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Reading as Fantasy, Protocols as Fiction

“‘[T]he science fiction reading protocol’ should not be conceived outside of a recognition of the fundamental impurity of genre.” – Roger Luckhurst, The Angle Between Two Walls: The Fiction of J. G. Ballard

Last week’s post on Protocols and The Spectacle of Reading Fantastika got a long response in the comments section from Jamie Todd Rubin (with some input from Paul Weimer as well). I had hoped to respond to them earlier this week but I have been fighting some mutant cold/flu chimera that waylaid me for several days. So, for this week’s column I want to use those comments as a springboard to elaborate and refine what I was driving at  last week. While I agree with some of what Jamie is asserting, I am increasingly unconvinced that examining the reading of SF (and fantastika) gains much insight from the use of “protocols” and I feel more strongly that this idea leads us away from a fuller understanding of the reading imagination and what the apprehension of fantastika can tell us about it.

The idea that a writer encodes the text with signals — “like a semaphore system” as Jamie put it — is a sound place to begin. All writing attempts to stimulate recognition effects in the reader’s imagination, but the goals and success can vary widely.  Good writing is evocative, either because it succeeds in its basic transfer of meaning (“I’ll be home in time for dinner”) and/or because it stimulates the reader’s imagination by creating fodder for the creation of additional meaning(s) through fantasization. Bad writing stimulates different effects in readers, generally ones unintended by the author. These are not hard-and-fast categories however; “bad writing” can generate pleasure and reflection, while “good writing” may seem overly elaborate or obtuse and they does not work for some readers. The subjective aspects of reading mean that no text appeals to everyone and that any individual discursive act can have a range of interpretations. Intentionality influences the engagement with and reception of the text in ways that both open up and limit the meanings we generate from a text as we read. The semaphore comparison works as an idea of how basic communication works, as each signal has a very specific meaning, but are other meanings communicated so rigorously and clearly?

Jamie’s shift into an extended baseball metaphor demonstrates where the idea of a protocol begins to break down, although that was not his intention. Reading and writing are learned through repetition, following linguistic rules both general and specific, which one could compare to learning a sport (or a series of flag signals), but once basic competency is obtained are there “protocols” for interpreting texts? What Jamie discusses, and what many authors describe when looking at SF protocols, are not formal rules (an “A” is shaped like this; a sentence has a subject, verb, and often objects, etc.) but responses and strategies that people use to make sense of and engage what the rules produce. Cultural knowledge, social learning, and creative thinking skills are all employed in Jamie’s example. You do not learn how to read SF via a set of strict regulations, but by talking to others, applying accrued knowledge, and by learning how to pick up clues in the text, clues that sometimes echo commonly-understood meanings, but at other times try to make new or reworked meanings. As Jamie puts it, ” I read lots and lots of stuff, often confused, but eventually catching on.” This is not the discovery of rules but the composition of meaning from a variety of sources.

What Jamie describes is not how a protocol works. The process of reading literature he gives us (and that I see in many other discussions of readings SF) is more of an ethnographic endeavor. You enter a new cultural context, situate yourself as you go deeper into it, look for indicators of what words signify and how they relate to potentially larger meanings and ideas. Some texts have indicators that are easy to identify and that make you feel comfortable, that allow you to navigate through the narrative without a lot of stopping to wonder what’s going on. Some set commonplace meanings against each other, or invert them, or suggest multivalent formulations. Still others unmoor commonplace referents and situate them in relationships to one another that require the reader to create unobvious interpretations or to search for patterns and evidence within the narrative for innovative or uncommon meanings. Some texts create a sense of culture shock, while others create a subtler sense of displacement or subvert assumptions, all in the service of marking the text as different.

Those senses of difference are signaled in many ways, from the employment of counter-realistic imagery (such as Delany’s famous example of suns) to the explicit invocation of genre conventions. Sometimes this signaling mimics a type of difference that the reader has encountered before; in other instances the text may contain an innovation or disjuncture designed to pull the reader away from the familiar and towards. How this is communicated to the reader is through a step away from the quotidian, a discursive motion that has not exact rules. This is what can make fantastika exciting, this shift into the potentially unknown or strange that calls not just on knowledge or experience but on our capacity to fantasize, to conjure pretense in a textual environment that provides conceptual space for active imagining.

Reading is a process of fantasization; we employ our imaginations to take the meanings we garner from symbols and make sense out of them. But what does it mean “to make sense” of them? The word sense is used to articulate both means of perception and the interpretation one inculcates from the input of one’s perception. Here again the notion of protocol seems unproductive, masking specifics by presenting a generalized idea of process. What many users of the term seem to mean when they apply it to SF is a recognition of rules and customs that assist them in navigating ostensibly otherwise unfathomable texts.

A protocol is designed to create a reproducible effect, to fulfill a set goal.  You use a protocol to troubleshoot a computer program or establish a diplomatic relationship. Reading protocols in education are surveys or exercises designed to bring students to a specific conclusion. What Delany and Walton and the rest of us are talking about is not a protocol. The process is too social and subjective, too whimsical and fraught. There is no single road-map that shows us how to arrive at the same destination of comprehension. In fact, the notion of established protocols seems at odds with both the ways we attempt to theorize the reading of SF and how we often describe our own grasp of reading fantastika.

