Developing the science fiction reading skillset

Over at Tor.com Jo Walton has an interesting article on SF reading protocols and how regular readers of science fiction know how to read without getting hung up on the detail that’s not important. She uses the example of Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, and how you don’t need to know what a tachyon drive is to enjoy the novel, you just need to know that it allows you to travel faster than light and what impact that has for the story.

One of the things that I find when non-SF readers read any of our stories is that they always want more detail. They always want to know more back story.

I used to think that maybe we do jump into a story too quickly sometimes. In Not So Simple After All (aka Potion), for example, we start the story when our adventurers start their journey together, not when they first meet their prospective boss. We had quite a few people say they would like to see how the characters are offered the job and how they decide to take the work. We tried to write earlier chapters showing Blade bored and unhappy at his school for fighters and River coming to the school to offer him the job, but it was boring and didn’t add anything to the story except that the reader had to read at least two more chapters before they got into the story proper. So we cut them again.

I think now that what these people—many of them non-regular SFF readers—really wanted was for us to make a world that they understood at the start, rather than have that world unfold for them as they read.

I have always been a reader who is happy to learn things as the book goes on. Myself, I call it a willing suspension of disbelief. Provided the author is telling a good tale and has empathetic characters I’m happy to go along with his/her story and let the facts settle in throughout the story. I don’t need to understand everything straight away.

Jo Walton calls this the SF reading skillset.

Leave a Reply