The New Comprehensible, or, This is Not a Literary Manifesto, Thank God

SFBC Editor Andrew Wheeler, in his post on Boskone, noted a Sunday afternoon panel he was on about hot writers and trends, and brought up my name:

I forget all that we talked about — though I’m sure it was utterly brilliant and provided a model for all future fantastic literature — though I did get to unload another one of my attempts to invent some skiffy terminology. (I aspire to be the Boy Clute.) I said that John Scalzi — who had already left the con and wasn’t around to protest his name being used in vain — should continue on his entry-level SF kick and produce a real manifesto, throwing people out of the movement and creating a posse of “in” writers. In fact, I already have a name for his movement, should he want it: the New Comprehensible.

For accuracy’s sake, I would note that I was actually still at Boskone when he was talking about me (I was having my tag-team literary beer with Toby Buckell). Also, I’m generally of the opinion that people who issue manifestos about writing should be sentenced to having their pointy pretentious heads literally shoved up their own asses, so their physical state can match their intellectual one. Inasmuch as I am in no rush to goatse my noggin, I will refrain from issuing any manifestos today. Moreover I would hope, if I were ever to issue a literary manifesto in the future, that you would do the sensible thing, which would be to point and laugh at the silly pompous man I had become. I thank you in advance for your willingness to do so.

Having said that, I am delighted to have been anointed by the estimable Mr. Wheeler as the leader of my very own literary movement, The New Comprehensible. I feel shiny. I may make T-shirts. Moreover, I think the New Comprehensible is a fine literary movement to have, particularly for science fiction — I’m all for bringing new readers into the genre whenever possible, and a good way to do it is to write SF that’s inviting to the uninitiated.

Now, let’s say that at this point, some writer out there is saying “Hey, I want to be part of this New Comprehensible movement in science fiction that I’ve heard so much about in the last four paragraphs,” and wanted advice on how he or she might go about doing it. What advice should this person be given? Well, manifestos are not my thing, but basic, practical advice? I can do that. Here’s what I would suggest, and it’s really rather simple:

1. Think of an actual person you know, of reasonable intelligence, who likes to read but does not read science fiction.

2. Write with that person in mind.

That’s all you do.

My person is my mother-in-law, as I’ve mentioned here before. She’s your pretty much the average American in all respects and downs Nora Roberts and Julie Garwood books like they’re going out of style. I write my novels so that when she sits down to read them she’s able to follow what’s going on and doesn’t feel like she’s missing scads of context. My mother-in-law is not my primary audience; I’m not writing for her. But by keeping her in mind when I write, I don’t exclude her, and by extension I don’t exclude lots of other readers like her.

I don’t necessarily suggest you write with my mother-in-law in mind; you don’t know her, after all. But you probably do know someone like her: Pretty normal, likes to read, doesn’t read science fiction. Your dad or mom or brother-in-law or friend from college or office mate or whomever. When you’re writing, ask yourself “Will dad/mom/brother-in-law/friend/workmate/whomever follow this?” And if the answer is no, try, try again.

(This is why, incidentally, I specify that you need to have a real person in mind; if you try to imagine some Platonic version of the Reasonably Intelligent Non-Science Fiction Reader, you’ll inevitably start crediting him or her with more geek savvy than a real reasonably intelligent non-SF reader would have, because writers are lazy and delusional and in love with their own writing and don’t really want to change things for other people, particularly when they don’t actually exist. Oh, don’t look at me like that. You know it’s true.)

One caveat for writers who think this New Comprehensible thing is an invitation to be hacktastically lazy: I think it’s harder to write good science fiction with non-SF readers in mind than it is to write purely to an audience steeped in the genre. As just one example, you can’t necessarily use all the shortcuts that have been trod into the ground by generations of SF writers, because your non-SF readers won’t get all of them — and at the same time you have to make sure your genre-steeped readers aren’t rolling their eyes as you set the scene for the newbies. You have to make them both happy, and doing that is like serving a meal to a group that includes hardcore vegans and committed carnivores. Yeah, it’s tricky; no one ever said being part of the New Comprehensible was going to be easy, and not just because at this point only two people have ever used the term at all.

