Recently, as I was reading some of the comments regarding the forthcoming The Tears of Eridanus Steve and I received from a group of beta readers, I was reminded of one of Jo Walton’s posts on tor.com. It’s entitled “SF Reading Protocols” and is about how we who have been reading science fiction for years have developed a certain skillset that enables us to enjoy the stories instead of being puzzled or even put off by them.
Things don’t always have to be spelled out to make sense. If they’re important, they’ll be explained. If not, they’re there simply to liven up the background. Walton uses a friend of her ex-husband as an example. He’d read The Forever War (or tried to, at least) and was confused by the reference to a tachyon drive. In the story, the drive is important because it makes FTL travel possible, but its exact workings are not.
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.
This brings me back to tToE. Some of the beta readers haven’t read much (or any) SF before, and so their reaction to the story is naturally going to be different to that of people who are intimately familiar with it. We now have the difficult task of deciding when to address their complaints about unexplained things and when to leave the references in question as they are.
I don’t have a problem with not immediately understanding some of the references in a new story. But then, I started reading SF and fantasy at almost the same age as Jo Walton: thirteen. I’ve had seventeen years to build up a vast dictionary/encyclopedia in my head, and sometimes it is difficult to remember that other people might not share that experience.
On the other hand, it’s unlikely that there will be many people unfamiliar with both SF in general and Star Trek in particular who’ll be reading the third volume of Myriad Universes come December. Somehow it doesn’t strike me as the most newcomer-friendly material available. But what do I know? I only write the darned things, I don’t sell them.