What makes it hard to suspend disbelief?

In my review of Petroplague, I wrote about the fact that readers of fiction agree to suspend disbelief when they pick up a novel.  I complained specifically and in some detail that Petroplague went over the edge of my tolerance for improbable feats of physical endurance and reckless derring-do, although not as far as most thrillers, especially most of the ones that make the best-seller lists.  Superhero protagonists seem to be a necessary characteristic of the thriller genre, at least as far as the publishing industry is concerned.

Readers of fiction about science must also suspend disbelief, if for no other reason than that the concept of realistic fictional science is arguably contradictory.  The only way to get around this problem is either to find a little niche in the history of science where a scientist could fail to find something plausible at the time or to describe a realistic discovery or theory that might emerge from contemporary science in the near future.  (Too far into the future, and it becomes science fiction.)  Richard Powers’s The Goldbug Variations took the former route; Gregory Benford’s Cosm took the latter, as I tried to do when I conceived Vanessa’s Curve of Mind.

Readers by and large had no problems with my scientific conjectures and projections, but hung up on an entirely different detail.  The first hurdle for some was the idea that a woman in science could also be a stunning beauty.  This seems to apply to women much more than men.  Alex Hoffman, for example, in the speculative novel, Fear Index, is described as handsome and attractive to women, at least until they meet him and find out about his social skills.  Let me suggest, as a start, that the issue for many readers is that they can’t believe that an attractive woman could be smart enough to be a good scientist and, even if she were, that she’d have a singleminded focus and devotion to unraveling a scientific question.

The stereotypes and other issues women face in science will be the subject of a future post and a review of two other novels that confront prejudice against women in science head on.  While mainstream and genre fiction is crowded with super attractive women in every profession imaginable (especially, in detective work), women scientists tend to be more ordinary-looking, not women male readers would think to hit on.

The second problem my readers had was that I raised the stakes well beyond what most people were willing to follow.  I made Vanessa, not just attractive, but a former Playboy model with everything that implies to most people.  But what really bugged my readers was that I portrayed her as a genius on a par with Albert Einstein.  And I had the audacity to make this comparison explicit in my story.  That apparently pushed most people over the edge of their stereotypes.  The most cogent comment I got was that the chances of being a Playboy model are very slim to begin with, and geniuses are even more few and far between.  Just how likely is it that both would show up in one body?

Apparently, people just can’t accept that a wildly attractive woman could also be so smart that she can run intellectual circles around really smart people and care so deeply about something as abstract as science and math that she devotes most of her waking hours to her work.  I tried to create a character who was both an extraordinary person and very high-powered scientist.  Most readers won’t know the name Hypatia of Alexandria, but to all those who claim Vanessa Trippett couldn’t exist, I say, read Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr by Michael A. B. Deakin.

Hypatia, who lived around the turn of the Fourth Century, was known throughout the Hellenic world as an extraordinary mathematician as well as an important astronomer and influential philosopher.  She was also by all accounts a very beautiful woman in her youth, although unlike Vanessa she remained celibate throughout her life.

Sadly, my fictional Vanessa was seen by some as a fantasy, instead of a remarkable confluence of human genes or a fascinating, larger-than-life character like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby.

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