Sime~Gen Inc. Presents
"Willing Suspension of Disbelief "
Genderspeak by Suzette Hadin Elgin (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1993 - 7th in Elgin's Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense series but independent of them. Previous titles: The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense, More on the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense, The Last Word on the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense, Success with the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense, Staying Well with the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense, The Gentle Art of Written Self-Defense Letter Book.) (1999 addendum: Elgin publishes a Linguistics Newsletter on this and other topics, also available on the web.
Strange Luck - '95-6 season TV show. Check local Fox listings.
Astrology's Special Measurements by Noel Tyl (Llewellyn paperback, 1994).
Synthesis and Counseling in Astrology by Noel Tyl (Llewellyn pb, 1994),
Fortune's Wheel by Lisanne Norman (DAW pb, '95; sequel to her previous DAW title, Turning Point).
Alien Rites by Lynn S. Hightower (Ace pb, '95; a new Elaki novel).
Lord of Forever by Patricia Simpson (Harper Monogram pb, Sept. '95; Harper is a division of HarperCollins).
The Silent Strength of Stones by Nina Kiriki Hoffman (AvonNova pb, '95).
Season of Shadows Vol. One of The Summerlands, by Ellen Foxxe (DAW pb, '95).
Mistwalker by Denise Lopes Heald (Del Rey pb, 1994).
Shadow, Shadow Hunt, Shadow Dance, Dagger's Edge, Dagger's Point all by Anne Logston (Ace Fantasy pb, '91 - 95).
Sing the Four Quarters and Fifth Quarter by Tanya Huff (DAW pb, 1995).
Recently, this column has focused on how writers trick readers into believing the impossible before breakfast. This month, we'll look at this process from the reader's point of view.
Science fiction/fantasy is classically defined as literature having one of the three elements:
1. What if . . .?
2. If only . . .. or
3. If this goes on . . .
And the best sf/f, the kind I tend to review for this column, has all three of these elements woven together.
In watching the responses of anti-sf/f folk to the TV show which I focused on last month, Forever Knight, and other sf/f offerings on TV, I find the most often uttered comment is, "It makes no sense." This comment is usually heavily loaded with tone of voice, body language, pitch/stress patterns, that indicate (to me) scorn, rejection, and triumphant discovery of a truth.
The general message I get underneath and over the words is, "Since this makes no sense, it is therefore stupid / ridiculous / contemptible, and anyone who finds it interesting is insane. What a relief! I'm okay she's not."
Before the 60's this exact same comment and attitude were leveled at printed sf which was even at that time my favorite reading matter. With the advent of Star Trek on TV, science fiction came "out of the closet" and into the mundane world and drew similar fire from the general public (which was why I wrote Star Trek Lives!). In thirty years, you might have expected some attitudes to change. A little.
Yet I've found that some of the most intelligent people still reject science fiction/fantasy on the grounds of, "It makes no sense." This has puzzled me sorely, but I now think I understand it, thanks to the explanation in the book Genderspeak by Suzette Hadin Elgin (who also writes science fiction novels that explicate the linguistic principles she discusses in these nonfiction books on The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense. I've reviewed some of her novels in this column: Native Tongue, Native Tongue II: The Judas Rose, Native Tongue III).
Among the rich and varied inventory of skills Elgin presents in Genderspeak is one principle she calls "Miller's Law" which she touched on elsewhere in her books because it's an important key principle.
Elgin quotes the noted psychologist, George Miller:
"In order to understand what another person is saying, you must assume that it is true and try to imagine what it could be true of. (Interview with Elizabeth Hall, Psychology Today, January 1980, pp.38-50 and 97-98)"
You assume that the crazy thing this person just said is true and ask yourself what that implies about what else would have to be true to make it so. If you can imagine that, you will often know what to say to prevent a confrontation.
Elgin presents this advice in what I can only call a straight-faced, level tone of writing. As I interpret it, she is presenting information she has good reason to suspect the reader doesn't know, and is suggesting adopting a mental habit she figures many readers might not have.
I was shocked. And illuminated.
Elgin does lecture tours and teaches verbal arts at corporations and even has done instructional tapes on the subject. She knows how "most" people respond to language better than I. If I've read her text correctly, the reason so many people reject TV shows like Quantum Leap and Forever Knight and even Star Trek is that they don't habitually approach every situation with disbelief suspended.
