Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Warmed up leftovers, reading protocols, collapse of civilization, and various

About the long-promised boys and reading piece: Looking at the situation as it stands this morning, my blog piece about boys and reading still seems to be inflating and I'm not sure it yet says what I want it to say. Maybe it will stop growing and start cohering by next Monday. Meanwhile, though, I had this rerun that had been unavailable for a while, one of my five "The Well-Bitten Hand" columns from Helix SF. This piece first appeared under the title Hopping and Bopping Through Dipping and Flipping, and like pretty much any nonfiction I write, it digresses all over the place. Since this version is about 30% new material from the Helix version, as you might guess, it digresses even more.
Anyway, I did want to get this back out there, eventually, because I think it's of some interest to other writers and to readers generally, and since I'm having a hard time getting the new work done, here's a bit of the re-warmed and re-seasoned old.
One of the things I do for money (that I will admit to in public) is statistical semiotics. Most conventional flavors of semiotics are about what signs do and how they do it. The semiotician tends to look at the operations surrounding a sign one at a time:
•how the driver sees a newfangled red triangle yield sign and knows she doesn't have the right of way, even though all the yield signs she's seen before were yellow
•why blood in the stool narrows or widens your doctor's range of possible unpleasant things to try on you
•how a unicorn in a space suit on a book cover tells a reader to pick this one up or leave it alone.
Semiotics can be described recursively as the study of semiosis—how a thing becomes a sign, and so how a thing means. For example, a conventional semiotician can tell you things about how you observe that the three ficvurts in this monosench can be abgnarled from context, how your dog learns to read your mood, and how a picture of Albert Einstein on the cover tells a reader that this is a pop-science book with a possible admixture of New Agey nonsense.
Statistical semiotics deals with populations of signs and their emergent properties.* It is concerned with questions like:
•the tipping point where a hateful epithet for a minority group becomes socially dangerous to use even when none of the group are present
•how the cell phone flip-with-hair-toss that Alicia Silverstone invented and developed on the set of Clueless became de rigueur for teenage girls in the industrial world within a decade
•how the blue-collar white guys started using the language of Reaganomics, and moved away from the language of the New Deal.
•the way in which Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky precisely skirts the edge of meaning, so that if you were to change one more English word in it to a nonsense word, the message's clarity would change drastically.
•the growth, spread and decline of any population of signs or sign-complexes from end-zone dances to leopard print
•the gradual and partial displacement of Yeah right (without the comma) by It's all good.
If I haven't made it clear enough with all those examples, I hope I've at least made it complicated enough to inhibit the sort of science fiction convention panel "polymath" who can spout a single inane sentence about any subject.
Because most of the one-liners about these phenomena seem to like to use the words meme and memetics, and are badly mis-focused at least from the standpoint of someone who pays attention and reads the research in the field, I prefer to call myself a statistical semiotician, not a memeticist, and I call these things-that-spread-through-the-noosphere semiotic replicators, fads, fashions, ideas, and pretty much anything other than memes, preferring to carry the rags and tatters of the concept around in my hands rather than pack it into unsuitable baggage.
In the last decade, I was paid to do statistical semiotic studies aimed at answering questions like:
•why did anti-iPod advertising by Apple's competitors so consistently fall flat?
•what reasons did teenage boys cite to other teenage boys for going or not going to the prom?
•what happened to consumer loyalty at a famously environmentally-friendly company when news stories revealed some very ugly union-busting and benefits-cheating aimed at their famously smiling, helpful employees?
Now, all of that is context for one study that I did in early 2005, which I still keep coming back to because I think it has profound implications for anyone who lives by writing, or tries to, in our present world. I was trying to determine how people were reading a small city magazine. We knew who our target demographic was, and we had some idea how that differed from our actual demographic, so the idea was to see:
• what material most attracted the target demographics
•how the target demographics interpreted all the magazine's content, including material that wasn't of interest to them
•what use they made of their interpretations
•what use people not in the target demographic were making of the magazine.