Now, if this were a manifesto, somewhere along the way I’d have intimated that all science fiction henceforth should be part of the New Comprehensible, and all those who choose not to follow its strictures are poopy poopyheads who must be crushed when the revolution comes, or whatever. But remember: people who issue literary manifestos should be thrown into jet engines, and also, why on Earth would any sane fan of science fiction want all SF to be of just one sort or the other? I think there should be science fiction my mother-in-law can follow; I think it’s fine that there’s science fiction that my mother-in-law would go “WTF?” to. Variety is fun; let’s have more, not less.

(To be clear, my mother-in-law would not actually say “WTF?” Although it would be kind of funny if she did.)

I’d also note that the steps to writing the New Comprehensible science fiction work equally well for any sort of genre; with replace the words “science fiction” with the name of whatever genre you like. Want to write New Comprehensible romance? Think of a reasonably intelligent non-romance reader you know and write with him in mind. New Comprehensible horror? Reasonably intelligent non-horror reader you know. New Comprehensible lit fic? Reasonably intelligent non-lit fic reader, blah blah blah. You get it by now, right? Okay, then. The New Comprehensible is both multi-disciplinary and interstitial, contingent on creator impetus; or to put it in less pompous terms, any sort of writing can be made accessible to most folks if the writer wants to make it happen.

So, there you go: The New Comprehensible, perhaps the world’s first 100% manifesto-free literary movement. It’s simple but not easy. Try it out. See if it works for you. Let me know how it goes.

67 thoughts on “The New Comprehensible, or, This is Not a Literary Manifesto, Thank God

  1. Chip Delany, many moons ago, said in an essay that he writes the kind of thing he wants badly to read and can’t find on the shelf in the bookstore. I’ve tried that, but I’ve never been able to define my taste at any given moment or month that well. I never know what’s really going to “do it” for me. (Right at the moment, for instance, I’m reading the first of Laurie King’s Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and am thoroughly jazzed about it–I’m not a big Holmes fan [which may help in this instance] and if you’d told me a couple months ago I’d enjoy a novel written by Sherlock Holmes female partner, I would have said “Wha…?”)

    So I try to write in such a way that I won’t feel bad about it in the morning.

    Now, my mother cannot stand science fiction, but she has read all my stories and books. She has never been one to compliment me on anything gratuitously, and if she didn’t like it, I’d know. She thinks I’m a pretty good writer and can follow the story lines easily enough even when she doesn’t quite “get” the skiffy element.

    But she’s, like, my mom. You know? How objective can she really be?

    I do have one non SF reader who goes through my stuff. Occasionally she calls me up to ask “What the %#$@ is a wimjigget?” But she reads the stories and enjoys them.

    That’s the best you can do, I suppose. Now, right now I’m working on an historical novel. If someone says to me “Y’know, this reads like a skiffy novel,” then I know I’m in trouble.

  2. Sugar. This makes me think my novel is in dire need of a rewrite. I wonder if your mother-in-law would think so.

    {Scalzi}: I’m generally of the opinion that people who issue manifestos about writing should be sentenced to having their pointy pretentious heads literally shoved up their own asses, so their physical state can match their intellectual one.

    I think they already have their craniums up their cans already. Issuing a manifesto is their way of making sure there’s daylight out there somewhere.

    “The New Comprehensible.” Shoot, it’s just writing well and clearly, isn’t it?

    And did you ever come up with a title for your TLC book tour?

    After I take my morning nap – partly for my continuing flu recovery, partly because I had one of the worst nights sleep of my life last night – I will have to look over my novel and see if it’s comprehensible to mere mortals.

    Is Charlie Stross part of The New Incomprehensible? That cat’s prose is dense!!!

  3. Chang:

    “Is Charlie Stross part of The New Incomprehensible?”

    I think Charlie would be heartbroken to be labeled such, actually.

  4. The New Comprehensible. Hmm…

    Does that mean if you ever shake hands with China Mieville, the energy release from the clash between the New Weird and the New Comprehensible will blow the two of you in opposite directions halfway across the universe? (I hope not. What a loss to literature to lose both of you.)

