On the Obligations of the Reader

Adapted from some ramblings of mine on Twitter.

I recently came across the essay “Let Me Tell You,” by author Cecilia Tan. It’s a response to the old writing dictum “show, don’t tell,” and in the process of arguing against it (specifically in the SF/Fantasy genres), the essay also takes a shot at the myth of “universality” that underlies the dictums of writing “quality” (read: literary) fiction.

I highly recommend the essay to you. But in addition to what it says to writers/readers of SF/Fantasy, it crystallized some other thoughts of my own – a reader, not a writer, and not generally an SF/Fantasy reader either – about the obligations of the reader.


Clumsy exposition (“as you know…”) is one of my pet peeves. And I’ve noticed that I sometimes prefer reading works from an X writer to those of an X-American or otherwise hyphenated writer (X-British, X-Canadian, etc.), and this is kinda why: X-Americans often feel an obligation to write to “Americans”. That is, they feel the need to explain bits of X culture or history to the mainstream “American” reader.  X writers write only to X-ians.

A Filipinx author can leave the fraught relationship/history between the Philippines and US unsaid, even when that relationship is central to their themes or to their characters, because readers in the Philippines know. But not all Americans do, so a Fil-American author might feel the need to somehow work a little history lesson into their narrative.

But is it always necessary?

Continue reading

Would The Twilight Zone Fly Today?


I went on a Twilight Zone mini-binge the other day, inspired by this post at the Shadow and Substance blog. It got me to thinking: would The Twilight Zone have been a success if it had launched today?

Everything about it is counter to what’s popular in modern television. It has no recurring characters, no season-long, multi-episode story arc. It doesn’t really have a “theme”: the topics of the stories are all over the place. Despite the fact that it constantly flirts with both the supernatural and science fiction, it has almost no special effects, and what effects it does have probably looked cheesy even back then. It’s dialogue heavy — monologue heavy, even. It was more successful as a half-hour show than as an hour show.

And all these characteristics are why I love it; probably, it’s those features that make it attractive to many of the show’s fans. It’s the television show equivalent of a loosely-themed short story collection, or of dim sum or tapas. There’s always been a place for short stories and tapas; but the world at large seems to prefer novels and entrees.

The fun part of it is that Rod Serling and the other folks at TZ felt free to experiment. With no continuity worries, they could throw something on the screen to see what happened — if it worked, they could do it again, otherwise, move on. So we get the almost set-less Five Characters in Search of an Exit, the almost dialogue-less The Invaders, the episode shot half as a silent movie, Once Upon a Time (starring Buster Keaton!). TZ also managed to attract some really interesting actors, both acclaimed and soon-to-be-acclaimed. I’m sure the chance to experiment or to be the center of an episode had something to do with that.

It’s fashionable to say that the entertainment industry has become too bottom-line, less willing to take a chance. Perhaps Mr. Serling couldn’t have made this happen today. On the other hand, this is the age of YouTube and Vimeo; some web-series have garnered a large (if niche) following, and have fairly good production values, to boot. The Twilight Zone format could be perfect for a web-series.

So could Rod Serling have done it today? Luckily, we don’t have to find out.


The image above is the title card from the opening segment of The Twilight Zone (from the later seasons, I think). Sourced from Wikipedia.

Jack London’s Apocalypse: The Scarlet Plague


Civilization ended this past summer.

The old man manifested an accustomed chagrin as he brought the coin back again close to his own eyes.

“2012,” he shrilled, and then fell to cackling grotesquely. “That was the year Morgan the Fifth was appointed President of the United States by the Board of Magnates. It must have been one of the last coins minted, for the Scarlet Death came in 2013. Lord! Lord!—think of it! Sixty years ago, and I am the only person alive to-day that lived in those times….”

In Jack London’s post-apocalyptic novella, The Scarlet Plague (1912), humankind is almost completely wiped out by a virulent, ebola-like disease in the summer of 2013. James Howard Smith, an English literature professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is the last man alive who still remembers that summer. The story is told in flashback, to Smith’s grandsons.

Continue reading

A Different Kind of Science Fiction

“Science Fiction”: what does that mean? Fiction based on science? About science? Speculative fiction about the implications of science? It’s all those things, or at least can be; but it seems to me that most of what we refer to as science fiction might better be called “technology fiction.”

Think about it; what comes to your mind when you think of science fiction? Space travel, probably. Spaceships, faster-than-light drive, phasers, encounters with alien civilizations. Hovercars. Perhaps you think of cyborgs and intelligent robots. If you read cyberpunk back in the day, then you might think of avatars, and the version of cyberspace and the internet that authors imagined back then. But it’s all technology, really, not science. Except for the alien civilizations, of course.

NewImageImage: Wikipedia

People do make a distinction between hard science fiction and soft science fiction; roughly, hard science fiction is about the hard (that is physical) sciences: physics, chemistry. It’s also about the engineering that comes from those sciences, engineering that produces spaceships, or cyborgs. Classic science fiction from the days of Analog or Astounding was by and large hard science fiction. Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven wrote hard science fiction.

Soft science fiction (setting aside space operas and space fantasy) concerns itself with questions from the soft sciences: sociology, anthropology, psychology. I would say that Asimov’s I, Robot was soft science fiction. Ray Bradbury wrote soft science fiction. Soft science fiction speculates on the social, cultural, or psychological implications of technology. Or perhaps, even, on the way technology creates new expressions of old-as-history human psycho-pathologies and baser tendencies. I’m thinking of Bradbury’s uber-creepy “The Veldt” when I say that, and there’s also “The Jigsaw Man” by Larry Niven, about a society where criminals convicted of capital offenses are used as organ donors. But organs are in high demand — so eventually, traffic violations become a capital crime. Again, these stories are speculation about the implications of technology, so I would argue that even soft science fiction is generally another form of technology fiction.

But science doesn’t only concern itself with technology. What about the life sciences, the natural sciences? Science is also about understanding the world, purely for the sake of knowledge. Can we write a speculative fiction that is based on science conceived that way?

Continue reading

Reprints from Galaxy

The Marching Morons

Let me admit right off that this post is a shameless crib from a recent post on Acid Free Pulp. I’ve been browsing the website for Rosetta Books, and I came across their Galaxy Series: selected reprints from the venerable GALAXY magazine.

I’m not a huge science fiction reader, but even I was intrigued: Bradbury, Vonnegut, Frederik Pohl… I think I’m going to pick up Kornbluth’s The Marching Morons, just to see if it’s as prescient as everyone claims.

Their Crimescape true crime series might interest some of you, too.

Happy Browsing!