In the years since I did that work, I've returned to it often, and I think it has important implications for speculative fiction of all kinds.**
"How people read" has been an interesting question to semioticians with an interest in spec-fic for a long time. Traditional semiotic approaches have argued that one reason why some people can't read science fiction is that they lack the reading protocols for processing it; probably the most famous formulation of this was Samuel R. Delaney's MLA address, which is still resonating in periodic uproars in the field, such as these by James Gunn and Jo Walton.
A reading protocol is a process or method for making sense out of a piece of text, and it is often expressed as a direction or guideline, i.e. a sentence in the imperative mood, but it is very doubtful*** that anyone actually formulates and uses protocols in that way except in research. Probably no actual reading protocol in any actual person is expressed internally in words—surely nobody actually memorizes some rule like "regard all mentions of the same name in a book as being the same person unless instructed otherwise****," or "assume a female lead character without a mate will want to acquire one, and that her acquiring one is what the book is about," or "if the viewpoint character is a detective describing a crime scene, watch for clues."
But people do seem to read as if they had a large number of such rules in their heads, and in much the same way that they buy shampoo as if they were trying to reach the highest isosatisfaction curve in an n-dimensional satisfaction space, and people turn on their headlights at dusk as if they each had a threshold for how many lights on they had to see from oncoming cars. Estimating that as if (statistician sense of "estimating" – inferring an approximation of the structure, parameters, constants, and coefficients from the data) can be a useful source of insight over in that statistical semiotic world where I sometimes make what is sometimes a living.
Applied to individual, interpretive semiotics, the idea draws some fairly well-deserved mockery. Usually the SF-courant semioticians have applied the idea of reading protocols to the problem of why some otherwise proficient readers have a hard time with sf, and the argument has been that it is because they lack some critically necessary tactics in their reading protocols (tactics that are nevertheless acquired by every twelve-year-old geek automatically). "Norton pushed the plug into the jack in his head," the semioticians assert, may cause the "sf-impaired" to visualize a man with a tire jack driven through his head, shoving an electric or drain plug against it. "The yacht descended on a pillar of fire, coming to rest atop the castle keep" requires that the reader automatically consider the possibility that a nautical term might refer to a spacecraft and that the pillar of fire be literal rather than a biblical reference, and this is supposedly a skill that must be acquired, which is beyond the gifts of some PhD's in literature but well within the reach of the average middle-schooler. "Today the blue sun occulted the red just at noon, and for a rare moment on Fairbairn, shadows retreated under their objects and nearly vanished," is supposed to be very nearly incomprehensible to these hypothetical sf-protocol-deficient readers because they will think "occulted" has something to do with the occult, "on Fairbairn" refers to something located on a person by that name, and that shadows always behave as they do on Earth, so that these sf-impaired people will not grasp that by describing a shadowless noon on a clear day as unusual, which it is not on Earth, the writer is indicating that we are in a place different from Earth.
Generally such arguments appears in papers by English professors who love sf and can't persuade their colleagues to touch the stuff. Poor things, they'd be grabbing up Hamilton, Doc Smith, Heinlein, and Gibson if only they had the sf-processing module implanted, but alas, they somehow just can't.
Odd, isn't it, that a mind that gets poststructuralist literary theory, historical materialism, Beowulf, Chaucer, and the metaphysical poets is supposed to croggle beyond decrogglability at "The door dilated?"
The "deficient reading protocol" is a comforting explanation, and like all comforting explanations, should be regarded with some suspicion.
Once again, I don't mean to imply that there are no reading protocols, or even that the imperative-sentence estimates of actually wordless protoocols have no value. It seems to me that there are significant differences in reading protocols among readers; a person who does not regularly read sf will probably not get nearly as much out of,
Bishop Yoshiko Baker polished the diamond-encrusted sapiosaur crucifix one last time, briefly praying that it would be acceptable. She slung it on her left shoulder, out of the way of her holster. "Start count," she said. She waited through the countdown, and walked forward into the Cretaceous.
as the experienced sf reader who begins at once constructing time-traveling missionaries, greater sexual equality,  a species of intelligent dinosaur which is apparently neither altogether friendly nor hostile to the missionary, further blending between our present-day cultures, and so forth.
