The Protocols of the Elders of Sci Fion

James Gunn has written an essay about the "protocols of science fiction", a concept he draws from the 1984 Samual R. Delany essay collection Starboard Wine (or more exactly, the MLA conference that preceeded it). (This book is sadly out-of-print and difficult to find -- Amazon Auctions has a copy for $175 or so -- though Matt Chaney is leading the effort to bring out a new edition.) In the essay, Gunn, quoting Delany, says that Science Fiction does not work in the same way as other written categories, in that it has "specific conventions, unique focuses, areas of interest and excellence, as well as its own particular ways of making sense out of language." Gunn then introduces an example, the story "Sail On! Sail On!" by Philip José Farmer.

So we begin with the first sentence of "Sail On! Sail On!": "Friar Sparks sat wedged between the wall and the realizer." We speculate about "Friar" and "Sparks" and "realizer." Readers inexperienced in the ways of SF may be put off by the fact that they don't know who Friar Sparks is or what order he belongs to or why he is called "Sparks," and they may put the story aside because they think the author doesn't know what he is doing or is putting unwarranted demands upon the reader. But the SF reader, I point out, files this information away, confident that it is important information that will be explained (and fitted into this different world) in time and that "the realizer," when it reappears in fully developed form, not only will be critical to the creation of the world in which it can exist but will involve additional, "eureka," joys.

The rest of the paragraph mentions the Friar's forefinger tapping on a key, and the toldilla in which he crouches. In this case Farmer tells the reader that the toldilla is "the little shanty on the poop deck," and we come to the conclusion that he is on a Spanish ship. In the third paragraph we discover that there is a "single carbon filament bulb" above the monk's tonsure. But in the second paragraph we are told that beyond the railing bobs "the bright lights and dark shapes of the Nina and the Pinta."

I won't continue with the analysis. By now the experienced SF reader has put together enough clues to determine that this is probably an alternate history scenario in which Columbus's first voyage included a telegrapher and an electric light. It is essential that the reader understand this and understand, within a page or two, that this world came about because the church embraced Roger Bacon and his ideas rather than excommunicating him and that Friar Sparks belongs to the order of Rogerians, because Farmer is going to transform the reader's expectations (and make him or her inspect his own opinions in the process) before the story is over.

Now, of course it is true that SF (whether one means Science Fiction or Speculative Fiction) tends to introduce jargon very quickly and force one to parse out what is going on in a given scene, or indeed, in a given universe. It is true that this often baffles people used to more mainstream fare. But it quickly becomes clear that Gunn's argument is an essentialist one:

In a 1996 series of articles in The New York Review of Science Fiction, Delany decried the attempt to define science fiction as both impossible and undesirable. Without getting into that debate, let us admit that SF is difficult to define and get on to what SF, at its most typical, does. Since it deals with a change in the circumstances of everyday reality by introducing one or more significant alterations, an SF short story or novel constructs a plausible world in which that alteration or those alterations can exist. The science fiction work, then, introduces the reader to that world, all at once, or bit by bit. Sometimes the way in which the reader is introduced to the world is part of the story's appeal, or even central to the story itself.


Most SF movies, because, as John Baxter suggests, they come out of another tradition than SF, or they derive their inspiration from earlier generations of literature or film (with the possible exception of Wells's Things to Come and Clarke and Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey) may best be viewed with other than SF protocols: Star Wars as fairy tale or E.T. as Lassie, Come Home.

Which all strikes me as very weird. First off, if science fiction is impossible to define, how can we define it as something that "deals with a change in the circumstances of everyday reality by introducing one or more significant alterations, [thus] an SF short story or novel constructs a plausible world in which that alteration or those alterations can exist"? The dodge that this is what SF "does" rather than what it "is" rings hallow. This is a definition, and as the second part of the above quote illustrates it is an essentialist one since it leaves out many things that are widely regarded as SF, by, among others, the fans of SF.

Indeed, ultimately, Gunn seems to protest far too much,

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.

I think the notion that SF should be as difficult as Ulysses would make a lot of fans cringe. Isn't SF supposed to be fun? Which isn't to say that truly difficult SF novels don't exist, or shouldn't exist, or aren't, in fact, good, but to say that difficulty is somehow an inherent quality of the genre defies all common sense. This is a genre that still looks fondly back to the pulps, to the days of E.E. "Doc" Smith and Flash Gordon. This is a genre that frequently tells us that the best time to be a reader if it is when you're 12. I mean, give me a break. The whole thing reminds me of Scott McCloud's far more rigorous definition of comics in Understanding Comics, and the objections to it raised by Dylan Horrocks in the Comics Journal. Which is to say that comics, rather than really being simply sequential images, is, like SF, more acurately described as a set of shared cultural traditions.

On this note, we turn to the description of SF found in a lecture given by Neil Stephenson at Gresham College. Stephenson has long been a proponant of SF as a cultural phenomenon, which is why he chose to categorize his own System of the World series as SF rather than as the historical adventure fiction it appeared to many to be.

In the lecture, Stephen talks about how there is a group of people who differentiate themselves from those they deride as "mundanes" and who place a supreme value on intelligence. But then, he also says, "we're all geeks now," and points out that 9 of the 10 top box office hits are SF movies. (This apparent conflict between geekdom as both seperate and mainstream is never adequately addressed in the talk, and it's something I'd like to see Stephenson talk more about.) He also points out that it's only in books where genres are inextricably severed in the popular consciousness, and that, unlike in film, the bestseller lists for books shunt off many things that are actually best-sellers, like "Harry Potter", to a different list entirely (the "young adult" list). This all relates to the problem of genre definitions that I've talked about extensively in the past, and more directly, with the curiosity that other mediums, such as film, can include many genres in it's own notions of quality while book critics include comparitively few.

The best "SF" writers, are to me, those that can be appreciated by SF and "mainstream" readers alike, and that list includes Kelly Link, Neil Stephenson, Neal Gaiman and many, many others whom SF fans would also agree are among the best in the business. Having a special knowledge of "protocols" may give you a different insight into these writers, I grant you, another layer of appreciation. But those protocols should not be viewed as a narrow part of a small, insular group's understanding of their own work, but rather, as part of a larger cultural conversation that SF has been having with the rest of culture for over a hundred years now, and one that informs films like 2001 or A Clockwork Orange, which SF and non-SF fans can both appreciate.