That Never Happened: Misplaced Skepticism and the Mechanisms of Suspension of Disbelief

In the summer of 2018, tennis great Serena Williams had a dispute with the French Open about an outfit she’d had specifically designed to help fight the formation of blood clots—a problem she personally has had postpartum but also one that tends to affect the postpartum population more in Black communities than in white or Asian communities, controlling for other variables. The tennis tournament banned Williams’s outfit, and the internet was plunged into debate.

Strikingly, a great many of the people weighing in on the controversy of fashion uniformity vs. personal health completely rejected the idea that clothing of any kind could help to fight the formation of blood clots. It sounded fake to them, and they immediately found the time and obscenities to say so.

Here’s the problem: compression stockings are not just helpful technology for this problem, they’re old tech. The theory of what happens with deep vein thrombosis and how pressure garments can help stop it has been fairly well understood since the late 19th century, but Galen talks about compression bandages in a functional way. Galen. The 2nd century one, that Galen. Yet for those who wanted an excuse to yell at someone behaving out of their ideas of normal, it must be a lie and an excuse. It didn’t even need checking—something many of their elderly relatives had worn after surgery snapped their suspension of disbelief.

There’s a whole set of gifs and iconography for calling out on Twitter “that never happened.” Most of the times I’ve seen it used are for small stories of interactions between strangers in public—stories that I consider unremarkable, not worth lying about. I saw it come up for reported harassment rates among women runners—surely it’s not that high, said people in groups who are rarely harassed themselves. (“Higher,” whispered marginalized genders. “Definitely higher,” agreed people of color.)

For me this trend reached its culmination in watching then-Congresswoman-Elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez expressing her experiences—very common in our sexist culture—of getting sent to events for spouses and interns—only to have people on the internet scoff that she had stolen this experience from the movie Legally Blonde 2. Somehow one person expressing a shared experience in art became something to use against another person who’d had that experience, proof not of a systemic problem but of inauthenticity.

When I finished flipping tables, roaring in rage, and generally rampaging around the house like Gamera on a bad shell day, I moved on to what this has to do with writing—and reading—speculative fiction. We talk about the Tiffany Problem in historical fantasy—areas where the truth of the past feels weird and implausible to the modern reader. When the problem is just the name Tiffany—a genuine medieval name, based on Theophania—an author can sigh and name the character Maud instead. This is a far worse problem, and a less functional solution, when the thing that readers are disbelieving is not a single name but an entire behavior or group of people. Omitting women named Tiffany doesn’t warp our view of a society. Omitting all women who labor for pay in historical settings does. Or omitting all people of color in Europe before 1900.

What may be just as bad is the way that this kind of disbelief—applied unevenly to different demographics of people and their situations—can stifle the writing of near-future science fiction. If we over-doubt in the wrong areas—if some people’s lived experience is automatically seen as less real than others’—that can’t help but shape the futures we imagine for those people—or whether they’re included in our imagined futures at all.

So what do we do about this? What can writers do about it? What can readers do to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem?

When I was studying quantum physics in college, my professors talked about developing physical intuition. What they wanted was for us to have enough of a sense of scope that we could tell when the answer to a problem was surprising and unusual. Sometimes this means you’ve discovered something startling and new! More often it means that you forgot a negative sign, multiplied when you should have added, or some other trivial error that you can put the time into finding. We all have physical intuition about the classical world—a sense of where a thrown ball will end up, ideas about how bad it will be if one thing crashes into another at a particular speed. Physical intuition at the classical level comes from processing reams and reams of data before we’re even old enough to talk. We get the idea of object permanence about eight or nine months after birth—when we’ve had a chance to observe over and over again that the same things keep popping up even when we’ve lost sight of them for awhile. The road to quantum-level physical intuition is to do loads of experiments and problem sets—to expose our brains as much as possible to the range of behaviors possible at the quantum scale, so that we can build up a sense of what’s possible, what’s likely, what strange things happen all the time and what strange things make you sit up and take notice.

Taste Magazine’s December issue had an essay that referred, glancingly, to a similar process in cooking: developing kitchen intuition. Making enough variations and versions of a type of food—whether it’s bread or lasagna or soup or peanut sauce—that you have a sense of what changes it can absorb and what will be too much for the structure of the thing. What tastes will not mesh, what ingredients will need longer to handle. All of this comes from experience.

If we can put that into practice with physics and into cooking, we can surely take the time to do the same with the experiences of other humans who are in some way unlike us. Our interpersonal intuition can be built just like the other kinds, through exposure to data that comes from different situations—different experimental set-ups, if you will. As readers, we gather our sense of what interactions with other people will be like in the same way as we learn what parabolic arc a thrown ball will take. We start building that data set from infancy. But just as the quantum world is real but counterintuitive, other people’s lives are real too. We can learn them in the same way.

Of course, everyone’s reading time is finite. There are other means of learning other people’s stories. But also, crucially, the more stories that are out in the world—published, publicized, encouraged, nurtured, promoted—the better odds that any reader will encounter stories outside their comfort zone. But also having more variety of stories in the world is a cascade effect. Each person’s voice, each perspective, can shift the energy and the focus of other people’s work.

It’s still worth doing what we can, both to broaden our own perspectives and to encourage others directly to do so. But the indirect encouragement can still help change entire systems. Like quarks, readers exist in clumps, not in isolation. This is exactly the kind of situation where changing a community atmosphere moves individual behavior within that community in ways that are worth doing. Just as a community standard for respectful language can meaningfully shift away from casually accepting individual slurs, a community standard can shift toward inclusion and broader perspective.

As for the writing side, I think one answer is to compound that kind of data-taking with bravery. To be willing to draw the distinction between a trivial and an important point that’s likely to snag readers. To understand that not all readers will come along for every ride, and respectfully bidding farewell to the ones who feel that Galen is too much of a futuristic radical.

There is literally no writing, not even Middlemarch, that appeals to everyone, that makes sense to everyone, that satisfies everyone. At some point the knowledge that reality breaks suspension of disbelief not just for the stranger reaches of quantum mechanics but also for your own personal everyday life is freeing. The people who can’t be convinced of your experiences on your walk to the grocery store may well read speculative fiction, but they’re unlikely to read your speculative fiction. Building common ground with these people or even getting them to acknowledge that your ground exists, that you are not hovering in midair, is worth doing—but it won’t happen overnight, and it definitely won’t happen if you restrict your stories to the things they already find familiar and comforting. The best we can do is more stories, more variety of stories, more sources of stories.

Luckily that’s something I find easy to believe in.

Marissa Lingen

Marissa Lingen is among the top science fiction and fantasy writers in the world who were named after fruit. She has many opinions on Moomintrolls. She has been known to cross international borders in search of rare tisanes. Her personal relationships with bodies of water are intense though eccentric. She lives atop the oldest bedrock in the US with two large men and one small dog, where she writes, if not daily, frequently.

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