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    the aesthetics of frustration II

    Ever since I wrote that post last Monday, I've been thinking about cultural products other than videogames / "interactive fiction" that utilize frustration as part of their aesthetic.

    Worthy of consideration in this regard might be Lost, which Henry Jenkins rightly considers to be part fiction and part puzzle, not unlike Twin Peaks or The X-Files before it. Part of the pleasure of these sorts of shows comes from the pleasurable frustration of having "the answers" deferred week after week, although the way that these shows tend to famously implode would indicate that they're basically navigating Scylla and Charybdis: if there's not enough frustration the puzzles won't be engaging, and if there's too much people will shut it off.

    Videogame manufactures face this same dilemma, as I was saying here, although they at least have the advantage that most videogames of the modern era have a built-in end-point: it can't be easy to produce a chain of puzzles in an open-ended serial narrative format. (My gut wants to say that it might not even be possible to do satisfingly, although I've played some long-form Dungeons and Dragons campaigns that suggest otherwise, and if we count "the mystery" as a genre similarly situated at the intersection of fiction and puzzle, then there's the whole genre of "series mysteries" to reckon with.)

    I've also been thinking about ways to interpret science fiction as another literary genre that traffics in frustration. Consider the opening lines of WIlliam Gibson's short story "Burning Chrome":

    "It was hot, the night we burned Chrome. Out in the malls and plazas, moths were batting themselves to death against the neon, but in Bobby's loft the only light came from a monitor screen and the green and red LEDs on the face of the matrix simulator. I knew every chip in Bobby's simulator by heart; it looked like your workaday Ono-Sendai VII, the 'Cyberspace Seven,' but I'd rebuilt it so many times that you'd have had a hard time finding a square millimeter of factory circuitry in all that silicon."

    This passage violates John Gardner's Art of Fiction rule, namely, to try to avoid including things that are going to snap your reader out of the "dream" of the narrative: at least once per sentence there's a term or phrase that isn't going to make immediate sense to the reader, and thus is going to function as a stumbling block of sorts. But readers of SF enjoy the way that the initial frustration of these sorts of stumbling blocks are exactly the component that provides the meta-pleasure of world building.

    Some cat on the rec.arts.sf.written newsgroup takes the sentence "I spent a demimonth working as an oretracer in the monopole mines through the outer asteroid belt of Delta Cygni" and, from it, identifies four major components of an imagined model that this sentence yields up, specifically "the sociological (it is a world where a person can spend a demimonth as an oretracer), technological (it is a world in which asteroid belts are mined), economic (it is a world in which monopole ores are in sufficient demand to be worth mining), and physical (it is a world in which Delta Cygni has at least two asteroid belts)".

    It may be possible to say that there's an analogy here: as SF frustrates readers at the level of the individual word or phrase only to yield the pleasure of imagining the vaster model that contains those stumbling-block words and phrases, so do video games frustrate their players by variously constraining their actions, only to yield the pleasure of learning how to "play" the model.

    The rec.arts.sf.written dude is drawing on Samuel Delany's notion of "reading protocols"—which, as I understand it, is an idea that readers of any literature bring with them a set of unspoken assumptions about "how to read it," and that the protocols of SF are different from the protocols of mimetic fiction, so that as people learn to read SF they learn to tolerate certain kinds of ambiguity and frustration (as a part of the model-building process). These ideas are written about at greater length in Delany's collection Starboard Wine, which I haven't read and which appears to be out of print. But I'll track it down.



    Monday, September 18, 2006
    2:32 PM


    Even before Starboard Wine, I might recommend reading Roland Barthe's S/Z - he breaks all interpretation into hermeneutic, semantic, symbolic, proairetic, and cultural.

    RE: some cat on rec.arts.sf.written.... The idea that a sentence contains many layers and systems of meaning is as old as interpretation - it is an important idea, but ultimately silly to imply that SF sentences contain this rich information in a way that 'mundane' works such as Beowulf or The Odyssey don't. There are many texts in which we are given an anthropologically rich description of a world that is totally unfamiliar to us, and seem at first richly inexplicable, yet imply a world we can tease out (for example, much of the Old Testament...). In speculative and fantastic writing, however, the tone is carefully calibrated between presuming insiders (who don't exist) but actually being written for outsiders. -- Jeremy
    I don't disagree. I had to kind of carefully edit that passage because the guy who wrote it also makes the claims that "A non-reader of SF, faced with that sentence, is going to be completely without a clue" and that "even if the words themselves all made sense, the non-SF reader has no idea how to put them together," both of which I thought were spurious... anyone who can manage to extract information from something as "mainstream" as a Hemingway story (say, "Hills Like White Elephants") shouldn't have too much problem with that sentence.

    I also agree that all fiction (or even all writing more broadly) can be unpacked to reveal the sociolgical / technological / economic / ideological dimensions of a world... my point is just that SF, more than other genres, tends to foreground this element with the use of devices that might, to some readers, seem jarring or frustrating (and thus end up being discouraged in places like MFA programs).
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