Jan 18 2010 1:38pm

SF reading protocols

Genres are usually defined by their tropes—mysteries have murders and clues, romances have two people finding each other, etc. Science fiction doesn’t work well when you define it like that, because it’s not about robots and rocketships. Samuel Delany suggested that rather than try to define science fiction it’s more interesting to describe it, and of describing it more interesting to draw a broad circle around what everyone agrees is SF than to quibble about the edge conditions. (Though arguing over the borders of science fiction and fantasy is a neverending and fun exercise.) He then went on to say that one of the ways of approaching SF is to look at the way people read it—that those of us who read it have built up a set of skills for reading SF which let us enjoy it, where people who don’t have this approach to reading are left confused.

If you’re reading this, the odds are overwhelming that you have that SF reading skillset.

(As I’m using it here, “science fiction” means “science fiction” and “SF” means “the broad genre of science fiction and fantasy.”)

We’ve all probably had the experience of reading a great SF novel and lending it to a friend—a literate friend who adores A.S. Byatt and E.M. Forster. Sometimes our friend will turn their nose up at the cover, and we’ll say no, really, this is good, you’ll like it. Sometimes our friend does like it, but often we’ll find our friend returning the book with a puzzled grimace, having tried to read it but “just not been able to get into it.” That friend has approached science fiction without the necessary toolkit and has bounced off. It’s not that they’re stupid. It’s not that they can’t read sentences. It’s just that part of the fun of science fiction happens in your head, and their head isn’t having fun, it’s finding it hard work to keep up.

This can happen in different ways. My ex-husband once lent a friend Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. The friend couldn’t get past chapter 2, because there was a tachyon drive mentioned, and the friend couldn’t figure out how that would work. All he wanted to talk about was the physics of tachyon drives, whereas we all know that the important thing about a tachyon drive is that it lets you go faster than light, and the important thing about the one in The Forever War is that the characters get relativistically out of sync with what’s happening on Earth because of it. The physics don’t matter—there are books about people doing physics and inventing things, and some of them are SF (The Dispossessed...) but The Forever War is about going away to fight aliens and coming back to find that home is alien, and the tachyon drive is absolutely essential to the story but the way it works—forget it, that’s not important.

This tachyon drive guy, who has stuck in my mind for years and years, got hung up on that detail because he didn’t know how to take in what was and what wasn’t important. How do I know it wasn’t important? The way it was signalled in the story. How did I learn how to recognise that? By reading half a ton of SF. How did I read half a ton of SF before I knew how to do it? I was twelve years old and used to a lot of stuff going over my head, I picked it up as I went along. That’s how we all did it. Why couldn’t this guy do that? He could have, but it would have been work, not fun.

These days I much more often have this problem from the other end—the literary end. The best example of this I remember came from Making Light in a thread called Story for Beginners. A reviewer wanted to make the zombies in Kelly Link’s “Zombie Contingency Plans” (in the collection Magic For Beginners) into metaphors. They’re not. They’re actual zombies. They may also be metaphors, but their metaphorical function is secondary to the fact that they’re actual zombies that want to eat your brains. Science fiction may be literalization of metaphor, it may be open to metaphorical, symbolic and even allegorical readings, but what’s real within the story is real within the story, or there’s no there there. I had this problem with one of the translators of my novel Tooth and Claw—he kept emailing me asking what things represented. I had to keep saying no, the characters really were dragons, and if they represented anything that was secondary to the reality of their dragon nature. He kept on and on, and I kept being polite but in the end I bit his head off—metaphorically, of course.

When I read literary fiction, I take the story as real on the surface first, and worry about metaphors and representation later, if at all. It’s possible that I may not be getting as much as I can from literary fiction by this method, in the same way that the people who want the zombies and dragons to be metaphorical aren’t getting as much as they could. But it’s interesting that it’s precisely those SF books that best lend themselves to metaphorical readings that gain credibility with academia—it’s Dick who has a Library of America edition, not Sturgeon or Heinlein. It’s Kelly Link who’s getting that mainstream review, not Elizabeth Bear.

And then there are people like my aunt. She’s one of the canonical people I lent SF to and she tried but could never get into it. When I was published she worked her way through The King’s Peace, and eventually managed to see past the metaphorical. “It’s just like Greek myths or the bible!” she said brightly. That was all the context she had. I fell over laughing, but this really was her first step to acquiring the reading habits we take for granted.

I once got into an argument on a Trollope mailing list with people who like footnotes. (I hate all footnotes not written by the author.) The people I was arguing with maintained that they needed footnotes to understand the story, because Trollope wrote expecting his readers to know what a hansom cab was and to understand his jokes about decimalization. I argued that they’d either figure it out from context or they didn’t need to. After a while I realised—and said—that I was reading Trollope as SF, assuming that the text was building the world in my head. They quite sensibly pointed out that SF does it on purpose, but I don’t think any of us enjoyed Trollope any more or any less, except that I continue to seek out Victorian novels in editions without footnotes.

Having a world unfold in one’s head is the fundamental SF experience. It’s a lot of what I read for. Delany has a long passage about how your brain expands while reading the sentence “The red sun is high, the blue low”—how it fills in doubled purple shadows on the planet of a binary star. I think it goes beyond that, beyond the physical into the delight of reading about people who come from other societies and have different expectations.

Because SF can’t take the world for granted, it’s had to develop techniques for doing it. There’s the simple infodump, which Neal Stephenson has raised to an artform in its own right. There are lots of forms of what I call incluing, scattering pieces of information seamlessly through the text to add up to a big picture. The reader has to remember them and connect them together. This is one of the things some people complain about as “too much hard work” and which I think is a high form of fun. SF is like a mystery where the world and the history of the world is what’s mysterious, and putting that all together in your mind is as interesting as the characters and the plot, if not more interesting. We talk about worldbuilding as something the writer does, but it’s also something the reader does, building the world from the clues. When you read that the clocks were striking thirteen, you think at first that something is terribly wrong before you work out that this is a world with twenty-four hour time—and something terribly wrong. Orwell economically sends a double signal with that.

Because there’s a lot of information to get across and you don’t want to stop the story more than you can help, we have techniques for doing it. We have signals for what you can take for granted, we have signals for what’s important. We’re used to seeing people’s names and placenames and product-names as information. We know what needs to be explained and what doesn’t. In exactly the same way as Trollope didn’t explain that a hansom cab was a horse-drawn vehicle for hire on the streets of London that would take you about the city but not out into the countryside, and Byatt doesn’t explain that the Northern Line is an underground railroad running north south through London and dug in the early twentieth century, SF characters casually hail pedicabs and ornithopters and tip when they get out. 

People have been writing science fiction for more than a century, and we’ve had more than eighty years of people writing science fiction and knowing what they were doing. The techniques of writing and reading it have developed in that time. Old things sometimes look very clunky, as if they’re inventing the wheel—because they are. Modern SF assumes. It doesn’t say “The red sun is high, the blue low because it was a binary system.” So there’s a double problem. People who read SF sometimes write SF that doesn’t have enough surface to skitter over. Someone who doesn’t have the skillset can’t learn the skillset by reading it. And conversely, people who don’t read SF and write it write horribly old fashioned clunky re-inventing the wheel stuff, because they don’t know what needs explanation. They explain both too much and not enough, and end up with something that’s just teeth-grindingly annoying for an SF reader to read.

There are however plenty of things out there, and still being written, that are good starter-sets for acquiring the SF reading skillset. Harry Potter has been one for a lot of people.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

CE Petit
1. Jaws
Leaving aside excessively metatextual arguments like "But the 'toolkit' is itself just a metaphor!", I have to disagree with the metaphor offered here.* A "toolkit" implies certain skills and abilities, which -- at least for "good" speculative fiction+ -- greatly distorts what is actually going on. So, in the tradition of literary scholars, I'm going to argue about the details. That there are details to argue about, however, is certainly a credit to the original posting; too much writing "about" speculative fiction -- most especially including reviews -- doesn't demonstrate the sophistication to wonder about such things.

Whether we're talking about the writer's toolkit for characterisation, metier, integrating thematic material, or whatever, or the reader's toolkit for understanding different aspects of a work, is largely immaterial; the toolkit remains the same for all prose fiction. Instead, the distinctions among types of prose fiction are not just metaphoric, but actual, reference frames... with all of the importation from relativistic physics that implies and then some. The difference is that the frame itself does much of the work... but the frame is an artificial construct that can, in an appropriate work, be successfully and nontrivially violated. The Dispossessed is a good example: Lying at the intersection of modern/postmodern science fiction (which assumes the inevitability, and in most instances preferability, of change) and utopian fiction (which assumes that, once a utopian state has been reached, change will stop), the novel must negotiate two inconsistent reference frames using only a single toolkit. That it is as successful as it is at both is, itself, no small achievement.

The Dispossessed also makes the subordinate point that, to completely mangle the metaphor, demonstrates that the toolkit metaphor is at best incomplete. One's view of The Dispossessed -- and, indeed, one's view of the value of almost all utopian fiction, from Utopia itself through 1984 and Island to the future -- depends more upon one's starting point than just about anything else. That is, it's not about what one uses in understanding the work; it's about where one starts. That's one reason that scholars in utopian fiction disagree with political scientists on the worth/value of 1984 as fiction: The political science reference frame promotes the context and plot so far over the fictional mechanisms used to delineate them that those mechanisms get treated as rubbish. After all, "everybody knows" that Julia is a cardboard character, so nobody really looks at what's going on with the tools of characterisation used in the novel... or compares them to other epistolaries. And so on.

So I call for relativistic physics, not country craftsmanship. (And thereby start yet another argument...)

* But then, I was a theory-heavy grad student in literature a couple of decades back...

+ For whatever value of "good" you wish.
brightening glance
2. brightglance
Surely the readers of Trollope should know what a hansom cab is from reading The Magician's Nephew, and Sherlock Holmes, and E. Nesbit, and Frances Hodgson Burnett, and so on. I would certainly resent footnotes that assumed I was too thick to figure those sort of things out. I don't remember the decimalisation jokes, though, must keep an eye out for them.

Anyway, just earlier today I came across this interviewwith Walter Jon Williams where he talks about reading City of Fire and Metropolitan with fantasy rather than science fiction protocols.
David Levinson
3. DemetriosX
Frequently when the SF community starts agonizing over declining readership, somebody tries to argue that all of those basic assumptions and shorthand are keeping readers out, like the tachyon drive guy. (Though I would argue that if wondering how a tachyon drive works was his problem, he is ready to be a SF reader, he just needs something harder.) I find this argument ridiculous, since none of us had any more background than the newbies today when we started and the shorthand hasn't increased appreciably in several decades.

And yet there are people who simply can't parse the unfamiliar. And their numbers seem greater today than ever. Are the really people who don't know what a hansom is? Have they never read Sherlock Holmes or seen some version of it filmed? I would be so utterly insulted by a footnote telling me what one is that I would probably toss the book across the room and I would certainly never buy another with such footnotes. (Which could be difficult for me, since I love author footnotes. Terry Pratchett, Jack Vance, the more the better.) And if I didn't know what a hansom was and I simply couldn't either figure it out from context or just let it go, then there are these things called dictionaries and this thing called the Internet; it shouldn't take more than a few seconds to find the necessary information.