What I am saying is that there is a serious flaw in the standard sf-friendly semiotic explanation for why some people who enjoy reading can't enjoy sf and even report not being able to understand it.  It seems very improbable that they would start liking sf  if they would just install  a couple of critical modules in their reading protocols. By the definition of the problem, they enjoy some other kinds of reading, they have therefore learned some other protocols.  Why should someone who has mastered "watch for mythic allusions and motifs" be  incapable of learning, "treat neologisms as clues to the underlying social relations"?
I think the better explanation is something closer to Roland Barthes's idea in The Pleasure of the Text: a large part of the pleasure of reading is in using the reading protocols you like to use and using them well—feeling the familiar tools in our mental grasp and enjoying using them expertly in pretty much the same way a chef likes the feel of his favorite cleaver, a cartoonist uses a favorite trick of the brush, or a carpenter likes to feel a carefully cut piece fit in tight, true, and flush. Some people like some tools better than others, and the sf reading protocol is simply pleasant to some people and not to others.
So my guess is that if readers encountering a new genre are forced to use an unpleasant-for-them tool frequently (or a neutral tool in an unpleasant way or for an unpleasant purpose), they may cooperate at first, and perhaps even try to learn the new protocol if they don't have it. However, if they continue reading the offending genre, after repeatedly finding that they can't understand it without having to do this unpleasant kind of reading, they will first dismiss the content (if I have to get it that way, I don't need to get it) and then perhaps refuse to use the protocol (better not to understand it than to have to understand it that way).
Some fairly litsy friends have asked to read something of mine (I generally point them at Orbital Resonance, A Million Open Doors, One for the Morning Glory, or Mother of Storms, depending on how much I think they like literary allusion and/or sodomy), and come back in a moderate fuddle saying "I don't understand the first few pages, even." It turns out that they did get it; every move they made in the game of reading this was a perfectly good one that any sf fan would do automatically, but, as one friend said, "I don't want to have to do that on every page. Actually, I don't want to do it on any page, but if I just had to do it a little at the beginning, I could deal."
So I'm working off a somewhat different hypothesis from the usual sf-semiotician. I don't think it's incomprehensible or inoperable reading protocols that defeat the would-be sf readers, and especially I don't think that they run into a single word or line of text requiring a new-to-them protocol and give up. I think it's more like an allergy developed by repeated exposures; they keep having to use a protocol that's no fun, and they build up a mental record of unpleasant experiences. Then they are expected to access that record of displeasure over and over as they go through the work. Not only do they have to extrapolate a change in Catholic doctrine because the bishop is female, they have to re-remember the change and the bishop and the woman, over and over, as other things explain it, are explained by it, contradict it, or resonate with it.
After a while that ever-growing log of mildly annoying experiences to remember gets to be so much that there's a complete abdication by the subconscious process that lets people enjoy a story (by experiencing it as a movie on their forehead, a voice over a campfire, a puzzle to be solved, or whatever their particular version of falling into the page is—these too are different reading protocols, of which some more soon).
In other words, rather than a property of individual signs processed by individual protocols, I think the resistance to sf is probably an emergent property of a population of unpleasant sign/protocol interactions. The reader doesn't usually give up at the first one or at the thousandth, but just becomes more reluctant to go on with every new, displeasing interaction.
Now back to what I found on that magazine survey.
When I undertook the project of trying to figure out how people read that little city magazine, I proceeded differently from the way a more conventional semiotician would. Rather than try to analyze my own reading process (under the assumption that other people's processes would be similar) or collecting what other people said about their processes, I went looking for ways to watch large numbers of people read the magazine. It was distributed free in stacks outside the doors of bars and restaurants, many of which advertised in the magazine and had an interest in cooperating. With a little pre-arrangement, I was able to get into line on busy nights, wait through the line as it passed by the free-magazine dumps, watch people pick up and look at the magazine I was interested in, quietly go out the back, record what I'd observed on that trip through the line, and go around outside to get into line again.
