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Science Fiction and Fantasy

Suspension of disbelief

Suspension of disbelief, sometimes called willing suspension of disbelief, is the intentional avoidance of critical thinking or logic in examining something surreal, such as a work of speculative fiction, in order to believe it for the sake of enjoyment.[1] Aristotle first explored the idea of the concept in its relation to the principles of theater; the audience ignores the unreality of fiction in order to experience catharsis.[2]

The poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge introduced the term “suspension of disbelief” in 1817 and suggested that if a writer could infuse a “human interest and a semblance of truth” into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgement concerning the implausibility of the narrative.[3] Coleridge sought to revive the use of fantastic elements in poetry and developed a concept to support how a modern, enlightened audience might continue to enjoy such types of literature. The term resulted from a philosophical experiment, which Coleridge conducted with William Wordsworth within the context of the creation and reading of poetry. It involved an attempt to explain the supernatural persons or characters so that these creatures of imagination constitute some semblance of truth.[4] In his Biographia Literaria, published in 1817,[5] Chapter XIV describes this collaboration called Lyrical Ballads (first edition 1798), for which Coleridge had contributed the more romantic, Gothic pieces including The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Here, Coleridge also referred to his concept as “poetic faith”, citing the concept as a feeling analogous to the supernatural, which awakens the mind.[6]

Coleridge recalled:

It was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. Mr. Wordsworth on the other hand was to propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us.[7]

The notion of such an action by an audience was, however, recognized in antiquity, as seen particularly in the Roman theoretical concerns of Horace, who also lived in an age of increasing skepticism about the supernatural, in his Ars Poetica (with the quotation Ut pictura poesis). According to David Chandler, Coleridge drew his notion from Marcus Tullius Cicero’s Historia Critica Philosophiae, which cited the phrase “assensus suspensione” or “suspension of assent”.[4]

From Wikipedia, Suspension of disbelief


Eva Shaper

The idea that the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ must have some role to play in the analysis of our response to fiction is a familiar one, endorsed in one form or another by a good many people.  One of the main points in its favour is, it seems, that it helps us resolve, or dissolve, a puzzle allegedly raised by that response to fiction: unless disbelief were suspended, we could not avoid the puzzle resulting from being moved by what we do not believe ever really happened or ever existed.  I want to suggest, however, that the notion of suspension of disbelief cannot coherently be used to explain or account for our reactions to fictional characters and evens, and that in any case it is unnecessary to the solution of the alleged paradox.  I take fiction her to cover art works in which a story is told, presented or represented . . . any works in fact in connection with which it makes sense to speak of characters appearing and events taking place in them.

The British Journal of Aesthetics, Volume 18, Issue 1, WINTER 1978, Pages 31–44,

Published: 01 January 1978

(Schaper, 1978)

Secondary Belief

Secondary Belief is the term coined by JRRT [J. R. R. Tolkien]in consequence of his theories on sub-creation and Secondary Worlds. It is, however, also in direct challenge to the widely influential conclusion by Coleridge that the ideal reader-writer relationship is achieved by a “willing suspension of disbelief”. For this to succeed, the reader must first be positively inclined (willing) and secondly he must decide not to apply the same expectations of consistency, logic and accountability that he would outside the literary world. However, in simply stifling disbelief, we are likely already to have “stepped out” of the story. Tolkien therefore argues that suspension of any kind is not desirable in reading because “the moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken, and more specifically of fairy-stories, the “magic” or rather, the art has failed. You are then outside in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive world.”19  The distinction here is between the conscious state of simply indulging the story, as it were, and the unconscious effect of  being genuinely transported by art.

                    The term which for Tolkien seems a closer description of the process is his own coinage, subcreation. Successful storytelling – that is storytelling capable of inspiring Secondary Belief – is indeed an art equal to any other, Tolkien would argue. Yet much of the spell is of course produced by the deliberate application of certain narrative techniques. An example of such techniques is described in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy20  as the mixing of dictions “within single passages, usually to contrast an archaic form of speech with the default language of the text at that stage.”

Note:  this requires an inner consistency of reality.

Sense of Wonder

Definitions: A sense of wonder (sometimes jokingly written sensawunda) is an intellectual and emotional state frequently invoked in discussions of science fiction and philosophy.