Of course, that's a bigger problem with SF. It's not as easy to look up what a tachyon drive is and the answers you might find may not necessarily fit the context of what you're reading. Sometimes the details are important, sometimes it's just a way to get from here to there. But the context should really tell you everything you need to know. Are there so many people who can't figure things out from context? That is an important, a vital skill.
Jo Walton
4. bluejo
Jaws: I would say I disagree, but you could have figured that out from the original post. I do think SF is doing different things from other prose fiction.

DemetriosX: The hansom cab footnote is in the Oxford World Classics version of The Prime Minister, since replaced on my shelves with a charming little blue Everyman edition with no apparatus. The worst Victorian novel footnote I've ever seen is in the Penguin Classics edition of Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South which is so far lost to the concept of people reading for pleasure that a footnote to a scene about a third of the way through contains spoilers for the end.
5. NiSp111
agreed, demetriosX. you say "And yet there are people who simply can't parse the unfamiliar. And their numbers seem greater today than ever." education policies and parenting 'norms' set by society over the past few decades, dictate that children should be handed their formulas in life on platters of ultra-patience, while pretending a higher understanding of in- and inter-dependence. we learn by getting stuck muck-deep and not getting home to dinner until we figure out how to reach shore...
read and just enjoy the ride!
6. seth e.
DemetriosX, #3: I find this argument ridiculous, since none of us had any more background than the newbies today

I disagree; I think sf&f's literary protocols do make a barrier to entry for new readers. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, it's just the nature of reading. Jo has a great point in the original post, that most people start reading sf&f as children, when they're used to most of a story going over their head.

My fiancee is a writer and a very smart reader, who didn't grow up with sf&f but has nothing against it, likes some examples of it, and is generally curious about what she sees me reading (I've been reading genre stuff since I was a kid). A while ago I borrowed Agent of Vega from my father, since I have fond childhood memories of it, and it sat around the house while I got around to reading it. My fiancee picked it up, read the first page, and put it back down again. When I asked her about it, she said:

- She didn't know what was going on. I can't actually remember the first page of Agent of Vega now, but let's assume it includes psionics and faster-than-light travel and aliens--you know, the usual, if you're the kind of reader for whom that kind of stuff is the usual. But she isn't.

- She didn't have the tools to figure out what was going on. The experience of the book is predicated on familiarity with all the tropes; by this time, most of the literature isn't asking "what else can we come up with?" but "how are we going to use the same old tools this time?" And by tools I mean both scientific and narrative devices.

- She didn't have the impetus to acquire the tools. It was obvious from the first page that the narrative pleasure that Agent of Vega has to offer exists on the same level as the tools you need to understand it. So why bother, given how many other books she already could be reading (and that are actually sitting on the shelf as I speak)? Why not read something else with your finite time?

The ironclad assumption behind lots of sf lit is that the reader is one of those readers who knows not just what psionics are, but that the word "psionics" is kind of quaint by now; who knows when rayguns went out of fashion and beam weapons came in; and who understands the difference between lazy, unimaginative space opera and space opera that is the kind of good old-fashioned storytelling we need more of these days, consarn it.

None of this means that Schmitz was a bad writer, or that my fiancee is a bad reader. He just wasn't aiming at her. I'm an artist, and I get the same attitude from people who think that art is "pretentious" and "irrelevant" and so forth, because they personally don't care for it--which is fine, of course, not everything is for everybody. But when I get it from sf&f fans, given the discrete, unique, demanding protocols sf&f is built on, I always think it's kind of ironic.
Marcus W
7. toryx
I'm glad you pointed out that these toolkits can cause problems with reading literary novels. I was raised on genre: Mystery first, then horror, fantasy, and science fiction. It took me years to be able to deal with literary and non-fiction works precisely because they didn't expect me to gloss over things that were difficult to comprehend. The detailed explanations and/or metaphor always got in the way of the story for me.
8. Madeleine E. Robins
I've written elsewhere about a friend of mine who didn't just not-get-SF, he didn't get fiction as a class. Why read things that weren't true? We had several meaty discussions about fiction and non-fiction and the truths that could be wrapped up into an imagined story--he had no problem with fiction in movies. But something about using the written word to create imaginary people and situations (let alone imaginary worlds) just did not make sense to him.

This was my first clue that I read differently from some people. Perhaps because of my upbringing in a family where keeping your head down and trying to read behavior for clues was a survival technique, and perhaps because I loved fantasy and SF from my early teenhood on, I enter any written world reading for cues. If I don't understand a word I'd read on, trying to get it from the context--for this reason there are a lot of words I understand and use, but would hesitate to define because I've learned them in their setting. If I didn't understand the milieu I'd keep looking about me until I did.

Historical fiction is a lot like SF in the use of cues, and the reactions they evoke. When I was writing Point of Honour one of the members of my then-writing workshop was stopped cold by the word "barouche." He wanted me to define it before continuing on with my sentence. "What do you think it is?" I asked him. He answered that it seemed pretty clear that it was some kind of vehicle. "It is. Why do you need to know more?" He couldn't answer--but it bothered him that I'd used a word he hadn't encountered before, and it bothered him so much that it threw him right out of the story. And I made the decision not to define "barouche" because having to stop and write "they got into the barouche, a four-wheeled horse-drawn carriage with a collapsible hood and seats facing each other for the passengers, and wheeled slowly down the High Street" would have thrown me right out of the story.

In that case I was the writer and I got to do it my way.
9. randwolf
Trollope wrote expecting his readers to know what a hansom cab was and to understand his jokes about decimalization. I argued that they’d either figure it out from context or they didn’t need to.

This actually can get a reader into a lot of trouble! In a good sf book, the author knows the reader will be doing this, and will provide the necessary context. Trollope, however, didn't provide context for US readers in the 21st century, and a modern US reader will miss a lot, unless they're already well-read in Victorian English fiction.

Perhaps someone who doesn't know the era would be better off with a footnoted edition.
Avram Grumer
10. avram
Funny you should use The Dispossessed as an example, Jo. The physics in that book -- Shevek's reconciliation of linear and cyclical time -- is a metaphor for what LeGuin is trying to say about the need for ongoing revolution in a just society. And the political aspect of it is given a lot more weight, more reality and gritty detail, in the novel than the physics aspect of it. Tachyon drive guy would probably find it just as frustrating as The Forever War.
P J Evans
11. PJEvans
'I get the same attitude from people who think that art is "pretentious" and "irrelevant" and so forth, because they personally don't care for it'

I've heard remarks like that from people who couldn't see abstract art as art. (I grew up in a house where that was most of the art on the walls.)

As for footnotes: the farther back something was written, the more likely it is to need adequate footnotes, just so we can have some idea of what's going on in what amounts to a different world with similar language. (I'm in need of a better footnote to the scene in Persuasion where Mrs Croft has a blister on her heel the size of a three-shilling piece, because two-thirds of the footnote explains the _value_ of the coin and the rest says it's slightly larger than a half-crown.)
Michael Grosberg
12. Michael_GR
Very interesting post! But it's not just SF and fantasy that need to clue readers about the world the story takes place in. This skill or toolkit is also important to readers and writers of historical fiction and to a lesser extent, crime fiction (as seen in the massive amounts of infodumps on CSI). I wonder how mainstream readers who have difficulties parsing SF manage with those. After all, those were written for a modern audience. Do they have explanations of what hansom cabs are? I don't think so...
Alex Brown
13. AlexBrown
I'm still very new to the fantasy genre myself. I have actively avoided science fiction for years. Even now as I work my way through the new Battlestar Galactica I have to keep reminding myself that it doesn't matter that you can't have 12 whole planets of people - theoretically totally dozens of billions of people - all speaking the same language, believing the same religion, acting under the same cultural mores (think how many civilizations grew and died, how many countries, languages, religions, etc. have existed in just the last 2000 years). But that's not the point of the show (even though the anthropologist in me gets really frustrated at this seemingly major plot hole).

With fantasy you have to just accept that there is magic and it does stuff, some good and some bad, and just like people with too much power, some will abuse it and others will be abused by it. I am much more willing to accept a vampire with a soul running around saving people over a bunch of Redshirts flying around in a saucer-shaped ship. The only reason I even accepted Firefly, Torchwood, and Doctor Who is because the science part is virtually non-existent (the first), or so advanced that it's more magic than anything (the latter two) - well, that and the shows are frakking fantastic in all ways. It's also why I like Steampunk over traditional science fiction: the science is basic, it's something that can be built and taken apart. How many times do you get to see Gaeta or the Chief actually assemble an FTL drive?

I'm still slowly figuring out how to deal with science fiction and fantasy, what I like and don't like, and how to understand it at all, but that's sorta the fun of it. I also, however, am not against a few footnotes now and again (how much more awesome is Austen when you realize just HOW MANY jokes are layered into each word by checking out the footnote to understand the historical context).
David Levinson
14. DemetriosX
The more I think about it, the more it seems to me less to be inability and more an unwillingness to move outside of their comfort zone. There are an awful lot of people who aren't willing to parse, for example, the classic "The door dilated," even though they may know and fully understand what dilate means. Doors open, they don't dilate, and these readers are unwilling to think for 1/2 a second to grasp this.

This ties in with Michael_GR's comment @12. I'm seeing people who have no problem dealing with an unfamiliar concept in, say, a mystery, but would simply throw in the towel if they encountered the same unfamiliarity in a SF novel. Maybe some of it is a perception that it must be hard, because it involves "science". And those readers of über-literary fiction who love peeling back layer after layer of metaphor can't grasp that damn dilating door, because doors don't dilate, they open and all of the meaning of the door is tied into the door as they know it and they can't parse the symbology of it if it behaves abnormally.

PJEvans @11, there is some truth to there perhaps being a greater need for footnotes, the farther back in time you go. Still, it would be better if the editors put a little more effort into sensible footnoting. Not only would it be more useful to know the diameter of that three-shilling piece, but any information putting the value of the coin into modern terms will be useless in just a few years, thanks to inflation. Another example I ran into recently: I was reading a new translation of Aristophanes and even though I am reasonably familiar with the period and most of the terminology, a little more background on some of the people being mocked can help a joke come across better. But I can't count the number of times it went something like this: Aristophanes makes a mocking reference to someone as being flagrantly effeminate. The footnote then tells me that said person was notoriously flagrantly effeminate. Thanks, I got that. Is that all we know about him? From this passage, right? Why did you bother with a footnote? Sheesh!
Patrick Nielsen Hayden
15. pnh
Milo1313 writes: "Even now as I work my way through the new Battlestar Galactica I have to keep reminding myself that it doesn't matter that you can't have 12 whole planets of people--theoretically totally dozens of billions of people--all speaking the same language, believing the same religion, acting under the same cultural mores (think how many civilizations grew and died, how many countries, languages, religions, etc. have existed in just the last 2000 years). But that's not the point of the show (even though the anthropologist in me gets really frustrated at this seemingly major plot hole).

My first impulse is to say, no, that's not what Jo is talking about. I liked large parts of BSG, but it's not really science fiction; it's a mythopoeic action-adventure in SF trappings. The kind of wholesale handwaving-away-of-gross-implausibility that Milo1313 talks about isn't the equivalent of the tachyon drive that enables the setup of a novel like The Forever War.

