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SF Words and Prototype Worlds

One of the central features of SF after John W. Campbell's reinvention of the field in the late 1930s has been an expository style in which, rather than being directly told the important features of a fictional world, the reader is encouraged to half-consciously deduce them from clues dropped by the writer. Thus, for example, a writer who wishes to establish that most people are telepaths in his future might make his viewpoint character's first line "What would it be like to wake up in the morning and be unable to read minds?". Or (to cite a well-known example due to Samuel Delany) a writer wishing the reader to imagine with him a future of intense space industrialization might throw in a casual reference to "the monopole mines in the asteroid belt".

Reading SF is, accordingly, a learned skill of some complexity. First, one has to learn to actually see sentences like "What would it be like to wake up in the morning and be unable to read minds?" rather than editing "unable" into "able" and missing the point. Then, one has to develop at least casual, imagistic knowledge about things like the asteroid belt and magnetic monopoles, in order to be able to interpret "the monopole mines in the asteroid belt" as something more meaningful than (as Delany puts it) a gaudy purple word-noise.

It is thus clear that the process of reading SF involves merging the stream of prose presented by the writer with a rather large amount of special context. To some extent, of course, this is true of any genre of fiction or art not set in the reader's everyday world -- readers of Westerns (for example) need to know what a Peacemaker is, and why a vaquero might throw a lariat, and what he throws it at. But the context an SF reader (and writer) needs is unusual in some important respects.

First, there's a lot more of it. To fully decode "the monopole mines in the asteroid belt" it's not sufficient merely to know what the asteroid belt is and what a monopole is (a theoretically possible but not yet observed particle with an isolated "north pole" or "south pole" charge). You need to have a fair idea why people might want them enough to mine them (for use in tiny but very powerful motors, as it happens). You need to know something about the history and economics of extractive industries in frontier areas, enough to predict that Belt miners are going to be a pretty rough-necked crowd to be playing around with all that space technology, and that there's likely to be something not totally unlike the wild and wooly Nevada mining camps of the late nineteenth century going on out there among the flying mountains.

Second, a lot of that context is about things that don't exist yet. A novice reader of Westerns has a fair chance of having enough knowledge about the American West to read a Louis L'Amour novel without tripping over unknown concepts. The American West existed -- perhaps not as dramatically and mythically portrayed, but it existed. There's lots of implicit and explicit knowledge about it floating around in the general culture. You can go into any hat store and buy at least a reasonable imitation of a ten-gallon hat.

A reader of post-Campbellian SF has none of these advantages. It's not sufficient to understand a single history; one needs to have a working grasp of a large number of possible futures -- to be able to draw inferences from the text of an SF work that are roughly parallel to the author's intended ones, even though both author and reader are imagining a world that has never existed!

So stated, the task before writer and reader seems well-nigh impossible. And yet, SF writers do successfully communicate with their readers (if perhaps only with their readers...). And experienced SF readers show every sign of being able typically to synchronize with a writer's world vision without even mental effort significant enough to be noticeable. How can this be?

The answer, almost never stated as such but implicitly understood by all SF fans, is that the SF genre over the last fifty years has evolved a sophisticated code of shared signifiers for describing counterfactual worlds. The gravamen of this essay is that these signifiers (the jargon of SF) function not merely as a set of isolated signs but as descriptions of a stock set of prototype worlds which they logically and conventionally imply, and which permit writers to specify mainly what (if anything) is unique about their world vision rather than what is shared with the rest of SF.

Critics unfamiliar with the field (and even some familiar with it) frequently miss this point. To see why, we need to take a look at the different ways a reader or critic may respond to SF jargon.

In looking at an SF-jargon term like, say, "groundcar", or "warp drive" there is a spectrum of increasingly sophisticated possible decodings. The most naive is to see a meaningless, uninterpretable wordlike noise and stop there.

The next level up is to recognize that uttering the word "groundcar" or "warp drive" actually signifies something that's important for the story, but to lack the experience to know what that is. The motivated beginning reader of SF is in this position; he must, accordingly, consciously puzzle out the meaning of the term from the context provided by the individual work in which it appears.

The third level is to recognize that "ground car" and "warp drive" are signifiers shared, with a consistent and known meaning, by many works of SF -- but to treat them as isolated stereotypical signs, devoid of meaning save inasmuch as they permit the writer to ratchet forward the plot without requiring imaginative effort from the reader.

Viewed this way, these signs emphasize those respects in which the work in which they appear is merely derivative from previous works in the genre. Many critics (whether through laziness or malice) stop here. As a result they write off all SF, for all its pretensions to imaginative vigor, as a tired jumble of shopworn cliches.

