Hermione Granger has had to accept a lot of weird shit since she turned 11.
Witches and wizards: real.
That is a lot to swallow, which is why it always bewilders me that when Luna Lovegood comes up to tell her about Crumpled-Horned Snorkracks, Hermione’s first reason is to scoff that they’re not real.
When Hermoine was ten, she knew magic wasn’t real.
When Hermione was thirteen she knew Voldemort would not rise again.
When Hermione was fourteen she knew the Ministry of Magic was a force for good.
Why, as readers, are we supported to treat her assertions as anything but complacency and narrow-mindedness? There is nothing about a Crumple-Horned Snorkrack that makes it any less believable than, say, Quintapeds or Billywigs. They are all invented for Harry Potter and Hermione has never seen them, but she believes that exist because what? They’re written about in a book? The same books approved by the Ministry that is shown to be so very broken in that exact same book?
This isn’t an attack on Hermione Granger, btw, it’s an attack on a particular flaw in world building I call ‘A Very Specific Level of Disbelief.’
In short, this happens when the author or creator asks the reader to suspend their disbelief on a certain thing, than asks then to exercise skepticism on something very similar or identical to the original objects of suspension of disbelief. The result in jarring and confusing, and can result on losing the atmosphere of the story because why are we questioning this thing and not this other thing?
I’m a huge fan of the Blake and Mortimer series of French BD. However, it runs up against this problem in a big way with L’Affaire du Collier, a straightforward locked room mystery that comes right on the heels of books that included, among other things: ancient Egyptian magic, mind control rays, weather control devices, a time machine and the lost city of Atlantis.
Dude, it’s not an Enigma if you give it away in the bloody title.
After all that, all I could think while reading the book was why the main characters weren’t considering a teleportation device or a ray that can let you walk through walls or the aforementioned time machine. It would be entirely within the series’ tone and structure. But in fact there is nothing weird and it’s a straightforward heist that still stands out among the series as being the one of the only non-weird science installments.
(One had flying saucers and time travel and raising people from the dead in the same episode. Yes, I will one day write a series of reviews covering these books. They’re crack).
And rainbows, because why the fuck not that this point?
Similarly, the world of Fallout asks us to accept that radiation is basically magic in that world. Okay, that’s cool. Yet that the same time asks us to dismiss the Children of the Atom who worship radiation as a god as stupid cultists. I was playing through Far Harbour yesterday and it struck me how much sense the Fallout world would make if their assertions were completely true.
It would explain the various levels of weird science throughout the series and frankly the idea of a god of radiation rising through mass sacrifice of billions of beings is just so epic that my character converted to the Church of Atom on the spot and I’m thinking of modifying his character to give him an awesome Atom tattoo.
This woman has lived over 200 years because of radiation but worshipping it? How silly.
That being said, there are ways of showing a certain interpretation of the story’s lore is wrong without asking up to bend out suspension of disbelief into prezels.
The trick is the old adage of show, not tell. Don’t assume the reader is just going to agree with you that said thing is impossible, show them why it is impossible. If Blake and Mortimer had explored the idea of a teleportation beam and decided it was impossible, we would feel a lot more centered in the story.
JKR actually pulls it off very well with Hermione’s disbelief of Divination. She is originally open to the subject, but after it is amply demonstrated to both her and the audience that Trelawney is a fraud, we come to the same decision as Hermione.
It also helps if the thing we are supposed to doubt in is very different from the original focus of our suspension of disbelief. For example, Star Trek wants us to accept their tech babble as actual reliable science. Asking up to disbelieve the existence of magic, therefore, is fine. Asking us to dismiss the existence of techno babble that allows people to turn others to toads, however, would be harder.
So, show not tell. If you want us to doubt the existence of unicorns, don’t start off by asking us to believe in dragons.