My second impulse is to wonder whether my first impulse is correct. Maybe they are the same thing, and each of them feels like a reasonable, story-enabling mulligan--or a dimwitted cheat--depending on the angle with which we choose to enter the story's outer atmosphere.
Patrick Nielsen Hayden
16. pnh
I do know one thing, which is that it's silly to suggest (as someone did several comments ago) that Young People Today don't have the intellectual fortitude to decode challenging SF. I think that, to the contrary, more people are better at following more complicated SF setups and storylines than ever before.
17. TNH
SF readership isn't declining. It's been a fairly stable percentage of the total readership for decades.
18. BreakInTheSun
I'll second the comments about historic/crime fiction, and I think it goes further than that. To the average western reader, modern-day India, China or South Africa might be just as alien as Trantor, and require just as much exposition.

Part of some readers' problems with science fiction and SF might be less not knowing what to expect, and more expecting the wrong things. Tachyon drive man, for example, may well have come in expecting science fiction to be fiction about science -- in which case, of course he would be puzzled by the tachyon drive. The aunt took the story cues to mean that she should read it on a mythological level, and that determined her expectations.

I know I had a similar experience reading Willian Gibson's Pattern Recognition. Because it was labeled as science fiction, I read it as I would a futuristic SF novel, and was surprised to find that it was actually set in the present/near-past. With that novel, Gibson may well have been using reader's expectations as part of the experience. Readers with different expectations would probably read it differently from someone who expected Gibson to be writing cyberpunk.
Wesley Osam
19. Wesley
I'd like to defend footnotes for classic novels. (Actually, they're usually endnotes, which are easily ignored by anyone who doesn't like them.) As has been pointed out, the authors weren't writing in the assumption that they had to clue the audience in on the details of daily life. It's true that it's possible to figure many things out from context (what a hansom is, for example). But sometimes it's more complicated, and most people don't read novels with a reference library to hand (particularly when reading on the bus). Unless they have serious attention deficit problems, they certainly won't put the book aside to do research on the internet.

In some cases you'd never know without the footnote that there was anything to miss--for instance, allusions to cultural artifacts (songs, poems, other novels) or recent events that would have been familiar to contemporary readers but are now forgotten. (I just checked the notes to the Oxford World's Classics edition of Bleak House, and the first thing I saw was a paragraph about how London cemeteries were running out of room for bodies, which not only clarifies part of the text but is also interesting in itself.) And sometimes customs or objects which are perfectly understandable on the surface had associations for contemporary readers which are now lost on us.

Some footnotes get into the history of a novel's critical interpretations. Not everyone cares about this, but I enjoy it. (I especially enjoyed the New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, which gives Holmes fandom's alternate solutions for some of his cases...)
ennead ennead
20. ennead
I like thinking of SF as "inductive fiction" but I'm adopting "incluing", which I love.

Incidentally, incluing is a big part of writing good role-playing game material, since it's all about describing a world. The best RPG writers manage to inclue inside infodumps, providing both useful information and hooks the imagination can latch on.
21. Pistachio Wildebeest
"... the important thing about a tachyon drive is that it lets you go faster than light, and the important thing about the one in The Forever War is that the characters get relativistically out of sync with what’s happening on Earth because of it."

I know it's not strictly relevant, but that's really not what the tachyon drive in The Forever War did. The entire point was that the ships traveled slower than light, hence the time dilation. They used the collapsar jumps for FTL.

Haldeman didn't describe the tachyon drive, but I assumed it had an infinite exhaust velocity, which would account for the ships' ludicrously high performance. Just saying.

In the context of Forever War, the inner workings of the tachyon drive are of course irrelevant. It's a black box to enable the plot. But the fact that a drive generating a tachyon exhaust would have some very interesting properties is, in itself, rather a lot of fun!
Jed Reinert
22. Durandal
There's a small but important portion of my daily routine that's labeled "go to and see what Jo Walton has posted." It's always interesting, and I've gotten a bunch of great reading recommendations from this daily ritual.

This post though? Awesome. It so perfectly explains a phenomenon I've observed for years.

Thanks, Jo!
William S. Higgins
23. higgins
PNH writes in #16:

I think that, to the contrary, more people are better at following more complicated SF setups and storylines than ever before.

This, neglecting the "SF," is essentially the thesis of Steven Johnson's book Everything Bad Is Good for You. He argues that television narratives have become more complex over the decades, and that an episode of modern TV is way more challenging to the viewer's mental skills than an episode of, say, Sixties TV.

I'd say SF and fantasy films and TV have followed the same path. Worldbuilding and incluing are considerably more sophisticated than they were decades ago (though they generally lag behind ink-&-paper SF still).
24. JeffVandermeer
I'm having some difficulty with this idea--as I read it--of the literal *versus* the metaphorical, since metaphor has so much to do with the subtext of a story. If you don't have subtext, you have a pretty flat story--it doesn't resonate. Metaphorical interpretation is key, on some subconscious level in a reader, between a text that is alive and one that, after a first reading, is dead. Some SF writers write "flat" in this regard and some do not--some resonate.

Also, in most non-fantastical fiction--most realistic fiction--there are not a whole bunch of metaphors walking around just being metaphors rather than something literal, so this strikes me as false. There is a sense of "decoding" in that there's nuance as to the interactions between people, as in real life...but you find this in certain kinds of good SF/fantasy, too.

As for SF protocols--yes, most definitely. Mary Doria Russell, on a panel where I was in the audience, talked about basically "de-science fictioning" the first 100 pages of her novel The Sparrow so that more readers could get hooked on the book before the strange stuff started happening. To some extent this destabilizes the novel, this stripping out of evidence that this is "the future", but it does have the desired effect of getting more readers to buy into the story and be in the grip of it to the point where, when the odd stuff happens later, they're more okay with it.

Anyway, metaphorical, literal--why not have it all? There's no essential opposition here. And I know many, many readers who enjoy the supposed "tropes" of non-fantastical fiction as well as the tropes of "genre" fiction. (These terms being relatively meaningless anywa, since there's no monolithic "realistic fiction" cadre and there are plenty of SF/fantasy writers who write realistically and plenty who write in a surreal or magic realist way.

25. NileH
There's another big divide in the literary world: a 'Men are from Mars' of action and ideas; and a 'Women are from Venus' of character development and relationships.

I will gloss over the unfortunate truth that literary critics are with very few exceptions from Uranus, and look with great disdain upon 'Adventure' novels; the vast majority aren't actually very widely-read at all - not across the Great Divide, at any rate - and all too many of them never look outside a very narrow and incestuous circle of mutual praise.

A trite and oversimplified caricature?

Any book that opens up ideas or travels to an unfamiliar landscape is almost certain to be consigned to the publishers' black hole of 'genre' writing - historical, travel, adventure, or Science Fiction. In short, a kind of ghetto.

It doesn't help that ideas are a challenge to the reader - and that they're meant to be! - the publishing and lit-crit industry just doesn't like them. And, as the pigeonholing is becoming ever narrower, I fear that Science Fiction will end up like the stylised world of detective and police procedural fiction. Horror's going that way, rapidly: no vampires, no contract, no exceptions unless you're Stephen King.

Which begs the obvious point: how hard did you find it to get published without a Saturn's Children abomination of a cover pic, or any kind of marketing beyond a signing session at Forbidden Planet?
Alex Brown
26. AlexBrown
pnh @ 15: The BSG guys stated in many interviews that the show was definitely *not* an action-adventure show (it's intended as sociopolitical commentary), though many perceive it as such. And yeah, it isn't nearly as sci-fi as, say, Stargate: Atlantis, but I'd argue that the science enables the plot (along with religion/mythology). Take out the science and you don't have cylons, FTLs, battlestars, etc. Side note: I really do like of my fave shows.

But, more to the point, to me creating an interesting world is only half the story. You have to people it with interesting people, beyond the main characters. Otherwise it's just background. Creating 12 whole colonies and not using hardly any of the people in them - and not creating a diverse population - seems a waste of perfectly interesting story lines.

I think for me the problem is that "standard" fiction is taken as a stand-in for the real world. I know there's isn't a real-world equivalent of Dexter, but I can accept that there is for the purpose of the show because it's set in a world meant to be mine. Sci-fi and the more fantastical fantasy worlds are (usually) not my world and maybe that's my problem. I have a harder time accepting that other world because I keep trying to apply my world logic to it.
Russell Letson
27. RLetson
Much of what is described in the original entry applies to any text that is sufficiently distanced from the reader's experience of life or literature. My wife chooses editions (of Shakespeare or Homer or Ovid) for her classes partly on the basis of their notes, since there is so much material that needs explanation. And it's not only pre-modern material that her students find opaque--Pride and Prejudice and Gorky Park are just as challenging to kids who know narrative primarily through TV and popular movies.

Then there's the matter of literary sophistication--many university students are now entirely innocent not only of rhetoric but of the conventions of presentation. And the urge to turn texts into allegories or sets of metaphors or whatever turned up in every literature course I ever taught, no matter the period or genre. "X is really Y" decoding is the second-most primitive analytical approach. (The most primitive is "This is a report of actual events"--interpretation zero degree.)

"Having a world unfold in one’s head is the fundamental SF experience." I would say that of any narrative experience. And as far as I can tell, the only way to acquire the skill set that does the unfolding is to read enough examples to internalize the protocols.
28. meikamunchkintoola
No footnotes are necessary anymore.

This is what wikipedia is for, with ebooks the ability to highlight and bring up web searches for any term will be commonplace soon, particularly with online dictionaries and specialist glossaries

'course that's too SF for some, even as it is already happening
Wesley Osam
29. Wesley
meikamunchkintoola @28: No, they're still necessary. You can't look something up if you don't know you're missing it.

Even when you've realized there's something you don't know, researching every reference takes time. It's not always immediately obvious where to find the answer to a question, and the more interesting the question the less likely the research will be quick... especially if you're in one of those situations where you know you're missing something, but you're not sure what, or where to begin looking for it.

And then you have to have the judgement to know when you've found the right answer, which isn't easy if you're reading about something outside your personal expertise. Everybody, no matter how smart or well read, has subjects they know little or nothing about.

Wikipedia has its uses, but can't be relied upon.

It's less of a pain when a book comes with endnotes written by an expert who's already done the research for you.
30. Bluejay
Ms. Walton, is it possible to develop reading protocols for a subset of a genre, or even for the works of a single author? And would you require that a reviewer be familiar with such protocols if he or she is to have a valid opinion about it?

I think, for instance (and to discuss this in a different context), of Michael Bay movies and the people who love them (I am not one of them). It seems to me that such viewers have developed their own "protocols" for appreciating Bay's films--protocols which probably include an expectation of spectacle and frequent explosions, and a very forgiving attitude towards incoherent plots and cardboard characters. Would a reviewer that scorned, say, Transformers for its perceived shortcomings in character and plot be missing the point?
Nelson Cunnington
31. NelC
I'm reminded of a girl I knew in school, a smart and assertive young woman who had the greatest of difficulty with reading her English Literature A-level set book for a certain term. One day in the common room, she proclaimed loudly to all, "What is this nonsense? Clocks don't strike thirteen!" She couldn't even get past the first line, poor soul.
32. tanjible
Bluejay @ 30: is it possible to develop reading protocols for a subset of a genre, or even for the works of a single author? And would you require that a reviewer be familiar with such protocols if he or she is to have a valid opinion about it?

