Sunday, December 11, 2011

Genre accessibility rears its head again

I've recently started watching the TV show Community. It's great. You should watch it too. Not so long ago, though, it appeared to be in danger of cancellation.  A friend pointed out this article in The Atlantic Wire, which discussed a few of the reasons the show might have found itself in this position. The first item on their list was that it is so tightly wound around itself and its geeky subculture that it is difficult for a new viewer to penetrate. "No welcome mat," they said.

That's probably a fair comment. But the clever knottiness is what makes the show so great. If you take that away, you're not going to be left with the same show. So what's the right thing to do? Stick with the vision and risk cancellation, or try to make it more approachable and risk losing the thing that makes it so great?

My answer? Stick with it. If Community gets cancelled, at least it will have been great -- and its own thing -- to the end.

You can probably see where I'm going with this. That's basically the same criticism that is often levelled at science fiction (frequently by insiders): that it has become so deeply wrapped up in itself that it is essentially inaccessible to the new reader. I've mentioned before that this sometimes worries me.

Thinking about Community has got me looking at the problem slightly differently, though. Of course I want science fiction literature to thrive, and I'd love it if everyone enjoyed it as much as I did. But, to take an example, The Quantum Thief just wouldn't be the same book if Hannu Rajaniemi had attempted to make it approachable for everyone, regardless of their familiarity with the genre. And that, I think, would have been a shame.

I'm certainly not suggesting that science fiction authors should give up on trying to engage with the outside, and just turn inward. Engagement is obviously necessary to keep the genre lively, and hopefully at least a little relevant. And, yes, perhaps it's also necessary to provide a new generation of readers with the background they need to really enjoy books like The Quantum Thief (although I'm uncomfortable with with slightly elitist tone in that last sentence). I think all I'm saying is that lack of accessibility to a wide audience is not necessarily a flaw.

Still, it does make me sad that I won't ever be able to share The Quantum Thief (and books like it) with the vast majority of my friends.

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