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January 18, 2010

“SF is like a mystery where the world and the history of the world is what’s mysterious”
Posted by Patrick at 03:27 PM *

Jo Walton, at Tor.com, on how we read, or fail to read, science fiction:

My ex-husband once lent a friend Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. The friend couldn’t get past chapter 2, because there was a tachyon drive mentioned, and the friend couldn’t figure out how that would work. All he wanted to talk about was the physics of tachyon drives, whereas we all know that the important thing about a tachyon drive is that it lets you go faster than light, and the important thing about the one in The Forever War is that the characters get relativistically out of sync with what’s happening on Earth because of it. The physics don’t matter—there are books about people doing physics and inventing things, and some of them are SF (The Dispossessed…) but The Forever War is about going away to fight aliens and coming back to find that home is alien, and the tachyon drive is absolutely essential to the story but the way it works—forget it, that’s not important.

This tachyon drive guy, who has stuck in my mind for years and years, got hung up on that detail because he didn’t know how to take in what was and what wasn’t important. How do I know it wasn’t important? The way it was signalled in the story. How did I learn how to recognise that? By reading half a ton of SF. How did I read half a ton of SF before I knew how to do it? I was twelve years old and used to a lot of stuff going over my head, I picked it up as I went along. That’s how we all did it. Why couldn’t this guy do that? He could have, but it would have been work, not fun. […]

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.

Lots more, all smart. Read the whole thing. Comments turned off here—go comment there!

(Generally, if you’re not reading Jo Walton’s posts on Tor.com, you’re missing some of the best practical SF criticism in years. This link gets you roughly the last couple of months’ worth, but she’s been posting at this rate pretty much since we launched the site a year and a half ago.)

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