Eric S. Raymond has an interesting essay, “SF Words and Prototype Worlds,” about the implications of the use of jargon like “monopole mines” or “groundcar” in science fiction stories.

The very experienced SF reader, at the fifth level, can see entire worlds in a grain of jargon. When he sees “groundcar” he associates to not only technical questions about flyer propulsion but socio-symbolic ones but about why the culture still uses groundcars at all (and he has a reportoire of possible answers ready to check against the author’s reporting). He is automatically aware of a huge range of consequences in areas as apparently far afield as (to name two at random) the architectural style of private buildings, and the ecological consequences of accelerated exploitation of wilderness areas not readily accessible by ground transport.
The better an SF writer is, the more subtly and effectively he will play off against the experienced reader’s analytical skills. At the highest levels, SFnal exposition takes on the nature of a delicate, powerful intellectual dance or game between writer and reader, requiring much from both and rewarding both very richly.
Indeed, to true aficionados of the genre this game is the whole point of SF, the unique quality which elevates it above other fictional forms. This attitude explains much about the genre that outsiders find obscure and annoying—the intimacy between fans and writers; the indifference or outright hostility to conventional “literary values”; the pervasive SF-fan complaint that outsiders “just don’t get it” and (when they deign to approve of SF at all) like all the wrong books for all the wrong reasons.

Raymond is also collecting jargon words (glossary here); compare Jesse Sheidlower’s OED project, described at LH here.


  1. Raymond’s an articulate nut in most of the fields he writes about, gun policy, programming and US politics among them.
    I got disenchanted with much of the sci-fi and fantasy I used to read after I started caring about good characters and about other details that evidently didn’t interest the writers. Like the day-to-day multilingual difficulties when different articulate species interact; like characters with more dimensions than Issac Asimov’s; like dealing with the vicious racism that certainly would arise in such contexts. I suspect this is true for more readers than Raymond would like it to be.

  2. Have you not been reading sf for a few decades? Everything you say used to be true, but since the ’60s sf has more and more approached the standards you (rightly) insist on.

  3. Setting aside the few (very) notable exceptions like Peter F. Hamilton and Iain Banks, I have found that sci-fi has continued swilling back and forth over old ground, but never quite returning to the “closed room murder mystery” subgenre that sci-fi’s biggest stars made their names on. Looking at the shelves in stores, I’m seeing a lot of biotech thrillers, much in the vein of Heinleinian political fantasizing, many grim and serious space operas in the vein of Dune, but really none or very little of that brand of sci-fi that functions as a mental experiment. In fact, I think this recent (?) emphasis on social plausibility has put more strain on writers’ limited skill than it can bear and has resulted in the production of much grandiloquent navel-gazing.

  4. Wimbrel, have you read any Greg Egan or Charles Stross? They are some of the recent (er, not really recent) idea writers. Greg Egan slacks on characterization, but he has been improving over the years.
    Aidan, You have to work to find literate sf. I’ve been slacking in the past few years. If you really want to dig, skim the magazines. I used to subscribe to Asimov’s and Interzone because the coolest stories from The Year’s Best Science Fiction were from those. I also subscribed to Locus, for the author interviews and book reviews.
    (Oh hey, did you ever read Ian McDonald?)
    John Crowley. Try him out. Engine Summer. one of his early novels and a favorite of mine. If you are up for a challenge and would like to read hermetic fantasy, his Aegypt sequence. Little, Big for early 20th century uh… too hard to describe.
    …and lately there seems to be a subgenre of “weird”. China Miéville, for one.
    Thomas Disch?!
    uh oh. I am coming periously close to the “you just don’t get it” characterization.

  5. Richard Hershberger says

    “Looking at the shelves in stores…”
    The problem is that this approach automatically runs afoul of Sturgeon’s Law (90% of science fiction is crap, or words to that effect).
    I don’t read nearly as much SF as I did twenty years ago, and when I pick up some books I enjoyed back then I often find them unreadable. But writers I enjoy today include Gene Wolfe, Neal Stephenson, and Neil Gaiman. I am currently reading Steven Brust’s _To Reign In Hell_, which has been on my “to read” list for twenty years and which so far impresses me as a mature and interesting retelling of the war in heaven.

