Have you ever wondered why it is that, for all your efforts and enthusiasm, you’ve failed to convince your bookworm buddies of the brilliance of a favourite science fiction story or novel? As science fiction readers, we know instinctively that there’s something different about it by comparison to “regular” literature, but explaining that difference concisely – to others, or even to ourselves – can be quite tricky.
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.
It always feels a little elitist to engage in special pleading for science fiction’s literary merits, but it really has evolved its own rhetorical and narrative language; this has become much more apparent to me since I started critiquing manuscripts by beginning writers, especially those who’ve come to write science fiction late in their lives, or via television and cinema. It’s often said that the golden age of science fiction is twelve, but I wonder if exposure at a formative age is an essential prerequisite for the ability to parse it – can that “hard work” of decoding the fictional world be taught later in life and still bring the same degree of pleasure it gives to us?
A few years back, I managed to convince some of my public library colleagues to read Geoff Ryman’s Air, and I know a handful of people from the same generation as my parents who enjoy Ballard’s later short fiction, but reliable and universal “gateway drugs” seem hard to find. Have you had any success converting readers to science fiction, and if so, what books or stories did you use to bait the hook?