A correspondent asks, “Why don’t ‘jar of Tang’ stories work for readers?”
Before I take a stab at answering that one, some definition of terms is probably in order. The concept of the “jar of Tang story” comes from the Turkey City Lexicon, a collection of workshop terms originally compiled by and for the Texas-based Turkey City Writers’ Workshop:
A story contrived so that the author can spring a silly surprise about its setting. . . . For instance, the story takes place in a desert of coarse orange sand surrounded by an impenetrable vitrine barrier; surprise! our heroes are microbes in a jar of Tang powdered orange drink.
This particular kind of failed story is especially common in science fiction and fantasy, since determining the nature of reality and figuring out the rules of the universe are recurring themes in both genres, and the reader is presumed to be an active participant in the process.
It’s also necessary to acknowledge that once in a while you’ll find a reader who actually likes this kind of story, because there’s no accounting for taste and nothing is so weird that there isn’t somebody out there who will like it. Also, a sufficiently accomplished writer can make anything work — but for some stories, “sufficiently accomplished” means “maybe Will Shakespeare could have pulled it off on a good day.” (But mostly Will Shakespeare didn’t even try, because part of being an accomplished writer is knowing how to pick your battles.)
Setting aside idiosyncratic tastes, here’s the big reason why “jar of Tang” stories don’t work:
Readers like being fooled; they don’t like being made to feel foolish.
Being fooled is the good kind of surprise, the one where the rabbit comes out of the hat and the ace of spades is on the top of the deck instead of in your hand and the nice young man who works at the coffee shop is really the Crown Prince of Ruritania in disguise.
Being made to feel foolish is something different. It’s the writer saying to the reader, “Ha-ha, gotcha! You totally thought that those characters you were identifying with had slogged across a vast and waterless desert only to come up hard against an impenetrable but transparent — and clearly the product either of magic or of superscience — wall! But you were wrong!”
Whereupon the reader feels stupid for not having considered alternate interpretations, and feels like a chump for trusting the author to play straight with him or her, and is generally full of resentment and wounded ego — because the reader is supposed to be a fellow-traveller on the voyage of discovery that is the story, and not anybody’s dupe.