  5. JC:

    “Does that mean if you ever shake hands with China Mieville, the energy release from the clash between the New Weird and the New Comprehensible will blow the two of you in opposite directions halfway across the universe?”

    Dude, China and I have hugged. The Earth yet remains.

  6. At her Literary Beer, Elizabeth Bear made a comment about how she tries to write literary sf while recognizing “accessibility” as a literary value (that’s my paraphrasing; Bear made it sound better). That seems as good a description as any of The New Comprehensible (although I’d also suggest that the need for a Name or a Movement is a bit much).

    I’ll second the idea that Stross is far from incomprehensible. I’d also suggest that “dense” does not equal “incomprehensible.” Then again, my happiest find at Boskone was Behemoth: ß-Max, by Peter Watts, and if it’s like the first two books in the series, it will be dense, comprehensible, and damned goo.

  7. Hey, its excellence as a guide to writing comprehensibly aside, this post taught me a new word/concept in “goatse”, which I was able to find out more about with a simple Internet search.

    *shudder*

    Now I’m going to go bathe in turpentine.

    But do keep writing The New Comprehensible!

  8. Hey! What’s wrong with calling it The Puddle of Heads movement?

    Sheesh… Calling it The New Comprehensible just comes off as stuffy and pretentious.

  9. New Comprehensible, or even Old Comprehensible, is what I want to take with me on an airplane: Our Humble Host here, Lois McMaster Bujold, David Brin (whose level of wonk in his books still keeps it very approachable), John Varley and Spider Robinson (another couple Heinlein proteges), and my triumverate of strange prose that’s hard to nail down to a standard genre, Joe Lansdale, Andrew Vachss and F Paul Wilson. On the fantasy side, see the Pre-Joycean Fellowship, including Steven Brust, Jane Yolen, and Neil Gaiman (although Brust’s Dumas pastiches can be a slog).

    But sometimes I want my hard sf to be hard to read, too. Yes, it’s elitist, feeling that if *I* can read this and *get* it, I must be better than the average reader out there.

    C.J. Cherryh definitely falls into this category. Picking up a new series or standalone from her requires putting your head in a completely different state, with different Chomskian deep structures. It’s probably a decent marketing ploy for her to write series: by the time you’ve invested skull space in comprehending azi, atevi or other alien or human-in-alien-environment situations, slipping the next book into your head is easier, and satisfying.

    The Cyberpunk movement in SF and the corresponding Splatterpunk in horror mostly tried to be hard to read, often in being hard to stomach (rape of the mind, destruction of the self, etc.). Good example of hard-to-read here would be early Gibson (I think he’s learned a lot about writing in the ensuing decades: his newer stuff is much more approachable, and sadly, much less futuristing), Swanwick, and sometimes Bear. On the other hand we have Rudy Rucker who I think tries too hard to write at a simpler reading level in order to deal with the math.

    The aforementioned Mr. Mieville’s fantasy reads a bit like a Cyberpunk/Steampunk fantasy, but once I got past the heavily depressed character in the opening of Perdido Street Station, the book was a pretty simple romp — not really a challenging read a’tall. A harder read on the fantasy side would be Tim Powers or James P Blaylock. I’m blanking on hard-read elf-and-wizard style fantasy, but then I don’t read much of that.

  10. Joelfinkle:

    “But sometimes I want my hard sf to be hard to read, too.”

    Yes, exactly. Most people don’t eat the same thing every single day; why they would want to read the same thing every day is beyond me.

  11. It all comes back to what one of my writing instructors said (a long time ago): know who your audience is, and write for them. My latest ‘audience’ consisted of a total of four people: my wife, brother, and two sons. The work in question was my autobiography (up to about age 35 or so). While writing it I had several points where I had to think of what would make my experience relevant to my audience – times have changed a lot, and showing the customs of, say, a school dance in 1960 versus what passes for one today is not that trivial, I found. Apparently I was fairly successful, as my audience actually read all 220 pages worth (no small feat when it comes to my sons).

