Jo Walton on the protocols of reading science fiction

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 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?

4 thoughts on “Jo Walton on the protocols of reading science fiction”

  1. I haven’t had any direct success. I did get my mother into epic fantasy, though. Totally didn’t expect her to fall for Eddings, or Asprin, but she did. I’ll get her on SF soon enough, though.

  2. It’s way past time to retire the idea that the golden age of SF is 12. I doubt it was ever true, even if some of the male writers from the so-called golden age were writing the kind of stories they wished had been around when they were 12.

    At this point, when we’re living to a great degree in a science fictional world (what else would you call a world with instant worldwide communication and “printers” that can construct actual objects from a download?), SF is relevant to everyone. Though I confess to the same problem in converting those who assume all SF is pulp skiffy stuff.

    And no, I don’t think you have to grow up reading SF to learn how to include just enough, but not too much, information in your stories. What you need to do to learn how to do that is to carefully read books by people who are good at it and figure out what they did.

    Margaret Atwood, who supposedly doesn’t even write SF, did a wonderful job of worldbuilding in her recent SF novel, The Year of the Flood.

  3. I’ve had some success with Dune, usually with a younger crowd, and also with Gibson. I think Gibson works well as a gateway (incidentally the title of a good sci fi book) because his more contemporary stuff (Pattern Recognition, Spook Country) isn’t so much sci fi as AR or very near future sci fi. You still have to do the work of world building, but the foundation is based in “the real world” giving those who are just starting with sci fi a level of familiarity and thus comfort. Its like re-reading a book in a way. Since there are some things you already know it is easier for your brain to pick up on the subtleties of the text, in this case the details that make Gibson’s world unique and interesting.

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