Saturday, May 14, 2011

A world that is stranger than any of its fictions

In the space of just four days in late April/early May, we saw a romantic fairytale wedding between a prince and his princess, in which horse-drawn carriages carrying people in regal outfits depicting another era, was watched "live' on 21st Century television by an estimated third of the world's population.

Just three days later, on every news media around the globe, came reports of the killing of the earth's most wanted terrorist leader, a man who led a network responsible for one of the worst mass-killings in recent history.

To enjoy the reading or watching of fictional works, particularly in the romance and thriller genres, usually requires the suspension of disbelief. That is what we are told. And yet...

The real world around us is often stranger than any of the fictions created by mankind. That's what I've always thought.

Fiction has to make sense to the reader. The real world often does not.

When armed forces raided the terrorist leader's secret compound in Pakistan, the US President and White House officials watched the operation "live" on screen from Washington. The images were being relayed from mini-cams in the helmets of the military personnel.

If that was a scene from a novel or a film from just forty years ago it would have been labelled science fiction.

Yesterday's s/f or high-tech thriller fiction is today's reality.

We call tv series such as "Survivor' and 'The Amazing Race" reality tv, but the Pakistan raid watched by a small group of leaders really was reality tv. Strange world.

If we focus on just these two areas - the British Royal family - and international terrorism - we'd find many instances where the known facts would stretch credulity if they were presented as fiction.

In 2008, Price Harry had to exit his role as a member of a cavalry regiment, fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, when his secret tour-of-duty was "revealed" to the world by a glossy celebrity magazine in Australia. The revelation put Harry's life, and the lives of the team, in potentially even greater danger. Oops.

Put that into a novel or a film and it would have been regarded as suspense turned soap opera. Kind of like "24" meets "the Bold and the Beautiful."

It's been revealed that the world's most wanted terrorist and his family had lived for several years in his million-dollar enclosed compound in Abbotobad, very near to a Pakistan military academy, and supposedly without anyone in the city or surrounding towns having any idea he was there. I have to wonder how believable that would have been in a Robert Ludlum or Frederick Forsyth novel. Too far-fetched?

When I was fairly young I recall hearing my parents express surprise at a newspaper item regarding a suicide. A man was playing cards with his family and friends and became so upset at losing, he went to his bedroom and shot himself in the head.

News reports are often taken at face value. However, if that was a scene in a movie, it just wouldn't wash with audiences.

I thought about that news report many times over the years. Why would you shoot yourself over a game of cards? I've long since realized, of course, that there were no doubt other, more serious reasons for the man's depression, and that the card game was just a catalyst for the action he took. But that's not what was presented in the news report. And it would require a giant leap to consider it credible in a work of fiction.

'Willing suspension of disbelief' has long been regarded as the means by which writers and their readers can justify non-realistic or "fantastic" elements in storytelling. It was first suggested by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, of 'Rime Of The Ancient Mariner" fame, in the early 19th Century.

Suspension of disbelief is certainly a formula required for the enjoyment of much fiction. However, I'd suggest it's not out of place in our observation of the real world around us.

Next time you're reading a book or watching a film and you think to yourself: "...that could never happen..." or perhaps, "...that was way over the top..." - don't be so sure the seemingly implausible plot event couldn't really happen. It probably has somewhere, at some time. Or maybe it just hasn't happened yet.