    I suppose you can write just for yourself, but then don’t expect someone else to read and enjoy it. But if your audience is a group of geeks, then there’s nothing wrong with writing something totally incomprehensible to non-geeks. But I prefer my reading material to be a bit more accessible to the average person.

  12. > Why they would want to read the same
    > thing every day is beyond me.

    Well, there is something to be said for “comfort food”. My wife got me the “The Complete Calvin and Hobbes” last year, and I’ve been reading it for months. Just 4 or 5 five pages before bed mind you, but it’s a pleasant way to end the day.

  13. Christian:

    Sure, but it’s not all you read, I’d wager. I’m talking about only reading a certain flavor of science fiction (or for that matter, only reading science fiction and not other sorts of fiction). If all I read was SF, I’d probably go a little batshit.

  14. “Countdown to blog entry from disgruntled Kim Stanley Robinson and Stephen Baxter fans calling it The New Contemptible in 3…2.. I kid, I kid.”

    You may kid, but you also puzzle. Stan Robinson and Steven Baxter may not perfectly epitomize what John is talking about, but their work is a lot closer to it than most. Whatever other criticisms you want to lob at (for instance) Robinson’s Washington, DC novels, they’re certainly written for a general audience and don’t depend on any kind of prior familiarity with the SF genre.

  15. Wow! If I wrote for my mother-in-law it would be just be page after page of cursing and obscene marginalia.

    But it is good advice, nonetheless. I’ll just have to pick another “target audience.”

  16. Rob Davies:

    “If I wrote for my mother-in-law it would be just be page after page of cursing and obscene marginalia.”

    I smell bestseller!

  17. Mark Tiedemann (re: Laurie King’s Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes mysteries):

    I’m not a big Holmes fan [which may help in this instance]

    You may be right. I’m a huge Holmes fanatic from way back and I couldn’t get through the first page of the first book. It screamed of Mary Sue. I found Ms. King’s portrayal of Holmes terribly out of character. And, from what I’ve since read about the series, it becomes even more Mary Sue than I imagined possible (I won’t say how, as I don’t know how far you’ve gotten in the series).

    Then again, Laurie King – via Mary Russell – called Watson slow. Them’s fightin’ words. As written, Watson was of slightly higher than average intelligence. It’s just that next to Holmes he seemed somewhat slow. Then again, who of average intelligence doesn’t?

  18. Hah! I have enough trouble reading certain articles, that I wonder if science writers bother writing for ANYONE to read. I think it’s all nice and fuzzy that sometimes we scientists (and budding scientists) write only for our fellow comrades, but man, there is some truly terrible writing out there. We need to start getting some copy editors to act as referees on journal articles.

  19. I think perhaps for the New Comprehensive movement to gain any traction in the marketplace, the publishers will need to start showing a bit more imagination when designing their products. Take Old Man’s War, for example. It may be the most comprehensible novel ever written, but there’s nothing about the packaging that would make a non-SF-reader even pick it up, much less consider reading it. The cover painting is utterly generic; it’s identifiable as a SF novel at first glance, which means that any non-SF-reader who isn’t related to you is unlikely to give it a second one.

    Now, The Android’s Dream is, I think, better positioned to attracted non-SF-readers. The cover perfectly designed to catch the eye: it’s brightly colored, makes clever use of negative space, and, the presence of a robot on the cover notwithstanding, doesn’t look like a science fiction novel. None of which guarantees an audience outside the small circle of SF readers, but it gives it a fighting chance, which is more than can be said of Old Man’s War.

    This isn’t just an SF problem, of course; I could say exactly the same thing about romance novels. ales suffer if the books are too easily recognizable as romances. I’m told that J. D. Robb’s novels used to outsell those of Nora Roberts before it became widely known that they were the same person. But the audience of romance readers is considerably larger than the audience of SF readers, so romance authors have less to lose by not trying to attract new readers to the genre.

  20. I’m abit embarrassed, because this was the exact same thing I spoke with you about at the signing. You mentioned that some of your fans were cursing your lack of world building in Old Man’s War and you blamed it on being inherantly lazy.

    Coming off reading the intensely repeated ‘WTF just happened??’ in Hyperion, OMW was truly delightful and further opened me up to reading more of your work.