We don’t learn to read SF according to a printout of rules. Protocols are about precision, about following exact steps to the same end every time. What we describe when we talk about reading SF is not a rigid procedure designed to produce the same effect every time; it is the deployment of resemblances, of suggestions, even of novelty or alterity. In the introduction to The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction, for example, the volume’s editors characterize reading protocols in SF as “the approaches required for understanding the genre.” They go on to discuss Delany’s idea of subjunctivity and Marc Angenot’s theory of the absent paradigm. What is immediately obvious in the discussion of these ideas is that neither one provides a set protocol. Angenot’s concept “challenge(s) the reader’s imagination to construct a new and different world out of scattered hints and clues,” while Delany’s is about “linguistic openness and indeterminacy.” Neither is a blueprint for comprehending an SFnal text.

The manner in which the term “protocol” is used ends up being more of a fictive gloss, a story about the highly significant, distinctive, and wondrous way that SF readers engage with the fiction they love. The tale of the protocol is one of a quest, a sort of hero’s journey into a more profound literary universe. There is a sense of initiation, of becoming an SF reader, of becoming part of the culture, of learning esoteric knowledge that others do not possess. There is a measure of truth to  these ideas, I believe, but the valorization that undergirds this story, of the heady iconoclasm of reading SF, seems to raise it above all other ways of understanding literature and mark the SF reader as a trailblazing explorer in literature. I think this aspect of using protocol is the most problematic, because it makes the reading of SF less an act of imagination and more the inculcation of an identity, and takes us away from the literature whose power we are trying to understand. The act of reading relies on identity as its anchorage, but when we exoticize that identity, when we characterize that act of reading so exceptionally, we lose sight of the fact that the pure object it refers to is impure, contested, and often more explicable than we would like to admit.

4 Comments on Reading as Fantasy, Protocols as Fiction

  1. Very good and you are closer than many others on the process of reading SF.

    The classic example is about a reader starting a story and coming across the phrase “the door dilated”. The SF reader knows immediately he is in some high-tech environment or, much more rare, some high fantasy realm.
    A highly literate non-SF reader would think “how odd” and start paying closer attention to understand the story.
    Unfortunately, the more typical non-SF reader glosses over or even skips the word, fills in “opened” or possible “closed”, and keeps on going until something else finally makes clear that this story is not in the present day normal world.

    • Thank for the kind words! What you talk about here is something that I see in the research on reading I have started to do; rather than follow a specific process readers either look for clues that signal something familiar (spaceship, etc.) or when they encounter something novel decide whether to incorporate it or not. This is the idea of “willing construction of belief” that some psychologists and literary specialists write about, and which I think is a useful way to counter the vague idea of “protocol” but also the problematic idea of “willing suspension of disbelief.”

  2. John, I really enjoyed the previous article, and this one as well. My understanding of reading is deeply influenced by the idea of language as not so much sending a message (conduit metaphor) but evoking things in the reader’s mind; the basic techniques for doing this in writing are common to many genres. There is a Discourse of science fiction as I see it; conventions and concepts, underlying assumptions and metaphors that are common to a lot of fantastical writings. A reader comes to a text of any kind with a set of socially and culturally informed expectations (schemata) that fantastical texts must then go about evoking or defeating; as the reader moves deeper into the experience of the fantastic, this experience itself will lead to the formation of genre-specific expectations (yet these too can be defeated by a text, in favor of other cultural models). I really appreciate you bringing up the complication of group identity, because as I see it that plays into this whole problem directly. Part of our cultural identity lies in the fact that we are easily able to access a set of cultural models and their associated expectations; the demonstration of this ability is often what helps us to win our sense of belonging in a given group. Breaking expectations in writing (depending on how it’s executed) can either be interpreted as a transcendent success in questioning by an in-group member, or interpreted as a facile attempt to subvert protocols that results in the exclusion of this example (or even the writer) from membership in the social group of genre readers and writers. When we feel that we speak the language of the fantastic, or belong to the group of readers and writers of genre, we can feel that “there’s something there” that we want to put a word on. However, I agree with you that “protocol” is a very limiting word to express what is in fact a more complex question of Discourses and group membership. Thanks for writing these great articles!

    • Thanks so much, Juliette. This idea of evocation is important and I like the way that you detail the reading experience here. I think “schemata” works better than “protocol,” although I think the strategic expectations vary. Some readers may have a general one in mind, a “soft” one, or may even have a hybrid one that they use. I think the idea of “schemata” is one to expound upon because it comes from both external and internal sources.

      Identity is important, especially when you get into more discretely marked genres like science fiction. I think this is shifting as both technological changes and entertainment discourses alter and mutate, but the relation between identity production and literature is something that I would like to examine more closely. What I would really like to do is figure out how to get a closer, clearer view of that idea that “there’s something there.” I think this is anthropological as well as literary and psychological subject; the trick is to figure out how to tackle it.

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