Jo Walton on the protocols of reading science fiction

Paul Raven @ 20-01-2010

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.

Well, help is at hand – novelist Jo Walton has hit the nail on the head over at Tor.com with a short and lucid essay on the reading protocols of science fiction:

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?


Augmented reality from off-the-shelf protocols?

Paul Raven @ 25-08-2009

Those of you who follow Chairman Bruce and other such futurist types can’t have failed to notice the Cambrian explosion of buzz around Augmented Reality in the last month or so. I sure have, and I’ll confess to having been thoroughly bitten by the bug; not only does it mesh with my long-running cyberpunk jones, but it’s the logical next step from the metaverse (which still fascinates, though I don’t have the time for exploration that I did a few years ago).

There’s a real sense of imminence about Augmented Reality right now, a vibe similar to that around the internet itself in 1994 when I started university (and my short-lived dead-tree subscription to Wired, not coincidentally). You know the feeling: that whole “you can’t do much with it yet, but give these people a few years and some VC funding and who knows?” sensation; a feeling of potentiality.

Of course, AR is actually quite an old concept (the term was coined around 1990, apparently), but only now has mobile computing technology matured to a point where it can be put into practice at a price level where people like you and I can afford the hardware that runs it. If you’re carrying an iPhone or similar device (I’m an Android guy myself), you’ve got an Augmented Reality terminal in your pocket that’s just waiting for some killer apps to arrive.

Those apps are on their way, with quite a few in demo form already, but AR is a technology that will need infratructure – not hardware infrastructure so much as network protocols to connect the hardware together effectively. Enter Thomas Wrobel, a UK based sci-fi geek (yeah, he’s one of us!) who has developed a proposal for an open Augmented Reality network that could be built using existing protocols like IRC and HTTP. I’ll freely admit that a good 50% of the technical stuff he’s talking about here is way over my head, but the other half is full of things that have the appealing ring of simplicity. Wrobel’s aim is to create an AR system that avoids the ‘browser wars’ that have afflicted the web… and while I’m in no position to judge whether his ideas could actually work, I think it’s safe to say that he (and others like him) probably aren’t too far from some sort of conceptual breakthrough.

Of course, only time will tell if Augmented Reality will become a part of our day-to-day lives just like the internet has, or whether it will be relegated to the same Hall of Unfulfilled Promise that houses its closely related cousin, Virtual Reality. One thing’s for sure: it’s going to be an interesting journey.