GUEST BLOG Mitch Benn On Suspending Disbelief

The author, actor, singer and comedian discusses fiction, belief and storytelling

This is a guest blog by Mitch Benn, star of Radio 4's The Now Show and science fiction author...

I was once having a conversation with Neil Gaiman and someone whose name I should probably remember but alas I don't. Must get better at that sort of thing for all sorts of reasons, but I digress; the conversation had turned, as it often does in the presence of Neil, to things supernatural. The Person I Was Talking To Who Wasn't Neil mentioned in passing that she (it was a lady; I remember that much) didn't believe in ghosts. And then she turned to Neil and said "Sorry...".

She apologised to Neil for not believing in ghosts.

Neil and I exchanged a bemused glance; Neil seemed to be about to point out that it was okay because he didn't either, but the conversation had moved on (and you know how slowly Neil talks).

But that is a bit odd, isn't it? The idea that not believing in ghosts might actually be offensive to a fantasy writer? Perhaps she thought it was vaguely analogous to blurting that you're an atheist in front of a vicar or something.

Is this something that the not-we don't get? That you don't have to believe in something to write about it?

I'm perfectly okay with people telling me they don't like science-fiction and/or fantasy. Obviously I'd prefer it if they did 'cos I'm trying to make a living here, but you know, different strokes and all that. The only time I get annoyed at people not liking science fiction and/or fantasy is when they tell me that the REASON they don't like it is "it's all made up".

Yeah. We know. That's what "fiction" means.

And you know what? All those other books and movies and TV shows? The ones that pretend to be set in the real world? THEY'RE ALL MADE UP TOO. Coronation Street is every bit as imaginary as Doctor Who . Broadchurch is no more a real place than is Westeros .

I've always taken this as a given, but that conversation - and the apology for not believing in ghosts - got me a-thinking; do some people genuinely not get this? Are there some readers and viewers out there who are so incapable of relaxing into any fiction which doesn't attempt to resemble reality as closely as possible, that they believe the only reason we CAN is that we think it's all true?

I'm currently two thirds of the way into my Terra trilogy; those of you who've read the first book (and for those of you who haven't, it's out now in paperback from all good etc.) know that it deals at least partly with the idea of alien abduction. Now "believing in aliens" is a rather less binary proposition than "believing in ghosts"; for what it's worth, I do believe in the POSSIBILITY of alien life but unlike a lot of SF fans I don't think it's in any way a certainty. It is, to my mind, entirely possible that we ARE alone.

It's a matter of balancing two almost incomprehensibly vast opposing factors: the mind-scrambling age and enormousness of the universe, with the equally brain-shagging improbability that a planet exactly the right size and consisting of exactly the right elements in exactly the right proportions would ever end up orbiting exactly the right kind of sun at exactly the right distance for life to arise. Even if this has happened more than once (exponentially less likely than it happening once only) it's INCREDIBLY improbable that the alien life in question would be anything we could meaningfully communicate with, OR that it would arise in a region of the universe close enough to even SEE, never mind journey to. The aliens in my books - semi-anthropoid, living in a recognisable society and raising a human child - are, I'm afraid, a fantasy. Of course, I'd be very happy to be proven wrong.

Or would I?

This is an issue I raise in the second book of the trilogy, Terra's World (out now in hardback in all good yada yada). I take it we're all sci-fi fans here, right? And we all dream of a day when advanced, intelligent and hopefully benign aliens make contact with us?

Because it occurs to me that if and when this did happen, sci-fi would be in a lot of trouble.

At the moment, space is unknown. It's a blank canvas. We SF authors are at liberty to imagine anything we like living out there; races, civilisations, warring empires, serene utopias, because nobody knows what if anything is REALLY out there. Here May Or May Not Be Dragons, as it didn't used to say on old maps.

But what if we did know? What if we discovered that there WERE aliens, and moreover what they were like and what they were called? We'd have to respect that as writers. What distinguishes SF from fantasy - to my mind anyway - is scientific consistency; you can make stuff up in addition to what's real, but respect what's real. So what if aliens were real? Would anyone want to read - or write - SF under these new rules?

So while I do accept the possibility of intelligent life on other planets and I'm willing to acknowledge the incredibly vague possibility that we might ever get to meet these aliens, I'm not sure how much I actually want this to happen. As a human yes, hell yes, but as a science-fiction writer? Dunno. Maybe one day.

But not before the third Terra book comes out.

Mitch Benn

Terra's World by Mitch Benn is out today ! Find out more about him from his home page or that of his publisher Gollancz . Mitch Benn is also on Twitter so go follow him.