I believe it is possible to develop such protocols even for a single author, although in my (limited) experience, cases where it is truly rewarding and satisfying to do so are rare. (Patrick O'Brian is the worldshaking experience causing me to develop just such a customized set.)

Outside of known exceptions or books I'm willing to grant some slack to, I don't think I'm unjustified in approaching every new story with my same old trusty screwdriver and expecting, nay, demanding, that these default tools will allow me to gain enjoyment. Perhaps, as in O'Brian's case, gaining new skills will allow me to gain more enjoyment--but if so, I hope that my old default tools are enough to make that apparent to me.

(Phrased the other way around, I hope the book is vulnerable enough to screwdrivers that I can at least get hints of some awesome twiddly bits inside. Nothing's more frustrating than a story with no handles, no seams and no screws.)

I didn't know that historical is also one of the lamented "genre" categories. Darn... here I was hoping that my new skills with O'Brian were going to open up huge swathes of delicious mainstream literature to me.
33. Bluejay
Thanks, tanjible @32, but I guess my question is really about where to draw the line (if such a line exists) between "I don't appreciate this work because I'm not familiar with its protocols" and "I don't appreciate this work because it sucks." There are surely protocols for every genre of literature/film/music, but it seems to me that they could be used to invalidate negative opinions, if we're not careful.

To take my example of Michael Bay movies again: I generally don't enjoy them, but I can imagine a fan telling me "You've got to let go of your preconceived notions of what makes a good movie, and just enjoy the artfully choreographed explosions, etc." How much am I justified in my opinion that his movies suck, and how much is the fan justified in his opinion that Bay is just misunderstood by his critics?
34. KarenR
Even among SF readers there is a difference in (something like) tolerance for how tightly plotted the story is. Describing Neal Stephenson as creating 'the art of the infodump' brought this to mind. I think of his style as a more leisurely exploration of the complex world he built. And that's because I really enjoy that kind of exploration even when it's not necessary. Infodump is (to me) more narrow: information furthering the story, a lot at once. Usually in a way that doesn't quite flow as part of the story, but is clearly part of the main tale, not an interesting detour.

Infodump can be really useful to new readers (tachyon-drive guy) or really off-putting. World-meandering can be really fun - having learned to imagine the world, why limit what you can do there - or really off-putting. But I think there the issue is less about the skillset than the reader's preferences. And I am not surprised that some very intelligent and loveable readers dislike both enough that they don't want to read about unfamiliar ones.
35. Russell Coker
In terms of people getting stuck on one item at the start of a book and being unable to read it (EG the non-existent tachyon drive and clocks that strike 13), did the people in question show any other indications that they might be Aspies?

The tendency towards literal interpretation that is associated with Asperger Syndrome is possibly overstated, but there is also a tendency towards taking a strong objection to something that is wrong. If a book gets something wrong (by whatever definition you may choose for being "wrong" in fiction) on the first page then reading more of the book can be painful. If these people who are being cited as examples are in fact Aspies then you can't draw much of an inference about the other 99% of the general population from them (although admittedly while Aspies comprise less than 1% of the general population they may comprise significantly more than 1% of the sci-fi readers).

I used to enjoy watching Dr Who when I was very young and watched Star Trek socially when I was young. But now I can't watch them, the mess that they make of everything related to science offends me too much. I find that shows like Hercules and Xena however can be OK for light entertainment, it's not as if the magic in those shows is any less unrealistic than the science in Dr Who, it just doesn't strike me as being wrong in a way that forces me to turn it off. I wonder if the guy who didn't like The Forever War would like Hercules. I also wonder how many people there are who hate Hercules because of it's lack of mythological integrity but who like Dr Who and Star Trek because they are unrelated to things that they care about.

Charles Stross wrote an insightful post about Star Trek and the way that it's technology is irrelevant.

As for a toolkit for reading sci-fi, is there really no other fiction written in a similar manner? I haven't read much fiction that isn't sci-fi or fantasy for a long time so I don't really know what's out there. But I imagine that a non-fantasy novel set in a foreign country at some time in the past that is sufficiently far removed from our current experience could well be written in a similar manner where the reader is expected to absorb the details of how things work as they go along.

Also there's a lot of good sci-fi that is relatively realistic. Arthur C. Clarke is AFAIK one of the earlier authors who has made a good effort to put realistic science in sci-fi. When I was young I learned a lot about science from reading somewhat realistic sci-fi and then consulting encyclopedias and text books to learn more.

The idea that sci-fi needs a special "toolkit" to understand it seems to imply that there is a clear division between sci-fi and other fiction, which is contradicted by the note about quibbling about the edge conditions. I think that as a general rule when you confront people with something that's significantly different to what they have experienced before some will embrace the new experience and some will reject it, whether it's a different food, type of music, or genre of fiction, etc.
- -
36. heresiarch
Bluejay @ 33: "I guess my question is really about where to draw the line (if such a line exists) between "I don't appreciate this work because I'm not familiar with its protocols" and "I don't appreciate this work because it sucks.""

I think that for people to draw that line there would first have to be a widespread understanding that there are different protocols, and that "being literate" isn't quite so sharply defined as it's usually imagined.

One of the things I think is really neat and unique about SF is that, in general, it teaches you how to read it. It has to, because SF--unlike most other genres--can't assume that you understand the world before you start reading. How could you? It only exists within the book. SF has to treat the world like other genres treat characters and plots: as something to be explicated as part and parcel of the story. I think that this is what Walton means when she writes "Having a world unfold in one’s head is the fundamental SF experience."

In this sense, I think that the SF reading protocols are almost a kind of meta-protocol, a set of self-pedagogic techniques for learning the world--or, in some cases, to learn anything. Once you've learned how to approach a story as a place to learn about more than people and events, there are (I'll not say none) a lot fewer limitations on what can be done.
37. TrishB
It's past my bedtime, so far past my time for writing coherently, but I do have a few minor thoughts on this discussion. As a child, I was was fed The Hobbit in 2nd or 3rd grade, while Austen came around in 5th. There was a point where my mom wanted to stop buying new books for the voracious reader, and instead had me read the books around the house. There were very few books I balked at. The ones that I didn't enjoy were mostly early American lit.

Despite my "habit," mom kept me in reading material that my English teachers despised. McCaffrey, McKillip, Kurtz, Dick, Donaldson, etc. I also read British mysteries like they were going out of style - all of Christie by 8th grade with all of Allingham, too.

Is it suspension of disbelief that allows us to look beyond or over the standard tropes? Or is it understanding those tropes?

That's a question I still ask, because when I was a freshman in college, my English 101 was not "How to write a really bad term paper." It was "Forms of Literature." Poetry is an interesting example that I remember. The anthology had amongst many others, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, a Shakespeare sonnet, and Positively Fourth Street in the same category. The fiction category had short stories that I identified as SF or fantasy at the time, but it didn't stick in my mind the way that juxtaposition did.
Soon Lee
38. SoonLee
Russell Coker @35:
I've seen this sort of discussion before but the subject under discussion was not SF but comics: "How do I read this? Do I look at the pictures first or read the words first?" (Much like seth e.'s comment @6)

So it comes as no surprise that there are toolkits for approaching & understanding different media & genres. SF/F & comics were a big part of my childhood, so I grew up reading them innately. The tools for reading literary writing I picked during formal education, but it required work on my part and to this day, while I can sort of follow literary discussions, it's not something that interests me greatly.
39. Dovile
I actually like footnotes, especially if they are really informative and necessary to better understand the main text, as from them I learn more about the era/subject that I'm reading about. I also much more prefer footnotes to endnotes, as then I don't have to stop reading, go to the end, find the right note, and then go back to go on with the text.

I have agree with the arguments that people who don't have the right 'training' don't get SF and don't like reading it, and also, that some just don't want to do the hard work, so they just skip it, but I also think that being generally fascinated by SF (time travel, robots, space or whatever else makes your heart beat faster) is also a big incentive to continue reading it even if the book is difficult. If you like aliens, you'll just go on reading books about aliens, and you'll acquire the necessary SF-reading skills in time. People are different, and they like different things, so some just might not be attracted to space travel and other SF concepts, so naturally, it's harder for them to keep going on with a sci-fi book, or to want to remember all the terms needed to properly understand and enjoy it, and they’re more likely will skip it alltogether.
40. Dovile
Sci-fi and the more fantastical fantasy worlds are (usually) not my world and maybe that's my problem. I have a harder time accepting that other world because I keep trying to apply my world logic to it.

Very interesting comment. That's exactly the other way around for me:) Sci-fi and fantasy worlds aren't my (real) world and that's exactly why I keep reading about them. I like to compare the differences between the fictional and this world, and think which one is or would be better, and of course, I accept the logic of the fictional world unconditionally.
Besides, I already have a real world with real world problems, so why would I also want to read about it? I read sci-fi and fantasy to escape it and to be entertained with all the 'what if' questions and possibilities. Call me escapist, but I actually have a litle trouble understanding why would anyone want to read about the real (current) world, when all you have to do is to look around:))I like historical fiction though.
41. me myself and I
I don't think this is a science fiction issue.

One of the general skills of reading is to be able to figure things out from context, and to sort the important from the unimportant. Sometimes the context follows the material that it clarifies. This means that one of the tools of reading is filing away information in your head until later, in hopes that as you read further it will become clear, or be rejected as irrelevant.

This is true of science fiction. It is also true of judicial opinions. It is also true of, well, pretty much everything, I think.

And some people can't do it.

But there's hope! Read a lot. It doesn't matter what. And you'll get better at it.
Beth Mitcham
42. bethmitcham
When I dip into a new genre, I can tell I'm missing things because I don't know the road map. I spent my first Heyer book trying to figure out what was supposed to be funny -- was I laughing at or with the author? And I've read some Christian fiction where I could tell I didn't know the rules.

So it's not so much that it is a purely science fiction issue, as that science fiction also has a road map. And the definition of science fiction is partly that it uses that road map, as opposed to romance or mystery where the definition is more tied to plot.
43. Greyface
I'd say that the key is the ability to ignore the fact that you're assuredly missing things for now.

Part of that turns into just continuing to ignore things which aren't important, part of it is when stuff gets backfilled
44. Neil in Chicago
pretty funny -- I just read Joe Haldeman's latest paperback, Marsbound. I've been watching what sort of formal experiment he's going to try in each novel since I realized that each new one seems to have a component of basic structure he's never done before.
Marsbound is from the viewpoint of an adolescent girl, with lots of very short chapters, and a sort of a touristy plotline which allows her observations to be enormous infodumps (very gracefully integrated).
46. IanMcDonald
Higgins (at 23) writes:

"He argues that television narratives have become more complex over the decades, and that an episode of modern TV is way more challenging to the viewer's mental skills than an episode of, say, Sixties TV."

