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What on earth (or off it) is a science fiction reading protocol?

Those of you who come to this site looking only for reviews of popular science books might be feeling there has been too much science fiction of late. I try to provide a balance of the two, but I confess that during the pandemic, I have found fiction more something I've looked forward to reading than non-fiction - so please forgive me! While not a review, this feature is inspired by a book - a non-fiction title - but science fiction is, admittedly, its topic.

Over the years, the number of science fiction books and short stories I've read runs into four figures - and I've even had a few SF stories published. I've also read quite widely on the history of science fiction, but a book title I spotted the other day totally threw me. It's the first time I've ever rushed to buy a book without having the slightest clue what it was about. The title was The Reading Protocols of Science Fiction: discourses on reading SF. To make it more intriguing, the book's blurb, a quote from the book, gave me absolutely no idea still what it covered. (The book is on Amazon etc. but available direct from the small publisher ReAnimus Press here - I have a bit of a soft spot for Reanimus, as they published my YA SF book Xenostorm: Rising.)

It seems the origins of the concept of reading protocols were in the development of academic studies of science fiction, mostly in the US. In particular, it came out of a protracted indirect debate about what was special (if anything) about SF from the reader's viewpoint between three late golden age writers: Samuel Delany, James Gunn and Damon Knight.

Delany and Gunn argued that you had to have special 'protocols' to read SF - suggesting that those who aren't immersed in SF (possibly particularly if they are academics) don't just look down on SF, often without reading it, but actually can't read it or criticise it meaningfully when forced to attempt to do so, because they don't understand how to read it. Knight, by contrast, argued that reading SF was no different from reading any other fiction.

Gunn's book puts the argument (mostly from Delany and Gunn's perspective) using a mix of articles and even a tidied up version of an online discussion group topic on the subject. The result is distinctly bitty, but if you are interested in what science fiction is and how, if it all, it's different from ordinary fiction (both literary and other genres) it's a fascinating read.

I started the book with Knight's viewpoint. How could it even be possible for there to be special protocols required to read SF? (The idea, by the way, is that these protocols are naturally developed by youngsters brought up on SF, but the academics struggling with it simply don't have them and need to be taught them.) However, after reading the book I understand the point Delany and Gunn were making and largely went along with it. I still wouldn't use the term 'reading protocols' which sounds unnecessarily complicated and academic-y - I'd say, rather, that non-SF readers don't have the context or understand the conventions and as a result fail to understand what's going on. The book is also very good in explaining why SF is doing something sufficiently different to traditional fiction to make its occasional shortcomings in, say, characterisation less of an issue than a conventional critic might think.

A couple of examples used by Delany help illustrate the problem. He comes up with a made up but not atypical phrase in 'monopole mining operations in the outer asteroid belt of Delta Cygni'. This is loaded with terms that wouldn't necessarily mean anything to the general reader, but to the SF reader it is very straightforward (with the possible exception of 'monopole'). What I found fascinating here is that Delany actually exposed academics (often from English departments) to this phrase and their 'two cultures' ignorance was startling. For example some didn't know what an asteroid belt was, some assumed such a belt would be pretty much solid and the mining would be in tunnels through that solid structure, many didn't know what Delta Cygni implied and some didn't even realise that stars were distant suns. This was a few decades ago - but it may well still be an issue.

Another example involved a couple of quotes from the Pohl and Kornbluth's classic The Space Merchants. In one, there was a reference to rinsing something 'from the trickle from the fresh-water tap'. Delany points out that the SF reader will pick up the likely implications of water shortages from that 'trickle' and the fact that there is a fresh water tap (and a sea water tap) that his general/academic readers failed to see. In another example that wouldn't apply anymore, the protagonist pays for something by card, which shocked Delany's non-SF test subjects at a time before cashless payments existed. Delany comments 'The readers I worked with, however, responded to such a sentence: "But why didn't he pay for it with the money in his pocket?" and were very surprised when I told them the character probably carried no money. ("But how did you know?...") Such readers, used to the given world of mundane fiction, tend to lay the fabulata of science fiction over that given world - and come up with confusion.'

Of course, especially with the impact of the pandemic, many of are now used to living without cash - I haven't used it in 16 months - so the specific example is impressively dated. But what's fascinating to me is the way the non-SF readers responded 'But how did you know?' They couldn't extrapolate from what they had been told to setting of the world being pictured. Their imagination was too limited. This arguably is the problem with only reading literary/mundane fiction - it doesn't stretch your imagination because it is too tightly focused on an unchanged reality.

I have read SF since I was about nine and that certainly gave me the context and ability to manage the conventions and deal with introductions of things that to begin with don't make sense because the reader doesn't yet know how the words are being used. Something I found very valuable in this respect, incidentally, were the maths tutorials I had at Cambridge. I remember listening to the person giving the tutorial and after a while saying something like 'I don't really follow this.' He said 'No one does to start with. Just let flow over you, and at some point, hopefully, it will all start to make sense.' Mostly it did. To read SF and enjoy it, this is certainly a philosophy that's essential.

I don't go all the way in siding with Delany and Gunn, though. I do agree that you can't measure the quality of SF purely by the metrics of, say, literary fiction, because SF has far more to it. What Delany calls mundane fiction (not an insult, just saying it's entirely rooted in this world) is much more limited in what it can do, because SF gives us the opportunity to think 'What if things were different from the way they are now? How would people react?' But equally, I don't see why good SF can't have decent characterisation, say - and certainly, modern SF is far better in this regard than most science fiction books from, say, the 1950s.

One other thing I got out of reading this book was an explanation for something I'd always struggled with. Like many people who are science fiction fans, I didn't like the so-called new wave. Writers such as J. G. Ballard, whose books were often relentless, miserable and dismissive of the sense of wonder, replacing it with bleak hopelessness. Gunn points out that, from his viewpoint, the new wave writers weren't writing SF at all, because their characters made no attempt to understand what was happening and do something about it. These were more like religious myths than science fiction. Being able to mentally dismiss the new wave from the SF canon is a huge relief to me!

You do have to be an SF fan to enjoy The Reading Protocols of Science Fiction - but for me, after getting over my initial puzzlement as to what it was about (a process nicely fitting with the nature of reading science fiction itself), it was a book I really appreciated.


  1. This is a fascinating concept, particularly as there are many other types of fiction (sword and sorcery, Lovecraftian horror, vampires, pacts with the devil etc) which depart from reality and have their own sets of internal rules that (I suspect) don't have the same lack-of-appreciation issues with arts/humanities readers. I wonder why that is? Maybe the unique thing about SF is that when it's done properly it's based on rational extrapolation of real-world scence (or real-world social or political trends), and people who can't follow that extrapolation, or appreciate its cleverness and logic, just fail to see the point of it?


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