Writing can be a tricky business. Whenever you do it, it has to be with an audience in mind. When I do blog posts here, I’m usually aiming for a general audience. I try not to assume that my readers know obscure scientific or philosophical terminology. That’s a decision I’ve made, hopefully one I’ve lived up to.
I’ve read many other blogs which are aimed at audiences more versed in whatever subject matter they cover. Years ago, I contributed to a local technical blog which assumed that the readers were familiar with IT system administration concepts such as group policies, firewalls, or shell scripting, and I’ve frequented a lot of web sites over the years that were gibberish for anyone not versed in programming concepts such as pointers, semaphores, or data word alignments. Some of the science blogs I read today assume at least a layman’s understanding of physics.
There are good reasons for doing this. It can save a lot of time. I know I sometimes get impatient with popular science news articles when the first 75% is spent covering very basic concepts so that the final portion can describe the new discovery or development. Of course, the flip side is that many people need that basic coverage, and if it’s skipped to save time, many of those readers will be disenfranchised.
When writing books, this remains a crucial consideration. Many of the computer books I read assume a lot of knowledge on the reader’s part. They have to, otherwise they’d be thousands of pages long. And I still recall the history books I had to read in college, where the author was writing about, say, William the Conqueror, but assumed the reader was already versed in 11th century French and British history.
This consideration doesn’t go away in fiction, particularly in science fiction. (I’d imagine it’s also very much an issue in historical fiction.) I’m sometimes asked by people, who want to start reading SF, which books they should begin with. This isn’t always an easy question, because many of the best works in the genre assume a lot of knowledge on the part of the reader. I still recall how confused I was as a boy when I first started moving beyond media tie-in books. Literature SF books seemed to assume an understanding of scientific concepts such as Newtonian dynamics, which comic books and the media stuff had not prepared me for.
Something that helped with that transition, at least for me, were SF juvenile books by authors like Robert Heinlein and Lester del Rey. Today they would be classified as Young Adult. But unlike much of today’s YA books, these older books educated while they entertained. I knew more about interplanetary navigation after reading Heinlein’s ‘Space Cadets’ then anything I ever watched on TV.
With that in mind, it seems like an SF author has certain choices to make when deciding how they will approach concepts in their stories.
- Cater to the current understanding of the general population. If faced with the choice of challenging the reader with a new concept or compromising to meet their preconceived understandings, go with the compromise. This is by far what most TV and movie science fiction does, although it’s also done by a lot of books, and not just the media franchise ones.
- Fearlessly explore the concepts without helping the reader. It’s up to them to already have the knowledge, do research on the side (much easier today than it used to be), or go read something else. A fair amount of hard science fiction is done this way, and it appeals to a certain type of reader.
- Expose the reader to new concepts, but take the time to help them through it. This can work well if there aren’t too many concepts to digest. It has to be done carefully, since more experienced readers may lose patience with long explanations on the basics.
Tastes vary. Star Wars and Doctor Who novelizations can safely live in 1 and sell a ton of books. Arguably, these books serve as “gateway drugs” for a lot of fans who may eventually graduate on to the more serious stuff. (The ones in the 70s certainly did it for me.)
But when I did graduate from the media franchise stuff, the first books I gravitated to were those that didn’t challenge me too far. At first, I was really just looking for more of the same, and only gradually came to appreciate the additional rigor and expansive concepts in the more serious works. It was a very gradual progression.
The thing is, the higher in the level of challenging material I climbed, the smaller and more specialized the markets became. I love books by Alastair Reynolds and Greg Egan, but their sales are nothing like that of a John Scalzi or James S. A. Corey, whose books are mostly 1 with some 3 mixed in.
Of course, most books are some combination of the three categories above. It seems like the biggest sellers live mostly in 1 and selectively bring in 3 or 2. The higher the weight given to 2 and 3, the smaller the market. (Although often those markets are fiercely loyal.)
I think one place where 2 is often seen is in the short story markets. Part of this is that readers are often much more tolerant of far out concepts in something they’ll finish in 10-60 minutes than in something they’ll spend days reading. Another part is the fact that there simply isn’t time for a lot of 3 in these stories. And finally, short story readers tend to be among the hardest core sci-fi fans around, and are probably far more prepared to entertain challenging concepts, and generally aren’t satisfied by 1.
Indeed, a lot of authors are more experimental in shorter fiction than in their longer works. Fantasy authors like Brandon Sarendon and Mary Robinette Kowal seem more willing to do science fiction in short form while sticking to fantasy in their novels. And John Scalzi seems much more willing to experiment with dark plots in a novella like ‘The God Engines’ than he is in his longer stuff.
All of which is to say, when writing science fiction, you have to have an idea of your target audience. Do you want to appeal to the masses? If so, then you may have to roll with a lot of popular misconceptions. Or do you want to explore more far out, and hence challenging concepts? Doing so could be gratifying, but it might well come with a much smaller audience.
As an aspiring writer, my own inclinations are to try to figure out a way to make challenging concepts have mass appeal. Of course, that is far easier said than done. If your concepts involve posthuman characters or other strange settings, developing a story that resonates with readers who want to read about people whose struggles, fears, and passions they can relate to, is a challenge.
Ultimately I guess every artist has to decide how commercial or avant garde they want to be. In many ways, we’re lucky to live in an age where the self publishing revolution makes both options equally possible. Indeed, it seems possible now for authors to dabble in both.