There were a striking number of people who had one or more misleading protocols, the term I used for reading protocols that were nearly certain to result in an interpretation different from that intended:
•many people make no distinction between ads and articles
•many people make no distinction between coverage and advocacy
•due to the preceding two points, for some younger women, a magazine that carries ads for clothing they don't like is a bad magazine. Many of our advertisers were boutiques that didn't appeal to our target demographic; their advertisements signaled to women, "This magazine wants you to dress like an expensive skank." Women who were not in the target demographic, on the other hand, tended to like the ads, and by transference, the magazine, though they flipped past most of the articles.
•couples on dates, perhaps because they are desperate to make conversation, snag out sentences at random to pick over, and for those couples, those sentences are what the article is "about". For example, the man said, "It says here that capers are supposed to be overdone," based on a quote from a prominent local chef: "Some people really overdo the capers" [on a particular dish]. His date responded with "Oh, good, I never really got what capers are, so I guess I should read the article."
•Some people treat all text as authoritative and ignore any pictures: a couple was looking at a piece about an interesting building which was visible from where they were standing, and pictured in three separate photos. They were agreeing that they would like to see that building sometime, and wondering where it was.
•Some readers assume the author of the article is the model in the photograph that accompanies it.*****
•Local celeb photo-and-quote profiles were frequently assumed to be by the local celeb, and completely under the control of the subject.
The actual figure from my notes was that in 46% of all observations one or more misleading protocols was being deployed; i.e. the reader was getting something that was not intended, by a process no one thought s/he would use.
Now, probably many of these were quite unskilled readers, possibly people who barely read at any other time, and they weren't trying very hard. You can hardly find lower-priority reading than a city mag read while waiting to get into a popular bar, restaurant, or club, and since most of the population is infrequent readers, I would guess that many of the people I was watching were, too. I'd have seen utterly different phenomena if I'd been hanging around the journals of opinion rack in the Tattered Cover, which was just a couple blocks away. (If anyone had picked up the magazine at all).
Often you can tell exactly what a reader is reading because many people never lose the habit of pointing with an index finger when they change pages, or of occasionally silently mouthing a word they are reading, and many slightly nearsighted people (who don't wear glasses when going out for a social evening) hold the page very close and stare right at the word they are reading.
One thing stood out vividly: about half the observed readers who appeared to be under 35 began each new page by looking at the center, scanning outward from there in a sort of loose clockwise spiral, and then beginning to read in the more conventional left-right-diagonal-down pattern once they had found something of interest. From eavesdropping I could tell they were looking for a word or phrase to catch their attention, checking back to contextualize it, and then reading only as long as the text was still "about" that word or phrase.
As with many of the ad-readers and sentence-excerpters, their conversation indicated that under their protocol, that word or phrase was what the article was "about."******
This at least helped to explain some of the more mysterious letters to the editor: "I liked your article about the mayor" when an article about how to find a parking spot on a busy night had only briefly quoted him; "As a proud Italian-American I had to write—" when the piece was a profile of an architect influenced by Italian Renaissance paintings; and perhaps my favorite of all the mysteries—"About your article, women do too understand wine! Stop disrespecting women! You are part of the problem!" which we traced back to the headline of the wine column appearing on the same page with a different article that included a quote from a coach about the increasing number of women who are knowledgeable about football. (That letter was signed with a usually-male name, by the way, opening yet another can of worms).
Digging through some scholarly studies on reading strategies, I discovered that this particular spiral-reading protocol has a name, because it is of interest to many people besides the proprietors of small magazines. Scanning from the center of a page outward until a word or phrase of personal importance (mayor, Italian, woman, understand) is located, and then reading just the text immediately surrounding the item of interest is one subset of what is called "dyspraxia" – bad eye-tracking while reading, which in turn is one of dozens of causes identified for dyslexia. The gaze can go many places other than left-to-right, diagonal down, and in people with dyspraxia, they do. The spiral form usually goes left-right-down (rather than diagonal) and then skips backward to the left, then up, so the spiral is lumpy and unpredictable, and its center slowly drifts down the page.
A surprising number of people with dyspraxia are able to make it through school and into employment (just as many people who outrightly can't read also do; there are ways to fake it--for example just knowing what a document is about may be enough). But I doubt that very many of the people I was watching had actual dyspraxia; I think their pattern mimicked it because it's a quick way to find quotable phrases in a text you haven't read.