Suspended disbelief does not mean you believe everything that comes at you. It means you don't disbelieve it. That is: you keep an open mind on the subject at hand, neither believing nor disbelieving. Since The Word is a basic tool of every magician, Miller's Law and the other principles Elgin teaches are cognitive skills that could have life or death consequences for any practitioner of the magickal arts, such as novel writing, and reading.
The habit of suspending disbelief, of hypothesizing, "What if that's true then what would it imply?" is what enables learning and communication. Reading and watching sf/f trains the mental faculty that brings disbelief under conscious control. And if Elgin is correct, communication between the genders would be much enhanced if such a thought habit became widespread.
The ability to adopt a What-If-That's-True-Then-What? attitude allows the reader to suspend disbelief and go for a ride inside an alien character's head (or your spouse's reality). Adopting that attitude takes a conscious effort and putting it aside once it's served its purpose requires another such effort.
This is an investment a reader makes in the communication with the writer. With "Best Selling Novels," it's not necessary because the characters and background are mundane, ordinary, and don't challenge the walls we build in our minds. Everything in such novels is based on what most of us ordinarily believe about our everyday world.
But imbibing sf/f is hard work. Reading, even cold print on a page, is an interactive experience in the fullest sense of the computerized jargon term. The harder you work at it, the more fun you get out of it, just like playing Dungeons & Dragons.
To test your ability with suspending disbelief, try the TV show Strange Luck on Fox this season. Use your occult training to devise a universe in which a person could be endowed with "luck" of this kind. Figure out whether the plane crash really had anything to do with it. Figure out what it means karmically. Maybe you can sell them a script.
If you need some clues, try astrology as a source of ideas. I am especially impressed, as readers of this column know, with Noel Tyl's textbooks on astrology. Now, I'd like to recommend to the advanced students his latest works, Astrology's Special Measurements and Synthesis & Counseling in Astrology. Tyl makes some important original contributions to the field, not the least of which is the solving of what I call the "Grant Lewi Puzzle."
Grant Lewi, in his famous books Heaven Knows What and Astrology for the Millions, both of which are great beginners' books, divided his study into Great Men of Destiny and Ordinary Mortals, and didn't explain what made the difference, as if one could become the other.
Tyl explains that difference with his theory of the prominence signature. With this theory, you can tell the difference between prominence and fame, between those born to live with CNN camped on their front lawns, satellite uplinks deployed, and those of us who might pass through the spotlight, but won't stay there for a lifetime. It also explains why The Rich and Famous often have lives from hell.
This is invaluable information for a writer who wants to create a galactically famous character and make him/her/it believable. It also provides scope for the imagination of those applying Miller's Law to spousal communication.
So the sf/f writer looks at a show like Strange Luck and asks, "What if that's true? What sort of prominence signature activated by what karmic energies could produce such an unbelievable situation?"
One of the recurring themes in sf/f is the Great Man(Woman) theory of history that all of history pivots on personal decisions made by certain individuals. People who reject sf/f often do so on the grounds that this theory is silly, that history is made by large groups in consensus (i.e., an astral plane group-mind or worse, a committee). But what if both theories are true? Simultaneously?
Exercise your disbelief-control on the following pair of novels, both sequels in series, and both about ordinary folk like you who do some very unordinary things that affect the history of their respective worlds.
Lisanne Norman's Fortune's Wheel is a sequel to her DAW book (reviewed previously in this column), Turning Point. Fortune's Wheel is large, 646 pages, and with small type. The prequel was your typical 5-hour formula adventure read, a perfect airplane ride book. This one is profound, rich, full bodied and deep textured.
In Wheel, Norman unfolds the interstellar backgrounds of the various nonhuman species contesting for the galaxy. She shows us what happens when a human telepath gets sucked into an alien telepathic society which makes decisions based on religion and karma as well as their biology.
These humans are convinced telepathy is not real and they scoff at alien religions. Carrie, the human lead character, is pregnant by a nonhuman she loves. Use Miller's Law on her perceptions, and you'll learn something about your identity and your potential to change the world. This is an especially good book for male humans to read with disbelief suspended, and meticulous application of Miller's Law.
Alien Rites is in Lynn S. Hightower's series that I've reviewed here before. It advances the characters' lives in what television calls a "story arc." This series seems to be the chronicle of how two ordinary cops, one human and one not, both deeply committed to family values, uncover an interstellar conspiracy and change their worlds. It has a better sf background concept than the TV show Alien Nation (watch for the upcoming TV movies in that series).
