The Hard Balance- Accessibility versus Readability in SF and Fantasy

Something I had to struggle with when I started to write Twin Stars was the simple question of how much Science Fiction I wanted to put into it. I know it should seem obvious, it is a Science Fiction story after all, but I wanted it to be open to almost anyone to sit down and listen and basically be able to follow it. Part of that was keeping it character focused and sticking to the more universal aspects that a listener can follow regardless of where it’s set. (The same thing that makes my Little Gou stories something that people who know nothing about ancient China can follow…) But, a big part of it was also deciding how many science fiction elements to include, and how many to leave out. The more I included, the harder it would be for non-SciFi fans to follow, and the less I included the more flavor it would lack.

In the end, of course, I worked hard to find something that was somewhere in the middle, but I freely admit that when push comes to shove I’ve always defaulted back to the sci-fi elements that almost everyone knows rather than trying to create new ones. A big part of this is because it’s audio, there’s no narrator, and I’ve long been aware that I can only work with what’s already in the audience’s heads. If I try to create too much new, or presume too much foreknowledge, then I seriously risk losing them.

An essay has just popped up on Tor.com about “Reading Science Fiction” that is probably worth a look, but it’s also an essay that gives me pause. Basically, the writer Jo Walton is trying to explain that there is a skill-set needed for reading science fiction- things that you have to know to understand it- and that the reason sci-fi turns many people off when they first approach it is that they simply lack that body of knowledge to put what they’re reading in perspective. Go give it a read, I’ll wait.

Back? Okay, so the thing that bothers me about that essay a bit is the idea that science fiction reader/writers should be writing works that require the audience to know their genres in order to be accessible. Isn’t that working against the whole point of creating works of art for people to read and appreciate? Doesn’t that kill their already limited audience when they say “go read other stuff and come back for us when you’re ready”? I’m not saying she’s wrong, but I do wonder about the consequences of this attitude of requiring the reader to know the rules before they can enter the game. People by nature are lazy, and the more you ask of them, the less they’re likely to want to do it. Isn’t this just keeping an already limited art form even more limited?

One of the interesting parts of most of the old masters of science fiction (Heinlein, Asimov, Smith, Herbert, etc) was that their work was generally written not for a science-fiction audience, but a general audience. I’ve read a lot of their work recently, and it’s struck me how accessible their work is, despite having some strong ideas and concepts layered inside those works. I can’t help but wonder if (as usual) in the effort to build upon the past, modern writers have been creating stories that are more complicated than they need to be, and creating their own ghettos of literature in an effort to be cool and on the edge of their genres.

You might say that this is just the genre evolving, as I think Jo Walton would say, but is the genre evolving or turning in on itself in a spiral of inbreeding that only one who has followed the path and cracked the code can enter? Is there any wonder that the only SF books that seem to be selling (and dominating the bookshelf space) are Tie-In novels that are (surprise!) written for a general audience, and young adult novels that are also written without the “rules” of science fiction in mind?

A friend of mine once commented that only someone who was so free of fantasy knowledge could have written Harry Potter, simply because she was a normal person writing for normal people, and didn’t even know there were “rules”, much less feel beholden to follow them. From the perspective of someone who knows how Fantasy ‘works” they’re horribly cliched books filled with gaping chasms of illogic and questions, but for a general young reader who knows nothing of how D&D and Tolkien have explained magic and made it all “make sense” they’re simply wondrous examples of imagination running free.

So which is better? Making the audience come to you, or going to the audience? Well, as usual, probably the answer is a muddle someplace in between. If you write completely for a general audience, the “in crowd” will hate you, but if you write too much for the “in crowd” a general audience will find you completely inaccessible. I guess finding that balance in between is one of the things that determines both whether you’ll be a successful genre writer and who your particular audience will be.

Me, I write to be read (or heard), so I’ll always err on the side of accessibility. It might mean that I’ll be ignored by many who prefer the deep chasms of genre knowledge and exploration, but at least I don’t have to worry about my work turning people off my favorite genres. Getting people to listen is the first step, content can come later, because if you don’t have an audience, you’re just talking to yourself in  an empty room.