Worlds to Colonize

Surely everyone familiar with the arts has come across the phrase suspension of disbelief. When we see a play or read a novel, it is clear that the play or the novel is a representation of reality. We are not flies on the wall, watching and reading about real people living their real lives (or being able to crawl into their minds, as we can with written stories). Even so, most people have little difficulty suppressing this fact in order to enjoy the play or book. The representation need only be sufficient to permit the audience/reader to suspend disbelief.

Many stories go further in their reliance on readers to suspend disbelief. For example, superheroes and talking animals can make for entertaining stories even if they don’t exist in the real world. For these genres, each individual must decide for themselves how far they are willing to suppress disbelief for the sake of entertainment, education, and/or examining imaginative ideas.

Far future science fiction stories like Star Wars have a unique place in this essay because their reality is defined at a time well into the future. This greatly facilitates suspension of disbelief since who knows what will happen by then. True, modern science suggests certain SF tropes will likely never exist. These include time travel, matter transporters (beam me up, Scotty), and faster-than-light space travel. On the other hand, modern science also hints at developing technologies that make plausible major advancements in human immortality, highly intelligent and mobile robots, and routine interplanetary space travel for non-astronauts.

To explore suspension of disbelief further consider one SF story I’ve read that takes place in a far future where mankind has colonized a number of planets in another part of the galaxy. In the hundreds of years since colonization, unfortunately, most of the colonies have failed and those remaining are in dire shape. The colonies were failing because: 1) the environments were very harsh, 2) the colonists’ equipment was getting old and failing (insufficient spares), and 3) supplies like seeds and medicines were low or exhausted. In other words, the colonies were not self-sustaining and there was (for some unexplained reason) no help available from earth.

I find the basic premise of colonizing planets believable. As for the harsh planet environments, our growing knowledge of exoplanets supports this view of planet diversity. Just because humans colonize a planet doesn’t mean it is very earth-like. In all likelihood, it is not.

However, I was unable to suspend disbelief of several presuppositions within the story. The first was the idea of humans colonizing planets without the goal of self-sustainment. No reason is given why taking this extreme risk is justified. It seems simply suicidal to me in view of the anticipated challenges in resupplying colonies. Second, nowhere in the story are intelligent robots even mentioned. Sorry, but in my opinion humanity will be relying heavily on intelligent robots to help us make our way into space. In fact, this has been much the case already. Consider all the space probes we have already sent into our solar system to gather data (New Horizons, Voyagers 1 & 2, Cassini, Pioneer series, Rosetta, Deep Space 1, Deep Impact, Vega 1 & 2, and many more). These probes foreshadow the smart, highly mobile robots that will help us successfully make our way deeper into space. They will be doing the dirty work or completely replacing humans on risky missions.

Of course, we all know that conflict is key in storytelling. The author thus needs to come up with challenges to be overcome. However, if it seems to me that a challenge is inserted to make the story work, rather than portray a realistic aspect of world building, I lose interest. I also recognize that SF writers are, by and large, not in the business of forecasting the future. So, if their future worlds don’t fit with my views of the future, that’s on me. Their job is to write entertaining stories.

My point in all of this is that knowing a person in the literary sense means understanding where they draw the line on suspension of disbelief. And if they don’t even read SF, well, I feel compassion for those who never ask, “What if?

2 thoughts on “Suspension of Disbelief

  1. I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the willing suspension of disbelief recently, particularly as it pertains to creativity. As you imply, it really is an exercise that we have to regularly engage in. Otherwise, we miss out on some of the magic…

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