2016 minus 43: time, what’s become of you?

Posted: 19 November 2015 in 2016minus, comics, fiction
Tags: , ,

The “willing suspension of disbelief” is of course a necessary part of the contract between the writer of fiction and reader. The writer agrees to produce as “real” a world, situation and environment as possible, and readers agree for their part to willingly suspend their incredulity while enjoying the work in question.

This unspoken agreement between writer and reader works very well, and has done for centuries, if not longer. In fact, it works so well that like Shakespeare’s comment that some customs are more “honoured in the breach then in the observance”, you only realise you’ve partaken in this unspoken agreement when you’re forcibly required to unwillingly suspend your disbelief. 

There can be any number of things that disturb your willingness to suspend your disbelief. First and foremost there’s bad writing. Bad dialogue, bad descriptive passages, ludicrous plotting; all singly or together can remind you that this is fiction, that the characters aren’t ‘real’ and – at least in my case – that inevitably leads to the question: why should I care what happens to them?

Occasionally, real life intervenes. Whether real life experiences show up poor research on the part of the writer, or a writer – through no ‘fault’ of their own – creates a situation that fails to resonate with the reader or resonates too strongly. I lost a brother to a specific medical condition. If I ever see that condition portrayed on screen or in a novel, the comparisons and contrasts to real life make it almost impossible not to wrenched out of the fictional world. 

But without doubt the easiest way for a writer to disrupt the flow flow of willing disbelief suspension is to write contemporary fiction and date it with a link to actual personalities and events.

I’m thinking primarily – but not solely as you shall see – of serialised comic book fiction here. Comic books have always had a problem with time. I don’t mean a problem with time travel; that’s a whole other matter which I’ll probably come back to at some point. 

But super hero comic books set in America cannot resist the urge to link to specific Presidents  sooner or later. Both Marvel and DC (and they’re still, as they have been for a long time, the two big players in superhero comics) have had storylines involving the ‘current’ president. Which kind of makes sense when the books are designed to be disposable episodes and makes no sense at all when they’re intended to be read and reread and collected and bound and paperbacked and ‘absolute edition’ed. 

For all the grief that the Superman line got when they made Lex Luthor President, and for all the failures in the stories that followed – and their were many – I thought it a brave and clever choice and the stories still work better and disrupt that suspension of disbelief a lot less than reading a story featuring Bill Clinton as President, when that story is supposed to have only happened a decade or so back…

Of course it’s not only comic books. 

Any novel set in the future, where the future is now in the last? (1984, I’m looking at you. 2001: A Space Odyssey? You sit in the corner with 2010: Odyssey Two.) I’m not entirely sure why I don’t have this problem with books set a century ago, even if they were contemporary when they were written. I suspect it might be because they are set so far away from my own personal experiences (hey, I’m old but I’m not that old) that I have no idea whether or not the situations portrayed are ‘real’. That said, I think I’d still be thrown out of the story were, say, the novel to portray a famous personage at odds with everything I know about them. 

It’s always a shock – although it shouldn’t be – when while watching an old tv programme or movie and a ‘current’ date is shown, or even worse when a programme set in the “future’ identifies the year in which it is set… and it’s now years, decades, in the past.

It still comes as a surprise when I watch UFO and realise from the opening credits that it’s set in 1980. Or the programme that told you from its title that it was set in 1990. But without doubt the worst is when you see a programme or a movie and its stated incidentally.

Take Callan, the fourth series of which I’m currently rewatching. In the first episode, (during which David Callan has been captured by the KGB and is being interrogated) he’s shown his gravestone – his Section has written him off and – at this time – have buried ‘him’ both figuratively and literally.

The depressing bits?

1. Callan was 41 when this episode takes place. 41. That’s a a full decade younger than me. Bloody hell- I’m much much older than Callan was.
2. If he was still alive, he’d be 84. Callan at 84 doesn’t bear thinking about.
3. The only way to make it ‘better’ is if he’d have been killed before now…

Something less depressing tomorrow. 

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