    There is nothing wrong with being an ‘every-man’ sci-fi writer. In fact, you’re one of the best.

    So I would think it would be prudent to embrace ‘The New Comprehensible.’ It might be your path to making a few more dollars and a few new fans.

  21. RepairmanJack:

    Sorry, unless your name is Kristine Scalzi or Patrick Nielsen Hayden, I am immune to your whip-crackery.

  22. Hear-hear on the mother-in-law reader! Once a new story of mine reaches a critical mass and is sent out for the first time, I have a handful of people whom I send copies. One of them is my mother-in-law, who loves reading my stories even though she’s neither physicist nor SF fan. The mom/mom-in-law factor is a nice ego boost, but doesn’t tell me much more than I am able to communicate. But the mom filter is no good for telling if a story is either ready to market or even marketable at all. (grin)

    Being married to a self-professed grammar queen, now THAT’s a plus in the proofreading phase. (double-edged-grin)

    Dr. Phil

  23. Wait, wait, there’s no manifesto? That means there can’t be any berets, either! Lame!

    No it doesn’t. You could have a beret, emblazoned:

    NO MANIFESTO
    NO OBFUSCATION
    JUST GOOD FUN

  24. John @ 12:35: Do you have any sources for the JD Robb/Nora Roberts info? I’ve always assumed she sold more as Nora Roberts — first, because romance sells more than mystery, generally speaking, and second, because she got billed as “NORA ROBERTS writing as JD Robb” rather than as “JD ROBB writing as Nora Roberts.”

  25. “Countdown to blog entry from disgruntled Kim Stanley Robinson and Stephen Baxter fans calling it The New Contemptible in 3…2.. I kid, I kid.”

    Huh. I would not have through that KSR was inaccessible in any fashion. (I haven’t read enough Baxter to say). Which, I suppose, goes to show how hard writing the New Comprehensible really is. If nothing else, the range os “average non-sci-fi reading people” is quite large.

    “I think perhaps for the New Comprehensive movement to gain any traction in the marketplace, the publishers will need to start showing a bit more imagination when designing their products. Take Old Man’s War, for example. It may be the most comprehensible novel ever written, but there’s nothing about the packaging that would make a non-SF-reader even pick it up, much less consider reading it. The cover painting is utterly generic; it’s identifiable as a SF novel at first glance, which means that any non-SF-reader who isn’t related to you is unlikely to give it a second one.”

    I am sure that someone has done this research (the people who publish books didn’t survive such an industry by being bad at figuring out what people would read and why, after all), but I would be fascinated to know how covers affect sales. Do sci-fi books, for example, lose more sci-fi fans with mainstream style covers than they gain mainstream readers? Does the cover matter to mainstream readers at all, or does the fact that the book is not shelved where they generally look mean that mainstream readers never see the book anyway? Is the problem not covers, per se, but classification?

  26. Yes to berets! I suggest t-shirts (maybe in TAD sky-blue?) with a picture of a green-skinned John Perry *wearing* a beret. The picture can be captioned with something like: “Don’t be put off by my green skin. I’m part of . . .” (and then on the back of the shirt) “. . . The New Comprehensible.”

  27. I’m all for this New Comprehensible, (even if I do occasionally, love a couple of jargon-rich pages). My girlfriend, who refuses to read SF has actually promised to try OMW. I told her that if she’s not hooked in one chapter, she can put it down with no hard feeling.

    Having said that, I don’t think any SF geeks should feel insulted if an author deigns to describe his toroid shaped space station as “a kilometers-wide donut”. I mean, really, take a poll on Main Street and see how many “regular” people know what toroid means.

    Also, maybe you should invent a new type of punctuation mark/footnote indicator. Something that encloses a portion of text and tells the reader to go to the bottom of the page, where he’ll find: “the enclosed portion just boils down to telling you that in the year 2523, we have the technology to go really, really fast through space without getting squashed onto the rear bulkhead of the spaceship”. Having done this, you can go on for pages describing the tech to those who want your entire conjecture, while letting the mother-in-laws keep reading the story while skipping the physics lesson.