Finding quotable phrases in a text you haven't read is useful for people in several situations at least:
1)    unprepared students taking open book tests
2)    unprepared students faking their way through class discussion
3)    writers and journalists looking for half-remembered quotes
4)    people assembling inspirational material
5)    fundamentalists finding places where "it says so in the Bible"
6)    clerks and bureaucrats looking for an applicable rule
Some reading and literature teachers call it dip-and-flip, and I'll use that from here on because, again, I'm pretty sure that in most cases the cause is not medical, and besides I have less faith in my ability to reliably spell dyspraxia.
Students who read like that frequently derail class discussions right into the twilight zone. (The Grapes of Wrath may suddenly be about recipes for oranges, whose great-grandfather and by extension whose ethnicity believed more in working hard, or whether creosote is bad for the environment).
But it's more than just a way for students to find something to say to get those participation points without the bother of reading an actual book.
Dip-and-flip appears to be  the actual reading protocol of a sizable part of the public who genuinely read for pleasure, especially when you add one more wrinkle, which has been observed in book-lover meetups: many adult dip-and-flippers will then find some sentence they especially love and read it over and over, very nearly memorizing it. For them, that's what the book or story is now "about," and if they like the work, they like it because they think those abstracted sentences that they repeatedly re-read are "so true."
Go to anyplace where you can buy used books (especially less-selective places like the Salvation Army store), look for non-textbooks that have been marked and highlighted (especially religious and self-help) and you will find many books where what seem to be a few words and sentences of personal significance have been clearly pulled from context. Eavesdrop on people talking about books in a coffeehouse and you'll find yourself putting quotes around "about."
Certain types of books lend themselves to dip-and-flip: religious tracts, the sort of political book that is put out by primarily-entertainers*******, self-help books, books of short essays. Surprisingly, as a way of getting meaning out of a text (whether or not it is the intended meaning), it does work for many books. (Haiku collection, check. Ann Coulter political essays, check. Porn, doesn't everyone read it like that? Moby Dick, they can't possibly avoid realizing that it's about a whale, check.) Other genres, it seems to me, would be very hard to dip-and-flip—cozy mysteries, psychological horror, or Regency romances all rely so much on developing their ideas through time.
Dip-and-flip seems to be more prevalent in younger readers, although it's observable in people of all ages; it's a small-minority phenomenon among the oldest readers now reading, uncommon but not unknown among the Silent Generation (1927-45), a substantial minority among Baby Boomers and Gen X, and seems to have become epidemic in college students with the arrival of the Millennials in 1996. Thus in retrospect it was no big surprise that I saw a great deal of it in front of trendy clubs, bars, and restaurants in 2004-5. It looks as if every day more of the old linear readers are going to the Big Circulation Desk In The Sky From Which There Is No Reshelving, and more first graders are looking around the page and saying, "It says 'cat' here. I have a cat. His name is Fluffy."
Most writers that I tell about the increase in dip-and-flip immediately plunge into depression about it, but then given what the world is like for people who care about books, reading, literacy, etc., pretty much every piece of news nowadays plunges writers into depression. Fiction writers and tech writers, who worry a great deal about the order of things and try very hard to put things into good, clear order, are particularly prone to being unhappy about the rise of dip-and-flip—if, indeed, it is rising at all.
As with many other phenomena that people find obnoxious—ranging from serious things like sexual harassment to minor things like people not saying "goodbye" at the end of a phone call—it is not at all easy to sort out whether something is occurring more, or being reported more. (Often it's both.) But whether it's actually becoming more common or just getting noticed, dip-and-flip is one more component of the foreseeable future, and perhaps it would be a good idea to think a bit about what it's going to mean for speculative fiction of all kinds as some writers adapt to it and others don't.
