On Realism

I’m thrilled to see the discussion about the place (or necessity, or irrelevance) of realism in SciFi. I do, however, want to use it as an opportunity to point out that, like many of the terms we’ve already struggled with in this course–“Nature,” “real,” “reality,” “authentic,” “consciousness”–the term “realism” is a very complex and contested term. I don’t want to wade into that complexity now, but it’s a good chance to bring up the absolute importance of defining our terms when we talk or write about … well… anything.

Just as Raymond Carver’s story asks “What do we talk about when we talk about love?” (insert a plug for both his fiction and for the stage adaptation of that story in the recent film Birdman), we should always ask ourselves “What do we talk about when we talk about Realism?”

Do we mean that the events in the story could happen now, in this world?

Do we mean that the events in the story are possible or not impossible given the laws of our universe, though they are not feasible in today’s world?

Do we mean that the events in the story follow a self-consistent logic, even if it isn’t the logic we recognize as that of our experience?

Do we mean that the story conforms to the style and aesthetics we associate with literary realism (as exemplified by 19th-century fiction by Flaubert, Zola, George Eliot, etc)?

Do we mean that the story engages with philosophical realism?

And so on…. I don’t normally advise Wikipedia as a source, but in this case the entry is nicely set up to demonstrate what I mean: that “realism” means about fifty different things.

Another way to put it: which of the following texts is more “realistic”–and WHY? Brave New World, Super Sad True Love Story, “The Girl Who Was Plugged In?” “Baby, You Were Great!” or Frankenstein? Is the movie The Internship, with Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, more or less realistic than Looper, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis–and why? My answer to the second question is “less realistic” because it seems more likely, given the laws of physics and the plausible advances of technology in the next century, that we’ll be able to send bodies back in time for disposal, than the basically impossible scenario in which two washed-up old-style salesmen could possibly achieve the success they do at Google. That, my disbelief is unwilling to be suspended for.

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