  28. Let me add my own weight to the notion that at different times, I’m in different moods.

    Sometimes I want Red Mars, Titan, or Hyperion (Robinson, Baxter, or Simmons); other times I want Scalzi, Drake, Weber, Ringo, or an old-school Heinlein. Let me emphasize that this doesn’t mean that one flavor is better than the other. They’re just different stories that happen to appeal to overlapping slices of a wide audience.

    Anything, whether a labeled movement or not, that appeals to anything other than traditional SF has to be good for the genre as a whole.

  29. Also, I’m generally of the opinion that people who issue manifestos about writing should be sentenced to having their pointy pretentious heads literally shoved up their own asses, so their physical state can match their intellectual one.

    Three cheers for Scalzi!

    I think there should be science fiction my mother-in-law can follow; I think it’s fine that there’s science fiction that my mother-in-law would go “WTF?” to. Variety is fun; let’s have more, not less.

    Three more cheers for Scalzi!

    But sometimes I want my hard sf to be hard to read, too. Yes, it’s elitist, feeling that if *I* can read this and *get* it, I must be better than the average reader out there.

    C.J. Cherryh definitely falls into this category.

    Six cheers would, of course, be infelicitous. One will therefore add three more for a very felicitous nine.

  30. Thanks, although those three cheers actually belong to someone else, because I didn’t write the comment about Cherryh.

  31. John @ 12:35 and G. Jules @ 1:30:

    John, whoever told you that Nora Roberts sold better as JD Robb than as Roberts was mistaken. Her Robb numbers were good (although it was a fairly open ‘secret’ that she was Robb, so the example is skewed), but they’re better now. In fact, except during the two weeks following the release of a new J.K. Rowling hardcover, Nora Roberts is the world’s best-selling fiction author, period*.

    *This was in a survey conducted in concert with the APA. I read it a couple years ago (in paper format, not online, sorry)

  32. If “the new comprehensible” is supposed to be in opposition to “the new weird”, then the idea is slightly bung. To me, hard sci fi and elves/fairies/dragons fantasty (of which I read, and enjoy, an awful lot!) are the most inaccessible forms for non-genre audiences.

    “New weird”, on the other hand, seems to be particularly inaccessible to the typical genre reader, because it uses techniques and imagery that are NOT typical to SF/Fantasy. New Weird seems to me to draw on a lot of sources that are not, or at most borderline, part of the broad SF/F genre – Victorian potboiler, Borges, Mervyn Peake (who was roundly ignored by mainstream fantasy for decades). Even modernist novels – hell, if I hadn’t spent 4 years slogging through an English degree (and months, MONTHS slogging through the nightmare that is Ulysses), I would have found Vellum by Hal Duncan as incomprehensible as 3/4 of the people who read it seem to. As it is, the fact that its all literary/classical references and has a limited grasp of “linear” didn’t hurt so much. So at least in the case of non-genre readers who are familiar with literary fiction, I think the New Weird would be more comprehensible than much other SF/F

  33. Eddie Clark:

    “If ‘the new comprehensible’ is supposed to be in opposition to ‘the new weird’, then the idea is slightly bung.”

    It’s not in opposition to anything. Why would it need to be?

  34. Although I am not a book author (nor plan to be) I have some thoughts on this because I can see the parallels with song writing.
    Personally when I am in the midst of creating I just let the creativity flow. The result comes out like it does. It is either as complex or as simple as it is. And although the end result may fall into a category as “whatever”, I do not think I have written with the listeners perception in mind. Either the get it or they don’t. It may be the reason I am an Engineer and not a “Rock God” but it is a very good and freeing feeling to know that the end result is pure.
    But I do have a question about book I recently finished and was wondering what category it may fall in from a genre standpoint. What genre would K.J. Parker’s “Evil for Evil” fall in?

  35. On the off chance that I accidentally started a meme (which I need to squash), I don’t think that China Mieville’s work is incomprehensible. I just needed an SF movement that began with “the New” for my joke. (I mean, I saw both China Mieville and John Scalzi at ReaderCon last year.)

