Sunday, 10 July 2011

Get your bad fantasy out of my good fantasy

Two things that I enjoy: Rationalism in reality, and fantasy in fiction. A third thing I love: rationalism in my fantasy fiction. Which may be asking too much, but apart from anything else, it helps with the suspension of disbelief - okay, house elves' magic being "different", enabling Dobby to save the gang from Malfoy's dungeon, is convenient and also a useful illustration of how underestimating non-human sentient species is a fundamental flaw in the Death Eaters' world view, but how is it different? How does it work? How can house elf disapparation - so "different" - be used to take humans along in a place where humans can't disapparate? Does it matter? No! But it's hard to get swept away with the Life and Death and Sacrifice and Heroism when you're muttering at the pages in the manner of a disgruntled two year old whose parents won't answer the eternal question, "yeah but why?".

How much more vexing, then, when fantasy fiction uses stories from the real world to undermine rationalism. I've been on a bit of a Torchwood/Doctor Who marathon recently, because I am strange and geeky and feel a compulsion to watch things I like over and over until I know them pretty much off by heart, and there are two episodes which - while good - have left me grinding my gigantic atheist teeth in a rationalist fury.

In The Unquiet Dead, Rose and lovely smily Christopher Eccleston join forces with super-skeptic Charles Dickens to deal with ghostly gas aliens which can reanimate corpses. Dickens scoffs a lot, they hold a seance, and Gwen Cooper's great-great-granny explodes the lot of them. (Spoilers! If you are in 2005.) In Torchwood's Small Worlds, naughty fairies kill a paedophile, a nice old lady, and a bad step-dad, all in the cause of protecting a little girl who eventually scampers off to live with them. But they're not any old fairies: they are the exact same fairies who were, in actual this-world reality, cardboard cut-outs invented by some bored teenage girls. Funny thing about seances: they were also, ultimately, borne of the invention of some bored teenage girls. Both are proven hoaxes: in both cases, the originators admitted they'd made the whole thing up. And in both cases, these confessions led to absolutely no diminishment in the enthusiasm of spiritualists or fairy-fans.

Skeptics don't come off awfully well in either episode; Dickens' refusal to believe anything otherworldly is going on is treated as a pain in the arse, a wilful closed-mindedness that could get people hurt. And Gwen's knowledge of the Cottingley Fairies hoax is, similarly, dismissed as stubborn intransigence. To be fair, when swirly alien gas-ghosties are swirling round your head, emanating from the body of a dead old lady in the middle of a theatre, continuing to insist that nothing unusual is going in would be fairly closed-minded - not to mention pointless. But the message (intended or otherwise) of both episodes is that failure to believe wholeheartedly in Weird Shit is a bad thing - and that both of these verified historical events were, in fact, actual paranormal events.

Which pisses me right off.

It's like writing a story in which girls love shoes and boys love beer and sex will kill you (but only if you're a girl!) and girls are all about Emotions and boys lose the power of rational thinking when faced with sizeable bosoms and if you go to a frat party you run the risk of being eaten by a giant penis monster (I AM LOOKING AT YOU, BUFFY), and then saying, "What? Me, not a feminist?" Sure, in the context of your story, the decisions and motivations make sense, but you've made the decision to create characters and situations which propogate inherently sexist messages. And yeah, in the context of these two stories, skepticism is misplaced - but did you really have to pick these real-life examples? That decision - and the highlighting of real-life skepticism surrounding them - suggests that something scientifically-inexplicable totally did happen in seances, despite merry bushels of evidence to the contrary, and there totally were fairies, and if you don't believe in them instantly you're just a bone-headed evidence-denying fool.

At one point Dickens even utters that endlessly irritatingly misused quote "there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy". Which, hey, they're probably are, and in the world of Doctor Who there definitely are. But those fairies, and those accordion-playing ghosts, are still completely imaginary. And what with Russell T Davies being on the "not believing in God, ghosts, or goblins" side of the fence, it'd be cool if he'd be a bit more careful about propping up irrational superstitions through good, healthy fantasy.

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