Perhaps, but television drama was a young medium at that time, and we'd like to think it's evolved in the process. I'd argue that that 'complexity' and certainly hasn't been matched in fiction, where, if anything, people seem less tolerant of multi-character, multi-stranded or structurally ambitious books, and seem to take cosy refuge in single-character, directly linear narratives. People grumble about not being able to read 'War and Peace' because there are 'too many characters' and they can't remember the names and where it's jumping to next --exactly the same complexity they praise in The Wire or BSG. TV's advantage in that if people can see, people remember. Thanks to long runs and the glacially slow progress of most US season-based dramas, TV drama is only now catching up to the level of complexity of the 19th Century novel: the mise en scene does all the heavy lifting that contemporary readers seem to require footnotes to be able to parse.
If it proves anything, it's the inappropriateness of using TV drama as a toolkit to parse written fiction. In TV SF, you never have to negotiate that 'red sun/blue sun' discontinuity, either by infodump, footnote or context; it's a simple piece of background on Tatooine.
Jo Walton
47. bluejo
I wasn't talking about media SF at all, that's why the word "reading" is there. I don't know much about media SF and tend to dislike it. I don't feel the protocols are sensibly comparable.
48. C. Wingate
This whole discussion has a "blind men and the elephant" quality; it seems clear that we are grasping bits and pieces of the beast but not putting it together into a coherent whole. So please allow me to ignore that deficiency and wrap my hands around yet another limb or two of the thing.

Part of the problem I see when we try to talk about SF this way is that the lack of a specific SF plot trope means that people write books within the genre which have utterly different plot mechanics. To take my favorite examples (because they are pretty pure cases of their story types), Rendezvous With Rama is essentially nothing but one long exposition; the only purpose of the plot is to keep the exposition coming. It's perhaps the oldest trope of the genre (see under Verne, More, Swift, etc.) but it is also perhaps that which owes the least to theories about conventional fiction (or for that matter the trope-driven genres). The Lathe of Heaven, on the other hand, requires choking down one premise, and there's one exposition dump near the beginning of the story whose details aren't actually all that important, but after that we get a mythological story that's as akin to Jonah as anything else. It seems to me that what helps to hold science fiction together as a genre (and for that matter, helps SF encompass it) is that the various kinds of story all happen to appeal more or less to the same group of people-- and perhaps, possibly, that people who dislike one type of story are likely to dislike other types within the genre, if not for the same reason.

The side discussion about footnotes amuses me because I'm the sort of person who likes them-- not because I need them to understand the story, but because I like to collect the detail. My style of reading the web in general and Wikipedia in particular is so discursive that by the time I "finish" reading something, I have seventeen other tabs open in the browser. I expect that a lot of other people would prefer not to read that way.
49. Elliott Mason
Bluejay( #33) said: "Thanks, tanjible @32, but I guess my question is really about where to draw the line (if such a line exists) between "I don't appreciate this work because I'm not familiar with its protocols" and "I don't appreciate this work because it sucks."

This is basically my problem with most books Barnes & Noble (et multi alia) shelve as "FICTION" with no adjective attached -- their worldbuilding is insanely sloppy and they don't bother trying to hook the reader within the first few pages. Margaret Atwood, in particular, seems to expect her readers to just hand her three chapters'-worth of rope to do whatever she wants with before they'll make her have to make it interesting. My summary of the beginning of Catseye is, "I'm so depressed and mysterious. You don't know anything about me, so I'm going to stand on a bridge internal-monologuing about how depressed I am and what this pretty tree-lined valley looks like for eight pages."

However, when Will Self did it in The Book Of Dave (drops you right amidst a rather bizarre world, with people speaking a strange jargonistic dialect of English that's as odd as Glaswegian to first glance), it fascinated me. I don't know what the difference is. Maybe it's the proliferation in "FICTION" of viewpoint characters I either strongly dislike or find boring? I've loved SF novels with detestable viewpoint characters, but in SF I can read for worldbuilding-puzzles and Cool Stuff and forgive them characters. I forgive Sherri Tepper for having an enormous axe to grind (This is my axe. It is very shiny. Can I show it to you??? Pleeezzz? See, men are BAD and VIOLENT and women are NURTURING and CONSTRUCTIVE! Always! Really! My axe is AWESOME!!!) because she packs every single novel of hers with at least three normal novels'-worth of worldbuilding Cool Stuff.

To further engage with Bluejay's Michael Bay movies example, if you show me a new take on werewolves, or tell me there are steampunk airships with psionic drive systems, I'm willing to forgive a lot of things that would otherwise make me hurl the book at the wall in frustration, to get to the Cool Stuff. Mainstream 'popular' movie audiences definitely consider explosions, especially creative or especially awesome-brilliant-destructive ones, 'Cool Stuff' they'll put up with other things to get to, methinks.

Neil in Chicago (#44) said: "pretty funny -- I just read Joe Haldeman's latest paperback, Marsbound. I've been watching what sort of formal experiment he's going to try in each novel since I realized that each new one seems to have a component of basic structure he's never done before. // Marsbound is from the viewpoint of an adolescent girl, with lots of very short chapters, and a sort of a touristy plotline which allows her observations to be enormous infodumps (very gracefully integrated)."

To me, the structural humor of Marsbound was that he spends the first 2/3 or so of the book resetting Heinlein's Farmer in the Sky ... and then kicks the chair out from under the reader and goes somewhere VERY different. I imagine it reads differently to people who haven't already thoroughly internalized the SF toolkit.
50. Darkhawk

Your comment on how you were reading Trollope is basically the backstory to why I was in my teens before I learned that there were books that weren't considered SF, and find a lot of genre-related discussions incomprehensible.

It's all peculiar people in unfamiliar settings!
51. twif
i've always considered SF (and fantasy, for that matter) to be mostly a matter of setting. so, basically agreeing: we accept (or should) the parameters of the world the story takes place in, just as we would any other story. one does not need to understand forsenic science to enjoy a mystery novel; likewise one need not understand physics to enjoy SF. sure, there will be nitpickers (as there are with any other type of story) who will point out flaws in the science. but so what? story wins out above all.
52. Bluejay
Elliott Mason @49 said: "in SF I can read for worldbuilding-puzzles and Cool Stuff and forgive them characters."

Very true, for me as well, but it makes me wonder: Is it all just a giant case of "To each his/her own"? Is there any negative criticism of a work that can't simply be shot down by "You simply don't understand the proper way to approach it"?

Or is there, perhaps, a "super-protocol" that applies to all works of fiction, regardless of genre, which helps determine whether something is any good or not? Certainly in SF one must learn to negotiate the trappings of the story in a certain way, as in all other genres; but might the expectation of a good plot and well-drawn characters be universal protocols, whatever the story's trappings are? As twif @51 points out, does story win out above all?

For instance, C. Wingate @48 mentions Rendezvous with Rama as a story that doesn't follow conventional expectations of plot; the plot simply serves as a framework for exposition. For fans of the novel, clearly this isn't a problem, nor should it be; but would a literary critic be unjustified in finding this aspect of the book "bad"? Or to put it another way: I was not well-versed in the protocols of Elizabethan verse drama when I saw my first Shakespeare plays, but they moved me powerfully anyway; I was unfamiliar with the conventions of classical music and jazz when I first heard Also Sprach Zarathustra and Kind of Blue, but those works nevertheless blew me away. Would I be wrong in thinking that such works are perhaps superior to others in their field, precisely because they move people unfamiliar with their genre's rules and satisfy (maybe) some more universal expectations?
Jessica Reisman
53. jwynne
I've had a number of lit writers who teach writing in universities ask me over the years how they should workshop SF stories their students bring. I think a lot of what you say here might actually be a useful way to begin addressing that question.

And I think much of what you say--particularly about what happens in SF written by lit writers who don't read it (and who refuse the SF label when what they're writing is patently SF...)--is pretty true.
54. DrHoo
22. Durandal
There's a small but important portion of my daily routine that's labeled "go to and see what Jo Walton has posted." It's always interesting, and I've gotten a bunch of great reading recommendations from this daily ritual.

This post though? Awesome. It so perfectly explains a phenomenon I've observed for years.

Thanks, Jo!

Let me second this view - I love the posts here from Ms. Walton - these and the WoT re-reads are the reason I come to And this one explains why my wife only likes to read Fantasy, not Science Fiction, and even only certain styles of fantasy (but will watch science fiction but not fantasy).
ennead ennead
55. ennead
IanMcDonald @46
I've just started reading Brasyl and I don't speak Portuguese. It feels like reading science-fiction.
56. C. Wingate
Well, in one sense Rama is weak ("bad" is the wrong issue, as I'll get to in a moment) in that while the story has no particular narrative flaws, human character hardly matters in the story except as a kind of (fairly mild) seasoning here and there. That's a weakness, not badness: badness is something like the deus ex machina in A Separate Peace that had me throwing the book across the room in 8th grade. Likewise a lot of Great Literature is weak in that, whatever metaphorical greatness may be lurking beneath the surface, the storytelling isn't compelling, not because I don't like the kind of story that Great Lit tends to tell (I do read some of the stuff), but because in whatever particular instance the storytelling isn't compelling on its own.
57. Cavyherd
Zowie! Jo, get out of my head!

Well, no, don't actually. Because you're doing it better than I ever could.

I just ran into exactly and precisely this issue in critiquing a story a friend of mine wrote. I spent much of the morning pondering how to put it into words.

And now I don't have to. Thank you!
felipe lopez
58. lupercus
sadly this kind of discussion, interesting as it may be, usually degenerates in a discourse of the type: "i'm better because i read and understand sf and they don't"--sigh.

nevertheless, just found this:

(W)e have two kinds of literary fantasy: "final" fantasy as in fairy tales and SF, and "passing" fantasy as in Kafka. In an SF story the presence of intelligent dinosaurs does not usually signal the presence of hidden meaning. The dinosaurs are instead meant to be admired as we would admire a giraffe in a zoological garden; that is, they are intended not as parts of an expressive semantic system but only as parts of the empirical world. In "The Metamorphosis", on the other hand, it is not intended that we should accept the transformation of human being into bug simply as a fantastic marvel but rather that we should pass on to the recognition that Kafka has with objects and their deformations depicted a socio-psychological situation. Only the outer shell of this world is formed by the strange phenomena; the inner core has a solid non-fantastic meaning. Thus a story can depict the world as it is, or interpret the world (attribute values to it, judge it, call it names, laugh at it, etc.), or, in most cases, do both things at the same time.

that's Stanislaw Lem in his essay "On the Structural Analysis of Science Fiction"
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59. heresiarch
bluejo @ 47: "I don't know much about media SF and tend to dislike it. I don't feel the protocols are sensibly comparable."

Doesn't the first of those claims somewhat undermine the latter?

lupercus @ 58: "sadly this kind of discussion, interesting as it may be, usually degenerates in a discourse of the type: "i'm better because i read and understand sf and they don't"--sigh."