A writer who ignores a large part of the audience over a long period of time—even if the remainder is sufficient to make a book profitable—will quickly be stomped into the ground by the writers who don't ignore the "bad" readers. Slots in the magazines and publishing schedules are awarded not just to the profitable, but to the most relatively profitable. I'm very far from being the only person who knows about or takes an interest in dip-and-flip reading, and the information now gradually being developed will sooner or later filter down to editors, buyers, and sales people. (It may take a while—the average publisher does much less marketing research per dollar sold, and makes much less use of the little research they do, than just about any other for-profit enterprise, a fact which explains much about the book business). So even if no one in publishing ever seriously looks at the research or figures it out, the Almighty Market will nudge them along with much the same result for fiction in general and fiction of the fantastic in particular.

Here's a few predictions I'll venture:
Dip-and-flip will be relatively good for fantasy versus science fiction, so look for the trend of fantasy dominance to continue. Readers who are abstracting images that catch their fancies, and then mentally replaying those images like hooks in a pop song, will find mythic images (however hackneyed) in a fantasy novel, and those images resonate; elves, dragons, ghosts, young naive heroes, old smart guys who are more than they seem, etc. don't need semiosis from the book itself because they are already semiotic just by being in the prevailing culture. Not only that, thanks to a hundred years of psychoanalytic theory, nearly everyone can perceive and articulate how those things resonate in their own individual psyches. A dip-and-flipper might miss that "The man had to face the dragon by himself, as he had faced so many other things" is the lead in to an exciting fight with a dragon, but might very well still buy the book if it contains that sort of good metaphor for sucking it up and taking a dressing-down at a sales meeting, or buckling down to pass calculus, or doing something about a drinking problem.
Science fiction (at least non-media-tied science fiction) has to occasionally present something a reader has not seen before (even if some of it fails in this regard). So in science fiction, the dip-and-flipper's eye is apt to skim over a bunch of neologisms, recognize nothing, and decide there's nothing here to do with my life, next page. "For planets of the same density, the escape velocity is directly proportional to the radius," is unlikely to resonate quite so easily as "Pippin despaired, for across the whole wide plain in many days' journey he saw no track of any unicorn."
The same arguments would say that softer science fiction (with its also-mythic rockets, aliens, and headjacked boys in mirrorshades) will work better for a dip-and-flipper than the modern hard sf, and that a great deal of contemporary goshwow may actively repel them ("I can't relate to nano anything," as one fantasy reader I know, who never seems to remember the plot of anything she reads, says rather often).
Return of the infodump.  On the other hand, some aspects of science fiction may very well be strengths in reaching the dip-and-flip crowd. Throw-away details that are nifty in their own right, particularly when given a context that need not be remembered or searched for in the rest of the book, might give the dip-and-flipper something to talk about.
Though I can't say that they all do that, most dip-and-flip readers I have had a way to observe seemed to me to be reading now to talk later. (This may be, of course, because they are the ones easiest to study—the ones who never talk are much harder to find. It may be because I observed all of them in public or quasi-public settings.) Possibly a book in which they find sentences like "In 2031, laws required all cars on any public road to be self-driving..." might spark the kind of conversations that many of them seem to be reading for.
That sort of thing, of course, flies right into the face of what I spent years learning to do—instreaming the backstory with clever little tricks like,
"I'll have the car drive you home."
"Oh, wow. An old-fashioned gentleman. I'm surprised you didn't say you'd drive me yourself."
"My god, how old do I look?"
The infodump might make a moderate comeback, especially if there's some sort of labeling to indicate Researched factual article on true material which is extrapolated in this book. Something like that is already happening with colored sidebars in some of the textbooks for high school and college science fiction classes, and I'm trying a variation on it in the forthcoming Losers in Space.
With various kinds of annotation and hypertext, much more could be done; we might hit the point where the plot fades away, and "science fiction" refers to a futurist scenario with characters and settings, expressed in something that might look a bit like densely interlocked web pages. (Ever seen a young gamer poring over a new module? Or met a kid who had memorized half the Guinness Book of World Records, or seemed to know some specialized encyclopedia by heart? The process could well be similar).
So is this the end of science fiction?
