Jo Walton, over at Tor.com, wrote a fantastic post on the sorts of reading practices that readers of science fiction and fantasy bring to the table, versus people who only read other genres. She boils it down to readers’ abilities to handle things they don’t understand, and introduces this point with an example about a guy who couldn’t get into Joe Halderman’s The Forever War because he got hung up on the book’s use of tachyon drives to facilitate faster-than-light travel. He wanted to know how such a thing could ever work, while a regular sci fi reader would recognize the story is about the ramifications of faster-than-light travel, not about the tech behind it.
This tachyon drive guy, who has stuck in my mind for years and years, got hung up on that detail because he didn’t know how to take in what was and what wasn’t important. How do I know it wasn’t important? The way it was signalled in the story. How did I learn how to recognise that? By reading half a ton of SF. 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. That’s how we all did it. Why couldn’t this guy do that? He could have, but it would have been work, not fun.
Based on other examples she cites, I would almost say it’s less about things we don’t understand, and more about things that are simply not real, no matter how well understood. Her later examples are all about people used to mainstream literary fiction, who want to read fantastical elements in F/SF stories as metaphors, entirely at the expense of the metaphors’ vehicles. I think in many cases such readers understand these vehicles, but can’t accept them except as symbols.
It is of course not a unified theory, but it’s interesting. It matches some of my own experiences discussing F/SF with people who’ve no taste for it. I recall working on a piece about Vlad the Impaler (… being 18 at the time), and being quizzed by a family member about the veracity of vampires. The conversation went something like:
“Was there a real Dracula?”
“There was no Count Dracula the vampire. But there was a Prince Dracula the human.”
“Are there vampires?”
“I don’t know how you keep track of what’s real and what’s not.”