Are you saying that that has happened already on this thread? Or are you just positioning yourself against the inevitable fall? Because I must say, one type of conversational degeneration I myself rather detest is the "I've had this conversation before, and better--sigh" type.
Jo Walton
60. bluejo
Heseriarch: Perhaps. I'm really not qualified to say anything about it at all. But when I see it I tend to find it irritating precisely because it is doing the over-explaining and under-explaining thing.
61. Rick York
I agree with most of what Ms. Walton says but, like the others here, I don't quite like the "toolkit" metaphor. Frankly, I think the deepest problem with people who don't "get" SF is an inability to suspend disbelief. Or, even a failure of creative imagination.

This failure also explains the growth of fundamentalism and some authors antipathy towards being labeled SF.
62. Will Entrekin
My major quibble here is placing the fact that a reader couldn't get into a book on the reader's shoulder, rather than on the writer's; if someone couldn't get into Joe Haldeman, I might blame it on Joe Haldeman, and not the someone. I read "The Accidental Time Machine," which I realize is probably not exemplary of Haldeman's major works, but it was pretty bad and made me not really interested in his other stuff. Tachyon drives or no.

Lupercus said "In "The Metamorphosis", on the other hand, it is not intended that we should accept the transformation of human being into bug simply as a fantastic marvel but rather that we should pass on to the recognition that Kafka has with objects and their deformations depicted a socio-psychological situation," which I thought was funny because I noticed "The Metamorphosis" in the reader for a class I'm about to teach, and gave a start to reading it. I got two pages in. I won't be including it on the syllabus.

Jo in the OP said "They explain both too much and not enough, and end up with something that’s just teeth-grindingly annoying for an SF reader to read." Which I liked, but which it must be noted might not be teeth-grindingly annoying to the -general- reader. A couple of the better examples of literary SF--"The Lovely Bones" and "The Time-Traveler's Wife"--maintain a decent balance, but then again there's Dan Brown, who makes myriad teeth grind but sells a go-jillion copies.
Russell Letson
63. RLetson
Will Entrekin @62: I can point to any number of readers who fail to "get into" a story primarily thanks to a lack of experience with fiction of even moderate sophistication (though some are simply unable to read above a third-grade level, which is a different problem). They populate my wife's undergrad classes, and the texts they fail to "get into" range from Homer to Shakespeare to Austen to Eric Ambler to Martin Cruz Smith. They are stopped not only by the expected difficulties (Renaissance English, archaic or unfamiliar vocabulary) but by any situation or character that falls outside their personal experience or what they have seen on TV.

The few that do read for pleasure tend to go for romances (the women) and commercial fantasy (the men), and they find that an ambitious thriller such as Gorky Park is a big challenge (funny names, unfamiliar settings, alien poltical and social mores, complex plotline).

My wife's job is to get them over the various humps so they can get into the stories. Sisyphus had it easy by comparison. There is a huge population of university students who show no signs of ever getting into any reasonably adult text--and it's not because the writers are failing, or the teachers.
64. seth e.
Looking at this thread, I think I misspoke myself in my earlier comment. Higgins' mention of Steven Johnson in #23 inspired this edit: I said "the narrative pleasure that Agent of Vega has to offer exists on the same level as the tools you need to understand it," but I should have said that the narrative pleasure consists of using the tools that are required to understand it. Johnson makes this point (or borrows it from others) about video games. Part of the pleasure of playing is figuring out how to play.

This is certainly a big part of reading sf. But exploration exists not just on the level of subject matter, exploring new worlds; it exists on the level of specific story structures, which in sf are overwhelmingly action-adventure stories, with an enormous history of plot tropes and worldbuilding habits. On this level SF doesn't try many new things, and doesn't want to. Referring back to the genre itself is interesting and fun enough for most genre readers and writers. SF is all about using the same tools to explore the same kinds of new things. This isn't a criticism--I read this way--just an observation. Suggesting that non-SF readers just can't imagine hard enough isn't really fair, or realistic. Plenty of people criticize the characterization and prose in SF, and whether these are fair criticisms or just cliches, it's certainly true that SF as a genre doesn't value those things as much as setting. Other readers may or may not be missing out, but what they're doing is imagining differently, using different skills.
scott hhhhhhhhh
65. wsp_scott
Jo (and all) thank you for a very interesting post (and responses). Since I was the "inspiration" (I think) for this post I should say that I really appreciate you taking the time to write this up. It makes some of your past comments much clearer. It also fits with my own past experiences.

I specifically remember giving my mother (who reads lots) a couple of SF books and her commenting that the names were funny and it was hard to figure out what was going on. At that point I was a late teenager who had been reading SF for ~6 years and had never noticed these issues. As you said, I learned to read as I went along.

I seem to remember you saying that you were only writing here about books you enjoyed. If it would be possible within that bound, I would be interested in hearing your views about books that attempted to be SF and failed because the author did not follow the "protocols". If this doesn't fit your "mandate" here, no problem. I will look forward to your next re-read instead :)
sparrow hawk
66. sprrwhwk
bluejo: But it’s interesting that it’s precisely those SF books that best lend themselves to metaphorical readings that gain credibility with academia. It’s Kelly Link who’s getting that mainstream review, not Elizabeth Bear.

It's a little odd you say that because, like Link's zombies, Bear's unicorn is both a unicorn and a metaphor -- which is to say, I think of her as a writer whose works lend themselves extremely well to metaphorical reading. Maybe the reviewers are just getting turned off by the covers, thinking they look too much like all the other urban fantasy out there. More's the pity -- they're good covers and good books.
Jo Walton
67. bluejo
WSP_Scott: Yes, this post was all for you. The problem with doing something analysing what they do wrong is that I'd have to re-read them to be fair, and that doesn't sound like much fun. We'll see.
68. soru
Also, in most non-fantastical fiction--most realistic fiction--there are not a whole bunch of metaphors walking around just being metaphors rather than something literal, so this strikes me as false.

But plenty of fantastical, but non-SF, novels do very much have naked metaphors walking round. Ghost stories, magical realism, conspiracy thrillers, vampire romances and so on all have non-realistic elements, but generally don't follow SF/fantasy protocols.

The ghosts in _A Christmas Carol_ aren't part of a sketched society that happen to go round intervening in mortal lives, they are simply masks facing the protagonist, without anything behind them.

A realistic character will have constraints on their actions that are nothing to do with their metaphorical role, and everything to do with realism. For example, in a realistic novel a 5 foot tall schoolgirl can't expect to win a fight with an adult psycho, so at best they are going to be running away. If you ask 'why are they running', then any answer other than 'because it is necessary' is missing the point.

The distinctive thing about SF/F is that the non-realistic characters have such constraints too. SF is really hyper-realism, in that it attempts to apply realism to the non-existent.

Tolkien-lineage fantasy even extends that to the unreal, the scientifically impossible.

A SF book has dragons who behave the way they do _because that is the way dragons behave_, not to make a point about the Iraq war.

Exercise for the reader: go read a random review of Avatar, and take note if the reviewer gets SF protocols.
Sam Kelly
69. Eithin
I'm completely willing to accept that the dragons in Tooth and Claw (which I loved, incidentally) are first-and-mostly dragons, but I'm not completely sure I can accept anything as definitively Not A Metaphor - human protagonists included. The fact that the characters are dragons (rather than cockatrices or cameleopards) fits far too well with the story's themes to ever have been decoration or a mere signifier, so it does invoke the inherent layers of metaphor involved with the concept of a dragon (as they are with the concept of a doctor, like Lydgate, or of a Mr Thwackum) to illustrate the theme resonantly.

Of course, those layers of metaphor are very culturally specific - I doubt the average reader would have the first idea what a krvopijac was or what the roses were for. Dragons have penetrated rather further, but there are a lot of different "meanings" associated with them in various cultures.

I suppose part of what I'm saying is that I don't see any conflict between direct representation and layers of metaphors, but then I was exposed to William Blake (May God us keep / from Single Vision and Newton's Sleep - though he really didn't understand Newton) at an impressionable age.
Jo Walton
70. bluejo
Eithin: They certainly have metaphorical resonance, but they're dragons first.

Someone just put this really well to me -- they're dragons for the same reason in a different kind of story somebody might be a secretary. They really are a secretary, or a dragon. You can certainly talk about the significance of someone being a secretary, or a dragon, or a doctor, but that's at a different level.

Or as Soru just said so interestingly, we're treating the unrealistic realistically and as a consistent and coherent system. I think understanding that, as we instinctively do, is a vital part of the toolkit.
scott hhhhhhhhh
71. wsp_scott
Jo @ 67
The problem with doing something analysing what they do wrong is that I'd have to re-read them to be fair, and that doesn't sound like much fun. We'll see.

Yeah, I had not thought of it that way. It would be interesting, but I enjoy your re-reads so either way I suspect I will be happy :)

p.s. I was telling my wife about this post/thread (she is a non-SF reader, other than the occasional short story I hand her) and long story, but I gave her "A Door into Ocean" to read, it will probably be her 1st SF novel :) Thanks again for a great recommendation in that one, hopefully she likes it as well.
Sam Kelly
72. Eithin
Jo: Hm. I'm having a great deal of trouble working out what there is to "being a dragon" (or a secretary) which isn't related to those very culturally specific layers of metaphor and literary history. Everyone has slightly different ideas, whether it's Fafnir, Scrub, Chrysophylax Dives, Ruth, Mistinarperadnacles, or Temeraire and Lung Tien Qian. (All very Western concepts of dragonhood, but I'm not nearly familiar enough with non-Western versions to list any, unfortunately.)

I'd certainly agree with Soru that treating the unrealistic as a consistent, coherent object is a large part of What We Do, but I honestly don't think it's impossible to do both at once - to examine both the dragon-as-object and the different kinds of dragon-ness and things for which dragon-ness has been a metaphor in the past.

It's certainly deconstructable, the same way as a slice of baklava comes apart to get at all the different layers of tasty gooey honey & pastry & nut goodness, but it's also still a tasty treat in its own right, and I can't see how treating it as either an object or a collection of layers is either more valid or should be more privileged than the other way around. Layer/slice duality, perhaps. And relatively few people do actually peel their baklava apart before eating it.

Of course, there are a fair few mainstream authors who treat the realistic as an incoherent, inconsistent object, and I love that - Salman Rushdie, Ben Okri, and Tibor Fischer spring to mind.
73. houseboatonstyx
Yes. Lewis said that trying to define SF by its content is like making a category of 'sea story' which would include Conrad and some quite different people whom I've forgotten.

Imo trying to define SF by its content is like trying to define humor by its content: Well, it's stories about three people walking into a bar, or about a farmer's daughter, or about a banana peel....

Humor is any story that goes for a humorous effect; as SF is any story that goes for a SF or 'sense of wonder' effect. Whether any particular story succeeds or not is a different question.

Defining or describing the SF or 'sense of wonder' effect isn't obvious but is worthwhile -- just like trying to describe the effect of humor. Where's Freud when we need him?
74. vmetoikos
Probably repeating some of what other folks said.
Agree with what you said, but think it is a more general issue than just sf. You're talking more about how to read in general than just how to read SF.

Sure, unfamiliar structure or characterization or sheer amount of unknown words can throw you off. But ultimately it is knowing how to find the handles in any text, knowing what a handle looks like even if it were covered with Baroque frills.

