Fantasy has always been my favorite genre. There’s something about the frisson of the real and the unreal colliding that sparks imagination like nothing else. Those hints of something that almost makes sense are the base for the sense of wonder we feel in fantasy. And yet. A trope I see rarely in any speculative fiction is the rational explanation.
Now, I mean a very particular strain of this. Fantasy is filled with magical artifacts with lore dating back decades whose powers are explicated early on. And villains love to monologue about how precisely they used their magic to trap the heroes. Those are rational explanations in a world where magic exists, but they’re not quite what I’m looking for.
No, I mean stripping all the magic out (and the weird technology if we’re dealing with science fiction, and the supernatural if we’re dealing with horror) and explaining how something happened without it. Eliminate the speculative parts of your setting and you still have people. History shows some of the strange and awful things we can do without any supernatural power behind us. Sometimes, it’s because we think there’s something supernatural. Humans seek patterns, in stories and elsewhere. It’s easy for our imaginations to run away with us, and more so if we’re steeped in a particular milieu. Read enough ghost stories, and you may start feeling haunted; listen to music backwards enough times and you can start to make out words. This doesn’t make ghosts or backwards messages real—it means our brain is trying to make sense out of nonsense.
One of my favorite authors is Umberto Eco, the brilliant semiotics professor who wrote The Name of the Rose. It’s a historical mystery, but the detectives are at a monastery in the 13th century, and are steeped in religious portents. It’s the height of the Inquisition and people start dying in patterns resembling the breaking of the seven seals.
It shouldn’t be a spoiler to suggest that there’s no divine hand at play, and the seven seals are just fine. Rather, it’s a manipulation of symbols and the pattern-seeking nature of the human mind. There aren’t many examples from fantasy, and to list off examples would be to spoil some pretty great twists. It’s rare because the supernatural permeates fantasy by design. Fantasy is where we can imbue meaning into a world. But that meaning can still be manipulated. Assuming strange magic teleported people away means characters might miss the logistical, methodical manner humans took those people away without a trace. Assuming dragon’s breath destroyed a village might let an arsonist free, and terrify neighbouring villages. The most famous fictional rationalist once proclaimed, “Eliminate the impossible and what remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” There’s no reason for that statement to lose its power, even in the realm of impossible things.