The health of the imagination, according to [Will] Self, depends on suspension of disbelief; the higher the level of suspension required the more vigorous the workout to the muscle and therefore those things requiring the most suspension are the most important activities to the health of the imagination.
A fun conversation — or argument, depending on the tenor of everyone involved — can be had by spurring a conversation about both the original King Kong and the Peter Jackson remake. Specifically, the visual effects. There are some who defend the original because the effects weren't forensically realistic; they forced us to suspend our disbelief just enough to lift our feet off the ground, so to speak.
Isn't a perfectly "realistic" version of something that could never exist to begin with something of a contradiction in terms?
Special effects in movies have been flattening out as of late in terms of their realism. We've reached a point where we stop questioning what we see and simply accept it: yeah, that's a building toppling over; yeah, that's a spaceship — and we do this knowing full well that we're not watching something "real" in the first place.
But I wonder if we're losing something else in the process: the Tinkerbell Trick, the freedom to look at something that manifestly isn't real and say, "I believe in you."
When 2001: a space odyssey first appeared, even people who hated the film couldn't help but speak well of its visual effects, which hold up today because there is nothing particularly flashy about them. They look forensic, for lack of a better word. In fact, by the time they started sending images back from the moon, or from the space shuttle or the ISS, I couldn't help but notice how 2001's restrained look was right in line with what we were seeing in real life. (Even the light trip at the end had a realism of sorts, in big part because it was accomplished with in-camera effects: a real camera filming a real object, as opposed to today's all-digital simulations.)
The implied takeaway from this was that making things look real, convincing, was what mattered most. And it made sense: a hokey effect throws people out of a film if they're working to take it seriously. But out of that comes another question: if the work involved in making something forensically real is prohibitive and falls short, maybe the problem isn't how to make it "real", but whether or not it should be depicted that way, or depicted at all. Maybe what really matters is how we engage and inspire the viewer's imagination before that point, so that they are prepared to do that much more of the heavy lifting themselves, to not need the presence of the forensically real to help them over the threshold.
Literary SF&F has a slight built-in advantage in this respect. Everything that happens, happens first on the page and then in the reader's head. I often draw analogies with radio, which is not just coming out of the speakers but also taking place in your mind's eye. But SF&F stories often try to fall back on not needing us to suspend too much of our disbelief at once, via various explanatory or justificatory devices. Sometimes those end up substituting for the story entirely, where instead of a story about a person we get a description of a process. I ran into this firsthand when writing Flight of the Vajra, where I had to tamp down my urge to make sure everything was completely watertight. One, I'd never be able to make it so; two, even if it was, it would most likely be boring.
What matters most in a work of fiction, SF&F or otherwise but SF&F in particular, is not that it be forensically precise or realistic. Being credible is more useful than being realistic, and credulity is rooted in the emotions: we get taken by a confidence man not because we give him our money, but rather our trust. How we build that credibility is an open project, but my vote goes with building a story that involves, first and foremost, people we can believe in and want to see through to the end of their story. Believe in them and we can believe in anything.
The title of this post takes its cue from the old Zen saying about what things are like before and after Zen. Studying Zen is a little like entertaining a form of suspension of disbelief about youself: you learn to see that everything you call "you" is really just an aggregate that has no underlying perpetuality. Many people are inclined to retreat from this: who wants to think of themselves as nothing? Except it's not "nothing" — it's an aggregate. It's OK to suspend your disbelief, both for its/your own sake and for the sakes of others, who may not yet be able to see things the same way.