  36. “On China Mieville as the opposite of the New Comprehensible: a friend of mine who doesn’t read much SF at all loved THE SCAR. Go figure.”

    Quite right. The fact that China Mieville’s work attracts a significant number of people who aren’t regular genre readers is one of many clues that there aren’t any simple formulas for figuring this stuff out.

    The fact that I find China Mieville’s novels to be quite readable, whereas some other books identified as “New Weird” don’t work at all for me? That’s another clue. (And when I say those books don’t work for me, I mean they don’t work: they don’t bring on the fiction-reading trance, they don’t make pictures and conversations in my head.)

    I think there are a lot of different ways that authors connect with, or fail to connect with, parts of the reading public. Sometimes what’s happening is easy to spot. Sometimes it’s a mystery. If this stuff were easy, we’d all be rich.

  37. John:

    That’s kinda the implication I got from the quote that kicked this thing off – a tongue in cheek jab at new weird. If I’m off base, apologies. My bad.

  38. Hey, can we slow down with the new movements, please?

    I’ve only just finished my Mundane SF book (with no mention of the words “software”, “computer”, or “singularity”); I’m working on my late-period Heinlein right now, so I won’t have time to get around to anything else for at least six months!

    PS: wouldn’t a better name for this thing be the New Old?

  39. Hao said: Hah! I have enough trouble reading certain articles, that I wonder if science writers bother writing for ANYONE to read. I think it’s all nice and fuzzy that sometimes we scientists (and budding scientists) write only for our fellow comrades, but man, there is some truly terrible writing out there. We need to start getting some copy editors to act as referees on journal articles.

    Heh, this reminds me of my days as a geologist. Geology papers are written to be as dry and incomprehensible as possible. This is because they need to disguise the fact that they don’t actually have all that much to say. If they used plain English, a standard 10-15 page paper would take 1-2 pages, with the main message in a paragraph or two.

    It’s odder for the fact that, when you talk to the actual geologists themselves, they’re very down to earth “normal” people. Outdoorsy, jeans-wearing beer-drinking people. They sure don’t talk with all those big words in real life.

    I once entertained notions of “translating” science papers into English so that they’d be readable to the general public, but don’t know whether it’s something I would be able to make a living on. ;) Biology tends to be a bit better about it overall. And last time I paid attention to paper trends, they were trying to move toward better writing, so some of the younger papers (and scientists) might be clearer than the older ones.

    There’s also definitely the same sort of elitist element to it that joelfinkle mentioned. The need to make science look like it’s hard, so that the scientists can appear smarter than the general public.

    On a completely unrelated note, is “skiffy” a common pronunciation of “sci fi” ? I’ve always pronounced it “sie fie” and it took me a few minutes to figure out what “skiffy” meant.

  40. MWT, I have heard but have not verified that at some universities, molecular biology counts as foreign language credit. Sometimes the long words and weird sentences are to disguise a lack of content, sometimes they’re there to squeeze every last drop out. There’s also jargon to dodge and the eternal weirdness of people who went into research because they didn’t like words.
    Then you hit Nature and Science, where the papers are supposed to be as short as possible, and it’s like reading… really short to-the-point papers with the approximate density of lead. The Watson and Crick DNA structure paper is something like a page and a half.

    SF spec fic science fiction SFF sci fi skiffy genre! So many words. ‘Sci fi’ is sort of an insult, or it was at one point. Or so I have heard.

  41. I’d wear a t-shirt with a Che Gruevara style picture of Scalzi on it and the phrase “I approve of the New Comprehensible!”

    Oh, and on the back, it could say “Write your own damn manifesto.”

  42. Well, molecular biology (and genetics and biochemistry and all the other related subfields) is different from geology in what they try to do with their papers. ;) There you actually do need specialized terminology for things. But for rocks? Not as much as they have…

    (I have BSes in biology and geology, and an MS in marine biology, specializing in fish ecology. In case anyone wonders how many science primary literature papers I’ve ever read and in what variety.)

    Ahh… Science and Nature. They claim that they’re aiming for a general public audience. Hah!

