A Few Reading Strategies for the Science Fiction Novice

Underlying many definitions of science fiction is the fact that reading science fiction requires some level of apprenticing and learning of the key concepts, tropes, and concepts that appear in much of the genre’s works. Damien Broderick formalized this in his book Reading by Starlight, in which he argues that there is a ‘science fiction megatext’ that authors borrow from and give to that science fiction readers learn over time. Thus, reading science fiction can be a daunting task for someone not yet accustomed to the genre and its many elements.

However, this is true of any literature that you may read whether it be mainstream fiction from one particular historical period versus another, or another genre such as detective fiction or the western. Any reading requires a certain amount of heavy lifting on the part of the reader to engage the story and its characters. Perhaps with science fiction there is an additional attendant requirement to figure out the science, technology, and estranging qualities of the story, but the reader’s success at figuring these things out is part of the joy of any kind of revelation.

Below, I have written out some strategies for reading science fiction that can equally apply to other literatures. If you have other suggestions, please leave them in the comments.

  • Read slowly and carefully. Reading is not a race to the finish. You may have to read something more than once to completely understand the story, and you may have to read it a further time in order to uncover any greater meanings lying beneath the surface.
  • Keep a notebook handy as you read. Jot down ideas with the page numbers that attend those ideas.
  • Diagram the characters and actions in a flow chart or story outline to better make sense of a complex narrative. Who are the characters? Where do characters go? Who do they encounter? What happens to them? What do they do?
  • Keep a web browser open with two tabs: one for your favorite search engine and the other for dictionary.oed.com. Search terms that you have not encountered before.
  • Be smart with your reading. If you don’t have the time to read and re-read something, you should search the Lexis Nexis database for reviews of the novel. Wikipedia also has a number of plot summaries. However, I cannot warn you enough that these serve as a guide or introduction only; you should read the work at hand in order to fully understand it and experience the novel itself through the act of reading.
  • Don’t always think literally, and vice versa. When you come across something like, “She turned on her right side,” it could have more than one interpretation. She could turn over onto the right side of her body, or it could mean that she powered up the right side of her body (cybernetic implants, computers, etc.).
  • Pause during your reading to imagine what it is you are reading. This can be hard work, but it does get easier as you encounter it more often.
  • You only build new and powerful connections in your brain through challenging and unique experiences. The readings in my classes are intended to be just that. If you don’t do the heavy lifting though, you won’t get any of the long term benefits of engaging and surmounting these challenges.

Published by Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.