Why Does No One in SFF Ever Read the Damn Manual?

Every so often, I find it entertaining to muse about and lament the ill effects of missing or erroneous documentation. Or the ill effects of failing to read the manual…or, having read it, ignoring its wise advice.

Unsurprisingly, SFF authors have arrived at a consensus as far as technical documentation is concerned: For the most part, they’re against it, at least as part of the setting of the story. There is nothing more encouraging to thrills and spills, exciting disasters and pulse-quickening cliffhangers, than protagonists doing ill-advised things…that is, things that would have been ill-advised if anyone had bothered to write down useful advice. Or if the protagonists had bothered to read such advice.

Of course, there’s some excuse for bold experimentation if the problem, or setting, is brand-new to all involved. Someone actually has to create the documentation later people can use. Thus the situation in Brian Stableford’s Daedalus Mission series—The Florians (1976), Critical Threshold (1977), Wildeblood’s Empire (1977), The City of the Sun (1978), Balance of Power (1979), The Paradox of the Sets (1979). Earth has founded and then abandoned extra-solar colonies. A later expedition finds no survivors. A second expedition, the focus of the series, turns up survivors…and also information which, had it been available back when the colonies were first founded, would have had a profound effect on their survival rate. If only there had been a manual!

Another reason to eschew proper documentation is simple economics. It’s just so much faster and cheaper to let the end users pool their experiences to work out what the heck is happening and why. It’s a philosophy embraced by organizations from roleplaying game companies to my phone service provider. It’s not surprising to see it pop up, then, in SF works like Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti: Home, where new and powerful technology is not accompanied by a useful manual. But at least there are other users to query.

In other stories the manual writers may be long gone and their manuals fallen into dust. Or into the bit bucket. The explorers in Melissa Scott’s Finder are looking for relics of a civilization that may as well have been gods as far as the modern era is concerned. The modern era has enough experience with the materials they salvage from old ruins to have a general idea of how it might behave. This allows for all manner of surprises—some nice, some not so nice. But all very plot-friendly surprises.

Of course, even if the builders have left decent documentation, there’s no reason to think that people will read it. This was a running gag in many of Robert Sheckley’s comedies, in particular the AAA Ace stories. Protagonists Arnold and Gregor—well, Arnold mostly, with poor Gregor dragged along for the ride—go gaga over potentially profitable gadgets or contracts. They…well, again, Arnold mostly…never bother to read manual, or the fine print.

Then there are the “KEEP OFF! THIS MEANS YOU” notices. All too many well-meaning folks who have managed to seal some dire evil in a can have also decided to mark the spot with large, clearly written warnings intended to repel the curious. These warnings are, alas, archaeologist and treasure-hunter bait par excellence. There is no warning stern enough to keep those fools away. Examples are too numerous to list (but don’t let that stop you from trying in comments): Lost Things by Scott and Graham, A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge, The Silver Spike by Glen Cook, and from a certain point of view, Monstress by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda.

In such cases, it may seem better NOT to document. Opt for security through obscurity. After all, if people cannot find the Horrible Thing or understand what it is, there is no reason to worry that they will decide to dig it up. Except they do. They always do. People are forever digging stuff up. If they don’t know what it is, they won’t know to be careful. In Iain M. Banks’ Matter, had the characters understood just what it was that had been found beneath the Hyeng-Zhar Falls they might have left it alone. As it was…not so much.

But even if one does provide documentation, there’s always the pitfall demonstrated by George O. Smith’s story “Lost Art.” Archaeologists Carroll and Baler struggle to grasp the principles behind an ancient Martian power relay. The Old Martians did believe in proper documentation, save (of course!) for those important details so widely known by all Martians there was no need to explain them. Neither Carroll nor Baler happen to be Old Martians. But most of the neighbourhood survives Carroll and Baler’s experiments, so it’s all good.

Which brings us back, full circle, to lack of documentation. If you don’t document, disaster. If you do document, disaster. A good reason to simply stay home in your nice hobbit hole and never, ever have adventures.

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is surprisingly flammable.

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