[From Pages 64-68, in Chapter Six...]

One of the major technical problems in writing fiction of any denomination is believability — how to counter the oh yeah? reaction in the reader. Mainstream fiction has it a bit easier, since it can fall back upon that set of consensus statements we call the Real World. The fairy tale has an easy out, since unbelief is automatically suspended if the rules are followed: Start with "Once upon a time"; end with "And they lived happily ever after"; and in between, things must come along in ones, twos, threes, or sevens. Science fiction does not have these advantages.

Science fiction poetry can't rely on saying "this is real because it happened as written," because it has to deviate from existing reality. It has no set of recognized conventions (like "once upon a time") to signal automatic suspension of disbelief. In mainstream poetry there is the convention that when a poet says "My love has a nightingale in her throat" we understand that there's no intention to include the lice and parasites and bird-dung that are associated with real world nightingale. But in a science fiction poem you can't rely on that at all. The lice and dung may be crucial to the poem; the poem may be about an alien culture in which every young girl at puberty goes through a rite of passage that involves having a real bird stuffed down her throat. It takes a long tradition to build a set of conventions for a literary form, and science fiction poetry hasn't had time to do that. Finally, the science fiction poem almost always must be short. The tolerance of the contemporary reader for poetry tops out at about one hundred lines, and it's safe to assume that the tolerance for science fiction poetry is even lower than that in all but the fanatics who do such things as belong to the Science Fiction Poetry Association.

When you combine the restrictions just described, you will realize that their sum is this: The science fiction poet who wants to be widely published and widely read must produce the verse equivalent of the short-short story, without the advantage of the established conventions that help the short-short story writer. That it can be done at all is amazing; that it's often done superbly well is a kind of miracle. (The skilled and effective science fiction poet ought to have the sort of fame and fortune enjoyed by rock stars — but in America today that is a fantasy.)

There is neither time or space in the science fiction poem to indulge in the sort of elaborate World Building & Universe Construction that is the staple resource of the science fiction prose writer. There's nowhere to put a chronology and a set of maps and a glossary. It all has to be done in a handful of lines of words. It's therefore very important to exploit to their fullest the resources the language offers you for making your work believable. In this chapter we'll examine one of the most powerful of those resources — presupposition — briefly.

Presuppositions: Even My Gnome...

Consider the following sentence:

1. Even John could have written that poem.

If you are a native speaker of English you know that if that sentence is true, so are these two sentences:

2. The poem mentioned is a poor excuse for a poem.

3. John is no great shakes either.

Notice that neither of those sentences appears in the surface shape of "Even John could have written that poem" anywhere, but both are inescapably part of its meaning. Such semantic phantoms are called presuppositions; we say that #2 and #3 are presupposed of #1.

To stop doing something presupposes that you began doing it at some previous time, so:

"When I ceased to buy my dragons from the Klarg and turned to markets beyondthe Nether Rim...."

You have, in those two lines, doubly presupposed the existence of your dragons, first by using the possessive "my" and second by using "ceased to buy," which presupposes that you at some earlier point in time started buying whatever it was and therefore they must have been in existence for purchase. Very handy; very economical. ... Anything that you can presuppose, you will not have to claim; in poetry this means a great saving of words, and in poetry that matters.

Copyright © 2005 by Suzette Haden Elgin.

Reprinted by permission of Sam's Dot Publishing (PO Box 782, Cedar Rapids IA 52406-0782) from Suzette Haden Elgin, Science Fiction Poetry Handbook. Copyright 2005 by Suzette Haden Elgin. No part of this excerpt may be sold, reproduced, transmitted, or used in any way without prior written permission from Sam's Dot Publishing.
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