This entry focuses on one specific use of the phrase “sense of wonder.” This phrase is widely used in contexts that have nothing to do with science fiction. The following relates to the use of “sense of wonder” within the context of science fiction. In Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction the term sense of wonder is defined as follows:

SENSE OF WONDER n. a feeling of awakening or awe triggered by an expansion of one’s awareness of what is possible or by confrontation with the vastness of space and time, as brought on by reading science fiction.[1]:179

Jon Radoff has characterised a sense of wonder as an emotional reaction to the reader suddenly confronting, understanding, or seeing a concept new in the context of new information.[2]

In the introductory section of his essay ‘On the Grotesque in Science Fiction’, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr., Professor of English, DePauw University, states:

The so-called sense of wonder has been considered one of the primary attributes of sf at least since the pulp era. The titles of the most popular sf magazines of that period—AstoundingAmazingWonder StoriesThrillingStartling, etc.—clearly indicate that the putative cognitive value of sf stories is more than counter-balanced by an affective power, to which, in fact, the scientific content is expected to submit.[3]:71

John Clute and Peter Nicholls associate the experience with that of the “conceptual breakthrough” or “paradigm shift” (Clute & Nicholls 1993). In many cases, it is achieved through the recasting of previous narrative experiences in a larger context. It can be found in short scenes (e.g., in Star Wars (1977), it can be found, in a small dose, inside the line “That’s no moon; it’s a space station.”) and it can require entire novels to set up (as in the final line to Iain Banks’s Feersum Endjinn.)

George Mann defines the term as “the sense of inspired awe that is aroused in a reader when the full implications of an event or action become realized, or when the immensity of a plot or idea first becomes known;”:508 and he associates the term with the Golden Age of SF and the pulp magazines prevalent at the time. One of the major writers of the Golden Age, Isaac Asimov, agreed with this association: in 1967 commenting on the changes occurring in SF he wrote,

And because today’s real life so resembles day-before-yesterday’s fantasy, the old-time fans are restless. Deep within, whether they admit it or not, is a feeling of disappointment and even outrage that the outer world has invaded their private domain. They feel the loss of a “sense of wonder” because what was once truly confined to “wonder” has now become prosaic and mundane.[4]:ix

As a concept especially connected with science fiction

George Mann suggests that this ‘sense of wonder’ is associated only with science fiction as distinct from science fantasy, stating:

It is this insistence on fundamental realism that has caused Verne’s novels to be retrospectively seen as of key importance in the development of SF. …—people in droves came to the books looking for adventure and got it, but with an edge of scientific inquiry that left them with a new, very different sense of wonder. The magic of the realms of fantasy had been superseded by the fascination of speculation rooted in reality.[5]:10

However, the editor and critic David Hartwell sees SF’s ‘sense of wonder’ in more general terms, as “being at the root of the excitement of science fiction”. He continues:

Any child who has looked up at the stars at night and thought about how far away they are, how there is no end or outer edge to this place, this universe—any child who has felt the thrill of fear and excitement at such thoughts stands a very good chance of becoming a science fiction reader.

To say that science fiction is in essence a religious literature is an overstatement, but one that contains truth. SF is a uniquely modern incarnation of an ancient tradition: the tale of wonder. Tales of miracles, tales of great powers and consequences beyond the experience of people in your neighborhood, tales of the gods who inhabit other worlds and sometimes descend to visit ours, tales of humans traveling to the abode of the gods, tales of the uncanny: all exist now as science fiction.

Science fiction’s appeal lies in combination of the rational, the believable, with the miraculous. It is an appeal to the sense of wonder.[6]:42

Academic criticism of science fiction literature (Robu 1988) identifies the idea of the sublime described by Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant—infinity, immensity, “delightful horror”—as a key to understanding the concept of “sense of wonder” in science fiction. For example, Professor of English at the University of Iowa, Brooks Landon says:

Reference to this “sense of wonder”, a term appropriated and popularized by Damon Knight, appear over and over in twentieth-century discussions of SF and may at least in part reflect SF’s debt to its Gothic and Romantic forerunners.[7]:18

Edward James quotes from Aldiss and Wingrove’s history of science fiction in support of the above suggestion as to the origin of the ‘sense of wonder’ in SF, as follows:

In the Gothic mode, emphasis was placed on the distant and unearthly … Brooding landscapes, isolated castles, dismal old towns, and mysterious figures … carry us into an entranced world from which horrid revelations start …. Terror, mystery and that delightful horror which Burke connected with the sublime … may be discovered … in science fiction to this day.[8]:103

From Wikipedia, Sense of wonder