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Protocols and The Spectacle of Reading Fantastika

“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. ” – Jo Walton

I love reading. I love it as much as writing, and for me, the two activities are intimately intertwined. I cannot imagine reading without writing about it, and I am unable to think of writing without the effects of my reading upon it. The play between the two of them is essentially hermeneutic for me. Reading and writing are not just in dialectical relation, not just complementary, but symbiotic, constantly feeding off of each other, sharing strength, and sometimes getting in each other’s way. Both are crafts to me, and exist as inseparable siblings in my imagination and in my cognitive practice.

For most people the distinction seems to be more rigid. Most of my students in writing classes could not understand why I made them read so much, and talk about their reading, and treat their writing as reading material rather than a ritual act for course completion. Many of the patrons of the bookstore I work at admire various sorts of literatures to read but see those works as distinctive products, and often see themselves as passive consumers, mere readers. I have always found this to ring untrue for me, because (a) reading is not a simple, passive activity, and (b) separating reading from writing seems artificial. I am not suggesting that everyone who reads should become a writer, but I do wonder, frequently, why we compartmentalize the two activities and then further rarefy them, mystifying one while treating the other as prosaic. Part of the distinction comes from the idea that one creates while the other absorbs, yet both rely on our imaginations, our aptitudes, and the ability to apply our knowledge and ingenuity to textual interactions. Both are creative processes, but how we use them to create and what they produce differs, and the seeming ease with which we read often overshadows its richness and the ways it contributes to our thinking, including that which we put into words for others to read.

I think about the creativity of reading often when perusing literature, and in particular when reading fantastika. And as I read, I think about how that act of interpretation has been characterized in writing, and I return again and again to a certain contradiction: that of the spectacle of reading fantastic literature and attempts to describe it with ideas of practices that threaten to render the act of reading into a rote activity. In the attempt to understand the distinctiveness of SF (broadly conceived) I wonder if the terminology employed in that attempt doesn’t shape our conception of reading in ways that reinforce assumptions we might want to question while simultaneously hyperbolizing and diluting the effects of reading fantastika. In particular, I am thinking of the term “reading protocols,” a notion that has a long history in the characterization of how SF (in the broad rather than strict definition) is read.

The problem I see is that “protocol” can be imprecise and misleading, and incompletely characterizes how readers make sense of an SF text. It feeds into rigid ideas of genre, of exclusion from comprehension, and presupposes an exceptionalism that may have been prevalent in the mid-20th century but that seems much slighter today. Start with the term itself; a protocol is a repeatable procedure, formally codified and often written down, that is used to mediate relations and actions within a constrained sphere of activity, like diplomacy or medicine. The word has deep linguistic roots that link it to formalization and codification. The ways in which readers comprehend and enjoy an SF text have some shared and socially-acquired similarities, but is there a formal step-by-step process that readers go through to learn how to interpret SF?

The very way these reading protocols are defined argues against the term. In his brief “The Protocols of Science Fiction,” James Gunn discusses the teaching of these protocols to students and stresses the importance of knowing them not just to understand SF, but to fully experience its power as literature:

” Most of us read carelessly, and care is unnecessary for most of the reading we do. Science fiction demands a different kind of reading—a kind of interaction with the text that may be required, in other circumstances, only by the most difficult literature, Joyce’s Ulysses, say, but most SF readers believe that the pay-off of SF is greater, or, at least, more satisfying to their particular desires. “

An yet, when discussing the transmission of these protocols, there seems to be no systemization to the reading. In fact, Gunn’s most specific example, which concludes that readers should withhold immediate judgment until the text itself provides more clues, seems more like a lesson in general critical reading than in the inculcation of a specific instruction that applies only to SF.

Other examples also utilize this application of “protocols.” Jo Walton, in the piece I acquired the opening quotation from, tells the story of a friend who got “stuck” on the concept of tachyon drive in The Forever War:

“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. ‘

Walton discusses the acquisition of protocols not as recognition of tropes, but as a tacit training in critical reading: “We have signals for what you can take for granted, we have signals for what’s important.” This is not a written code of conduct or procedure; this is much more a sort of enculturation, of identifying signs in a textual matrix and establishing their significance to one another, how they intensify or subdue other meanings, what “clues” they provide to the mystery of the world the text is designed to suggest. Given that we cannot even define science fiction/SF/fantastika, how can there be a standardized, admissible approach to it?

