On fiction, again

Some time back, we had an interesting discussion about whether fiction contains truth or not. I tended to think it did, though a different sort than that found in science textbooks, while some commenters argued that no, fiction might have metaphor and analogy and references to the author’s state of mind or whatever, but did not have any intrinsic truth.

This was all balled up in the accommodationism clusterfuck, so actual productive dialog tended to get bogged down.

Anyway, science fiction publisher Tor has a neat essay on its website about how to read SF (via), which bears on these issues. My earlier posts used science fiction and vampire stories as ideal examples of situations where there are internally consistent truths in the fictional universe which are not true in ours. Truths that are shared by a creator, by an audience, and by (in the case of TV shows like Star Trek or Buffy) a host of writers and production staff.

SF author Jo Walton notes something important about grappling with this style of thinking, that you need to be trained:

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.

This is true of literary fiction, as well. When I’ve subscribed to the New Yorker, I’d usually give the short stories a pass, because I just couldn’t get into them. I understood that Haruko Murakami is well-regarded, but I just couldn’t get myself to enjoy his stories. So I read other things. I don’t doubt that he captures certain truths about human psychology and relations, I just find it draining to read endless tales of human woe, loneliness, and isolation, so I don’t read much literary fiction.

This happens with SF as well. Walton points out how easily someone can start obsessing about why a tachyon drive wouldn’t work, thus missing that “[t]he physics don’t matter—there are books about people doing physics and inventing things … but The Forever War is about going away to fight aliens and coming back to find that home is alien, and the tachyon drive is absolutely essential to the story but the way it works—forget it, that’s not important.” Similarly with zombies, the important thing is not how they work, nor forcing them into some metaphorical commentary on our world:

A reviewer wanted to make the zombies … into metaphors. They’re not. They’re actual zombies. They may also be metaphors, but their metaphorical function is secondary to the fact that they’re actual zombies that want to eat your brains. Science fiction 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…—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.

When I read literary fiction, I take the story as real on the surface first, and worry about metaphors and representation later, if at all. It’s possible that I may not be getting as much as I can from literary fiction by this method, in the same way that the people who want the zombies and dragons to be metaphorical aren’t getting as much as they could.

Reading literature, whether it’s SF or not, is a skill, and you have to learn to do it. And that’s hard. It’s easy to dismiss the whole thing as trivial, as lacking in truth. Or as being true only in that it maps perfectly (but perhaps through metaphor or allegory) to some phenomenon in the empirical world. But that’s not quite right.

Apropos of the origins of this discussion, it’s worth noting how Walton’s aunt came to understand the point of SF: “she worked her way through [the book], and eventually managed to see past the metaphorical. ‘It’s just like Greek myths or the bible!’ she said brightly. That was all the context she had. I fell over laughing, but this really was her first step to acquiring the reading habits we take for granted.”

What, then, are those habits of highly successful SF readers? “Having a world unfold in one’s head is the fundamental SF experience,” she explains. Some authors create that world by simply listing off information, but others “scatter[] pieces of information seamlessly through the text to add up to a big picture. The reader has to remember them and connect them together.… SF is like a mystery where the world and the history of the world is what’s mysterious, and putting that all together in your mind is as interesting as the characters and the plot, if not more interesting. We talk about worldbuilding as something the writer does, but it’s also something the reader does, building the world from the clues.”

What this tells us about how to read the Bible can be a question for another day, but how Walton thinks about writing and reading surely illuminate our earlier discussions, and I’m curious what people think.


  1. #1 Tamara
    January 18, 2010

    This reminds me of some of the literary commentary surrounding Octavia Butler’s time travel novel, Kindred. Many of the non-SF familiar reviewers felt very uncomforatble with the idea that the time travel incidents in the story had “actually” occurred in the story’s context, choosing instead to see them as symbolic only, as the character’s rationalizations of abuse on the part of her boyfriend, among other things.

    The story is full of symbolism and questions about how the experience of slavery changes both white and black people exposed to it…but much of that symbolism is lost if one rejects the internal reality of the novel. (And yes, the protagonist was really transported physically back in time within the novel’s context. Octavia Butler said so. I asked her at a con.)

  2. #2 West
    January 19, 2010

    Kindred…sometimes you can only suspend your disbelief so much.

  3. #3 Ray Ingles
    January 19, 2010

    So fiction can be as true as gedankenexperiments? I’ve got no problem with that.

    The distinction between metaphor or parable and a story’s internal consistency is why I hated Signs.

    Spoiler alert:

    The invading aliens can be killed by exposure to water? The majority of this planet is covered in water, and most places it falls from the sky several times a year at minimum. I suppose anywhere it rained had a quiet Invasion Day…

    I’m aware that the entire movie is a setup for the payoff moment when Gibson’s character rediscovers his faith. The entire movie can be seen as an allegory, where the aliens in some ways represent his turmoil over his wife’s death, that he ignores, then runs from, and finally confronts. But that’s not an excuse; the allegory and the story need to complement each other. The allegory needs to be a layer on top of the story, it needs to grow from the story.

    I can think of any number of substances that could be used as a poison to the aliens, retain allegorical sense, and make some kind of rational sense. What about milk, which like water is symbolic of life?

  4. #4 Tamara
    January 22, 2010

    West…failure to suspend disbelief…is this a failing on the part of the reader, the writer’s verisimilitude, or the nature of the story?


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