  6. LH, I read some recent sci-fi. I have the impression though, from flicking through other authors, that Iain Banks and Neal Stephenson (they’re most of the sci-fi I read)are not representative. Banks, for example, has put some thought into the language of his space opera; it’s not that informed as linguistic thought, sure, but it’s serious and more careful than anything I’ve seen on the issue from other sci-fi writers. It’s a matter of differing priorities of the writer and reader, I think–say, getting a detail of an aircraft wrong in mainstream fiction would annoy me, because I know and care about them, but your average critic wouldn’t have a problem with it.
    Wimbrel, mentioning someone in the same breath as Banks? Must look into this Hamilton.
    Sheila, I have enough reading material right now. Maybe in a decade 🙂 .

  7. Aidan, I’m spurned. 🙂
    As for Iain Banks and Neal Stephenson being unrepresentative, see Sturgeon’s Law. (thanks Richard).

  8. Vera Kaulbarsch says

    People, read William Gibson! His work is extremely intricate, complicated and thought-out.
    Even if you have no idea how the hell his technological ideas work, his style is just too beautiful to miss. I’d start with “Virtual Light”, which is a bit easier to understand plot-wise than his classic “Neuromancer”.

  9. sheila — Thanks for the prod to read more Egan. I’ve always gotten the impression that he sells better in the UK. In general, I always seem to enjoy UK spec-fiction more than the US variety, but maybe that has more to do with the filters I have to work with. It seems that whenever we get a “hard” author on our shores, he always turns out to be a one-trick pony (Rudy Rucker).
    That’s my problem with Sturgeon’s Law. How do you apply it? Is 90% of everything crap on average? Does it have to be a representative sample? Does it hold for bestsellers? Reader favorites? Trufan favorites? Does interaction with those categories render it more applicable or less? Etc. The Law can provide both evidence and counterevidence for any argument.

  10. I get it. I don’t believe it. Most SF uses the techniques Raymond describes to give the SF reader the belief — the illusion — that they have accomplished a deep analytical feat, when it’s actually almost a Pavlovian reaction to genre tone and cliches, combined with a strong and willing suspension of disbelief on the SF reader’s part.
    It’s like movie music. Some is good, some (most) is dreadful, and not much of it can stand alone without the movie.

  11. I’m not sure that it applies only to SF, though. If anything I’d say that the shared meta-language of archetypes/prototypes/cliches (select one according to relevant genre prejudices) is what defines a genre, and a fondness for that particular meta-language is what defines a fan of a particular genre. This seems far more important to me than any theorizing about the genre’s “usual concerns”, to which there are always counterexamples anyway.
    That’s why although there’s just as much boring crap being published as “literary fiction”, it usually just gets ignored and forgotten — lacking a meta-language flavor, “l.f.” is not a genre and can’t have fans in that sense. There are people who will enjoy any competently edited book containing an AI character or a lunar colony; there are very few who have the same undiscriminating affection for human characters and real-world cities.

  12. Nice. In ’92 I reached a similar destination (the game of detecting deviation from an assumed shared-world) starting from a different genre point (chapter and section breaks).
    Matt, I agree with some of what you say (although I do think there are sufficient reasons to consider contemporary “literary fiction” a genre). But that lack of discrimination works both ways: Audiences who might ignore unusually original or challenging work in other contexts are more open to accepting it in sf and fantasy for the sake of those signals of the fantastic.

  13. Y’all need to go read Hal Duncan’s essay “The Walls of the Ghetto“.

  14. The Raymond quote with the genre-specific phrases taken out:
    “The better [a] writer is, the more subtly and effectively he will play off against the experienced reader’s analytical skills. At the highest levels, … exposition takes on the nature of a delicate, powerful intellectual dance or game between writer and reader, requiring much from both and rewarding both very richly.”
    This could apply to any genre (to restate Matt’s statement). Too general praise of a specific style can end up simply being a definition of art in general. Outsiders of mystery or spy novels “just don’t get” mystery or spy novels either; that’s why they’re outsiders and why they instead “get” a different style. Should we confuse their subjectivity for objective worth?
    I grew up a fan of SF and am a geek but suspect that the perceived outsider status of the SF genre is related to this type of self-importance (e.g. “…the unique quality which elevates it above other fictional forms…”). Why can’t it just be stated that there are as good expressions of SF art–in similarly limited ratios–as there are of other styles?

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