrate on gender politics above all else, for instance, I might even be prepared to hail this as one of the best books of the year.
Unfortunately, I found myself unable to believe in the whole situation. And once that belief is lost, then the drama played out against that situation, the drama that is integral to that situation, stands no chance.
What did it for me, what threw me out of the story, was in many ways a small thing: in the background, rarely even glimpsed, there is a war that has continued for hundreds of years. And it is not a static war, where the two sides have reached a state of exhaustion such that the fronts barely move and life on the battle line carries on largely unaffected. There is such a war in Christopher Priest’s Dream Archipelago stories, but the war is fought on a different continent so that the citizens of the warring states are for the most part unaffected by the conflict. But that is not the war we find in Hurley’s novel. This is, even after so long, a dynamic and a destructive war, the front line is liable to move extensively and rapidly one way or the other, civilian centres are subject to attack, and the fighting kills so many young men so consistently that it has drastically and it would seem permanently affected the gender balance of the warring states.
Okay, this is a science fiction story, let us just accept the premise and see where it takes us.
But I found myself asking one simple, fatal question: what sort of society could sustain such a situation over so long a time? And the answer I came up with was: not the society shown in the book.
To keep such a war going over such a period of time at such cost would require a highly ordered state, one in which there is a high degree of central control. The state we are shown in the novel is highly disordered, and everything tends to lack of control.
There is a queen, which might suggest a centralised authority. But the queen is weak, and her writ does not seem to extend very far. There are the bel dames, a powerful yet secretive council that is beyond the queen’s control and that is, throughout the novel, acting directly against her interests. They operate by fear and assassination, and their writ seems to extend far wider than the legitimate authority. And there is yet a third power base, the magicians who control the world’s technology, insect power. They, too, have their secrets, and they too are operating against the interests of the queen, though not in concert with the bel dames. So there are three long-established and rival power bases. Interestingly, no-one who is not actually a member of one of these three bodies either proclaims or displays loyalty to any of the three. So you have three top-down power structures with no bottom-up organisation to support it, an inherently unstable situation.
As to the people, we know that the war has killed so many sons that they lament having boy children. These are not supporters of the war but its victims, and resentment and fear seem to be a part of everyday life. Fear in particular, since this is a society that is run on violence and fear. We see this in the way that deserters are hunted down by professional bounty hunters and beheaded. We see this in the fact that the only sport we encounter is boxing. We see this in the way that society is splintered, and anyone from another country or who professes a slight variant on the universal religion is routinely subject to abuse and assault.
Nothing we see in this world suggests a stable and ordered society. Nor is this disorder of recent origin, it is already an unquestioned part of the social situation. This is not a society that could have sustained a war for hundreds of years; this is a society that would have risen in rebellion or broken apart in disorder centuries before.
But everything in the novel follows directly from the situation of the ravaging and unending war, so if your suspension of disbelief in this wavers, then everything else falls apart. Whereupon, of course, you start becoming aware of other quibbles and discontents. Normally these might not intrude upon your pleasure in the novel, but if you once start to question one aspect, then these other discontents acquire substance. I found myself increasingly unhappy that the only way Hurley knew how to ratchet up the tension in the plot is to have yet another character kidnapped, mutilated, tortured of killed. The casual attitude towards the all-embracing violence of the story, by both the author and the victims of the violence, began to grate on me.
And yet, I recognise a distinct quality in the writing, a vigour in the storytelling, an originality in the world-building. There is so much here I should admire. But in the end the novel just does not work for me.
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