I once read an article (sadly I do not recall who wrote it) that discussed the ease with which our minds accept certain contrafactual situations, but not others. For example let’s say that I suggest that you imagine that you are a pilot. Now unless you are a pilot, this would be contrafactual to your state of being. I have made one change only. I am suggesting that instead of imagining yourself as you are, that you imagine yourself as a pilot. Most readers have no problem with this.
Next assume that you are flying a commercial airliner from New York to Amsterdam. Any one who has flown can probably hold this mental image. Even someone who has never flown can probably imagine themselves to be this pilot. Now assume that you (as this pilot) are suddenly in a terrible storm. Visibility is poor, the aircraft rocks violently from side to side, suddenly you hit a severe downdraft and it feels as if the bottom has fallen out of the plane. Are with me so far?
You black out momentarily only to discover that your copilot is now a goat. In great confusion you bolt from the cockpit to discover that your passengers are actually various large fish, dolphins, and the odd whale or two. All happily singing Kumbaya.
At what point did I loose you? Now if I intended to be writing humor, the above passage could be quite humorous – in a Douglas Adams sort of way. In fact Adams used this type of humor to great effect in his writings. But what if I meant to be deadly serious? Well, in that case, I have obviously pushed the envelope too far.
What’s my point? My point is that fiction is a study of the contrafactual. It is a dance wherein the author changes just enough to make it interesting, but not so much that it becomes unpalatable. The readers can easily imagine themselves to be in the position of the protagonist or any of the other characters.
Science fiction pushes the boundaries a bit further. A higher level of contrafactuality is imposed. The worlds of science fiction are not our worlds, but generally the Laws of Physics still apply. Seventy year-old green-skinned human soldiers can be accepted as long as the reader can imagine a possible future where genetic modification makes this possible. If you can’t imagine such kinds of things, then perhaps sci-fi is not for you.
Fantasy pushes the level of contrafactuality even further. Now the Laws of Physics can be bent, broken, or even thrown away entirely. This is a world of pure imagination where the author is free to set the ground rules. Many people love fantasy for just this reason. Me, not so much.
Final we have the Absurd. In this case the author changes too much or just the wrong things. In the case of Douglas Adams it results in good humor – but not everyone can appreciate this. I am sure that there is a non-zero set of folks who find his work to be just plain stupid. I however find it quite entertaining.
The intended focus of this blog is the contrafactual. That is to say – fiction. In addition to fiction, I will also address non-fiction, viewpoint, observations, history, satire, whisky, who knows?
Welcome to Contrafactual.com
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