  43. JC: Does that mean if you ever shake hands with China Mieville, the energy release from the clash between the New Weird and the New Comprehensible will blow the two of you in opposite directions halfway across the universe?

    Scalzi: Dude, China and I have hugged. The Earth yet remains.

    Would one of the times you hugged happen to have been on the day Britney Spears decided to shave her head?

    Just wondering.

  44. “sci-fi”/”skiffy” is an old tribal thing. Time was, literary science-fiction fans abbreviated Science Fiction as SF, and saying “sci-fi” was a sign of an outsider. So after being sufficiently annoyed by use of “sci-fi” in the general culture, the SF fans turned “sci-fi” into a pejorative used to refer to garbagey monster movies and the like, and pronounced it “skiffy”.

    But if we’re concerned with entry-level SF and the New Comprehensible and growing the genre with new readers, I’d say policing the distinction between SF and sci-fi is the last thing we want to worry about.

  45. I’ve always written exactly the sort of book I yearned to read. Publication was a secondary consideration, and pretty much irrelevant.

    I don’t like having the last little drop of humour mined out of every joke, I like a few double entendres and I love smashing things up and getting people into really embarassing situations of their own making. (In print, not real life.)

    I also like SF-lite, which is where you can hear the machinery but it isn’t described down to the last sodding rivet.

    Had that sort of work been widely available, in quantity, I’d never have sat down to write a novel or three.

  46. Re the SF/sci-fi label: when a non-genre mag reviewed my books and described me as a ‘sci-fi supremo’ d’you think I was going to write in and bitch about it?

    Outside the genre people use the terms interchangeably. There are also waaaaay more readers outside the genre than within it, and if you want to attract more of them instead of bemoaning the way SF is treated like a third-class citizen, don’t be so damn picky about what they call the stuff.

  47. As far as I’m concerned, manifesto simply means marketing label in this day and age, and as a professional cynic (ie experienced IT professional) I tend to disdain such things. All I am looking for in my reading diet is quality writing and by extension, quality writers that I can trust, irrespective of the marketing label attached to them. In my case, this means writers such as Cherryh, KSR, Simmons, Stross, Mieville and others mentioned up-thread in the so-called SF genre, and others in other genres. Scalzi is a recent addition to my SF white-list, based entirely upon his writings and no other factor.

    And I have to agree with our host and other posters that a varied diet is necessary to maintain good health.

    Oh, and Ann L? Most felicitous. You are clearly a Stability of One. Would you care for fresh tea?

  48. Here’s my New Comprehending Reader’s Manifesto:

    Life is short, the shelves are long (and expanding as we speak), and if I wanted to have a stranger jerk off in my lap I’d have looked after myself and got into porn back when I was pretty.

  49. Stross isn’t incomprehensible, it’s just that some of his novels fail at the structural level. See “Accelerando,” which didn’t rise above it’s fix-up origins.

  50. I beg to differ about Stross. Much as I like some of the individual stories in Accelerando, they are definitely hard sf. My mother – who calls me on the phone on average of once a day for tech support on such arcane subjects as “how can I see the pictures we downloaded from my sister-in-law?” – would never never get his works.

  51. If you want to capture the mainstream readers, what you need is a new kind of holographic cover design, you know, the kind with two pictures visible from two different angles. When you look down your nose at the book you see a sepia photograph of a country lane with sunlight slanting through the trees. When you look at it straight on – exploding spaceship.

  52. John Scalzi:

    Chang:

    “Is Charlie Stross part of The New Incomprehensible?”

    I think Charlie would be heartbroken to be labeled such, actually.

    Great. I’m sure Charlie is crying into a fine single malt in beautiful Edinburgh, knowing some Yank called him incomprehensible. In rethinking my choice of words, I should have said dense.

    Now, Peter Watts: that guy’s stuff is incomprehensible. I bought a dictionary specifically to get me through his books.

  53. We were talking about Karl Schroeder on LibraryThing the other day, and then I finished Lady of Mazes.

    ‘Mind Melter’ was something that came up as a possible tag to be used for that, things like Stross’ Accelerando, some Greg Egan, that sort of thing.

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