Wednesday, 25 January 2012

On Genre Protocol Acquisition

It's Wednesday again...

Some weeks ago, Sven posted the first ever comment on my blog. He asked how readers learn the genre protocol. I replied that that was a very good question...

... and then I did my best to answer it.

First in the form of a reply within the comments, but later I decided to turn my reply into a blog post of its own, both because it's something I've wondered about for many, many years (and so I guess I always meant, subconsciously, to at some point write one or more blog entries about it), and because the formatting options available when one writes comment-replies are somewhat limited. I also had to split up my reply, which I wrote in Notepad, into three different posts, since there's a 4000 character limit per reply!

This blog entry contains all the valuable content from my orginal reply in the comments, plus a little extra (especially a lot of links that I deliberately did not add to the original replies, because they'd have made it difficult to read. Apparently hypertext is an instinctively natural medium for me0).

Many of the links are to Danish language ressources, especially direct links to the Danish interlibrary loan system, because I know that Sven lives in Denmark. Unless I say so, though, the novels I link to are not necessarily good training wheels for Sven's old mom.

Here is Sven's question:
I really like this blogpost and I find, that you are quite right about the best way to build your world is by using the genre protocol - although as a fantasy writer my experience is, that when you need it most, it seems to be written with invisible ink and you have to probe your way in the darkness ;)

I do miss one thing in your blog post: what about the reader? If a reader is unfamiliar with a genre (in this case obviously fantasy) what do you think is the best way to learn the genre protocol? Should the reader just sit down and begin to read learning along the way? Or is it better to research a little beforehand? Since litterature is very much about the reading EXPERIENCE the first option seems the most viable, but if the learning curve is too steep, it may be a problem? Well, to wrap it up: say I would like to introduce my 65 year old mom to fantasy and get her to like the genre. How would you suggest getting her to know the genre protocol and understand it?
And here is my reply:

Hi Sven

That's a very good question!

Digressing about a favourite topic of mine
Do keep in mind, though, that the protocol is not about building the world, but about conveying information, about the world, to the reader (although Walton does describe the process of reading an SF story as building the world of the story in one's head, and Samuel R. Delany, whose "The Jewel-Hinged Jaw" I'm reading currently, seems to say something similar).

As an aside, for fantasy worldbuilding, I can recommend Patricia Wrede's "Worldbuilding Questions", which are available several places on the web.

To a lesser extent the RPG product "GURPS Fantasy" is also worthwhile (be sure you get the new version by Stoddard; the original book of that title has a different focus and is not, as I understand it, a world building aid at all). Or if you wish to make a science fiction world, any version of GURPS Space from 2nd edition onwards is very good, especially for a space travel-focused project (presumably the 1st edition is similar in focus to the newer ones, but I have never read it so I cannot vouch for it).

When you don't need The ProtocolTM
James Gunn's article on the protocol deals only with science fiction, but it has long been clear to me that there is a very similar protocol for reading fantasy, excepting that fantasy which takes place in a very well known world, by which I mean any of:

1. D&D-Fiction Land (which I tend to think of as a genre all of its own, long ago completely divorced from fantasy, if any of it ever were fantasy; D&D-Fiction Land is a more restricive concept than D&D-Land, but perhaps only slightly so).
2"Extruded fantasy" (mocked by the late Diana Wynne Jones in "The Tough Guide to Fantasyland").
3. Faerie-tale land, such as in the folk tales collected by the Grimms and by Asbjørnsen and Moe, and in the "kunstmarchen" ("kunsteventyr" in Danish) by Andersen and others.

For such works you need no reading protocol, because you already know everything there is to know about the world. Everything is extremely familiar. All values for STP are zero.