The idea of a protocol gains some strength (at least for its classical definition) when we bring the relationship between reading and writing to the fore. This is what Jay Lake and Ruth Nestvold did to some extent in their discussion of SF protocols. While reiterating some of the points of Samuel R. Delaney and Gunn, they then proceed further than that. “The speculative fiction writer needs to expose the assumptions behind the reality within the story, being aware of the reader’s expectations, and working with (or against) them accordingly.” This implies that it is not just overlaid general precepts that govern the reading of SF texts, but that the writer creates signals for the reader to pick up on. “It is not only reader expectation and experience that creates a story, but authorial intent.” It is not just clues, but omissions and elisions, tricking the reader as much as cluing them in.

Part of the idea of the protocol is that it is not just a training of the reader’s eye and mind, but an enlightenment of it. This goes back to Delaney’s detailed exegesis of SF language, the idea that certain protocols allow the reader to richly unpack and profoundly experience the SF text. In Reading by Starlight: Postmodern Science Fiction, Damien Broderick discusses Delany’s ideas in-depth. and brings up the idea of reading protocols as well, but tries to resist the exceptionalism, replacing it with particularism, with SF as not having a “privileged, transcendental status,” but as, like other forms of writing, a product of the moment of inscription that is then given significance by communities of readers within social and discursive webs of meaning. There is more to Broderick’s discussion than that, but again, the thrust of the argument seems weighted down by the idea of protocols. He quotes Delany at one point: “Science fiction poises in a tense, dialogie, agonistic relation to the given.” SF is fraught with excesses and interstitial signs, and ideally strives for novelty, which is the very basis for the invocation of a unique protocol.  But in all of these discussions and their uses of the idea of “protocol,” it seems that the particularities are an effect of attempts at novelty that resist  formalized reading and call on the reader to imagine the world they see in the text differently. Is this a discrete procedure, or a broader state of mind, a flexibility of reading?

I’m not sure I know the answer to that question, but I think it needs to be asked, and the idea of “protocol” examined more closely.

5 Comments on Protocols and The Spectacle of Reading Fantastika

  1. It seems to me that these protocols act as a kind of semaphore system; they provide the subtext dialog between reader and writer, much like train signals along a track. And I do agree with Jo Walton that the only way you learn them is by lots and lots of reading. It makes me think of playing baseball when I was growing up. You have to watch a lot of baseball games before you really start to see the art behind the sport. Now, watching a game won’t help you become a better hitter, but you will learn the implicit signals that let you see the game more holistically as a player: less than two outs, runner on first with a 2-1 count. Good opportunity for stealing a base. You can only pick this up by watching it unfold before your eyes.

    I think the same is true with the relationship between reading and writing. A protocol doesn’t have to be carved into stone. I can’t think of anywhere that it is explicitly written that a 2-1 count is a good count for stealing a base. Instead the protocol exists as an expression of the literature. My first time around I might not know what a “collapser” is or why “ansibles” keep showing up. But over time, I’ll learn, if I keep at it. This learning is accelerated the more interaction I have with other readers of the literature. (“Hey kid, it’s okay to risk stealing a base on a 2-1 count, because the hitter is ahead. He can afford to swing at a pitch to protect the running. And the pitcher doesn’t want to go 3-1.”)

    This was my own experience. I read lots and lots of stuff, often confused, but eventually catching on. And when I write, I find myself mentally referencing these protocols in considering whether the story is clear. Some writers deliberately avoid the protocols (“attempts at novelty”), but this stands out to experienced readers, I think. The best attempts at novelty that I can think of is when the writers shine a light on the protocols themselves, bring them into the foreground of the story as explicit entities as opposed to directives. No one does this better, in my opinion, than Barry Malzberg.

    The problem with the protocols (not unique to the Fantaskia, or even literature, but any protocols) is that they provide instant barriers to the audience and the audience has to be willing to learn the protocols to overcome them. This is where science fiction, at least, is sometimes said to be insular. But so is any literature when looked at through the window of its protocols.

    • Well said, Jamie.

      It does seem to me that a lot of writers, especially neophytes, struggle and strain against the protocols, but it feels false, like an exercise in trying to be consciously different.

      I think that those barriers are greatest for those who are new to the genre, and this might dovetail into questions about how accessible Fantastika is to those who don’t already read them.

      Another thought–are younger, “golden age of 12″ readers” less likely to recognize or allow the barriers to stop them, and that’s why SF is more likely to be picked up as a genre to read for the first time then, rather than later in life?

      • Paul, the protocols are a function of language and we learn language more readily the younger we are. It may be that the age range in which many young readers first pick up science fiction is within the period when language-learning brain function is still primed to recognize the protocols as such.

  2. Thanks for the comments, Jamie and Paul. I had hoped to respond to them earlier but illness made that difficult. So, check this coming week’s column for a response.

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