Delany's "Babel 17" and "Empire Star" were hard going for me. I'm not used to the kinds of structures used, nor the kinds of characters present and their goals. That is what makes them difficult. I have a harder time finding the handles when they aren't where I'm used to finding them.

And yes, some of what people talk about guessing from context reminds me of how I'll read in French and be too lazy to get a dictionary, the way I read English as a child, but I tried to read Ulysses in high school with the footnoted novel on my left side and and a volume of commentary on my right. I never got very far because I was bogged down in the details.

Reading as an adult, I understand the importance of the big picture, which the details just shore up.
The problem is that a story (even you read notes or a synopsis) is like the gates of the Southern Oracle; its gestalt is not there unless you pass through it, and to some extent at least, through the details which give it flesh.

What seems important in reading fiction of any kind is having a sense of how to find the foci (the handles) of the story, what details are relevant. And there are at least two kinds of reading, and we tend to do one or the other based on context -- surface reading and deep reading. Some stories immediately engage our deep reading muscles, but it becomes clear pretty quick that say John Bellairs (skipping genres a bit) is all surface unless we want to get all historical criticism about it. Maybe all of this is so automatic that I don't know how to talk about it.

sidenote: I like footnotes. Sometimes things don't need to be explained, but it adds something. If a footnote or an endnote or a forward doesn't pay off, I skip it. When they take up half the page, whoever put the book together is Doing It Wrong.
75. Meg Thornton
Y'know, this explains a lot for me. It explains why I enjoy playing with worldbuilding in my own writing (and in other people's writing) - it's a skill I've learned over the years from reading as much science fiction and fantasy as I could lay my hands on, and putting together the contextual clues handed to me to make a believable world for the characters to be doing things in. It's why I'm currently having a lot of fun with a bit of alternative universe fan fiction an online friend is writing - my reviews tend to be full of "okay, so what I'm getting is that this and this happen because of that, and they're in place X which is part of nation Z ruled by person Y, which is currently involved in a long-term border dispute with expansionist nation Zero-Alpha led by Queen Yergle" and trying to figure out how everything hangs together. And sometimes I get things right, and sometimes I don't (they're only up to the third chapter, so I figure it's a massive case of "whatever works" at the moment) and sometimes I'm only off by a little bit, and sometimes I'm off by miles. But it's *fun*. It's a case of putting together all these contextual clues about things and coming up with something bigger. It's giving my brain more to do than just passively take in text.

This may also account for my fascination with Agatha Christie murder mysteries, and historical romances - again, there's the same "there's more to this story than just the story" factor to be playing with. It's also probably a factor in my enjoyment of manga (because there I'm not only playing with a different set of literary, generic, and characterisation traditions, but a whole new set of traditions about visual representation as well!!) and my liking for the "in media res" style of roleplaying game.
76. houseboatonstyx
I think I have a high tolerance, or even a taste, for undefined terms. Like Anne Shirley who liked 'diamond' better when it was just a word in romances and she could imagine the thing purple and sparkly.
77. Marcus Rowland
Footnotes can be a pain, but there can be all sorts of odd disconnects if someone tries to change a story to make it easier for the audience to understand, or tries to use tools (such as FTL travel) which aren't completely assimilated into his mindset. For example, there was a novel set in a future in which the USA had gone metric, in which someone glanced over a cliff to see the water "about seventeen metres below" - the author had taken an approximation, "about fifty feet", and turned it into a much more precise estimate. Someone who used metric routinely would have probably said "about fifteen metres" or "about twenty metres."

Then there was the book published in the 1960s (pre British decimal currency) and reprinted a few years after decimalisation, in which someone gave a tip of "half a crown" in the first edition and "twelve and a half pence" in the second; yes, that's the literal conversion, but even though the 1/2p coin was still around (barely) it was a really strange combination of coins.
78. Mrdangam
FWLIW, I started reading Scince fiction as a child, much the way I read National Geographics as a kid:

"See, there's this mysterious world out there, there's some people exploring it, and while I don't understand everything that's going on, I certainly want to find out what's happening."

"sense of wonder" - that much misused and misunderstood phrase: not misunderestimated, thank $DEITY: not everybody's a Bush relative - is related to that, as I understand it: the willingness to let things happen without demanding everything fits into only what has been understood up till then.

Of course, I learnt English and Tok Pisin much the same way - content to leave things hanging until I was more versed in the languages.
79. rgh2
I had a friend who couldn't get into The Dispossessed because he found the temporal physics unrealistic. Which seemed to miss the point.

Vonda N.McIntyre's "The Straining Your Eyes Through The Viewscreen Blues" in Nebula Award Winners 15 was very good on how to gracefully add the extra information an SF story requires.

When I was a kid I used to be very picky about scientific errors in TV sci-fi, I think I've become more tolerant since.
80. alienconsultant
50 said It's all peculiar people in unfamiliar settings!

The SF toolkit actually has substantial value in the 'real' world. If you work in a cross cultural environment (for example a westerner in the Middle East) then constructing the world in which you are working from the contextual clues is a critical skill. Anyone who cannot step outside of their own narrow world will have great trouble working in the environment. You see this with many western consultants working outside their own culture.

The cultural constructs of a lot of SF is pretty western (dare I say middle American) in its core view of people and reality, unless you read authors like Verner Vinge. There are real world societies out there with stranger underpinnings than many SF books.

So in my prejudiced view reading SF is a good start to developing the cultural and social pattern recognition necessary to be a good international consultant.
Keith Adamson
81. Tyrunea
@1 Jaws: I would like to know what a tachyon drive is and how it works... it adds to my enjoyment ;)

Learning to read any genre in its glory is just a smaller version of learning how to live. Most of the time you just gotta get up and do it... sometimes, someone can point you in the right direction.
82. lequitas
I must apologize first, I didn't read everyone's post so if you already said it, I'm saying again.

I think syfy channel explains it best: "if".
Those of us who read science fiction, like to think about "what if x where to happen...?"

It may be a skill set but more likely its just that we like to think about more than what is real life. I know that is why I chose the authors and books that I do. By the way, romantic period fiction is often just as far from real history as spaces ship with any kind of drive.
P J Evans
83. PJEvans
"So in my prejudiced view reading SF is a good start to developing the cultural and social pattern recognition necessary to be a good international consultant."

Or to be other things.
In college, when I took the 'graduation writing test' (we had to prove we could read and write in order to graduate), we were expected to write an essay on a subject which we were given at the time we started that test section. I drew 'Why I believe ...' and wrote on 'Why I believe science fiction is good for you'. I don't know how it was received by those grading it, but I did pass the exam.
(That was the best part, although not the easiest. The multiple-guess section was annoying because they had questions for which *none* of the answers available were good.)
84. SteveC
Jo, you said:

"It doesn’t say 'The red sun is high, the blue low because it was a binary system.' So there’s a double problem."

I have to ask - was that on purpose? :)

85. SteveC

Agent of Vega may not be a particularly good example of the point under discussion. I remember reading that book as a long-time experienced SF reader, and it's hard to figure out what's going on because that book is just like that anyway.

The assumptions about the interstellar political/intelligence context within which the protagonist operates are not adequately telegraphed, even to a reader steeped in the conventions of the genre. I had to read it several times before I began to decode the context,

86. SteveC

You said:

"And I made the decision not to define 'barouche' because having to stop and write 'they got into the barouche, a four-wheeled horse-drawn carriage with a collapsible hood and seats facing each other for the passengers, and wheeled slowly down the High Street' would have thrown me right out of the story.

I think this is a spot where "show don't tell" could to be used to advantage. My favorite writer is Heinlein, and I try to imagine how he would have approached the problem. (I'm inventing characters and context for this example, since I'm unfamiliar with the original work).

"They got into the barouche. Jon was seated across from Sally and the two exchanged longing gazes as the driver set the horse in motion and the carriage wheels clattered down the cobbled street."

87. SteveC

The conventions of SF have changed over the years. The strict criteria of accuracy that were prevalent in much of the field when I was growing up have been long-abandoned. I would consider Battlestar Galactica - and indeed most media sf to be bad sf for that very reason. This goes back at least as far as the infamous first Star Wars movie in which they depicted fighters "whooshing" in EMPTY SPACE (no air to carry sound). Such stuff isn't what I'd call real SF. It's badly written space opera.

In fact, I think I recall seeing George Lucas quoted as saying that he could have set the Star Wars story in any genre, and he only chose SF because an SF movie came with a guaranteed audience.

88. SteveC

The thing I found the wierdest about Xena and Hercules was their use of up-to-the minute conventional language and mannerisms. Except for the costuming and plot, there was no clue that this was a historical setting.

Justin Adair
90. Hobbyns
Just so love your posts and discussions after, Jo. Thanks.
Sorry, wish I had more to add but I don't at this point. It's been a long day, here in Oz.
Justin Adair
91. Hobbyns
Err, that's Oz as in Australia, for those that don't know their abbreviations.
Nelson Cunnington
92. NelC
I have a friend, once an enthusiastic SF reader, who claims that he can't find any SF he likes these days. I lend him the odd book, but he makes vague complaints about them. He complains that Iain M. Banks' characters are too clever; he muttered something about "suits" after I gave him Halting State. I'm despairing of finding him anything he'll like.

Yet he texted me before Christmas, frothing about how great Avatar was. After seeing it and experiencing its homogenized tropes standing in place of a plot, and reading this page, I'm wondering if, in the long slog to get his PhD, he's just forgotten how to read SF.
Andrew Mason
93. AnotherAndrew
I tend to agree with Rick York@61 that at least some of the time what's happening is just an inability to suspend disbelief, since a similar thing sometimes happens outside genre SF, where the specific question of toolkits presumably isn't in play. Take for instanceThe Turn of the Screw The standard reading of that is that it is deliberately ambiguous whether the ghosts are real or not; yet there are readers who just take it as obvious that they are not (because ghosts aren't real). I once read a piece by an English Lecturer who initially took it for granted that the ghosts weren't real, and told his students they were making a mistake when they thought they were, until he discovered there were scholars who thought the same.
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94. heresiarch
NelC @ 92: "Yet he texted me before Christmas, frothing about how great Avatar was."

In all honesty, I don't think that Avatar is worse science fiction than Harry Potter is fantasy. In fact, I'd argue that Avatar uses incluing and other SF world-building techniques a lot better than Harry Potter uses equivalent fantasy techniques. Plot-wise it's pretty ARGH, of course, but then how original is HP? Regardless, if Avatar does for SF what Potter did for fantasy, I might just have to forgive it its sins.
Nelson Cunnington
95. NelC
Heresiarch @94: Yeah, I can't really sustain full nerd-rage against Avatar, because what it did, it did well. In the context of this thread, as you say, it used most of the toolbox. I just found the plot a bit bland and mechanical. All that expertise to produce a bunch of beautifully-rendered clichés.

Like many others I found myself thinking of Princess Mononoke, and speculating how Miyazaki would have done something a bit more interesting with the plot; maybe Jake could have shown a bit more conflict over his recon vs diplomatic missions, and paid more of a price when he didn't sort the conflict out in time, e.g. a fight to the death against his alien girlfriend's fiancé, and total estrangement from her when he wins, with the consequences of that driving the plot for a while.