Back on track
The fantasy reading procotol, when needed, is pretty much about using the same methods as the science fiction protocol, and historical fiction (excepting that which is infested with hobbits, or which utilizes AsYouKnowBobbery) also requires a very similar protocol, although as with very familiar fantasy worlds it can to some extent "lean on" the reader already having some knowledge of the past setting. Except when it can't; when many readers hold incorrect beliefs about cultures or phenomena of the past. E.g. Gillian Bradshaw was at one point criticized for referring to a British language, in her works taking place in Sub-Roman Britain.

Originally I assumed that people who could not understand fantasy and science fiction, in the "protocol" sense of the word (not in the sense of understanding any silly literary symbolism), were intellectually deficient. That's always the first step in my figuring-out-why-people-are-broken "sifting process": "Is this person not smart enough?" (if that question seems not to be pertinent, then I move on to other diagnostic questions). In this case it seemed more like mental inflexibility, rather than insufficient intelligence, but nevertheless I assumed it was a brain problem.

Because of that, Gunn's article, which I read about a decade ago, was rather a revelation for me, since it explained to me why some smart people could not understand the fiction texts that I like so much.

Ever since then, I've wondered about how the protocol was actually acquired. How DO people learn to read this weird and under-explained shit?

How did I learn it?

Asking a Professor
I emailed Gunn some years later and asked him, giving as an example of protocol mismatch (although deliberate mismatch in this case, done for humorous effect1) the "STAR WARS Technical Commentaries", which attempt to analyze the Star Wars trilogy as if they were hard science fiction works, and thus meant to be thought about; meant to be asked those kinds of questions of.

Gunn had no answer for me, though. He could not explain to me how the protocol was acquired.

Finding Gold
Some years later, I came across the best answer I've seen so far (actually the only answer I've seen so far, but it's quite good anyway, although the prospects for your old mother are poor), in an entry on Jo Walton's blog at the Tor publishing house.

In that blog entry, which is well worth reading (I refer to that entry of hers in particular, and possibly a few others as well, in some of my other blog entries), Jo Walton points out that when you're 12 (sometimes defined as "the golden age of science fiction" - not any specific decade, such as the first decade of Campbell's editorship, but when you yourself were 122), you're used to a lot of things going over your head, so you just keep reading, hoping you'll figure it out eventually.

How did I read half a ton of SF before I knew how to do it? I was twelve years old and used to a lot of stuff going over my head, I picked it up as I went along.
I don't think Walton elaborates on this aspect in particular, but when most people are very young, they don't have much factual knowledge of the world, and so they - at least fairly smart young people - quickly figure out to learn by inference, by implication. Not just when reading fantasy or science fiction, but in all contexts of life. When listening to adults conversing with each other. When watching television news, or movies.

Nobody ever told me what a Swiss bank account was; when I was a child I figured it out myself, by inference, due to watching a lot of thriller movies.

I saw how some characters talked secretively or excitedly about such accounts. I saw how some characters reacted with interest and suspicion, when they found out that other characters possessed such accounts. Gradually I began to understand what it was and what it was about. I built a mental model of what a Swiss bank account was, what it could do, what it was good for.

While the inability to "get" SF is not usually due to mental inflexibility, it is an obvious and inarguable fact that 12 year olds are on average much more mentally flexible than we adults, and that 65 year olds are on average much less mentally flexible than younger adults like you and me.

Orson Scott Card describes the "protocol" usage process very well in his nonfiction "How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy", in chapter 4, using as an example the opening paragraphs of Octavia Butler's fantasy novel "Wild Seed" (which I've been meaning to get hold of and read for years), analyzing deeply, deriving much world meaning (meaning that coagulates coalesces gradually, as the text move on) from a very few sentences, exactly as a protocol-savvy reader would.

Least bad solution?
If you can get your 65-year old mother to read those 10-or-so pages, that might work (and get her to read Butler's novel afterwards (or get her to start reading Butler's novel first, then when she gets stuck give her the "key" in the form of Card's 4th chapter)).

