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Friday, January 22, 2010

Happy Blog for Choice Day!

In case folks didn't know, it is Blog for Choice Day! This year's topic is "Trust Women". And, in case it wasn't obvious, I'm a screaming hairy-legged manhating feminist (except without the hairy legs and manhating. Hi Jeremy!)...and I am actually going to blog about something else today. I trust women (duh), and I think that you, the ephemeral YOU of the Intarwubs, should too. Chances are you are one or you know one.

So, let's talk about science fiction/fantasy reading protocols! Jo Walton, one of my very favorite authors (let me drool for a bit: please go and read The King's Peace, The King's Name, and The Prize in the Game RIGHT NOW. And everything else she's written), blogs at Tor.com, and one of her recent posts was exceptionally compelling. She states that there is a certain skillset required for reading science fiction and fantasy works. I don't disagree. At all, actually. And I don't take offense at her gentle pokes at people who read A.S. Byatt and E.M. Forster (two of my personal favorites). However, I do think that her concept of SF protocols really applies to all fiction reading. In order to really comprehend a story, the ability to suspend disbelief is required (duh). In order to comprehend the vast majority of stories, the ability to analyze metaphors is required. In order to comprehend specific types of genre stories (SF, mystery/crime) and stories not set in the exact current present of your personal world, the ability to parse what is Significant and what is not is required.

Walton uses the example of a Trollope story in which he joshes about decimalization and hansom cabs, and points out that she hates footnotes written by editors. I too loathe all footnotes not written by the author (in principle; in practice, I occasionally find some of them illuminating); they're insulting. They cater to the lowest denominator of readers, never pausing to wonder if perhaps they are CREATING the lowest denominator of readers by assuming that all readers know nothing, have no sense of pulling information from context, and don't own dictionaries. If only they knew that many, many readers--armed with their trusty SF reading toolkits!--are more than capable of pulling meaning from unfamiliar text! If only they knew of the vast army of SF fans, who are experts at tunneling through threads of history, politics, science, and social mores! Reading well-written SF will do that to a body.

If--spare me, gods--I ever have children, I will encourage them to read science fiction and fantasy early on. I will encourage the children who frequent my future school library to do so as well. I think that reading a lot of SF early in life makes for a careful reader capable of applying a homegrown, instinctive analytical sense to books of other genres and times. Reading SF instills a sense of what is most important to any given text (do I need to know how a tachyon drive works, to use another of Walton's examples? Nope! Just how it affects the people using it), which is a valuable skill when trying to plow through Dickens or Eliot. In short, many of the most thoughtful readers and best writers I know are big readers of science fiction and fantasy. I'd like to see more credence given to SF in the mainstream; at the present it's generally still relegated to snide remarks about "genre fiction" and the mass market (see, for instance, this post by Julian Gough about the incredible, seemingly impossible, invisibility of American Gods to some literary critics). SF reading develops important mental muscles in kids which come in all sorts of handy later in life, when those kids are reading--by choice or not--the so-called Important Books.
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