The fourth level, typical of a moderately experienced SF reader, is to recognize that these signifiers function by permitting the writer to quickly establish shared imaginative territory with the reader, so that both parties can concentrate on what is unique about their communication without having to generate or process huge expository lumps. Thus these "stereotypes" actually operate in an anti-stereotypical way -- they permit both writer and reader to focus on novelty.

At this level the reader begins to develop quite analytical habits of reading; to become accustomed to searching the writer's terminology for what is implied (by reference to previous works using the same signifiers) and what kinds of exceptions and novelties convey information about the world and the likely plot twists.

It is at this level, for example, that the reader learns to rely on "groundcar" as a tip-off that the normal transport mode in the writer's world is by personal flyer. At this level, also, the reader begins to analytically compare the author's description of his world with other SFnal worlds featuring personal flyers, and to recognize that different kinds of flyers have very different implications for the rest of the world.

For example, the moderately experienced reader will know that worlds in which the personal fliers use wings or helicopter-like rotors are probably slightly less advanced in other technological ways than worlds in which they use ducted fans -- and way behind any world in which the flyers use antigravity! Once he sees "groundcar" he will be watching for these clues.

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.

It is not, however, the purpose of this essay to issue a general apologia for SF and the attitudes of its fans. Rather, we are concerned here with the rules of the game -- the ways in which the shared context which makes SF intelligible evolved, is represented in the minds of writers and readers, and is communicated to new readers and writers.

SF readers and writers have only finite memory and processing time to spend on the genre. Therefore they can have only a finite set of templates or archetypes to use as references in the game of communicating constructed worlds with each other. How (one may reasonably ask) can one particular finite set of prototypes have become established as the references that hold the genre together?

The set of possible prototypes is, first, strongly constrained by the way the universe works. No SF fan would, for example, believe without a lot of explicit convincing argument in a culture that uses both laser cannons and stone-throwing catapults as war weapons. Techno-logic says this doesn't happen, and the central constraint of the SF game is that the author gets only a very limited number of implausible premises before the suspension bridge of disbelief collapses.

To the extent we understand a "logic" in history and social structures, that constrains prototype worlds as well. A writer can erect a Galactic Emperor, or can describe by implication a relatively un-coercive interstellar society with secure property rights, unrestricted travel, a free press, etc; but if they're both going to be in the same world at the same time, the Emperor had better be a consitutional monarch rather than a bloody-handed despot casually shipping people off to the thorium mines.

At this point we must explicitly admit that to speak of prototype worlds is a bit of an oversimplification. Prototype worlds do exist (and there are reasons we'll discuss in a bit to cast the discussion in terms of them) but there are many possible-world templates of less than whole-world size. An excellent example, taking off from the previous discussion of "groundcar", is the template for "flitter technology", which we can express partly as the following series of statements and implications:

Notice that this prototype has both a defining logical consistency and hooks to other prototypes -- for example, the fourth item implies the existence of a "force field" or "exotic physics" template that groups together antigravity, energy weapons, and a faster-than-light drive.

When enough of these prototypes hook together, one has a prototype world. And this is in fact often what happens in an SF reader's head as he comprehends the clues a writer has scattered about in a work of SF. But previous discussion has centered on the idea of a prototype world because those, too are entities recognized by readers -- and, in fact, every prototype of less than whole-world size started out life as a fragment of a prototype world!

Thus, for example, one of the prototype dystopias in SF looks like this:

This prototype dystopia may be set on a starship, in a hivelike fortress-city, or on an ecologically devastated future Earth. The background technology may be nearly that of present-time Earth or include interstellar travel and nanotechnology. Nevertheless, it's hard for anyone who has read the original to miss that this prototype is essentially a fragment of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1934) running around loose.

In some cases (like this one), most SF fans can instantly name the source story of a prototype world or fragment in some seminal work of the genre. Indeed, perhaps the best single-sentence definition of a seminal work in SF would be this: one that originated a still-recognized template world or major fragment.

In other cases, the prototype world becomes sufficiently detached from its original source(s) that they are no longer readily identifiable. For example, here is a prototype world that has been extremely widespread in SF since at least the early 1950s. One might call it the "Galactic Federation" template:

All these implications are present, to an experienced SF reader, the instant a writer says "the Federation" or anything recognizably similar. Among other instances, this is the prototype of the Star Trek universe's "United Federation of Planets".

From E.E. "Doc" Smith's space operas in the 1930s through William Gibson's original cyberpunk novels in the early 1980s, the most important works in SF have been those that created or solidified new prototype worlds -- and with them, new jargon, new signifiers that eventually became signatures of the prototypes as they drifted free of their sources to be used and transformed and re-worked in new works of SFnal imagination.

This is why the shared jargon of SF is so important to understanding the field as a whole. It maps in miniature the structure of the prototype worlds that readers and writers hold in common.

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Eric S. Raymond <>