But to get back to my friend, I'm annoyed with him more than I am with the movie. It seemed to me that he bought into the eye-candy so well that his usual objectionist impulses were over-ridden. He used to enjoy written SF the same way, but I think he's lost the knack.
Paul Andinach
96. anobium
Eithin @ 72: I'm having a great deal of trouble working out what there is to "being a dragon" (or a secretary) which isn't related to those very culturally specific layers of metaphor and literary history.

Well, for instance, a character might be a secretary because the plot requires them to be a very fast typist, or because it's a convenient reason for them to have been within earshot of the incriminating conversation between the famous industrialist and the influential politician. It might also be a metaphor for something, but it doesn't have to be.

If there's a character in Jo's book (which I regret I haven't read) who is a secretary, I bet even the people who insist on asking why the dragons are dragons mostly don't feel a need to ask why he's a secretary.
97. MaryLynne
This was great!!!! I love science fiction. I started reading my brother's books when I was very young. As I've gotten older, I appreciate more clever, thoughtful and challenging work, exactly for the reasons described. I also enjoy reading evolution, physics, psychology, and philosophy for lay people - anything that takes assumptions that I thought were true and turns them on their head.

I hate, however, a lot of straight fantasy. It just seems so random and pointless. The heros are trapped in a cave and then - oh, look! A dwarf we never heard of for the past 200 pages suddenly burrows up and saves them! And now there are dragons! And the magical belt makes you invisible, just in time! I like the stories that build a cohesive world, like Dragonriders of Pern, but a lot just seem to throw elements in just to move the story along.

Now I'm wondering if there is a reading fantasy skillset like there is for SF. Are there clues and information I'm missing because I grew up on more hard science fiction? Hmmmm .. . .
Tina Black
98. TinaBlack
I loaned a copy of _Mote in God's Eye_ to a dear friend who was in her 60's. When she brought it back, she said she did not like the long science passages. I was mildly astonished since the book hardly contained any infodump. She kindly pointed at the offending bits and so I passed on to her Fred Pohl's suggestion about such passages:

"If the author goes off on a long dry tangent of background or science and you don't like it, just use your thumb to push on to where the story picks up again."

Good advice for the novice.
99. Peter S.
bluejo says, about her dragons

"They certainly have metaphorical resonance, but they're dragons first."

But in, say, 100 Years of Solitude, the prototypical magical realist book, while all the fantastic events do have enormous metaphorical resonance, they also really happen. And maybe I've been reading too much science fiction, but I'm not convinced that their metaphorical resonance is more important to the story than their happening (although I expect lit crit types would disagree).

And you can't argue that Tooth and Claw would be as good a book if the dragons didn't have metaphorical resonance.

There's not a clear dividing line here, but a continuous spectrum.
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100. heresiarch
NelC @ 95: "I just found the plot a bit bland and mechanical. All that expertise to produce a bunch of beautifully-rendered clichés."

No argument there! It was a plot well-worn when Heinlein was writing.

Peter S. @ 99: "There's not a clear dividing line here, but a continuous spectrum."

I don't think that saying there's a spectrum is necessarily incompatible with saying that there are different reading protocols--as you near one end of the spectrum, one style of reading protocol increasingly predominates. Towards the middle an argument can be made for either, and both can be enlightening. Or am I misunderstanding you?
101. individualfrog
I realize this thread is old and done with, but I didn't want to derail the 'gateway books' thread and this is the more appropriate place.

I wanted to talk about this idea that everything (or anything) in literary fiction is "a metaphor first." I'm a 'literary' fiction reader. (I don't like that term, but it's the term, so I'll use it.) I don't think I have too much trouble with SF protocols, but I do not like very much SF and the majority of my reading is literary fiction. I'm not going to try to speak for every literary reader, but I certainly do not read any book "peeling back layer after layer of metaphor" or hungrily searching for "metaphorical resonance" or any such thing.

I think what puts this idea into people's heads is bad high-school English teachers who teach every book as though it were a tedious allegory. "The river symbolizes freedom", "lightning striking the tree is a metaphor for the collapse of the protagonist's sense of self", that sort of heinous reductive bullshit. Such interpretations are fine, but only in the worst books (maybe excepting deliberate allegories like Pilgrim's Progress or Giles Goat Boy, although I can't stand those books either) are they "the point" and is there any "correct answer".

One of literary's patron saints, Virginia Woolf, said in a letter: "I meant nothing by The Lighthouse. One has to have a central line down the middle of the book to hold the design together. I saw that all sorts of feelings would accrue to this, but I refused to think them out, and trusted that people would make it the deposit for their own emotions--which they have done, one thinking it means one thing another another. I can't manage Symbolism except in this vague, generalized way. Whether its right or wrong I don't know, but directly I'm told what a thing means, it becomes hateful to me." I feel exactly the same way.

Instead of metaphors, I think everything in literary novels is first and foremost an experience, whether a sensory experience, an emotional experience, or just the experience of the sound of the words or how they look on the page (the sort of thing which often gets called 'self-indulgent wankery' by genre fans). A literary ghost is most importantly a chill and a whisper (or whatever it might be, it could just as easily be a comforting tobacco-smell, anything) and whether it is real or imaginary, whether it follows any rules or protocols of the undead, and so on are secondary. SF ghosts, of course, are also chills and whispers but, like you say, they have to follow the rules, and the mechanism for their appearance or disappearance must be understood by the writer at least. To me those things mostly kill the beauty of a ghost, which is one reason no doubt why I dislike SF in general.

Magical realism, I think, can be usually distinguished from SF in this way. In Jose Saramago's The Stone Raft, one character at the beginning of the book throws a stone extraordinarily far. He never does it (or any other unsual feat) again and this event is never explained in any way, because it doesn't matter. What matters is his experience of throwing that rock, and the emotional connection it gives him to other characters who also have strange unexplained experiences. To me that's much more interesting and satisfying than if he acquired the ability to throw a rock by some newly awakened magical power or whatever, and his rock-throwing ability became an important part of the plot later on, which I think is how it would go down in an SF book. But the latter would be much better than if it was a metaphor for Portugal's political situation or his unrealized yearning for a more authentic life or some other such allegorical reading.
102. Mutually Exclusive overload of erudite posters of comments! Oh my.

I am nearly exhausted after reading the 100 posts to this article. All I can say is, I enjoyed reading an exposition on why so many friends and co-workers say, "I just don't like science fiction."

My typical reaction is, "man, you must be too stupid to get it I suppose," silently of course. Then I think, well, perhaps they think SF is Star Wars or Avatar and while they may enjoy the occasional episode or movie once in awhile, they wouldn't want to read a book about it. Come to think of it, neither would I. (Star Wars at least)

Reflecting on what the author states above, I do recall I started reading SF (Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy) in the 6th grade thanks to a helpful school librarian. Maybe that gave me an advantage in later years, who knows.

Bottom line is, "Having a world unfold in one’s head is the fundamental SF experience." ~ that says it exactly. Thanks to Jo Walton for putting it into words.
Jay Stephens
103. Synic
I like to compare the differences between the fictional and this world, and think which one is or would be better

I like to notice the differences in order to reminded how many things about our world are contingent rather than necessary, and because each time I notice a new one it gives me so much pleasure, that kept me motivated to sharpen my "toolkit", even when it was hard work :)
104. atsiko
@102 individual frog

I think you're generalizing way too much. There's a certain kind of fantasy where everything must follow known rules. But there's also fantasy like Susanna Clarke's "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell", where there're chills and whispers and no science to be had.

I think an interesting idea to consider is that of competing protocols _within_ a specific genre. Because they exist.
105. atsiko
er... I meant "@101"
106. robertb
All of this deep discussion, and one line of it, somewhere near the middle, hit the nail on the head. Primary to reading SF is an ability to "Shut up, and enjoy the ride." Or simply to put one's self into the world (or the characters) the author creates.
This is an ability that is innate in young readers, that is most frequently educated out of them by a system that only encourages reading for "Success" (or "Self-Help", or what have you...)
What's wrong with reading (looking at, listening to, watching...) anything for the fun of it, simply for the artwork that it is, all on it's own. (Art for Art's sake. WOW! There's a concept that's nearly been hunted out of existance)
While it may also be a useful tool to educate, isn't the primary function of SF (or any other artform) to be contemporary entertainment.
Take it for what it is.
I read SF 'cuz its fun and leave the high-falutin' crap out of it.
107. Milander
Why bother trying to get people to appreciate sci fi literature, either they have (or will) discover it on their own or they won't. Why try and show them how great it is? If someone has a reasonable question about what is happening in the book explain it for them but don't even try to explain to them what seems obvious to yourself as then they will never learn for themselves. In fact by doing so you actively discourage them from engaging their own imagination compounding their inability to the grasp concepts expouned in the book.

On another note: you have footnotes in literature explaining what stuff is and the example you give is hansom cab... sorry, but that simply demonstrates the low expectations publishers have of their readerships vocabulary. I mean I can understand why shakespeare requires footnotes, hell, those peoms in the plays rhymed in his day and some of the vulgarities used would make a sailor blush (if you knew they were vulgarities of course) but for a common book of literature not even written for the intelligentsia to require footnotes today is preposterous.

Forget harry potter btw go for Harry Harrison, stainless steel rat series, or anything by Anne McCathrey, David Eddings, the endless Doctor Who books (Uk readers will know what I mean) and, first and foremost, a solid grounding in comics from a very young age...
111. Esspweb
Great post. I have no words for it.
112. keszterx
I read your post first, when Thor sent a link to it in the newsletter, and liked it. I had lots of, what my professors called "aha" moments while reading. I especially liked how you said: "Having a world unfold in one’s head is the fundamental SF experience." I always tell my non-SF reading friends, that I love these writers, because they are World Creators - or at least know how to take a secret peak at alternative universes.
I came back to read it, and appreciate anew, because I am trying to introduce SF to a couple of new friends. Hey, if you can learn to ski after 25, you may be able to learn to appreciate SF!
So thank you for a great post!
113. James Briggs
Jo is right every genera of literature has its own conventions. Those conventions serve two functions they predict the arc of the story and warn the reader of what type of events that they can expect to happen. This is important because most fiction involves events that are unlikely to happen in this time and place. Often when people read about such events they will dismiss them as impossible and stop reading. However if the events recounted fit the conventions of the genre then they are not thought of as unlikely. Such events may be a murder that takes place in a locked room, it may be that a woman on the run meets a man who just happens to have a fabulous job and he instantly falls in love with her, or a family travels from planet to planet faster than the speed of light. Fiction requires the suspension of disbelieve and an effort on the part of the reader to understand the story. What makes Science Fiction unique is the events are so unusual that if they became common place our society would change so much that it would be unrecognizable. As a result readers expect to expend more effort understanding Science Fiction stories than any other kind of story and when they do they often learn things about this world and themselves that other stories can only hint at.
116. Brandon Ketchum
This is an excellent read, one which puts into words a dilemma I have long encountered. My friends for the most part have been sf/f fans right along with me, so we've passed works around without a problem. Every once in a while, though, I come across someone I know would like or even love a particular work. Most of them are willing to give it a try, but a great deal of them can't seem to get into it. Perhaps this is why. Or I could just be bad at reading non-geeks' tastes :)

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