Monday, February 1, 2010

The key to enjoying science fiction

Posted by Simcha 7:37 PM, under | 7 comments

A couple of weeks ago, Jo Walton posted an interesting piece on the Tor blog about reading science fiction and the kind of skill-set required to really enjoy this genre.

She says that most science fiction readers have developed the skill of allowing the really complicated SF details to pass them by, while enjoying the rest of the story. People who can't enjoy SF because they get caught up in the mechanics of how everything is supposed to work, apparently never developed this skill set and therefore can't really enjoy reading these sort of books. She cites an example of a friend of her husband's who couldn't get through Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, because he couldn't understand how the tachyon drive would work. But an experienced SF reader would know that it doesn't matter how the tachyon drive works, it's the rest of the story that's important.

As someone who has avoided science fiction because all of the complicated scientific stuff they are usually full of, I'm now wondering if I've just been reading them in the wrong way. I've always assumed I wasn't scientifically minded enough to enjoy real science fiction, but if Walton is correct, then perhaps I'm not the only one who often doesn't understand every detail, and I just need to ignore them and move on.

But Walton also mentions how part of the fun of reading SF is having a new world unfold in your head. Personally, I find that if I don't understand all of the details of a world, then that world doesn't unfold properly for me. It's like watching a movie off a scratched dvd, where occasionally the picture will jump, making it difficult to really enjoy the movie.

So now I'm curious as to how other science fiction readers go about reading SF. Do you, like Walton, believe that not all the complicated details are really meant to be understood or do feel that you need to understand everything in order to enjoy the story?

You can read Jo Walton's post on reading science fiction, here


7 comments:

hi simcha!! i hope you had a great monday :)

i agree with you actually. i too avoid reading science fiction because in the past i don't understand all the complicated stuff most sf books have and i just lose interest if i am not understanding what i am reading. i don't feel that i need to understand everything in the book but if it's a big part of the story like the setting and the rules that come with that world usually is in sf novels, then i need to understand it to enjoy the book.
the most recent sf book i've read was the hunger games and catching fire by suzanne collins--the world and its rules there is easy to understand so i loved it.

I have to agree with you. I usually like to stick to my fantasy where things are... well maybe... simpilar? I don't have to figure out how the mechanics are to make my logical brain understand it. I do find in reading scifi that I try very hard to understand everything and WHY. With the last scifi I read I had to keep putting that out of my mind and enjoy the book for what it was... a fiction book for fun. I am not going to know how that thing runs because it just may not be real in our world any way. But I have to say I do try to figure it all out myself in reading and in that dilute what I am reading.

Thanks for sharing this!

I love sci fi, and I have to agree with that article you read. To be a good reader of sci fi, you have to understand that there are just some things that you aren't going to understand. And that maybe the author didn't even understand. A lot of times, I just have to tell myself that it works because of some futuristic technology that we don't yet have. Because that's what sci fi is about, isn't it. If you get too caught up in the details, sci fi can definitely get overwhelmingly hard to read.
I think, at the same time, understanding things at some level can help your enjoyment. I know I've started a doctorate in math and therefore have at least some basic scientific knowledge. There are some things I just intrinsically understand, and when other people read the same book, they are frustrated because they don't.
So while it is definitely not important to understand everything (more important to understand that you just won't understand everything), I do think that some understanding helps.
Anyhow, thanks for this great post!

I am not a reader of science fiction, but I would like to be. I don't understand what it is that keeps me back, but I do worry about getting caught up in the technical details and that might be something that makes reading science fiction off putting to me. It sounds as though I might be missing something by focusing on the technical aspects and ignoring the story and the world building. I am going to have to give this some thought because I do have a ton of access to science fiction books. My husband loves them and has collected quite a few, and I think he would be thrilled if I gave them a try! Thanks for posting this awesome little piece. It has made me consider things in a different light!

I'm somewhat relieved to see that I'm not the only one intimidated by the scientific elements of scifi. But knowing that it's not necessary to actually understand everything makes me want to give one of those real SF books a try, perhaps something by Asimov.

chelleyreads: I also really enjoyed the Hunger Games and because of that I started reading other dystopic books, which I had always previously avoided.

I found the article very interesting and in a way it explained to me how I read.

I think sci-fi readers have two levels of science:
common science - the ordinary everyday science that most people are expected to understand (a combustion engine won't work without oxygen, humans can't float around unprotected in space etc)
extraordinary science - which can either be weird science that already exists (string theory) or futuristic science that may or may not be possible (time travel, warp drives)
Common science has to be logical and obey the law of physics, extraordinary science just has to be consistent.

Non-sci-fi readers seem to have difficulty 'letting go' and just accepting ideas they might not understand.

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