What will dip and flip science fiction look like? "Different" is not "the end." The science fiction of the future might look more like, say, the John Brunner quartet where he played around with Harold Adams Innis's ideas (Stand on Zanzibar, The Jagged Orbit, The Sheep Look Up, and The Shockwave Rider—all of which I liked and I'd love to see what the new generation of writers might do with something in that format. Hint, hint, you folks just starting your first novel).
Or it might bear more resemblance to Drowning Towers, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, or A Short History of the Future, none of which went quite so far as Brunner did, but all of which have that same scrambled structure of a fairly tenuous plot winding through a collection of incidents that are interesting in their own right, with plenty of hatches and viewing ports so you can look into the guts of the thing and see something interesting at any point.
In that light, let me mention two more fairly recent novels—Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife (which I read a couple of months ago) and Chris Genoa's Foop! (which I read in 2006 and have since taken down from the shelf a few times). The first time, I read both straight through, just like the old linear poop I am, but for a couple of weeks afterwards, I left them on my toilet tank, and discovered that they are, if anything, better when dip-and-flipped (though it helps a great deal to know the central gimmicks of The Time Traveler's Wife before dip-and-flipping it). Foop! is so fresh and funny that I like to read middle pages without getting to them through the preceding material; its central ideas infuse each page rather than grow across the book, and it helps to let them startle me.
Dip-and-flip means something good on every page. A book page, printed, is about 350-400 words, which is read in less than a minute by most linear fiction readers (shall we call them "left to right diagonal downers?" L2RD2s? "Linear" works for me, though I bet quite a few of you are thinking "what's wrong with 'normal' or 'correct'?"). A book that rewards dip-and-flip reading has to have, literally, something good on every page and some pleasure in every minute, which is hardly a bad thing. In the book-doctoring end of my life, I've certainly read enough pages with no good stuff—whole chapters with none, in fact—and a book that offers a thrill a minute can be forgiven for a lot.
Finding new worlds with our feet on the ground. Then again, perhaps the dip-and-flip readers are going to push science fiction toward some of its hidden potentials. Certainly they experience the contrast between the fictional world and the real one more intensely than the rest of us do, because they only touch the fictional world with their feet firmly planted in the real.
There can be uses for such an effect. One reason sf so often fails to live up to its promise as a venue for social criticism is that sf readers move comfortably into the fictional world and seldom look back to their own until the tea is cold, the dog needs a walk, or the bag of Cheetos is empty, and so they accept all sorts of utopias and dystopias, and enjoy them, without necessarily making any comparisons to the real world. (Of course many of them do compare—but they don't have to, and they can choose not to. Dip-and-flip readers don't have to decide to bring it back to the real, because they never leave).
Ultimately, too, isn't dip-and-flip reading something like the way we encounter the real world? There's too much to bother with absorbing, so we catch high spots here and there and replay them in our minds over and over? Might not the right kind of dip-and-flip sf leave us more of a feeling of having gone somewhere new?
Acausality: the final frontier.  Linear reading tends to be causal—what happened in Chapter One is causing what happens in Chapter Six, and both together cause what happens in Chapter Seventeen and so forth. So we build these little cause and effect hooks and sticks in our minds, back and forward in the time of the book, as we read linearly. We see, in the world of the book, an orderly world where at least some causes have effects -- part of the linear reading protocol is "if the writer is making a big deal about this, I'd better pay attention because clearly I'm supposed to remember it later on when something big happens." By the same token, in our view of the book, most effects have causes—"if something surprises me, I will think back to previous things in the book and see if it wasn't inevitable all along." It's pleasant and comforting to see a world with handles which we can grasp and use to make sense of it, both because we relish our sense-making skills as Barthes described, and, as I said in my last column, we enjoy that strong feeling that, even if the world is out of our control, it could be in our control and it would be in a more just or better-understood world. Causality nails the world down; it's the anchor of both science and plot.
Dip-and-flip reading is by nature acausal, looking for the shit that happens but not worrying about why it happens. It pries the world up from its causal anchor and lets it float. If you're grabbing out pieces of text like a student getting ready to pretend he's read a book, or a funjadelical salesperson trying to treat the Bible as a set of self-help pointers, the pieces don't cause each other and you don't project causalities between them. The pieces are just what they are and you like them as pieces, for themselves, or not.
