December 13, 2011

Beware the Flying Snowman

There’s a scene in Dogma, Kevin Smith’s religious satire, where Rufus, the overlooked thirteenth apostle, explains to Brittany, the film’s heroine, that she is the last descendent of Christ. She objects:
Bethany: Jesus didn’t have any brothers or sisters. Mary was a virgin.

Rufus: Mary gave birth to Christ without having known a man's touch, that’s true. But she did have a husband. And do you really think he'd have stayed married to her all those years if he wasn’t getting laid? The nature of God and the Virgin birth, those are leaps of faith. But to believe a married couple never got down? Well, that’s just plain gullibility.
That’s the first thing that popped into my head when I read this post by John Scalzi. It stems from the kind of argument only a geek could love – whether the way Gollum dies in The Return of the King lacks realism because the lava that consumes him doesn’t work the way physics says it should. Scalzi makes the reasonable objection that, in a movie filled with fantastic elements that don’t exist in our world, what is it about lava that goes too far? He calls such moments The Flying Snowman (for reasons you’ll have to read the post to understand).

Scalzi is not arguing that just because a story is fantasy (or science fiction, for that matter) that you just switch off your brain and ignore things that don’t seem quite right. Rather:
if you’re going to complain about one specific element as being unrealistic, you should consider the work in its totality and ask whether in the context of the work, this specific thing is inconsistent with the worldbuilding.
I think that’s a fair demand, so I’ll deploy it to analyze one of my personal Flying Snowmen – vampire sex. Regardless of whether we’re talking about the dark brooding Angel type vampire or the sparkly douchebag variety, everybody agrees that vamps are dead. Or the “undead,” whatever the hell that means. As a result they have no pulse. Blood does not circulate through their veins. Yet this seems to not put a damper on their sex life (other things do, but that’s not relevant to the point). So my question is, how they hell do undead beings with no pulse or circulation manage to get erections? It just doesn’t make sense.

Until you apply Scalzi’s analysis. After all, by digging into a story about vampires, you’re already buying into a lot of stuff that’s simply explained by some magical hand waiving. If they’re dead, how do they move at all? How does an inert digestive system evolved to subsist on regular food make energy out of blood? What’s with the no reflections in the mirrors and such? By the time you get to undead boners, “magical Viagra” really isn’t that much of a stretch.

Everybody, I suspect, has their own Flying Snowmen when it comes to fiction. The question becomes whether it’s something that just makes you snicker or completely throws you out of the suspension of disbelief needed to enjoy speculative fiction. It also asks broader question about how readers should approach fictional worlds that are clearly not our own.

One approach is to assume the world is like our own, except when specifically shown otherwise. That’s easier said than down when dealing with modern urban fantasies (like the aforementioned Angel) than heroic or high fantasy, since we know how the world around us operates, but it’s possible. For example, the medieval world into which the heroine of Doomsday Book is dropped behaves just like our own, although she got their via time travel. With such an approach you wind up looking for oddities and things unexplained by the narrative.

The other approach is to say that since we’re in a fantasy world all the rules are off the table, unless otherwise demonstrated. Assume you have a world populated by non-human sentient creatures. One gets hurt, maybe thrown from a great height onto solid ground, in a way that would render a human out of commission for a long time. This creature recovers quickly, however. There’s nothing “wrong” with that, assuming we haven’t learned somewhere else in the story that these creatures are as frail and breakable as humans. Maybe that story element doesn’t work on its own merits, but that’s a different issue.

Which approach works best? It depends on the story, of course. I’ve got one epic fantasy kind of thing with no humans at all (ready for a second draft in 2012!).  It’s a completely alien world.  I’ve got another one percolating that will have exclusively humans involved.  It’s different, but it looks a lot like what we know of the world. I’ll think about those differently as a writer. I’d expect a reader to do the same.

In the end, everybody’s Flying Snowmen moment is different. It’s impossible for authors or directors to be able to anticipate every area of expertise that a reader/viewing might be able to bring to bear on a story. Difficult as it can be, perhaps it’s best to heed the words of the MST3K theme song
repeat to yourself it’s just a show / you should really just relax
Although, in the case of Gollum’s fiery demise, I suspect it has less to do with worldbuilding or the mystical nature of Mount Doom than it does with a very real phenomenon: artistic license. Sometimes, you don’t let the real world get in the way of a good story.

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