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.


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