On the Fragile Suspension of Disbelief

I’ve already read three of this year’s six Hugo-nominated novels, and am highly unlikely to read two of the remaining three, but since I have voting rights, and want to be as responsible as I can about this, I started on Palimpsest by Cat Valente last night. The language is very rich, and I’m not far enough in yet to tell if it will eventually develop a plot, but I was jarred very badly by one early section, in which a Japanese character visits a Kyoto landmark, the Silver Pavilion:

The temple grounds were deserted. She settled onto the grass a ways off from the great silver temple. She watched it, how dark and mottled its silver leaf was, centuries of tarnish which the monks, in their inscrutable perambulations, had never polished, settling on the holiness of obscured metal.

A little bit later, another character shows up and says of it:

“[T]he Silver Pavilion… nobody cares, it’s not a big tourist draw, and if you didn’t know, you might not even think it was silver– the tarnish is so thick it matches the cypress bark on the roof.”

They’re nice passages, very atmospheric. Here’s the thing, though: The Silver Pavilion in Kyoto is not now and never has been coated in silver leaf. The Golden Pavilion has gold leaf on it, but the Silver Pavilion is just wood– I’ve got pictures. And “not a big tourist draw”? It’s one of the big sights in Kyoto (though the gardens are much nicer than the pavilion itself).

This might be intended as a subtle sign that we’re in an alternate universe, similar but not identical to our own– as I said, I’m not all that far into it. But last night at least, this read as really jarringly wrong, wrong enough to knock me out of the book for a while.

(Early impression: As I said, the writing is lovely. There’s no real plot thus far, but I’m maybe 20% of the way through it. It’s not really jumping out at me as a likely winner, but this is such a weak field of novels, and it at least has some ambition…)

6 thoughts on “On the Fragile Suspension of Disbelief

  1. Could it be a variant of “unreliable narrator”, intended to convey that the character making the remark is an ignorant idiot?

  2. Get a new *good* English translation of “Solaris”, and enter a nomination. Or enter the latest Charles Stross. Books may have lovely writing, but plot matters.
    On some *very rare* occasion, you get both good writing and a good, original plot and these are the novels that really deserve awards. Ideally, they should not automatically issue one award every year regardless of the merits of the contesting titles. Sometimes they should give it a pass.

  3. Sometimes they should give it a pass.

    One of the options in each category of the Hugo-voting form is “No Award” — if enough fans think nothing deserves the award then, in theory, “No Award” could be the winner. I don’t think it’s ever happened in any of the major categories, but the possibility’s there.

  4. Mildly ironic, given her heated complaints about all the Russian inaccuracies in Adam Roberts’ novel Yellow Blue Tibia.

    (I’m about halfway through In the Night Garden, and her writing is quite lovely. Given that it’s in the mode of 1001 Nights, it doesn’t necessarily need an overarching plot, so I’m not too concerned about that aspect.)

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