Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Suspension of Disbelief

One aspect of The Time Machine that interests me in comparison to other science fiction novels is its preoccupation with scientific accuracy. From the very beginning, the premise of the book is laid out in specific, scientific terms. “I do not ask you to accept anything without reasonable ground for it” (1) says the narrator on the very first page. The statement is addressed to the dinner party regarding the time machine itself, but it may as well be directly aimed at the reader. Wells at first does not at first ask that the reader make any huge leap. He presents what seems to be a fairly reasonable case for the existence of time as a fourth dimension, and the methodical, logical progression that is presented as to how the machine itself could exist, if not the specifics of how it works, are presented straightforwardly. In the first few pages at least, the novel would appear to be what Atwood categorizes as speculative, rather than science fiction.

Of course, the very conceit of science fiction is that the reader must accept a great many things without entirely reasonable grounds. Suspension of disbelief makes the entire genre possible. The narrator does nod toward the suspension of disbelief in his recounting of the story to the dinner party. He asks for the suspension of criticism, in favor of simply being allowed to tell his story: “I will tell you the story as it happened to me, if you like, but you must refrain from interruptions,” (19) he says. Then, soon after he states “Most of it will sound like lying. So be it! It’s true,” (19) now explicitly asking for the suspension of disbelief, and curiously abandoning the logical arguments he relied on so heavily in the first few pages. Now we are just meant to believe it, and not worry about the messy explanations.

But, then again, the narrator’s preoccupation with the explanation of his fantastic situation arises in his adventures in 800,000 AD. He offers several explanations for the changes in human civilization he sees, and constantly updates the reader with new explanations for the changes with each discovery. First there is the explanation of a sort of advanced communist society becoming the peaceful Eloi, and then a class dichotomy becoming the vast physical difference between the Eloi and Morlocks, and various other explanations for whatever phenomena he encounters in the future. It seems that Wells and the narrator are trying their hardest to make us forget our own suspension of disbelief.

What interests me is the dichotomy between these two approaches to science/speculative fiction present side by side in the same novel. They seem to create a confusion within the reader, in which several simple, yet compelling arguments are made as to how the future could evolve, and then a ridiculous and fantastic fictional scenarios that arise from these speculations. Like I said, it seems that Wells is trying to make us forget that he has asked us to abandon logic (this is fiction after all), and I’m curious as to how much anybody else bought it. Of course, it is not a very believable story, but did you ever catch yourself being swept up in the logical-ness of the narrator’s explanations? Was having segments in the format of scientific debate enough to make the novel seem more legitimate? And why does that sense of legitimacy matter in science fiction?


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