This principle of abeyance is one of the protocols of reading speculative fiction


What else do we learn from Butler’s opening sentence? Doro didn’t intend to meet the woman. His purpose at the time was to see what was left of—what? A “seed village.”

What in the world is a seed village?

We don’t know what a seed village is. And Butler doesn’t tell us—because Doro, who knows perfectly well what a seed village is, wouldn’t stop and think about that information right now. But in due time we will find out what a seed village is. So we readers hold that question in abeyance. We have a hook with the label “seed village” over it; we trust that the author will let us know in due course what information should be hung on that hook.

This principle of abeyance is one of the protocols of reading speculative fiction that makes it difficult for some people who aren’t familiar with the genre to grasp what’s going on. Experienced SF readers recognize that the author doesn’t expect them to know what a seed village is—this is one of the differences, one of the things that is strange in this created world, and the author will in time explain what the term means.

But the reader who is inexperienced in SF might think that the author expects him to already know what a seed village is. He stops cold, trying to guess what the term means from its context. But he can’t guess, because there isn’t enough context yet. Instead of holding the information in abeyance like a small mystery, he is just as likely to think that either the writer is so clumsy that she doesn’t know how to communicate well, or that this novel is so esoteric that its readers are expected to know uncommon terms that aren’t even in the dictionary.

This is one of the real boundaries between SF and non-SF writing. Science fiction and fantasy writers handle exposition this way, by dropping in occasional terms as the viewpoint character thinks of them and explaining them only later. The SF reader doesn’t expect to receive a complete picture of the world all at once. Rather he builds up his own picture bit by bit from clues within the text.

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