January 19th, 2010


Why You're Not Cool

Over at Tor.com, Jo Walton is engaged in a variation of the old argument of why science fiction is not respected:

We’ve all probably had the experience of reading a great SF novel and lending it to a friend—a literate friend who adores A.S. Byatt and E.M. Forster. Sometimes our friend will turn their nose up at the cover, and we’ll say no, really, this is good, you’ll like it. Sometimes our friend does like it, but often we’ll find our friend returning the book with a puzzled grimace, having tried to read it but “just not been able to get into it.” That friend has approached science fiction without the necessary toolkit and has bounced off. It’s not that they’re stupid. It’s not that they can’t read sentences. It’s just that part of the fun of science fiction happens in your head, and their head isn’t having fun, it’s finding it hard work to keep up.

Unfortunately, the post boils down to arguing that a door is really a door (especially if it opens to another dimension where dragons exist) and that the world is just not educated enough to appreciate science fiction properly.

Perhaps the most telling part of the post, however, is when Walton discusses the translation of one of her own books. "Science fiction," she writes, "may be literalization of metaphor, it may be open to metaphorical, symbolic and even allegorical readings, but what’s real within the story is real within the story, or there’s no there there. I had this problem with one of the translators of my novel Tooth and Claw—he kept emailing me asking what things represented. I had to keep saying no, the characters really were dragons, and if they represented anything that was secondary to the reality of their dragon nature. He kept on and on, and I kept being polite but in the end I bit his head off—metaphorically, of course."

What Walton fails to recognise here is that the dragons are doing both in her book, just as they would be doing should they appear in any other genre: they exist as the dragons within the text, but carry also a secondary reading, which is open to a representational reading. It is wrong to say that one reading is more valid than the other and Walton, by ignoring that, sounds very much like a High School student, who, sick of being stuck in an English class, turns around and says, "Why does this stuff have to mean anything? Why can't it just be about what is happening on the page." What the student there is saying is, I don't want to think. I don't want to have to work for meaning. I want it to be two plus two equals four. I just want to be told something. I want to be given my moment away from my life and not have to think about anything in it. Which is, of course, fair enough, but its up to the reader to decide if they would like to read a book that way--and often the reader makes a subconscious decision on how they will be reading the work by his or her own interests. For example, to use Walton's example of The Forever War, you can read the novel as a story about being a story in which the characters get out of sync to what's happening at home, or you can read it as a story that details what it was like for soldiers involved in the Vietnam War. Both readings are valid, and to me, it is the second reading that makes the novel an interesting piece. Now, I couldn't imagine Haldeman saying, "Yeah, no, piss off. It's about people lost in time. There's no extra meaning at all. The people are just people." But who knows, maybe he would--Walton, however, in actually rejecting that there are multiple ways to write, and in being unable to see how her book should function on two levels, and unable to present it with a realisation that it should function on levels like that, is doing herself a disservice.