Not seeing causes, only intrinsic interest, fits into many people's experience of life -- anyone who believes himself to be the captain of his soul has never had any very serious disease; anyone who thinks she is the mistress of her fate lives someplace where the highways are always dry and it never freezes. There's a fair degree of financial independence, education, and plain old luck that goes into making people capable of believing themselves to be fully autonomous.
Aside from a better fit to one side of reality, acausal perception is also a better fit to one side of unreality: the dream or unconscious life is apparently acausal. Dip-and-flip reading converts the text from a hand-over-hand climb along a connected chain of causes to a burble in the tulgey wood, where, as in dreams, things just are. If we are the practitioners and lovers of escapism—and it is hard to deny that we are—we may be in process of discovering that there is more real escape in allowing wonders to just be where and when they are than there could ever be in analyzing how somewhere or somewhen else works.
That brings up reading protocols one more time. (Remember them, in some digression or other?) I have no idea how many unique-to-sf reading protocols there are, or how many protocols one would need to write to fully theorize the process of a proficient linear sf reader, but my guess would be that the great majority of unique-to-sf reading protocols are causal by nature. The readers are invited to figure out how this or that thingy-in-the-future signifies a change that happened between their now and the story's then, and the answer is presumed to be that something today caused something tomorrow that caused something the day after and so forth all the way to the time of the story.
To borrow an example from Larry Niven, a reader's process might be something like, "if they call transplantable organs 'thumbs,' what kind of history must bridge the time between ours and theirs? Obviously people have become very casual about cutting other people up, and thumb-running is as ubiquitous as drug-dealing in my world, with the same callous indifference to consequences..." and so on, all from that one word.
Dip-and-flip readers are least likely of all readers to have causal reading protocols—so they are less likely to comprehend fiction-of-the-fantastic by the protocols that science fiction readers have long relished using. Especially if dip-and-flip reading really is on the rise, the coming speculative fiction will need to offer a wide variety of fun in the moment as much as (or more than) a rewarding game—to be more like an orgy and less like a pickup basketball game, more like sitting by a pond and less like climbing a mountain. I don't see why that's impossible, let alone to be dreaded. It is perhaps no more than the difference between a seven-course meal and a seven-dish buffet; either way, once the invitation has been issued and the table is spread, it's only the people who refuse to eat who go hungry.


*An emergent property is one possessed by the group rather than the individual. Diversity is an emergent property: if a crowd contains people of nine nationalities, four income strata, and six self-identified races, even if there are no mixed or dual cases, the crowd is diverse. Traffic congestion is an emergent property: a traffic jam is made up of dozens or hundreds of cars that can't move because of the congestion, but no one car is congested. Weather is an emergent property of the molecules in the atmosphere: it snows, but individual nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide molecules don't, and an individual water vapor molecule can't condense and freeze by itself.
** see, I told you there'd be a point in here somewhere. Press on, brave souls, for though I am in a wildly digressive mood, and we're going to sneak up on that subject through many digressions, it nevertheless crouches somewhere ahead of you, waiting like an insurance salesman who just wants five minutes of your time.
***academese for "fucking unbelievable and we both know it so don't use it as a strawman argument against me."
**** John Green and David Levithan had immense fun with frustrating this protocol, not long ago, and the result of that little prank still makes me (and a few hundred thousand readers) smile. But do notice how carefully they violated it so that the frustration became fun. The difference between doing it well, as Green and Levithan do, and just violating it because you can, is the difference between the kind of elaborate practical joke that sends the victim into a momentarily surreal experience of the world, and the kind that involves unexpectedly dumping water over someone's head.
***** No one ever seemed to wonder why so many writers were anorexic-looking young women in very expensive clothing.
****** I put "about" in quotation marks because in different reading protocols "about" seems to mean something different to some readers than it does to others.
******* I am thinking of the habit of right wing commentators, when they manage to offend enough people so that a sponsor gets nervous, of explaining that they aren't really political commentators, that they are "primarily an entertainer."  I aspire to some day found a band called "Rush and the Primarily Entertainers."