Some of the greatest works of science fiction and fantasy leave some stuff open to interpretation. And today at the World Science Fiction Convention in London, we saw a great panel discussion about the role of ambiguity in SF — and why it makes stories better.

Good and bad ambiguity

First off, not all ambiguity is created equal — when ambiguity is used skillfully, it can engage the reader because the reader gets to try and figure out what happened, said Patrick Nielsen Hayden, senior editor at Tor Books. When a reader gets to figure something out, it makes them way more invested in the story. Sometimes not spelling out everything can help the reader to feel more involved in the storytelling.

But when ambiguity is used badly, it feels like the author is "gaslighting the reader," showing off and trying to confuse them on purpose, said Nielsen Hayden.

Also, the worst ambiguity is when the writer just has no clue what happens next, and decides to leave it ambiguous to avoid having to figure anything out, pointed out Scott Edelman, author of The Hunger of Empty Vessels and former Blastr/Science Fiction Age editor.

Readers come to SF looking for ambiguity

Readers arrive at the literature of the fantastic with "their ambiguity detectors on," said Nina Allan, BSFA/Grand Prix de L'Imaginaire award-winning author of The Race.

Readers are "primed and open" for things that are unexplained or could have more than one explanation when they come to the literature of the fantastical, Allan said. "The reader wants more. That's why they're reading science fiction and fantasy in the first place," she added.

People sometimes question whether stories that contain a lot of ambiguity are really SF, because they didn't explain what "really" happened, said Nielsen Hayden. But a story like Thomas Disch's mystifying "The Squirrel Cage" has all the cues of a normal science fiction story — it just doesn't give you the full explanation of what's going on. Sometimes, a writer may choose not to do the final brushstrokes on the painting, and that actually makes it more of a complete work.

And sometimes the best stories are ones which surprise you a bit, as you start to realize the narrator isn't what he or she appears at first glance — maybe the narrator is actually a ghost or a brain in a jar, said Nielsen Hayden.

Where did ambiguity in SF come from?

A lot of it came during the New Wave, the late 1960s rejection of Golden Age science fiction storytelling, said Allan. Ursula K. Le Guin even gave her novel The Dispossessed the subtitle "An Ambiguous Utopia," and Samuel R. Delany responded with Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia.

Actually, said Nielsen Hayden, there was a lot more ambiguity in Golden Age science fiction than a lot of people believe — if you actually read the work of the 1940s authors instead of believing how they described their work, you see plenty of challenging, weird stuff.

Any story has multiple interpretations

"There are as many interpretations of a story as there are readers who read it," said Allan. "That's the wonderful thing about fiction, its' the endless interpretation." And when she writes a story, she feels like she's discovering the story along with the protagonist, and it's not always clear to her where things will end up. The process of fine-tuning this into a narrative happens in the second draft — and that's where you may decide that the protagonist won't ever see the whole picture.

Full disclosure: Patrick Nielsen Hayden is my editor at Tor Books and Tor.com.