Or if you can read those pages yourself, and then explain the process to your mother, using a good example text that she can read, i.e. a text in Danish, while you guide her through the process. Offhand I cannot think of any such texts that are really good for the purpose. Most of what I read when I was too young to read English, and in the following few years when I was still willing to read translated works, utilized one or several hobbits, or contained much AsYouKnowBobbery.

One not-good-but-better-than-most place to begin could be the works by Gillian Bradshaw3, perhaps especially early works such as her "Down the Long Wind"-trilogy and her "Beacon of Alexandria", both available in Danish translation. "Beacon" might appeal more to your mother since it has a female protagonist, but it's a straight historical so what protocol there is is, strictly speaking, for historical fiction. There is protocol, though. Bradshaw rarely overexplains, and your mother might derive a little benefit from it, especially if you also read the novel (it's one of my favourites; I recommend it highly) and discuss it with her.

Clavell's "Shogun" novel might also work, and the Danish translation is divided into four volumes in case your mother has problems with heavy books4. It is a historical like Bradshaw's, although Blackthorne is sometimes treated like a hobbit, especially by Mariko who explain a lot to him.

For fantasy, try the first "Wizard of Earthsea" novel. It's hobbit-free, and available in a very capable (by movie subtitler and Tintin re-translator Niels Søndergaard) translation5.

In general, the "trick" to learning to read SF is to keep on reading, to be aware that you will encounter terms and phenomena that are not explained until later in the text - sometimes much later, and that often these explanations will be indirect and subtle (requiring you to infer facts about the world from clues). You must be fundamentally willing to read a work of fiction that takes place in a very weird and alien place, in which people think very differently and hold values very differently from you, and to trust the author to know his or her craft (even though most amateur writers of SF, and even a subset of published SF writers, do not).

To read serious SF, you must have an attitude of willingness towards the notion of entering a world that is a "possibility space" which is different from the possibility space that you live in.

Peter Knutsen typed these letters

0. Which makes sense once you know that I read my first hypertext when I was 10 years old (long before most of you had even heard of this Internet thing). It was lent to me by a Karsten or Carsten, a slightly older boy who lived on my street, but whom I've long since lost contact with.

1. Much like the example in Gunn's article, of the comedy sketch/monolog in which the character tries to read Shakespeare's Hamlet as if it were a murder mystery: He asks the wrong questions of the text.

2. And no, that's not called "being a tween". As we all know, a tween is a hobbit between the age of 20 and 33.

3. Incidentally, Bradshaw's English Wikipedia article was the first - and so far only - article in Wikipedia that I've ever started. I doubt there's any of my material left in the text by now, though. Lots of other people have contributed with all sorts of improvements. (The first edit I ever made is, to the best of my recollection, that I added the article on "Shiv" to the category of Knives. And feel free to ask me from where I know what a shiv is (if you can't guess it).)

4. I dislike physically heavy books myself, because I prefer to read lying down and I have weak girly arms. For this reason, I've never been able to get far into the original language version of Shogun, and I gave up on Cryptonomicon because the version I bought was some kind of semi-hardcover. I do mean to try to get hold of a paperback version, one day, or maybe go for an ebook version. While I dislike physically heavy books, though, I love long stories.

5. Søndergaard once posted in one of the Danish language newsgroups, asking if it was okay that he had changed the name of the protagonist from Ged to Gæt in his translation. Since "Ged" means goat in Danish, which would have confused readers and caused all sorts of undesirable inferences, I immediately replied that it was perfectly all right. Okay, "Gæt" means "guess" in Danish, so that opened up all sorts of other pointless speculations (I probably wasted a few minutes on that myself, the first time I read the trilogy). But leaving "Ged" in would certainly have been worse, and I assume Søndergaard assumed (possibly correctly) that Le Guin had some kind of linguistic pattern in mind (or a kind of onomatopoeia), and that therefore the most desirable change was the one that made the least possible alteration to the sound of Ged's true name.

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