Alien Rites is a well-turned police procedural mystery with intricately woven, multiple plots. It depicts the world we are currently building (if-this-goes-on element well used). The Infobahn does not show on the surface of the story, but as an invisible infrastructure everyone depends on.
The next four recommended titles emphasize the "If Only" element of sf/f, but won't make sense to anyone who can't suspend disbelief sufficiently to yearn for what the characters yearn for. These represent intermediate to advanced level sf reading requiring suspending disbelief in order to believe an alien "if only." But the "if this goes on" element is suppressed, so finding it is a challenge.
Lord of Forever by Patricia Simpson might have fit last month's vampire column except it's not about a vampire. This one is a romance genre entry in the non-vampire immortal subgenre. It's set in modern day Charleston's Historic District where a resident immortal has a very old house to restore. This poor fellow, an alchemist/scientist, has a problem dealing with a modern professional woman who is a single parent. Followers of Highlander and the TV show Beauty and the Beast will love this novel.
The Silent Strength of Stones by Nina Kiriki Hoffman is more of a juvenile, since the point of view character is a 17-year-old male. But this fellow, and the girl he falls for, belong to some odd psychic subspecies never defined or developed in this novel (which makes it harder not to disbelieve). Those of you who follow the Nature Goddess will find much of value in this novel, which is about connection to Place and the magick that connection bestows.
Season of Shadows by Ellen Foxxe is another Daw giant novel. This "If Only" symbolically discusses the plight of the Native Americans its "What If" explores how history might have gone differently if the Great Man theory of history had prevailed.
The disbelief to suspend to enjoy this book lies in the fact that here, humans are colonizing a world and the "natives" are very nonhuman indeed. They are winged creatures not, at first, regarded as intelligent because their civilization isn't techno-driven. These natives know something about their world that the humans don't and urgently must learn. Miller's Law and other Elgin principles solve the problem.
Mistwalker by Denise Lopes Heald was published in '94. I saw an ad for it, searched, but couldn't find a copy. The publisher didn't send out review copies. In fact, publishers rarely send out review copies of the really good books (the one consistent exception to this rule is DAW). I found this copy only recently. It was worth the search! Mistwalker has more action than I normally like but it is well crafted. The point-of-view shifts are all perfect except for one short one. The ending is wide open for a sequel that I want to read.
The Intimate Adventure elements (see my first year's columns for this magazine for my definition of this new genre) are all there, and carry the If Only elements of the story ("Oh, if only there were such a partner in my life!" is the main one) but the Intimate Adventure tends to get swamped by the action.
The author has a firm hand and a mature grip on the theme. There are conflicting needs, and the inner conflict is mirrored in outer world events. Readers, meet a writer who can show you "real life" if you can suspend your disbelief just a little bit.
Honorable mentions this month go to Anne Logston (the several titles in the world of Shadow the Elven Thief) and Tanya Huff (Sing the Four Quarters and Fifth Quarter).
Take special note of these two series about magic users learning the use and abuse of power in complex situations. Logston's series will appeal to gamers, and Huff is talking to students of nature magick (in the Quarter world, bards sing the Elementals to work their magick, but the singing must be precise).
Both these fantasy worlds challenge the ability to suspend disbelief, both involve you in the lives of characters in the thick of the action, characters whose emotions can change their worlds; both allow you to maintain more emotional distance than the usual books I focus this column on, so they are, in some ways, easier reading.
When you finish one of these books, before you return to your everyday world, ask yourself, "What would I have done in that reality?" Then go study some astrology with Noel Tyl. Put it all together, and you might discover something about yourself possibly something you'd rather not know.
Next month we'll wrap up this year's discussion of the Fiction Delivery System, its payload, its feedback loops, its impending changes, and maybe touch on the astral plane implications of it all. Those of you who are studying tarot and astrology in tandem should prepare by meditating on the question, "What is money?"
Send books for review in this column to: Jacqueline Lichtenberg, POB 290, Monsey, N.Y. 10952.
Until I get the direct links installed here, you can find these titles by using copy/paste (in MSIE use right mouse button to get the copy/paste menue to work inside text boxes) to insert them in the search slot below -- then click Book Search and you will find the page where you can discover more about that book, or even order it if you want to. To find books by Jacqueline Lichtenberg, such as the new Biblical Tarot series, search "Jacqueline Lichtenberg" below.
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Reviewed by Jacqueline Lichtenberg